I came late to Dead Can Dance, but the 4AD aesthetic appealed to me from the off. In the seismic shift in my musical tastes that occurred during the 1980s, Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil certainly loomed large, with Treasure and Filigree & Shadow wafting along my student hall of residence corridor more often than was strictly necessary. Somehow, though, Dead Can Dance passed me by, until a chance encounter with 1990’s Aion propelled me into their strange, mysterious fusion of dark folk, medieval and world musics. I was hooked, and set about their back catalogue with relish, finding all but the rather too goth-leaning eponymous début album to be essential listening.
Unfortunately, though, Dead Can Dance were already on the wane. There was one more excellent studio album, 1993’s Into The Labyrinth, and a beautiful career-spanning live album, Toward The Within; but 1996’s Spiritchaser was a lacklustre affair, and after that the group disbanded, riven by the personal conflicts that seem to affect nearly all groups in the end. As far as live performances go, I saw a riveting solo gig by Lisa Gerrard in the splendid surroundings of the Union Chapel in 1995. DCD toured Spiritchaser the following year, and I duly secured tickets to see them at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. As I approached the venue on that warm summer’s evening, I realized something was amiss when I saw hordes of black-clad goths gloomily heading in the opposite direction, back to the tube station. Yes, the gig had been cancelled.
It was to be another nine years before I did finally pin down DCD live, at the Barbican Centre on their first reunion tour. They had the excellent idea of releasing limited edition CDs of every show on that tour, one of which I gratefully snapped up (more groups should do this). When this second reunion tour came around, I had to wait a year for it to come to Vienna. I would have put money on them playing at the Konzerthaus, but they actually turned up in the unprepossessing surroundings of Hall F in the Stadthalle. It’s a soulless (if comfortable) venue at the best of times, and the acoustics were distinctly sub-optimal from my front row vantage point, although others reported that the sound was fine further back.
As for the show itself, it was a disappointingly anaemic experience. With a setlist that relied heavily on the watery new album Anastasis, it was hard to avoid the impression of a group out to take care of business with as little effort as possible. Looking like a grumpy old geography teacher, Brendan Perry glowered irritably into his beard for most of the set, while Lisa Gerrard smiled beatifically from behind a ludicrous Cleopatra-style get-up. The two of them barely exchanged a glance all evening, an approach that contributed significantly to the overall feeling of shivery stiltedness emanating from the stage. And there was a telling moment when Perry testily cut off the audience’s ecstatic applause at the end of the soaringly beautiful “Sanvean” by instructing the band to launch straight into the next song.
None of which would not have mattered much were it not for the fact that the Anastasis material is such a plodding rehash of former glories. To take just one example, the 1980s Perry would never have allowed a couplet like “We are the children of the sun/our journey’s just begun” to pass muster, while in general DCD now seem content to play up the serene and portentous aspects of their music at the expense of the wild and disturbed elements that drew me to them in the first place. The few old songs that were performed – “Sanvean”, “The Host of Seraphim”, the stunning duet “Rakim” – were not only undoubted highlights, but also unfortunate reminders of what has been lost.
Gerrard’s multi-octave voice and glossolalic texts are still things of unfathomable beauty and wonder, although she is no match for Geoff Smith as a player of the hammer dulcimer. Perry’s rich, warm baritone, meanwhile, is heard to best effect over the doomy chord progressions of “The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove” and on a painfully emotive reading of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”. Making explicit the lineage back to the group’s illustrious (and, sadly, long gone) past on 4AD via This Mortal Coil’s celebrated version of the song, its air of haunted brokenness stood in stark contrast to the over-egged nature of much of this concert.