MOST Americans are not well-acquainted with an instrument called the hurdy-gurdy. That is partly what makes the band ``Dead Can Dance'' refreshingly different.
Often eerie and deeply moving, sometimes bordering on 1970s lounginess, Dead Can Dance makes music that defies easy explanation. Imagine Gregorian chants, Middle Eastern incantations, and Irish folk songs sung by a Barry Manilow-esque romancer and an austere not-of-this-century-soprano partner. Then add an exotic array of percussion, strings, winds, and keyboards. It's a difficult image to conjure up, yet surprisingly beautiful to hear.
Performing re-creations of medieval and other long-forgotten music - and getting radio play on stations dominated by the traditional guitar-bass-drums lineup - is no small feat. But partners Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, who have been re-creating and composing music together for 12 years, are performing sold-out concerts in the United States before audiences just as likely to attend a Nirvana concert.
Dead Can Dance has an especially loyal and more-diverse following in Europe, where they have toured for a decade.
But their appeal is spreading to the US, where the pair has attracted a cult-like following.
``In America it's different [than in Europe] because it's still a relatively underground thing,'' Perry said in a recent telephone interview.
Their new album ``Into the Labyrinth'' is only their second US release, and is played on radio stations that usually cater to techno-pop and ``grunge'' guitars.
The way the pair works is as unusual as the music itself. Dead Can Dance's latest album was recorded in three months after Gerrard and Perry spent three years working separately. For the last six years, the two have worked independently - Perry on an island in Northern Ireland, and Gerrard in the Snowy River mountains in southern Australia.
The elements the duo bring from their separate worlds give the album an eclectic feel. The 11-song album is a collection of both modern and ancient-sounding tracks, from Perry's recollections of visiting the circus in London (``The Carnival is Over'') to Gerrard's powerful ``Yulunga,'' a mysterious ``spirit dance'' song.
``[Working apart] allows us to see our own individual creative voices,'' says Perry, who also coproduced the album.
Neither Gerrard nor Perry has had formal music training; they learn instruments as needed.
``I wouldn't say we regard ourselves as musicians, but more in the line of directors,'' Perry says, ``because a lot of our [efforts] are not involved with actually playing music on instruments. It's more of arranging elements.''
Perry describes the band's songwriting process as a ``natural evolvement.... Essentially our music is a reflection of our lives, our evolutionary journey through time.''
The result is impressive, both live and recorded. The band's Boston appearance was punctuated with standing ovations from the black-clad college crowd.
Gerrard and Perry, who alternated in singing and playing, were accompanied byother musicians on a variety of percussion, wind instruments, and keyboard sounds.
Dead Can Dance's live performances tend toward improvisation, which Perry says creates ``dangerously beautiful music.... There's nothing worse than becoming a show band and playing things clinically every night.''
Though the mood is generally dark, the music is far from depressing. Gerrard's versatile, expressive voice is clear and precise.
Her mastery of nuance gives Mediterranean and Middle Eastern songs credibility. Perry, whose voice is a rich baritone, sings the more modern English-language songs.
Though Dead Can Dance's success on the airwaves and in concert halls has been more recent, their songs have also been used for television commercials, a movie soundtrack, and for the opening of the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
In Boston, simple ``thank-yous'' murmured at the end of the evening were virtually the only words the pair spoke to the audience.
``We feel more comfortable with [music] in terms of wanting to communicate. We communicate things to ourselves [this way] as well,'' Perry says.
With music like theirs, nothing more needs to be said.
* Dead Can Dance performs tonight at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia, and in Los Angeles at the Wiltern on Nov. 15.