Review Summary: The sun’s last rays slip from the day as the sky bleeds into night.
When Dead Can Dance released their self-titled debut in 1984, the group appeared as just another in a string of gothic post-punk bands to emerge out of the collapse of the original British punk scene – talented, if unremarkable. The album clearly reflects the influence of the later Joy Division and gothic pioneers Bauhaus. Despite its derivative character, it nevertheless showed great signs of promise for the band’s future. Dead Can Dance
is a competent but ultimately forgettable record.
Over the course of the next six years, however, Dead Can Dance would drop their earlier post-punk sound and produce a series of four spectacular albums, culminating in 1987’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
. Abandoning electric guitars for cellos, violins, violas, and oboes, the group completely revolutionized its sound. What the group had begun to develop in their previous album, Spleen and Ideal
, found its fullest expression on Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
. The album is the
crowning achievement of the gothic genre, unmatched by any others before or since.
From the moment the strings join the opening chimes of “Anywhere Out of This World,” the listener is wrapped the album’s tenebrous coils. The sun’s last rays slip from the day as the sky bleeds into night. Beneath the layers of instrumentation a drumless rhythm is established, a steady pulse to meet Brendan Perry’s brooding vocals. The strings swell breathlessly as each new mutation is introduced, following as the shadows stretch to cover the face of the earth. “Let us settle at the Pole,” wrote Baudelaire’s soul in the poem after which the song is titled. “There the sun only grazes the earth obliquely. And the slow alternation of light and darkness suppresses variety and increases monotony. That half-nothingness. There we shall be able to take long baths of darkness…The aurora borealis shall send us its rose-colored rays.”
Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
is both perfectly balanced and flawlessly ordered. Nothing could be added or taken away without upsetting its unity, nor could the order of songs be switched without disturbing its progress. As such, “Xavier” marks the pinnacle of the album’s development. Here Lisa Gerard’s haunting, ethereal vocals enter for the first time. At this point they are only hinted at, serving to preface what is perhaps Perry’s most brilliant composition. Each part follows from that which preceded it with complete necessity; likewise, the lyrics convey its mood absolutely. The death of the night is signaled by the approaching dawn, but its trace threatens to remain: “And as the night turns into day, will the sun illuminate your way" Or will your nightmares come home to stay"”
Gerard’s half of the album, presaged in “Xavier,” crashingly announces itself with the thunder of brass and a rolling military snare. The “Dawn of the Iconoclast” is heralded by trumpets, but its sunburst is cut short by a blanket of clouds, rising to choke the day. What follows is quite possibly the greatest vocal take ever captured on record. Using the glossolalia shared by her contemporary Elizabeth Fraser (of Cocteau Twins), Gerard’s voice on this track – subsequently sampled by the ambient luminaries the Future Sound of London – expresses the most profound tragedy imaginable. Set against the ominous backdrop of the wavering of viola strings, its effect is elegiac, otherworldly, devastating.
It is too easy to exhaust the vocabulary typically reserved for albums like this. Reciting all the usual terms, no matter how accurately they seem to describe Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
, fails to capture its beauty and majesty. Suffice it to say, however, that the thoroughgoing primitivism of the record’s instrumentation is masked by its impeccable production. Layer after layer is piled onto one another, washing seamlessly over itself with incredible depth. Even purely instrumental tracks like “Windfall” do not feel empty without vocals. Perry’s lyrics, moreover, exhibit an impressive degree of erudition, as always. They describe a pre-Raphaelite vision of antiquity, lost in the mystic contemplation of those mute statues like the one that appears on the cover of the album.
Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
represents not only one of the greatest artistic accomplishments of the gothic/ethereal wave tendency in music, but of an entire decade of musical production. It achieves a level of sophistication and sweeping grandeur that few other albums in any genre have ever rivaled. 5/5