Dead Can Dance

Dead Can Dance: Brendan Perry on Dionysus and Music of the Ancients

With the Release of Dionysus, Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry Talks about the ideas behind their mystical new release

Dead Can Dance on Selective Memory

In Friedrich Nietzche’s book Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy), Nietzche argues that ancient Greek tragedy was the highest form of art blending a mixture of both Apollonian and Dionysian elements. These Dionysian elements within these ancient art forms were most importantly contained within the music. Accentuated with a heightened awareness of Dionysian culture, celebratory festivals brought ritualistic elements to what was originally considered a one dimensional level and what Nietzche labels plastic art. Dionysus breathed life into the theater and gave birth to various cults celebrating the god’s frivolity.

It was this book that enticed Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry to look at Dionysus and its culture to influence a magnificent musical experience.

“About two years ago, I didn’t have anything in mind for the next Dead Can Dance album,” he said. “I was reading The Birth of Tragedy out of the spirit of music, and it’s a fantastic book. The book talks about the two major strands that run through ancient Greek classical thinking in relationship to theater: drama, tragedy and music.

“It was a real revelation for me to read about that. It maintains these Apollonian and Dionysian strands and when they come together they make the most sublime forms of arts. I found that really inspiring. I went on to read three more books and watched a lot of documentaries. It was then the actual idea of a concept album formed in my mind. Dionysus is often celebrated collectively with rhythm, dance, and song in order to achieve an ecstasius, working up into trance-like states using this medium. It was then, in my mind, that it bore through as the concept.”

Dionysus is Dead Can Dance’s collection of new material in six years, leaving off with Anastasis in 2012. The concept lies not in a story, but in the experience. The album is divided into two parts with sections micro-organizing each part. The listener takes an abstract journey beginning with waves crashing against the shore as the ships emerge in “Sea Borne” to the “Psychopomp” and Dionysus leading us into the afterlife.

“The album is an impressionistic and multi-faceted work. Ultimately, Dionysus is an energy. It’s about primal natural energy in all its various forms.”

Dionysus Album Cover

dead can dance on selective memory

Perry is obsessed with Greek culture and loves to talk about it with gusto. Exploring and expanding on the Dionysian myth, his interpretation leads us to the lifeblood of nature. The god of wine, fertility, and ecstasy, the cult explored art and literature through this heightened intellectual and philosophical awareness. For Perry, he saw it as a greater sense of connection, a duality between humans and nature.

“The cults and ritualist festivals were the fruits of the earth that limit themselves to achieving this form of ecstasis or ecstasy to expand one’s mind,” explained Perry. “Ecstasis basically means ‘out of body.’ These out-of-body experiences were done collectively, as groups. They did that through dance and music, with a repetitive pulse and a means to get into a trance. They used psychoactive or psychotropic drugs, or drink, or a combination of both. It was that momentary sense of being out of body and to be able to metamorphose with the world around you. These rituals were important to expanding people’s minds and get them to connect collectively, like a rave or kind of hippy movement. Those are contemporary examples of that collective ambition.”

Dead Can Dance – The Mountain (Official Video)

What Perry has done with Dionysus is to encapsulate the listener’s senses with this impressionistic world. From the front cover and the South American ritual mask to the inlay card showing Greek theater as the architecture to the album’s musical art, we begin with visual landmarks that draw us inward.

“That theater could hold 40,000 people. It has incredible acoustics. The engineering that went into its construction was quite incredible. From the physics point of view, the stage would have these huge copper pots placed underneath them. It was aesthetically designed to resonate and amplify the sound. They found them under the actual floor. It’s funny, what they used to do in Ireland—my background is Irish coming from a family of farmers—they used to have houses that were designated for céilís. My grandfather actually was the leader of a céilí band. He was a violinist. What they used to do was put horse and cow’s heads underneath the floors of the houses and they would resonate purely for acoustic reasons. The céilí would come down to the house and have the band in the corner. I thought that was fascinating that they did that in my culture, a culture I’m familiar with compared to what they did in ancient Greece.”

From the turbulent rhythmic trance of “Dance of the Bacchantes” in which Perry describes as the girls letting their hair down to the journey of “The Mountain,” each pulse spins us into another intoxicating dimensional byproduct of Dionysus. Perry conceptualized three developmental stages as the album took form.

“I chose, at the core, folk traditional instruments from around the Mediterranean which has a pedigree that goes back into the midst of time. Those instruments are really old. I used them because they have an archaic and age old connection into the past.

“The second element are the field recordings and instruments that would mimic animal sounds and elemental sounds like wind and water. I thought this was really important because Dionysus is an outside external energy within nature. I used the field recordings in the sense of dramatic ambiance to help the listener’s mind transform them to this place that was external. The instruments that were bird calls and what have you I designed as kind of a nature bridge which would help connect to the outside world. It is a homage to nature by mimicking and trying to communicate with creatures inhabiting this world.

“The last element are the voices. The voices really are a nodding direction of the original Greek chorus which was right at the beginning of theater and it was by a collective group of people that told songs, sang and danced before individual actors developed. I did not want myself and Lisa’s voice at the forefront like people who were singing songs with choral accompaniment in the background. It was always going to be an impression of our voices as a part of a collective group of the chorus. These were designed essentially for call and response kind of a dynamics between a singer and a group. The whole concept does not allow for us to be at the forefront.

Echoes of Swiss sheep on the mountainside, Brazilian polyrhythms, or Middle Eastern string arrangement, all of these elements on the album come together to present a universal approach to what Dead Can Dance can achieve.

“We are just doing what we always have been doing, widening people’s musical world and opening people up to things they would not normally come across.”

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Perry’s first solo album, Eye of the Hunter, he is currently working on a new solo release, potentially due to release in the autumn. This accompanies an intimate french solo tour that accentuates from a Dead Can Dance European tour over the summer. The plan is to bring Dead Can Dance to the rest of the world in 2020.

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