Before Motorhead’s Lemmy ascended to the throne as the god of Rock and Roll, the job belonged to Dionysus. The Greek deity of fertility, winemaking and religious ecstasy is also the title of the first album in six years from Melbourne neoclassical duo Dead Can Dance. Dionysus is a two-act concept record that takes a reverential tone. Dead Can Dance tell the title character’s tale from the spotless tabernacle of the recording studio, a refreshing change from the alcohol-drenched and amplifier-strewn altars where he is worshipped as the god who goes to 11.
The first movement of the album tells the story of the debauched deity’s arrival and subsequent influence on humanity in three acts. The first, “Sea Borne,” depicts Dionysus’ arrival by ship and features environmental sounds. Canvas sails blow in the wind before futuristic and vaguely ominous synthesizer sounds begin to build. Joined by percussion, Middle-Eastern melodies weave themselves with women’s voices gliding gracefully above the machine-like groove.
About six minutes into the 16-minute track the percussion subsides, and the listener is again aboard a quiet ship at sea. The track’s second act, “Liberator of Minds,” according to a news release, “conveys the use of hallucinogens and mind-expanding drugs that are associated with [Dionysus,] as well as breaking free from the constraints of social norms within society.” The only clues to this subtext are the environmental sounds that decorate and delineate the acts. While the music is beautiful, its story could benefit from contextualizing liner notes.
The music in the second half of the first movement is joyous and earthy, suggesting pastoral scenes of nature. Instead, it nods to the cloistered concrete solemnity of the duo’s ’80s releases Spleen and Ideal and Within the Realm of a Dying Sun. Dionysus seems most akin to the duo’s 1990 album Aion, which fused world music with modern recording technology and pop sensibilities.
The first movement’s final act, “Dance of the Bacchanates,” modernizes world music with all kinds of exotic instruments. These include the zourna, the gadulka, the bowed psaltery, the davul and a bunch of instruments too obscure to define, along with the band’s signature use of the hammer dulcimer. Vocalist Lisa Gerrard’s voice flows like honey over the desert landscape evoked by the instrumentation. Female voices ululate as a processed flute sound finds a sauntering boogie. The song grows in its reverential devotion to exuberance, inviting listeners to cast off their daily tasks and dance with entranced abandon.
The album’s second movement is comprised of four acts and takes listeners from Dionysus’ birthplace on Mount Nysa, to his eventual role as a guide to the afterlife in Hades. The first act of the second movement, “The Mountain,” begins with a thick and foreboding synthesizer tone. It sounds plucked directly from the soundtrack of 1980’s The Shining. Eventually, the sinister tone is accompanied by a graceful bagpipe melody. Its hints of digital signal sorcery simultaneously evokes the historic and the futuristic, bridging the gap with the feeling of reaching a high.
Second act “The Invocation” features the rich vocal harmonies of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. Their voices entwine over a processional rhythm. The pair sings in a made up language that conjures dream-like imagery: a piece of bright fabric fluttering against the dark and imposing dome of the sky. The music subsides for a field recording of livestock bells, flies buzzing and even goat noises. The farm noises help invoke the ancient agrarian atmosphere.
The album’s final acts, “The Forest” and “Psychopomp,” build in intensity as Dionysus is celebrated at harvest ceremonies. The music grows more modern, with thick electric bass notes, whistles and flutes. The music sounds ceremonial, ritualistic and global. Vaguely Japanese-sounding keyboard melodies mix with rich vocals to suggest a warm, tropical climate, and maybe a drink with an umbrella in it. The album’s final minutes grow quiet and the music grows more sparse as Dionysus is installed as a greeter for the new arrivals in Hades.
While Dionysus is shorter than most full-length records, the thoughtful Perry and Gerrard were able to craft an album of unusual density. Dionysus spans the globe with its ambitious blending of traditional cultural musical traditions and psychedelia. While it’s strange to hear a restrained and careful tribute to the god of excess, it’s also a fitting and reverential tribute to the transformational power of that excess.
Follow writer David Gill at Twitter.com/songotaku.