Review Summary: A very atmospheric, dark and haunting album with incredible singing and composition that proves that the 80's were not totally rubbish for music.
‘Within the Realm of a Dying Sun’ is one of the most atmospheric albums of all time. The music is much like the ominous title and mysterious album cover: dark, haunting and eerie. While it may at first seem minimalist, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.
Ascribing a genre to Dead Can Dance, and especially this album, is very difficult. There are elements of neo-classical and World music influences, but also traces of the gothic post-punk from their earlier albums.
The album is split half way between two singers, Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. Perry takes the first half of the album - his songs are played in a dreamy pop style compared to Gerrard’s slower more ethereal songs. Despite being structured like ‘normal’ songs, don’t expect to hear electric guitars or anything, except for keyboards which are only used to enhance the atmosphere and never overpower the music. The instruments here are traditional string instruments, violins, horns and medieval instruments that create a genuinely believable ancient feel. While if many bands attempted to do this the result would be cheesy, DCD’s sound is very authentic and sombre so it never gets close to sounding even slightly outdated.
While the melodies are sometimes quite simple this works in DCD’s favour as not one note at all seems at all out of place. The songs often start of simply and build as more instruments are added in later on and all of the melodies, often played by instruments like chiming bells and backed by strings and keyboards, are beautiful and incredibly atmospheric while at the same time, dare I say it, catchy.
Perry’s warm, airy and slightly Jim Morrisonesque singing fits the grandeur of the music perfectly. His lyrics, while not at the level of Bob Dylan’s or Leonard Cohen’s, are very complex, metaphorical and serious, also perfectly suiting the mysterious mood of the music.
The second half of the album starts with ‘Dawn of the Iconoclast’. The song begins with an intro played with horns and a snare drum that is so epic that it would easily fit in a film like ‘Lord of the Rings’, but somehow manages to stay completely free of cheesiness and retain the same seriousness and atmosphere of the rest of the album. Suddenly the music clams down and we are introduced to Lisa Gerrard’s incredibly unearthly singing. Gerrard is easily one of the best singers I’ve ever heard, she can sing in a huge amount of different styles and has a huge vocal range, though she usually sings in a deep ethereal voice with a lot of vibrato. If it wasn’t for the similar majestic quality in the singing you could be forgiven for thinking that the deep singing in ‘Persephone’ is done by a totally different person than the high singing in ‘Dawn of the Iconoclast’. In whatever style, Gerrard’s voice is always completely in control and very powerful.
The music also changes for Gerrard’s half. The music becomes slower to focus more on the atmosphere and singing, which really does seem to soar above the music. Gerrard’s lyrics are all in glossolalia, completely made up meaningless words. However, the importance here is placed on the sound of the singing itself, not what is actually being said.
An exception to this is ‘Cantara’, considered by many to be DCD’s best track, which is the only drum-heavy song on the album and much livelier than her other songs here. ‘Cantara’ shows the Eastern music influences that become more pronounced later on in their career.
It really is very hard to find criticisms for this album, as it really is one of the very best of the entire decade. The sudden change between Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard songs has been criticised by some and it perhaps could have worked better if they’d mixed up the track list a bit, and if they’d sung some songs together that also could’ve worked well. Apart from that though, this album really is almost perfect.
DCD is probably the most substantial thing to come out of popular music - and I say this as someone who's enamored with death metal, black metal, and IDM. The band may sound alienated to a first-time listener, but that would only be because their music goes against everything modern and convenient. It's not a product, it's art(and yet, almost miraculously, not pretentious). You should probably listen to The Serpent's Egg, Spleen and Ideal, and the self-titled debut first.
In a broader context, the term "popular music" does not refer to sales numbers, but to where the music falls in terms of cultural significance. Basically, it is music derived from the current populist system of being a format for individualist expression, whether this is used for marketing, entertainment, business, or art. There's basically two types of music, popular and classical - not referring to the genre of classical, but "classical" in the sense that it serves a long-standing functional purpose in a specific culture, whether Indian, Chinese, the Jivaro people, or anything else.
I know that this isn't something meant to be convenient. Also, false, on your two types of music. The "classical" you describe is merely traditional folk music. Wherein you will find the melodic foundations of a culture. ie. Eastern European, Middle Eastern, etc. From there we build into mainstream or "popular" music. This would also include indie, and most metal for all intents and purposes. These 'genres' merely takes variations on these melodic figures. Essentially all "popular" music feeds into itself. On the other end, you have the avant-garde. Which may also make use of these figures but experiment more. A la, Kayo Dot, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Stravinski, or possible this band.
Popular music has no foundation in a particular culture's musical heritage - it is entirely Western. Notice that pop songs from Japan, for example, are basically so-called Swedish pop + a sugar rush. Pop songs from Arabic countries tend to be club dance music with scaled note interludes and vocal ululations thrown in between the verse/chorus breaks - two aspects which are born from Islamic religious music, but because they are taken out of their original context, they no longer carry that context with them.
This is because these songs serve a Western, capitalist purpose. This is what constitutes the watershed between popular and classical music in musicological terms - classical is a cultural expression, and not(like what that course will describe as "popular music") a form of personal gratification.
As for indie, metal, and avant-garde, there's quite a few misunderstandings displayed there as well but they aren't relevant to this Dead Can Dance album, so I'll ignore them. The main point is this: Dead Can Dance falls into the popular music category - not the classical music category. Despite this, they are one of the few acts which come close to expressing classical ideals. One could go so far as to describe them as neo-classical in this sense, but not as a genre description.