Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard founded Dead Can Dance in the “little band” scene of Melbourne, Australia, but it’s a boon to all that their culture-spanning music eventually found acclaim across the globe.
The duo met in 1981 among an ever-changing group of musicians that created experimental music. Having both grown up in immigrant communities, particularly with Greco-Turkish influences, their shared history went on to inspire a distinctive sound.
You can feel a sense of Turkish tradition most notably in the pair’s vocal style, where a single syllable arcs rapidly through a series of graceful notes. The group’s eclecticism has made them a true standout in the industry for decades, possessing a complexity that’s not easily replicated.
Perry remarked on this during DCD’s most recent reunion for their album, Anastasis:
“I’ve been fascinated by the classic immutable elements of Greek culture, the depth of their music and their love for song that you don’t get as much in the west; the way they combine philosophy and love songs, and throw a bit of science in there too. I love the eastern influence that comes from being a crossroads between east and west, the kaleidoscopic mosaic of those fused cultures, while the further west you go, the more it’s a mono-cultural society.”
DCD’s largest asset may be their strength as vocalists. Both have released solo albums, and Gerrard has completed several movie scores including Gladiator, which won her a Golden Globe.
The two musicians have cavernously rich voices that give weight to their lines. Lisa Gerrard rests in the contralto range, the lowest-pitched and rarest female voice type.
This might also help explain her unique stylings; those with fewer role models must find their own path.
Check out the musical conversation taking place between Gerrard’s hammer dulcimer and Perry’s voice on their song, Rakim—and then, later, their voices coming together for the song’s finale.
Gerrard has always sung in a made-up language she’s used since she was a child. The technical term for private, invented languages is glossolalia:
“I know that it is an innate, automatic response to the music that I hear. It’s like the pathway between my mouth and my heart…” (Blurt)
This method of inventing melodies is one that many songwriters use while trying to come up with lyrics. The difference is that while most people normally add words to their melodies little by little, Gerrard chooses to keep hers purely nonverbal.
The lyrics may technically be “meaningless,” but the inflections of Gerrard’s voice give it deep feeling. The overall effect is akin to listening to poetry recited in a language you don’t understand.
Dead Can Dance steers well clear of predictable pop music forms. Their sound does sometimes wink toward 1960’s psychedelia and goth rock, but never relies on either category. DCD creates a shadowy and reflective atmosphere built upon the timelessness of world music.
Make sure you listen to Lisa Gerrard’s voice at full power and control in Anabasis:
Fall for the Mystery of Dead Can Dance:
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