Dance of the living... It's music to soothe the most savage stage diver -- mesmerizing percussion set to a luxurious, multitextured wash of keyboard samples and organic sounds from strange lands and long-ago times. The chants begin immediately, sometimes in sync with the music's chugging rhythm, other times emerging out of the lush soundscape to apply splashes of color. The mood is menacing, the environment welcoming; the push and pull between these conflicting elements provides the tension.
The song (for lack of a better term) at issue here is "Indus," one of the more moving tracks on Spiritchaser, the new CD from atmospheric London experimentalists Dead Can Dance. Even with the vocals, it's easy to forget that humans are behind the tune's surreal, otherworldly beauty, a vagueness of origin that's pretty much intended. Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry rely heavily on the past to provide inspiration for their postmodern vision. They draw on an exhaustive store of traditions (neo-classical, baroque, choral, troubadour), cultures (Western and Eastern European, Asian, North African, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern) and liturgical and secular formats. In the Dead Can Dance creative manual, borders are irrelevant, cultures mesh rather than collide and ancient history might as well have happened yesterday.
It's the sort of supernatural union of sound and specter to which much New Age music aspires, but only rarely reaches. Whether the sounds you hear on Spiritchaser are from a synthesizer, a person or a chunk of hollowed-out wood swinging from a rope, the source is not so much the concern as is its desired effect. In most mediums, maintaining distance between the artist and the art is the norm, but in popular music, it tends to be the exception. Consider Dead Can Dance a big exception.
Gerrard and Perry nurture the sense of mystery that surrounds their music by keeping their distance from those who might spoil the effect. They grant only the occasional interview, preferring to let the music -- and their lengthy, detailed bio -- provide any needed facts and insights. Following the age-old parental advice, "Ignore them, and they'll leave you alone," Dead Can Dance has withstood 12 years of insults, criticism and pigeonholing. Today, even the group's most persistent detractors are liable to give the band some credit for not just hanging in there, but improving.
Of course, almost anything would have been considered an improvement on the dirgelike drek of the group's 1984 self-titled debut. That release tagged Dead Can Dance as a Goth act (their name sure fits the gloom-and-doom motif), and their dour antics continued to give that label credence until 1990's Aion, when the group's Middle Ages hang-ups came into full flower with "As the Bell Rings the Maypole Spins" and other banquet fare. The medieval slant turned prophetic when Gregorian chants made a bid for the mainstream a few years later. By then, Dead Can Dance was making its own commercial dent; sales of 1993's Into the Labyrinth topped 200,000.
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Those numbers meant that Dead Can Dance was no longer the exclusive domain of artsy-fartsy import connoisseurs. In her mostly positive evaluation of the Dead Can Dance discography in the Spin Alternative Record Guide, critic Joy Press makes note of the band's surprising success, but questions their appeal live, wondering who would want "to watch these performers, so concerned with transcending time and space, pluck at strings and bang on bongos?"
From my vantage point, quite a few. The Press' own editorial administrator, Julie Kelly, has been counting the time until Thursday night, when Dead Can Dance performs at UH's Cullen Performance Hall. She's a die-hard volume freak -- a punk rocker through and through. If it doesn't tax the speakers and test the ears, then it's not worth a damn. Unless, of course, it's Dead Can Dance, whose music she describes as the perfect remedy for insomnia. In case you're wondering, that's a compliment.
Etc.... Former Zydeco Dot Pierre Blanchard will play his final Houston show Sunday at the Big Easy. Blanchard is disbanding the Bayou Stompers and moving to Memphis, where he hopes to begin afresh with a new band. Meanwhile, Blanchard continues his search for a label to release his new CD, tentatively titled Up to My Ass in Alligator, which he promises will be available -- one way or another -- by fall. Superstar Canuck songstress Celine Dion has opted to spend her August sweating it out south of the border. Her U.S. summer tour brings her to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion Thursday. Opening the show is the Irish sibling foursome the Corrs. Platinum-sellers in their homeland, the Corrs have had less luck winning over the American masses with their contemporary take on folk tradition. Punkers Voodoo Glow Skulls play Emo's Thursday. Friday, Austin band-to-watch Grover Dill shares the evening with our very own Big Swifty at Rudyard's Pub. Indefinable Press Music Awards winners Flamin' Hellcats play Mary Jane's Saturday. And Sunday, take another big, long suck on the '70s -- and the '80s -- with the Steve Miller Band and Pat Benatar at the Pavilion. (What genius came up with that pairing?)
-- Hobart Rowland