Dead Can Dance: Toward the Within

Dead Can Dance - Toward the WithinSynopsis: Filmed And Recorded Live At The Mayfair Theatre, Santa Monica, California – May It Rest In Peace

Dead Can Dance have consistently made groundbreaking music that has been impossible to categorize or predict. Throughout their career, Dead Can Dance’s music has moved from gothic to Middle Ages/Renaissance to percussion driven world music to folk blues. Their music continues to influence a new generation of musicians, and their impact can often be heard on the music bed of TV commercials. DCD has a fiercely loyal worldwide following which continues to grow, aided by their music, which appeals to fans of Tim Buckley and Nine Inch Nails alike.

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Dead Can Dance: Toward the Within 7.5

eyelights: Cantara. Lisa Gerrard’s vocal ability. the sound quality. the music videos.
eyesores: the concert’s set list. the image quality.

Dead Can Dance is an Australia/UK band from the early ’80s that is renowned for its blend of world music, folk and gothic influences. Principally composed of singer songwriters Lisa Gerrard and Brenda Perry, the band released seven increasingly popular albums before breaking up in the ’90s, only to reform in recent years.

Their signature sound comes from a juxtaposition of Gerrard and Perry’s styles, which are incredibly different: whereas he bring more traditional sounds to the band, she offers a more exotic flavour, with her penchant for playing unusual instruments and singing idioglossia in a voice that is beyond belief.

To say that, combined, their music is hypnotic would be a gross understatement.

I first heard of them in the mid ’90s while working in a call-centre. A colleague of mine, an eccentric gothic soul who moonlit in drag, made me a tape of two of their albums along with a few extras. He praised them, and I made a point of listening to the tape as soon as I could. I was immediately hooked, and soon sought out their CDs.

Fast forward approximately a decade and I had all of their albums. They released a boxed set which featured three CDs’ worth of remastered tracks, including a significant number of previously unreleased and rare songs, as well as a DVD copy of the ‘Towards the Within’ concert video, which had only been released on VHS and laserdisc.

Although I already had the ‘Toward the Within’ CD, I desperately wanted to see them perform live. The allure of extra tracks also informed my decision, and I bought the set at moderate expense. I soon watched the DVD (and used some of its interview bits on my radio show, when I did a full-length feature on Dead Can Dance).

‘Toward the Within’ was recorded in November of 1993 at the Mayfair Theatre in Santa Monica, California and released in 1994.  Some accounts claim that it was recorded in one take, but it is unclear if it was from their show on the 16th or the 17th – if it was one take at all. Irrespective, this is the only visual recording of the group in concert.

For these concerts, Perry and Gerrard (who had been the only official band members since at least 1985, were joined by Lance Hogan (guitar), John Bonnar and Andrew Claxton (keyboards and percussion), Rónán Ó Snodaigh (percussion) and Robert Perry (percussion, flute, guitar), Brendan’s brother.

The ‘Toward the Within’ DVD features only three songs from Dead Can Dance’s studio albums. Most of the concert’s content consists of material that was until then only performed live. Interestingly, the songs are not offered in the same sequence as on the CD – and, unfathomably, has a fewer number of total tracks.

Personally, I’m not that keen on the selections. Although I’m a huge fan of their body of work (with many of them being my all-time favourite), I feel that this set list pales in comparison: it’s more ethereal, less poignant, less epic than much of their material is – and, as such, leaves me unsatisfied. My views on this show don’t reflect my love of DCD’s music.

Now, much has been said about the sound quality of the ‘Toward the Within’ CD over the years, and I must agree that I’ve always found it especially underwhelming; it’s a disc that I could never warm up to, no matter how often I played it. Thankfully, the DVD boasts a much improved sound quality – even if it is only offered in stereo format.

I’m not really sure how to discuss this concert, truth be told. Dead Can Dance are hardly an exciting band to watch. Aside from Ó Snodaigh, who seemed possessed  by a primal force much of the time, the rest of the band performed rather solemnly throughout. And, with as spare a stage set up as theirs, there’s really not much to discuss.

