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Dead Can Dance, Berkeley, August 12, 2012

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After we had dinner at Jupiter pizza, our Sikh cab driver deposited us outside the Greek Theatre in the Berkeley hills. We spread a blanket high on the lawn and looked out past the campanile on the Cal campus, watching our home town across the bay slowly submerging in a sea of fog. As the sun sank, the horizon turned pink, lights began to pick out the skyline and the traffic on the Bay Bridge, Draco appeared in the West — and Dead Can Dance took the stage.

Dead Can Dance is an Australian group formed in 1981 by Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. I heard their second album, Spleen and Ideal, in 1985. It was the beginning of a love affair, not just with Dead Can Dance, but with their label 4AD, which also released such acts as This Mortal Coil, Bauhaus, and The Cocteau Twins (and had a strikingly beautiful and unified graphic design concept). Around the same time, I also got into Siouxsie and the Banshees and Shriekback, but never took The Cure.

Yes, I was a “Goth,” at least in my musical, literary, and cinematic tastes. It probably began in 1983 when I saw The Hunger with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve, a dreadful film that nevertheless permanently imprinted me with its Gothic/perfume ad aestheticism and opening performance of Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” To be more precise, I was as Goth as possible without recourse to hair dye and nail polish, while being a clean-cut libertarian/Objectivist, while not taking drugs, and while greeting every trace of Punk and post-Punk aesthetic posturing by brandishing a Boston or ABBA or Yes album, from which the offenders would shrink back like vampires from holy water.

Looking back on those days, what appealed to me about Dead Can Dance and allied groups is what Kevin MacDonald calls “implicit whiteness,” for the Goth scene was as ethnically and spiritually white as NASCAR and the Republicans, although infinitely more cool. It had much the same appeal to me as Tolkien and “progressive” rock groups like Led Zeppelin and Yes — which go far beyond American blues to incorporate European folk and classical forms — had to my older hippie cousins, who introduced me to their tastes as well. Most of the ’60’s counter-culture has more to do with Tolkien than the Frankfurt School: it was simply a recovery of authentic European cultural forms.

A lot of Goth music arose from the Punk and post-Punk context. I never liked Punk, but its primitive, do-it-yourself aesthetic led a lot of talented amateurs who might otherwise have avoided music to give it a try, and once they actually learned how to play, they began producing excellent work. Since Punk was very much a rejection of previous forms of pop — especially blues, funk, and disco — a lot of post-Punk ended up being deeply and authentically European in feel and flavor — almost by default.

It is no accident, moreover, that many who got into the Goth scene developed tastes in European “early music”: medieval, renaissance, and baroque. It is also no accident that “neo-folk” and martial-industrial music — Death in June, Current 93, Der Blutharsch, etc. — which make explicit reference to European fascism and National Socialism, are organic outgrowths of the Goth scene.

Dead Can Dance’s eponymous debut album (1984) is droning, chanting, “ambient” music. In their next four releases — Spleen and Ideal (1985), Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (1987), Serpent’s Egg (1988), and Aion (1990) — Dead Can Dance developed a kind of ancient and medieval and primal-sounding European folk/pop music. It is wintry music: cold and vast and sublime. After that, I lost track of the group. (I stopped following pop music entirely and became almost totally absorbed in classical and jazz.) The next two Dead Can Dance albums Into the Labyrinth (1993) and Spiritchaser (1996) are “world music,” incorporating Asiatic, Near Eastern, and Amerindian musical forms.

Now, after 16 years, Dead Can Dance is releasing a new album, Anastasis (resurrection) on August 14th. The group played much or all of their new album at their concert in Berkeley last night — long with many old favorites — and it was a profoundly moving experience. Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard both sing lead. Perry’s magnificent voice is my favorite of the two, and three of his new songs — “Children of the Sun,” “Amnesia,” and “Opium” — are truly magnificent: soaring, melodic, and profound, equal to the best of their earlier work. Lisa Gerrard only sings in Elvish, Entish, and Boudledidge, but never the tongues of men, so it was hard to tell which songs were old and which were new, but all of them are enormously evocative and atmospheric.

I was surprised at how much of the music was oriental in feel. It was not the band I remembered. Not that I have any objection to incorporating such elements into Western music from time to time. “Kashmir,” for instance, is one of Led Zeppelin’s masterpieces. And an ability to appreciate non-Western cultures — music, literature, art, cuisine — is also a trait of our people. We can appreciate the genuine achievements of other races and cultures without losing a sense of our own identity. But at times I wondered if the band — and the audience around me — really were losing a sense of who they are.

The band played three encores. Before they played their second, I found myself thinking that I could die a happy man if they did “Song to the Siren,” which was sung by Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins on the first This Mortal Coil album, It’ll End In Tears. It is one of the most beautiful pop songs of all time. I always wanted to hear Lisa Gerrard sing it, even if I had to hear it in Urdu. To my astonishment, a few minutes later, Brendan Perry sang the words “On the flooding, shapeless oceans . . .” and I was in heaven.

