Dionysus, the first new album in six years from Goth-adjacent world pop duo Dead Can Dance, is a soundtrack in search of a film, a lush soundscape inspired by pagan rituals celebrating the God of Wine.
The album is divided into two “acts,” made up of three parts each, but not broken out into separate tracks. For some, this might be a welcomed feature, graciously allowing for a fuller listening experience, rewarding patience over our easily-distracted minds. It’s a forced meditation of sorts, but the effect works. The album is instantly calming, without sliding into the easily-wafting Pure Moods soundtrack that linger in every massage therapist’s office.
Act I includes “Sea Borne” – the arrival of Dionysus – with crashing waves, primal percussions and snaking zurna, all played with unflappable precision by Brendan Perry. This is the album’s finest moment, a full-on sensory experience that smells like incense and tastes like honey. This excitement continues through “Liberator of Minds,” but by “Dance of the Bacchanates” Act I has become a tad stale.
The world influence can, at times, create an unwieldy mess. Though the album itself is inspired by European paganism by way of Greek mythology, the cover art depicts a mask made by the Huichol of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico, who use peyote as a sacred rite and ritual for the purposes of healing and mind expansion. Allegedly, it’s supposed to be a way of celebrating what binds us in our common humanity. Instead, “The Mountain” which allegedly is supposed to transport the listener to Mount Nysa, feels instead like you’re waking up from a bender inside of a half-abandoned Pier One Imports. The braying sheep don’t help.
Lisa Gerrard’s supernatural voice underscores pieces of Act I, but in Act II’s “The Invocation,” she takes center stage with heady vocals calling the God to join them in the harvest ceremony. Perry takes over on“The Forest,” and his soothing voice, buoyed halfway through by Gerrard makes this the Act II standout. It might not, as intended, inspire the listener to abandon all worldly possessions in the Hindu tradition of Vanaprastha, but unlike “The Mountain,” it succeeds in evoking the image of a forest, mystical and wild.
The intro of “Psychopomp” goes on a little long, and, again, keeps Gerrard on vocals, padded out with bird-call whirring and cooing to wind down the album in a gorgeous, River Styx-crossing wind-down that doesn’t quite echo “Sea Borne,” but rather calls back to it.
Dionysus is a great album to play while relaxing, or, even better melting into a deep meditation. It’s short by contemporary standards, coming in at just over 36 minutes total, so don’t expect to plan a whole dinner party around it, but it’s perfectly suited for the main course. Just don’t expect Dionysus to show up when this is played—it’s too cluttered to work as the intended invocation, a showtunes version of ritual celebration.