Review Summary: Doesn't reach the heights of their later work and despite being slightly inconsistant is still a worthy debut.
On their self-titled debut, Dead Can Dance had not yet developed their more familiar ethereal medieval and world music inspired sound. As such, it’s a relatively unadventurous start for the band, with them staying very close to their influences. However, there are already signs here of the direction they would later go in and the greatness yet to come.
Although DCD have always rejected being ‘gothic’, there’s little denying that on the debut at least they sound very similar to much of the post-punk and goth popular at the time, specifically Joy Division and early Cocteau Twins. Like these bands, the music here is very dark, moody and not at all uplifting.
Instead of the more ethereal approach they would later take using ancient or obscure instruments, ‘Dead Can Dance’ is densely layered with synths, electric guitar and drum machine, so has a much more ‘rock’ sound than what they’re known for. As usual with the band, the album is split between the two singers, Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard.
Perry’s songs are the more ordinary rock songs and are definitely the weaker half of the album. While after this album his songs would catch up and become the equals to Gerrard’s, here it seems like he’s holding the band back slightly. His songs are still very good, they’re all very catchy and contain the dark atmosphere that DCD would later build on, but they lack the experimentation of Gerrard’s songs. Saying that, songs like ‘A Passage in Time’ and ’Wild in the Woods’ are easily among the best on the album.
The 80’s production with lots of echo effects, heavy bass and thin guitar, while making the whole album sound quite dated, affects Perry more. His voice often sounds muffled and hidden under the instruments, lacking the power it has on later albums. The soon to be released re-release will probably help solve this problem, but we’ll have to wait and see. Perry’s lyric-writing would be improved in their later work, but his metaphorical lyrics are still good here.
Gerrard’s songs are the more adventurous. She incorporates tribal percussion that foreshadows their later world-influenced albums and unlike Perry who uses ordinary rock instruments here, Gerrard experiments with the Chinese yangqin to give her songs a distinctive sound. In ‘Ocean’ she shows the beginnings of the singing style she would later use in her more ethereal style songs.
Most of the time here however, her singing is more grounded and ‘ordinary’. It’s far
from unimpressive though. Instead of being light and airy it’s more aggressive and sounds more haunting than it would later on, especially on ‘Ocean’ and the terrifying ‘Frontier’. Even when she’s singing non-existent words (which she does) her singing remains emotive and clearly outshines Perry’s efforts.
Overall, it’s a good but slightly inconsistent album that would probably be better if Lisa Gerrard had sung more than a few songs. It’s still very good though, and definitely worth hearing if you’ve heard some later DCD albums and don’t mind typical 80’s post-punk production. There are better places to start if you’re new to the band though.