After a second overly-long hiatus Dead Can Dance fans can rejoice in their return with a powerful concept album Dionysus based as a dramatic or theatrical epic of psychedelic and spiritual bliss in the most Indo-European fashion.
The album is split into two acts (mainly for vinyl, side one and side two for each Act). The album has been in the making for the last couple of years and is mostly a Brendan Perry project while he has been setting up his new home and studio upon relocation from Ireland to France. Nonetheless, the music is very much a thematic extension of the Greek in the last album Anastasis. This time it is solely about the ancient Greek god Dionysus (also known as Bacchus in Roman tradition – the god of wine and music) as we experience the spectacle of his life unfold and conclude in this epic album.
Our tale of Dionysus begins with the first track of Act 1 ’Sea Borne’ – the journey of the god from east across to Greece as he arrives to the shores and becomes the ‘Liberator of Minds’ of those conventionalists who saw Dionysus as an ‘outsider god’ – the second track where we hear Lisa’s vocals and those warm and familiar hammers fall upon the strings of her yang-qin.
Dead Can Dance revisit the soundscapes of their last three albums – there are elements of In the Labyrinth and Spiritchaser – perhaps using the same library of instruments. Dionysus differs from the last three as it is more of an instrumental album with Gerrard becoming more of a spiritual dome above the earthly and primal textures and rhythms crafted by Perry.
‘The Dance of the Bacchantes’ is a raw yet beautiful tribal rhythmic dance with some wonderful harmonies where we hear the followers of Bacchus / Dionysus fervently and ritualistically lose themselves in an ancient European pagan frenzy. Their intoxicated celebrations through the wine and their primal music take us through visions of processional torchlit and masked dances; of sacrifice, libations and orgiastic choreography resulting in an ecstatic state. It is wild and free with a loose structure building up layer upon layer into a transcendental state made more beautiful by the string arrangements that envelope the last third of the piece.
Act II begins with ‘The Mountain’ (in this case Mount Nysa – the birthplace of Dionysus which was associated in various conflicting Greek mythological sources as. somewhere in the region of Ethiopia, Arabia, Libya and possibly as far as India). A dark drone with an Balkan type reed instrument conjuring up the image of the pastoral or primal village life. We hear the gothic-style chimes which take us further into the trance before we hear a duet between Perry and Gerrard returning to their trademark glossolalia against a backdrop of shimmering yang-qin which lulls us into a cathartic state of spiritual connection to nature as Dionysus is born or celebrated.
‘The Invocation’ is a very powerful choral-driven almost religious piece which is one of the standout tracks on the album and possibly involving the Bulgarian choir with whom which Lisa has been working closely in her solo project with the Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria. It is not clear whether this is all Lisa or she is using the same choir but the melodies without a doubt have the same dark and melancholic patterns with quarter-tones familiar with all traditional folk music in Romania, Bulgaria and the Balkan and Slavic countries.
‘The Forest’ veers into a more Mediterranean relaxational where the vocals border just about on the edge of those types of ambient dance tracks one would find in a ‘Cafe del Mar’ type series or a TV holiday programme, but nevertheless, it is powerful and enjoyable with echoing bird calls and simplistic melodies which weave their spell and enable us to strip ourselves from the miseries of material existence and rejoice in our primal, enlightened state in a natural environment.
The final track ‘Psychopomp’ is a softer, calmer endpiece which centres on the duet between Perry & Gerrard in a form of ‘call & response’ manner where our protagonist acts as a spirit guide and is invoked to guide the soul towards the afterlife or Otherworld. They sing again in their primal glossolalia (which Gerrard calls ‘the language of the heart’), and serenely we are transcended along with Perry to the spiritual realm where we conclude the epic.
Overall the album is literally spectacular and cinematically epic and without a doubt one of the best albums of 2018.