Dionysus feels like it was written thousands of years ago.
Though firmly anti-nihilist, Dead Can Dance definitely hold a bit of reverence for Nietzsche. The Australian duo’s music has always been trapped in half-remembered myths, reaching for a time long since forgotten, or a past that only existed in lore. Hell “the mythic womb” is a good a descriptor as any for their best work, weaving music from the Balkans, Australia, Greece and Turkey into a cohesive sonic realm.
But, even for them, Dionysus is a heady marvel. It explores the cult of the Greek god through his wine, sexual hedonism and madness, all in a made-up language. That may seem like a missed opportunity, as Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry excel in depicting sagging acropolises and lost cities. But Perry, who treated the album like a deep-dive research project, decided to let the music speak for itself. More than any other Dead Can Dance album, Dionysus feels like it was written thousands of years ago.
And it completes that task with ease. The album is split into two “acts” rather than sides, and the individual pieces are more suggestions than an actual track list. Act I, for most of its runtime, is the statelier of the two, with regal tempos driving along royal procession scoring grooves. Act II is happier to indulge in the natural world and more disconcerting images. This was Perry’s pet, but he barely sings on the album, instead using Gerrard’s evocative pipes more as an instrument than a lead. She doesn’t seem to mind and sells the hell out of being a priestess on a Mediterranean shore, mixing blood and wine for some Hellenistic ritual. The mystic sway of “Seaborn” is propelled by a whole slew of obscure instruments, a chorus of Gerrards and a sterling harp sliding through the sound. It’s a proper pop of pomp to start the album, and its divine sense of righteous movement carries throughout.
The real surprise here is “Dance of the Bacchantes,” which flows like a lost Omar Souleyman tape. In comparison to the more reserved dances throughout, “Dance of the Bacchantes” is a complete loss of sanity, filled with eerie birdcalls, wrenching vocals and a fiery percussion line that compels you to dance—or else.
There was a similar hypnosis method in Julia Holter’s recent labyrinth as album Aviary. Comparing by scale, Dionysus is practically a punk record, coming in at about a third of the time, but they both work on a logic that refuses singles, or even individual songs, instead opting for a unified whole to get utterly lost in. They even seem to be playing with similar eras. Holter was fascinated with ancient Greek and Roman myths, weaving them into her chamber works. But with Aviary she used the trappings of the past (lovers kissing as Rome fell) as a commentary on the modern world. Dionysus has no such intentions. It is a portal above anything else, and exploration of something long since dead, only lingering in the minds of scholars and cultists. And for that, it’s all the more beautiful.
Dionysus, even more so than the also excellent Anastasis, is unmoored in time, a capsule of what might have been. For Dead Can Dance, our “great historical hunger” is a reason for introspection, yes, but it is also a reason to revel, to create. They are their own myth makers.