There are no frills, impressive lights, or even costume changes with DCD. Gerrard is positioned at the centre, dressed in a white sack/dress. Her hair is down but partly tressed over her head. Perry, who is at stage left, is dressed casually and sports a beard. There is no pretentiousness here: aside from the other musicians, the stage is bare-bones.

This 70-minute film is composed of concert performances with inserts of separate interviews with Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry. It’s not an uncommon format, but it doesn’t serve the band especially well, as it distracts from the mood that their music creates. If anything, it makes it feel like a highlights reel (which, I guess, it is).

I have to preface my brief and inarticulate commentary by saying that I’m not at all a music critic. I don’t know the names of instruments, have never studied music and, thus, can’t possibly describe what little there is to see in any significant terms. As for the music, it’s so atmospheric that you can only hear it to truly understand it.

So I hope you will forgive me for not being articulate enough as do a quick run-through of the show. There’s no way that I will do them justice:

1. Rakim: This one starts with keys, goblet drums and Gerrard’s yangqin, before kicking in with heavier percussion. Perry is the lead vocal here with Gerrard’s background vocals piercing through. It’s a decent start to the show. 8.0

2. The Song of the Sibyl: This one starts with organ sounds (synthesized on keyboard, of course), bells and both Perry and Gerrard singing reverentially. It’s a very religious sounding piece. Geez… you should her the voice coming out of her. I’m always amazed that such a voice comes from that miniscule, unassuming woman. 8.0

3. I Can See Now: Perry is on guitar for this one, and singing. He’s accompanied by some low-key guitar and bass as well as light percussion. There’s not much to it, but it’s a great intro to the next song (they flow into each other seamlessly live). It wouldn’t really work as well on its own. 6.0

4. American Dreaming: Again, this one continues the focus on Perry, with mild accompaniment (Gerrard just sits there in wait. It’s hard to say if she’s bored or not because she can be rather inexpressive). It’s a bit more animated and intricate than “I Can See Now”. It’s quite alright on its own, but it benefits greatly from the extended intro that the previous track provides. 7.0

5. Cantara: Taken from ‘Within the realm of the Dying Sun’ (one of my favourite albums of theirs) this is a slow, strings-based track with light percussion and keys. It’s extremely atmospheric, with Gerrard using finger-cymbals to add effect. Then it kicks in with all the percussions, thump-thump-thumping away, while she sings in a plaintive voice. This is powerful, hypnotic. 8.5

6. The Wind that Shakes the Barley: Taken from ‘Into the Labyrinth’ (my favourite of all their albums), this consists of Gerrard singing a capella. It sounds like an old Irish folk song that you’d hear in a pub. Personally, I think that it works best the way it’s juxtaposed on the studio album. Here, it feels out of place, underwhelming. It should be noted that, on the ‘Toward the Within’ CD, it’s prefaced by a flute solo – not by one of the band’s most powerful numbers. 6.5

7. I Am Stretched On Your Grave: This is a Perry solo track, featuring just his voice and some distant keys and percussion – as well as some flute passages later on. Unfortunately, his vocals aren’t up to snuff here. 6.5

8. Desert Song: This song begins with a Goblet drum and yanqqin intro. Flute is then added to the mix as well as finger cymbals – the latter courtesy of Perry. He is the lead vocal here, creating a nice build up in his voice (with the aid of percussion). Unfortunately, the song goes nowhere, fizzling out. Too bad; it showed promise. 6.75

9. Oman: This number begins with heavy drumming, then some mandolin. Adding to the percussive side of the show, the whole band does some hand clapping at one point. Amazingly, Gerrard broke into a faint smile for one of the rare times of the whole show (at least, as captured here…). 6.75

10. Gloridean: This one is a little different because Gerrard sings a capella with the backing of keyboards while Lance, Robert and Rónán surround her. Eventually, they break their silence and provide background vocals on the same mic as her. Her voice, trembling, bursts out midway through and a drum build up takes us home. 7.25