Although I am always shocked by the rudeness of people who talk during rock concerts, the overall atmosphere was deeply civil and relaxed. There was a definite feeling of spiritual communion in the music and landscape. I spent a lot of time before and after the concert studying the crowd. It was overwhelmingly white. The average age was somewhere in the 40s. Like me, most of these people have been listening to this kind of music since they were teens. I wonder how many of them understand the whiteness of the things they love, and if they will realize it before it is too late.


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  1. Jaego Scorzne
    Posted August 13, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I also loved Dead Can Dance and thing Gothic, yet was repelled by the scene as a whole. Far too soft, feminist, and decadent. I enjoyed the movie Underworld for showing a strong warrior aspect injected into it. Wearing Black is a sign of mourning and thus appropriate, but it mustn’t become decadence – nor allow evil and a hatred of the Light any place. Black and Darkness are also a part of God – as the author of The Cloud of Unkowing knew and as the Sufis called the “dark tresses of the Beloved”. Thus the aesthetic is genuine when moderate. Very few goths have any conscious (or unconscious) understanding of any of this even though they fancy themselves intellectual.

    Yes! Whiteness is the master key that ties all these subcults together. Many goths love LOTR and Classical, but they would eschew the master trope in the strongest possible terms – thus in itself, it’s not a Movement with any potential.

    I envy you that concert and hillside. San Francisco can be very beautiful – and you have evoked it in me. The fog covers a multitude of sins – and there is that which remains.

  2. Posted August 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I know that Dead Can Dance contributed to the incredible soundtrack for Baraka, which has long been one of my favorite films – not a very “White” film, particularly, unless one sees the comparative depiction of various religious and atheistic practices across the world as inherently White, which I suppose may be true. I’ve never really heard anything else by them, so I’ll have to check it out.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted August 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      I never followed their soundtrack and solo work. I imagine that it deepened their “world music” engagement.

  3. Petronius
    Posted August 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Also, back in the Eighties Lisa and Brendon were exceptionally beautiful looking people. In your terms, they were “whiteness” at its best.

  4. Achaean
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    “Most of the ’60′s counter-culture has more to do with Tolkien than the Frankfurt School: it was simply a recovery of authentic European cultural forms.”

    This strikes me as true although I can’t even say a word about Tolkien. When I hear 60s music I don’t think of the Frankfurt School, but it cannot be denied that cultural Marxism has framed the politics and wider cultural terms in which this music is viewed, even by the musicians themselves.

    “I wonder how many of them understand the whiteness of the things they love, and if they will realize it before it is too late” — I don’t think they do outside the music itself, and if pressed they would deny it has anything to do with whiteness. Deep down, musically, they probably understand the whiteness. The non-musical language around them fogs out this instinctive musical understanding.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      I agree that cultural Marxists do frame the understanding of the 1960s in all of its aspects, including the music. A case in point are the books on the music of Yes by Bill Martin, who gives everything a post-modern Marxist spin.

  5. Alaskan
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m beyond jealous! I’ve been a huge DCD/Brendan Perry old/4AD fan for years. I was always struck by the overtly Eurocentric quality and aesthetic of their work.

  6. ich bin es
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Beeing younger than you I have never heard of this band. Their wiki-article indicates that they are a “multi-cult”-band. I am not too keen to hear music with a “middle-eastern” touch but I will give it a short try if you allow. Could you name two or three songs which in your opinion stand out? Thank you.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Anything from albums 2 through 5 is excellent. There is a sampler from Ryko of their first five discs, A Passage In Time, that is a good place to start.

      I received their new disc, Anastasis, yesterday. It is excellent as well.

      I can’t comment on their work between 1990 and 2012, including solo and soundtrack work, but evidently they went way into multi-culty “world music.”

      • Alaskan
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        Brendan Perry’s latest solo album “Ark” is amazing! I highly recommend it.

  7. Who+Dares+Wings
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    The song is called “Gortoz a ran – J’attends” (means “I await”)
    The lyrics are in breton, a celtic language from Brittany, western France.
    The composer is breton singer Denez Prigent, who performs it with Lisa Gerrard.
    It’s from his album “Irvi”. Ridley Scott asked for it to be on the Black Hawk Down soundtrack.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      This is very beautiful. A lot of their music is very “Celtic” sounding. It fits in nicely with Enya.

  8. James
    Posted October 14, 2020 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    One of my favorite things to do is keyword search the C-C website when doing something like, in this case, listening to Cocteau Twins, thinking, “I wonder if GJ and company have ever written about *blank*?” Almost always–certainly when taking the comments into account, too–I’m never left wanting.

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