Music Review: Dionysus
Like all of Dead Can Dance’s albums, this Australian world beat/neoclassical group’s latest offering is an epic and ethereal work, informed by the music and lore of many cultures and historical periods. Just over 36 minutes in length, it takes the form of a two-act, seven-movement oratorio that explores the religious practices, rituals, and myths associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, as well as spiritual ecstasy, fertility, and ritual madness.
Like illustrations in a book of Greek myths, Dionysus’ songs—presented here as movements—wordlessly bring to life a number of vivid scenes. Various passages depict the Dionysian use of mind-expanding hallucinogens (a theme echoed in the album’s cover image: a mask made by the Huichol people of the Sierra Madre, whose religious rituals involve the use of peyote), the renunciation of worldly pursuits in favor of spiritual liberation (known in the Hindu religion as Vanaprastha), and the passage of souls of the dead into the underworld with Dionysus as their guide.
Singer/instrumentalist Brendan Perry takes the lead role on this album, not only handling the recording, production, engineering, and mixing, but also playing an impressive array of folk instruments from all over the world, while adding color via field recordings of everything from Mexican and Brazilian birdcalls to beehives from New Zealand. Though vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Lisa Gerrard’s presence is far less prevalent here than on past efforts, her ghostly glossolalia remains a crucial part of Dead Can Dance’s sound, in this case representing the feminine aspect of the album’s namesake.
With or without its storyline, Dionysus is an intense, entrancing piece, steeped in the mystery, intoxication, and grandeur of the Dionysian rites that inspired it. In spite of its brevity, not to mention the sparseness of Gerrard’s contributions, it’s a more than worthy addition to Dead Can Dance’s body of work. —Damon Orion