11. Tristan: Gerrard goes a capella with keyboard backing yet again. This one has a quasi-religious feel to it. Not unlike “I Can See Now”, it flows near-indistinguishably into the next song. 6.5

12. Sanvean: Still keyboard-driven, this is another a capella piece by Gerrard. This feels like a soundtrack score, an epic piece; her voice truly soars here. There’s visible passion in her here, a very rare occurrence. This is brilliant, but it benefits greatly from the juxtaposition with “Tristan”. The two work extremely well together. 8.0

13. Don’t Fade Away: Perry returns for the final piece. He’s on guitar with Lance accompanying him on another acoustic, followed by the keyboards. For some reason the text introductions of the band overlap over the performance. Frankly, it’s no great loss. 6.5

Although the sound quality on this DVD is noticeably better than the CD was, the picture quality is particularly horrid. I don’t know if it was shot on film or video, but it’s an extremely fuzzy picture, lacking in detail. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the stage is low-lit, reducing visibility even further. Let’s just say that this will never be a demo disc.

Anyway, for me it wouldn’t even be a demo disc for the audio because I’m not a great fan of most of the songs on this set list. It’s strange, because I’m such a huge fan of theirs that I bought a very expensive Japanese boxed set of all the albums a few years ago. It’s just that the selection (which, again, includes few album cuts) leaves to be desired.

It’s nonetheless a fascinating disc. And, aside from the performances, the film is peppered with interview segments featuring both of our leads:

  • Perry starts by explaining the choice of Dead Can Dance as their name, claiming that it was to represent the creation “animacy out of inanimacy”. He also discussed the duo (who were a couple until 1989), saying that they respect each other’s individual creative freedom, so as to not compromise themselves. Then he delved into their backgrounds: being of Irish heritage, there was a lot of singing, but his influences include psychedelic music, music soundtracks, …etc. Lisa is from Australia and is more immersed in oriental music. He likes to explore what happens after death – both for those who remain and those who depart. Then he proceeded to introducing us to instruments, including the yangqin, which uses bamboo hammers, explaining that he searches for nuance in an instrument.
  • Gerrard explains that it had been a long time since they had played live; it takes a while reopening, she said, but it’s satisfying. She also talked about her relationship to her voice, wondering aloud why she does the things she does, like not using words in many of her songs. She discusses her use of the yangqin, a Chinese hammered dulcimer, which she uses frequently, saying that it’s an easy, unintimidating, instrument. She also goes into abstractions, about taking the pain to the point of illumination within the work (there was talk of pain as well when talked about performing live). She believes that through musical expression “we can travel to places more beautiful than ever promised”.

It was a very good introduction to the band, their approaches and where they were at that moment in time. Even if the bits were wedged in between songs, collectively they painted a decent portrait of the band – especially for those of us who know very little about them. Along with their musical performances, ‘Toward the Within’ is a decent primer.

But wait! There’s more!

The ‘Toward the Within’ DVD also includes the few promo videos that Dead Can Dance released over the years:

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Frontier: Released on 1984’s self-titled debut album, “Frontier” is a relatively aggressive, minimalistic song, consisting of Lisa Gerrard’s accusatory vocals, backed by primal percussions and deep echoing male chants.

Starting with a credit for the band and the song, this video is black and white and is as minimalistic as the song itself. It serves up grainy, shaky, chaotic, images of gloomy clouds, skies, water, and a factory. There are flashes of Gerrard in white with her bleached hair draped over one side, at times blowing in the wind. It’s very artsy, but it’s as goth as DCD ever got. In my mind, it’s not a good example of what they’re about. 6.0/7.5

2. The Protagonist: Released on their label, 4AD’s, terrific 1987 compilation ‘Lonely is an Eyesore’, this is an intrumental, cinematic track. It has a magical quality to it, opening with a dramatic build-up of horns. And then the drums kick in. It ends with a gong and delicate keyboards. Epic stuff.

