Review Summary: I believe in a way of long ago...
Ok, let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: the Middle Ages are awesome
! Seriously, what’s not to love about them? The valiant knights, the fair maidens, the tyrannical kings, the gruesome warfare, the epic myths...it’s no wonder that people are still inspired by the Medieval Period to this very day in terms of literature, cinema, fast food restaurants, and music. One band that seems to be firmly rooted in this time period are the Australian minstrel duo Dead Can Dance. While the band’s sixth release, Into the Labyrinth
, shows more ethnic influences than ever before and can be considered a bit of a stylistic departure from their previous works, it is nonetheless a passable entry into the neo-medieval folk genre despite its strange and overindulgent tendencies.
When it comes to the Medieval era, the type of music that tends to be associated with it are grandiose, orchestral scores that makes the listener feel like a knight in chain mail armor (e.g. the Skyrim
soundtrack). Yet, interestingly enough, Into the Labyrinth
is about as far from that as one can get. Dead Can Dance take a minimalist approach to their songwriting. Although many exotic instruments are used throughout the album, the majority of songs are carried solely by the vocal work of the two members, Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. For instance, the a cappella track “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” stands as the most powerful and haunting song on the album; a gorgeous display of vocal talent and melancholy imagery. In fact, melancholy imagery is without a doubt the main focus of Into the Labyrinth
. While the music at hand is still undeniably inspired by the Middle Ages, Dead Can Dance seem to have turned their focus away from the tales of bravery and swordplay, instead focusing on the more somber aspects of the era. Although the lyrics of opener “Yulunga” are basically gibberish, the track’s dance-like rhythm and ethnic melody recall music that may have been prevalent in poor, Middle-Eastern villages on a scorching summer’s day. Likewise, there is such an underlying sadness to Perry’s vocals on “The Carnival Is Over” that the song’s upbeat melody creates an extremely mournful atmosphere. Since the musicianship of Dead Can Dance isn’t particularly impressive, the instrumentation itself is always secondary to the vocals. “Saldek,” for instance, has nothing of value going on musically other than maraka shakes, but the song itself holds its own due to Gerrard’s insane vocals. This formula doesn’t always work, but when it does the result is usually quite breathtaking.
Although Into the Labyrinth
remains a unique portrait of poverty in the Middle Ages, the album’s flaws prevent it from being as gripping of a vision as the band was likely striving for. Perhaps the most blatant flaw is how damn strange
the music can be at times. This isn’t to say that any of the songs are unconventional for this genre; rather, the album’s production does not work at all
with the music at hand. To put this into context, Into the Labyrinth
was the band’s first release on a major-label. As such, the album’s production is crisp, fine-tuned, and clearly high budget. Not that there’s anything wrong with crystal clear production; but in the case of this album, it does the music no favors. Take “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” for example. The sound quality of each instrument is perfect but the dynamic levels between them make little sense, with the drumbeat and some of the milder textures remaining rather quiet and bouncing from ear to ear until becoming so discordant that the song begins to sound like two entirely different tracks being played at once. While this mixing issue is practically unnoticeable during the opener and the more minimalist songs such as “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” and “Emmeleia,” the production nevertheless detracts from the album being as atmospheric and conceptual as it had the potential to be. Arguably though, the most bizarre quality of Into the Labyrinth
is the band’s infrequent use of electronics. For a band with such a massive assortment of instruments at their disposal, the use of electronics adds relatively nothing to the album that couldn’t otherwise be better accomplished with an instrument that reflects the time period in which the album is so stubbornly set. Furthermore, when the electronics are used for texture like in “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove,” they end up sounding dissonant and unfitting with everything else going on in the song. Sadly, the often questionable songwriting takes away from the album as a whole, but luckily does not prove detrimental to the more thought-out tunes.
As previously stated, this is a downright depressing album. The tone of Into the Labyrinth
never ceases to be powerful and sincere, but is unfortunately too constant. Every song on this album is sad in one way or another; excluding the opener and “Towards the Within,” which break the formula by being whimsical and exciting. Even the harpsichord-driven “Tell Me About the Forest (You Once Called Home)” is sad in its own right, telling the story of someone leaving everything they love to wander alone. No track is noticeably weaker than the last, but if Dead Can Dance had been more imaginative and tried something other than bumming the listener out, the individual impact of songs would have been much greater.
Honestly, Into the Labyrinth
is a difficult album to recommend. The idea of mixing Medieval and world music with a focus on gloomy imagery is undeniably interesting, and by no means do Dead Can Dance execute this idea poorly. Yet, with the obvious exception of the masterful vocal performances (especially in regards to Gerrard’s beautiful a cappella and haunting glossolalia), there is nothing truly outstanding here. The bleak tone is hard-hitting at first but is dragged-out too long, and although there are certainly some unique instruments at hand, the duo’s musicianship ranges from ”good”
Still, if you can overlook its flawed production and strange songwriting, nothing about this album is particularly “bad”
, especially if you’re into the whole neo-medieval genre of music or are just fascinated by the Middle Ages. And for those of you who are: Into the Labyrinth
may not be as compelling as living in a castle or slaying mythical dragons, but when all is said and done, I’d take it over a Medieval Times restaurant any day of the week.