Thank heavens they’re back! After a 16 year hiatus Dead Can Dance reformed to put out a new album called Anastasis, which although does not quite reach the heights of Spleen and Ideal, The Serpent’s Egg, or Aion, is still a remarkably good record in its own right – and one much needed. Dead Can Dance, comprised of the wonderful creative duo, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, were one of the most unique and inspirational bands of the 80s and early 90s era, brought to us by the visionary and progressive 4AD records (who also gave us the delightful Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, and many other such splendours). Quite simply, DCD were hard to pin down with their Gaelic folk, Gregorian chant, African polyrhythm, Mediaeval dirges and Middle Eastern flavourings. When they disbanded in 1996 they left a massive hole in the music world, one that many of us sought to fill to no avail – at least for a while.
At first, cravings were somewhat satiated by the offerings of the individual members of DCD, although never quite to the same levels of purring satisfaction. Brendan Perry, the least busy of the two, has put out two fairly decent albums in the long interim – Eye of the Hunter and last year’s Ark. In truth the latter is almost as good as Anastasis and it sounds as if he may have been working on both sets of material at the same time. In his solo recordings Perry often wanders away from the DCD script, and rightly so, to explore what his crooning baritone can do with other textures. Lisa Gerrard has amassed quite an extensive solo catalogue, including collaborations with the likes of Pieter Bourke, Patrick Cassidy, Klaus Schultz, Marcello de Francisci and Cye Wood. While there is much to like on many of the albums, including the now well known pieces for the Gladiator and Whalerider soundtracks, the stand-out remains an early solo effort – The Mirror Pool. This album showcases her soaring voice where some more recent albums wander a bit close to Enya and New Age territory for this particular listener. An honourable mention should go to a former bandmate of their London period, Peter Ulrich, who has put out a couple of albums, including the drum-laden Pathways and Dawns, with the wonderful American Indie label, Projekt Records.
When the withdrawals got quite severe and the grooves of the DCD back-catalogue completely worn out, along came a musical entity that could satisfy on its own terms. Vas was another inspired duo including Persian vocalist Azam Ali and American percussionist Greg Ellis, responsible for four remarkable albums, especially the latter two – In the Garden of Souls and Feast of Silence. Azam Ali has gone on to explore a culturally diverse range of vocal literature beginning with her first solo album, Portals of Grace, which includes Latin, French Provençal, Sephardic, Galician-Portuguese, Judeo-Spanish, and Arabic songs spanning the 12th through 14th Centuries – all authentically rendered. She also works with in an Iranian trio called Niyaz, which blends Persian, Indian, and Mediterranean folk sounds with various works of poetry and mysticism. The pick of their three albums is Nine Heavens, which is a mesmerising mix of songs, instrumentation and influences. In some ways Azam Ali has overtaken Lisa Gerrard as the foremost vocal explorer of these realms.
There has always been a plethora of British bands and collectives seeking to dovetail the ancient and the modern in new artistic ways. Indeed, In the Nursery have been around even longer than DCD and quietly produced an extensive catalogue that blends classical influences with martial rhythms and electronic sounds. Perhaps a trio of albums best represents this from the early 90s – L’espirit, Sense and Duality. More often than not though it is early music that has inspired bands of this ilk with influences beginning through the revival efforts of folkies like John Renbourn (with or without Pentangle) and culminating in various mediaeval-tinged folk collectives. Miranda Sex Garden were also one of the latter types, their first album Madra being entirely comprised of three-part Madrigals and later albums like Suspira filling out with more instrumental arrangements. Singer Katharine Blake has since gone on to form Mediaeval Baebes in order to mine a rich historical seam that includes folk songs from the Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, and Welsh traditions. Albums like Worldes Blysse and Mirablis have done much to revive interest in early music traditions among a new generation of listeners, also inspiring a number of new British groups such as Circulus, Arborea and Tinkerscuss. There are other less classifiable bands that also deserve to be heard, one such being Karda Estra, who combines symphonic prog elements with an authentic sense of the Victorian gothic. Albums such as The Last of the Libertines, Eve, and Voivode Dracula easily occupy the same listening space as early DCD’s Within the Realm of the Dying Sun. Richard Wileman’s impressive creative efforts are certainly worthy of a wider audience. Another unlikely offering comes from Chris & Cosey of Throbbing Gristle fame, now recording under the moniker – Carter Tutti. Their last album, Feral Vapours of the Silver Ether, blends neoclassical elements with the ambience of say, Eno’s Airports album, and the ethereal vocals of something akin to This Mortal Coil. Also surprising is the latest from Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, Dr. Dee, which is choc full of early consort strings and various period vocal stylings – all to sumptuous effect.
There are always interesting variants of this sort of music coming from the United States, which of course is teeming with various immigrant traditions and its own indigenous folklore. Black Tape for a Blue Girl (also on Projekt Records) has been around for quite some time and what started as Sam Rosenthal’s ambient instrumental project has since acquired a DCD-like vocal sheen. The Scavenger Bride and Halo Star are two examples from this later period well worth listening to. The dark symphonies and blissful vocalisations of Autumn Tears are perhaps more reminiscent of their European counterparts but absolutely enrapturing to experience, especially in the close confines of a good pair of headphones. The early Love Poems for Dying Children albums are full of treasures but the culmination of this band’s power comes in their stunning 2007 album, The Hallowing, which is an absolute must for lovers of this type of music. Although based in San Francisco Stellamara explore the shores of the Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Black Sea for their unique tones. Sometimes stylistically close to Azam Ali, Sonja Drakulich is a vocal enchantress synthesising European folk traditions with Gregorian Chant and music of the mediaeval Byzantine era. Star of the Sea and The Seven Valleys are both sonically lush and deeply spiritual albums worthy of a greater listenership.