As with ‘Frontier’, this video is also in black and white and consists of footage from various sources and quality: Cloudy, black skies. Rock cliffs. Barren, cold lands. Murky waters. A pale, naked man wakes. Sparkles of sunlight appear on his skin, then on the water. Then there are shots of fish, waters, rain, and waterfalls. The man begins to walk through woods, eventually jumping into the water, swimming around. The seas are in turmoil. I’m not sure if the man drowns, but it ends with shots of dead fish and the tide. Dramatic, but cinematic. 8.5/8.5

3. The Host of Seraphim: Released on 1988’s ‘The Serpent’s Egg’, this is one of the greatest accomplishments. It starts with organ and plaintive, if not wailing, vocals from Gerrard. The deep pain in her voice is arresting, jaw-dropping. It’s as though she were mourning for the world, so profound is the agony. It’s wrenching and gorgeous at the same time. Additional drums are overlain at the onset of the video version because they were part of the movie ‘Baraka‘ from which the video is culled; they’re not in the original song.

Since the song was included as part of the 1992 film ‘Baraka’, they basically released that chapter of the film (titled “Calcutta Foragers/Homeless”) as a video. It shows third world poverty: people scrounging to survive, couples, children, sleeping on the streets. The vulnerability, the isolation of these people is devastating to see – especially in tandem with the song. The juxtaposition of the song and the footage is beyond potent; it makes me well up just to experience this. The footage is perfectly-suited to the music, even if it was never meant as a video, per se. 9.0/10

4. The Carnival is Over: Released for 1993’s ‘Into the Labyrinth’, this is a Perry-fronted number. His voice is deep, gripping, almost soothing, and is backed by amazing keyboard parts, giving it a fantastical quality. It’s a beautiful number. Unfortunately, here, it seems to stop before fulfilling its promise. That may be because the single version is truncated by approximately a minute over the album version.

I can’t really describe this video. It has a Cirque du Soleil quality to it: all sorts of artsy images, people and animals, are superimposed and animated in various ways. It really does have a kind of carnivalesque quality to it. It’s nice, if low budget. 8.0/8.25

5. Yulunga (Spirit Dance): The lead track from 1993’s ‘Into the Labyrinth’, this hypnotic number begins with horns and Gerrard’s vocals. It’s dramatic, very cinematic. And then the drums kick in and you get completely lost in it. It’s a fantastic song.

This video also takes its footage from ‘Baraka’. It works at first, when the song is slower, because it shows breathtaking images of volcanoes, cloud cover pouring over and around mountains, an eclipse, and birds flying over large bodies of water. But when the song kicks in, the images feel more random – they’re still beautiful, but disparate, and don’t fit the song at all. It was like watching TV with the sound off while listening to the radio. 8.75/7.0

While I admit that I’m not a big fan of this DVD, I remain a mega fan of the band. After watching this disc, I re-listened to a couple of their albums and was blown away by the grandeur of their oeuvre. It is utterly breathtaking. But this effect isn’t translated on ‘Toward the Within’, which represents a kind of amorphous world music sound.

Unfortunately, for me, the minuses of this disc outweigh the pluses. However, it’s remains a good archive for fans and the curious. At the very least, it’s worth it for the videos and interview segments. I just wish that the interviews could be played separate from the show, so that I could play the concert as background music.

Of course, I suppose there’s always the ‘Toward the Within’ CD for that. Unfortunately, if I were to choose one of their CDs, it wouldn’t be at the top of my list: Dead Can Dance have at least four (‘Into the Labyrinth’, ‘The Serpent’s Egg’, ‘Spleen and ideal’, ‘Within the Realm of the Dying Sun’) utterly phenomenal works that I’d play first.

…and that I’d highly recommend checking out. Dead Can Dance are quite the experience: they are in a class of their own.

Date of viewing: March 16, 2014

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