“…I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and His train filled the Hekhal [sanctuary]. Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” The seraphim cry continually to each other, “Holy, holy, holy, is YHWH of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory.” (Isaiah 6:1–3; Hebrew Bible)
In the 80s music bible, “The Host Of Seraphim” is a 1988 treasure that belongs to the brilliant and phenomenal Ethereal / Dark Wave band and then some, Dead Can Dance.
Dead Can Dance was formed in Melbourne, Australia in August 1981, led by the then-couple Lisa Gerrard (vocalist) and Brendan Perry (vocals and guitar). The following year, they moved to London and signed on with one of my all-time favorite record labels, 4AD. (Away from DCD, Lisa Gerrard has also scored several films, and picked up an Academy Award Nomination and a Golden Globe Award for co-scoring – with Hans Zimmer – the 2000 Russell Crowe film, GLADIATOR.)
Their first album, a self-titled effort, was released in 1984, and early on were described as “as Goth as it gets,” though they dismissed that label. I would also dismiss that label, mainly because they are in a class all by themselves.
By June 1990, Dead Can Dance had already released five albums and an EP, all of which were not readily available in the U.S. until the early 90s, which is when I discovered them for the first time.
It was the Spring of 1994, I was 27 years old and had just moved to Portland, Maine in late January of that year. I was still making friends and one of my new friends suggested that I see a film unlike any other – it was a concept film called BARAKA.
Back then, there was this small, independent art-house theater simply called The Movies. It was in the heart of Portland’s famed Old Port section of town, and had been around for many years. BARAKA was actually released in September 1992, but for some reason, The Movies didn’t get it until early 1994.
For those who have not yet seen BARAKA, some are quick to call it a documentary, but there’s no narration or voice-overs in it, and I’ve always considered it to be more of a concept film for that reason. BARAKA, kinda like Dead Can Dance, is in a class all by itself. BARAKA was filmed in 24 countries on six continents around the globe, photographed in then-groundbreaking 70mm film, and the tagline for the film is “A world beyond words.”
BARAKA is literally breathtaking to watch. The late, great film critic of the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, Roger Ebert, put BARAKA in his “Great Movies” list, writing, “If man sends another Voyager to the distant stars and it can carry only one film on board, that film might be BARAKA.” When the film was reworked for a Blu-Ray release in 2008, Roger Ebert described it as “the finest video disc I have ever viewed or ever imagined.” High praise indeed.
Where there is music in the film, most of the score is by Michael Sterns, who is best-known for his work with Ambient and Space music. He released over 20 solo albums between 1979 and 2001. During a seven-minute span in BARAKA, there was a song that played over multiple scenes of severe poverty, from homelessness to young prostitution to hundreds of women and children sifting through acres of garbage in hopes of finding food. You can find the link to this video at the end of the blog post.
As much as BARAKA is breathtaking with its global beauty, the scenes like the ones mentioned above are equally heartbreaking. The filmmakers couldn’t have picked a better song for that sequence of the film.
Not long after I saw BARAKA in the theater, I stopped by a record store in the same building as the movie theater (at the time, I lived in the Old Port section of Portland, so I was in the area constantly). The name of the record store was Bad Habits. The owners of the store would later run the amazing Alternative Portland nightclub, Zootz (both of which sadly disappeared from Portland’s cultural landscape many years ago).
I was in the store perusing one day, and one of the owners, George, let me take a promotional sampler by Dead Can Dance, of which I had heard a couple of their most recent songs (from 1993’s INTO THE LABYRINTH album, most likely). Even though I wasn’t that familiar with the band, I, of course, didn’t turn down the free sampler.
When I got back to my apartment, I played the CD and was excited to learn that the song I heard in BARAKA was by Dead Can Dance, and it was called “The Host Of Seraphim.” I always thought the name Dead Can Dance was pretty cool, and in the years ahead, especially after I started STUCK IN THE 80s (on WMPG community radio) in 1996, I learned a lot more about Dead Can Dance, and was quite impressed at their catalog, and with the fact something like that came out of the 80s.
As much as I love Pop acts like Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Huey Lewis and Michael Jackson, the 80s weren’t just about them. Dead Can Dance is absolute and substantial proof of that.
“The Host Of Seraphim” is the opening song from THE SERPENT’S EGG, the fourth studio album by Dead Can Dance, released a week before Halloween in 1988. Of the album’s interesting title, Brendan Perry once said, “In a lot of aerial photographs of the Earth, if you look upon it as a giant organism – a macrocosmos – you can see that the nature of the life force, water, travels in a serpentine way.” It’s very true.
In addition to its use in BARAKA, “The Host Of Seraphim” has been used in film and television a number of times, including 2002’s RIPLEY’S GAME, 2006’s HOME OF THE BRAVE, the trailer for 2003’s TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES, 2010’s LEGENDS OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE, the third-season finale of this year’s HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, and in the last ten minutes of the 2007 film, THE MIST, based on the 1980 book of the same name by Maine’s own Stephen King.
Since they are so different than anything else I have loved in music for the past (nearly) 40 years, I had hoped to see Dead Can Dance perform live. Their last album was in 2012 (ANASTASIS; Greek for “resurrection”), their first album in 16 years. At the very least, I do have their TOWARD THE WITHIN live DVD from 1994, and they are sensational and then some.
For the ANASTASIS album, Lisa Gerrard did a 2012 interview with PITCHFORK, and her responses to the questions were as amazing as Dead Can Dance’s music. One of the questions PITCHFORK asked was, “There seems to have always been as much emphasis on the power of space or ambience in your music, is that something that emerges naturally?”
Lisa Gerrard replied, “I’d call that blind belief. It’s almost like you’re standing on something that’s much more powerful than you. It’s like a frequency that comes up through the ground, like sticking your finger into an electrical socket. There are so many layers to who we are as human beings outside of this terrible, grey shadow of materiality. I think the message that’s always been there in Dead Can Dance is, ‘Come on, wake up. Wake up, visceral. Wake up, abstract. Wake up, practical. Wake up, mind. Wake up, soul. This is who you are. This is where you’re going. This is the journey. Here we are. This is the campfire. The campfire is music’.”
If you hadn’t already been familiar with meaning of the word “seraphim,” it’s another word for an angelic being, with six wings, and is part of the highest of orders of the celestial hierarchy, and (like other angelic beings, I suppose) it’s associated with light, ardor [enthusiasm or passion], and purity.
The music that Dead Can Dance has brought to my life for many years is something I would consider of an angelic nature. And, if not angelic, well, it’s not far off. Their music is among the best I’ve ever heard. And “The Host Of Seraphim” is truly one of THE most extraordinary and heartbreaking pieces of music I’ll treasure forever.
In a 2013 retrospective review in AllMusic, “The Host Of Seraphim” was hailed as “so jaw-droppingly good that almost the only reaction is sheer awe.” I couldn’t agree more.