But it is in Europe with its many interlaced folk traditions where DCD’s legacy is most discerningly felt, in some cases perhaps even preceded, spawning a musical genre now known as “Neoclassical Darkwave.” Since it has become a vibrant underground scene there is only space to name but a few examples here. Estampie, a German group named after a mediaeval dance, has been around since 1985 and produced some nine albums, all demonstrating a strong love of various mediaeval traditions and troubadour poetry. To that extent it is hard to choose between them and the 2006 Best of Estampie compilation is probably the best place to start. Michael Popp also went on to found Qntal, an ‘electro-mediaeval’ band that plumbs the same sources only to render them in slightly more modern and synthetic ways. The band has produced six numbered albums with mythic themes, including Tristan and Isolde, Ozymandias and Silver Swan. Closer to the work of Azam Ali, the Bulgarian band Irfan combines the beautiful sounds of Bulgaria, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Persia, and North Africa. Their album Seraphim is an absolute gem for any DCD fans – as is any recording by the band sToa. One of many wonderful German bands, sToa offers a unique blend of ethereal and haunting music culminating in their most recent album, Silmand. But perhaps the wildest offering in this genre comes from a French-Austrian collective named Elend. This band will appeal to DCD fans in some moments and perhaps terrify them in others. Epic and bombastic to heavy metal or noise rock proportions in some sequences, with glorious ethereal chorales cascading in others, Elend are a mighty force. All their albums are an experience to be savoured – and are offered in two distinct three-album cycles. An alternate cycle would be a mix of the two including Les ténèbres du dehors, The Umbersun, and Sunwar the Dead. Less symphonic are the piano tones of Soap&Skin from Austrian singer Anja Plaschg. At times vocally reminiscent of Nico, Plaschg’s arrangements with treated pianos reach the heights of her more orchestral comrades, particularly in two wonderful albums, Lovetune for Vacuum and Narrow.
The European scene has become so diverse that a plethora of ‘neoclassical folk’ bands have sprung up with a great reverence for period instruments and the recontextualisation of ancient music from various folk traditions. The German band Faun uses a variety of harps, hurdy gurdys, bagpipes, citterns and flutes in their music, which saunters between comical appropriation and serious rendition. Albums such as Renaissance and Totem provide a diverse range of folk styles and marvellous instrumentation. Similarly, the Dutch ‘neo-Celtic pagan band’ Omnia sings songs in English, Gaelic, Breton, Finnish, German, Latin, and even Hindi, with an equally diverse range of backing instruments – of which the surprising inclusion of the didgeridoo is used to great rhythmic effect on albums such as Pagan Folk and World of Omnia. Both these bands have produced an interesting group of side-projects, one such being Sava who on their wonderful album Aire offer an intoxicating mix of whistles, flutes, and bagpipes. Other examples of dark Euro-folk include Schandmaul, Triskillian, Hedningarna, Dunkelschön and Stille Volk – all of which may appeal to DCD fans.
Neoclassical Darkwave, or whatever you wish to call it, is certainly not a genre for everyone as it tends towards what most people would consider to be misery, gloom, and an obsession with the dark past or the equally dark future of the unknown. The examples above are but a small sliver of what one person perceives to be heightened examples of this music following in the wake of the peerless Dead Can Dance. But an admission should be made that a deep exploration of this music will also yield a long list of truly awful examples, from synthetically treacly new age – to overly-pompous and derivative goth-lite – to twee fiddly folk – to loopy symphonics drenched in reverb overkill – to endless bedroom produced bliss-dirges. At its worst this genre can be a pretentious vacuum of velveted arse-art – but at its best it is simply… well, divine! There are loads of them out there that fit somewhere on this precarious scale…. so here’s a small list to get you going. Feel free to add your own references in the comments below.
Nox Arcana, Ensemble Orphique, Negradonna, Arcana, Ataraxia, Chaostar, Collection d’Arnell Andrea, Daargard, Love is Colder than Death, Mirablis, Narsilion, Persephone, Sopor Aeternus, Artesia, Ophelia’s Dream, Corvus Corax, Love Spirals Downwards, Chandeen, Mors Syphilitica, Mediavolo, Loveliescrushing, The Moon and the Nightspirit, This Ascension, Trance to the Sun, Trobar de Morte, Valravn, Unto Ashes, Autumn’s Grey Solace, Angels of Venice, Poeta Magica, Ranja, Tehni, Ulver, Halgalz’ Runedance, Ordo Funebris, Sieben, Corde Oblique, All My Faith Lost, The Frozen Autumn, Camerata Mediovalo, Amber Asylum, Bacio di Tosca, Die Verbannten Kinder Evas, Delayaman, Diary of Dreams, Aythis, Otto Dix, Anathema, Ashram…
… The author also humbly submits his own band for consideration, Alchymical Muse…