Friday, January 16, 2009

FEATURE 20 - Diamanda Galas

In 1982 an album entitled 'The Litanies of Satan' was released, largely unnoticed by a public in awe of popular music programmed like a dishwasher. It was not entirely unexpected then, that she would be ignored. The singer, Diamanda Galas, was a complete unknown, and the contents were, shall we say, perverse and sonically challenging. It was not so much cutting edge music, as simply lascerating. The lyrics were based very loosely on a poem by Baudelaire. These she sang heavily miked and distorted in a garbled guttural French. On the second side (this was in the days of vinyl) there was a half hour aural onslaught called 'Wild Woman with Steak Knives',described as a 'homicidal love song for solo scream.' This sounded like a seriously insane woman had been placed before a microphone, whilst she ritually flayed and dismembered a cat. Galas's singing is full throttle operatic, her vocal projection pins you back against a wall of meat cleavers.



Galas was part of a certain operatic/rock hybrid trend around at the time, that included Klaus Nomi and Nina Hagan. Though nowhere near as execrable as some cross over fusions of popular and classical styles, these were nevertheless a mixed bag. Sometimes the luridly coloured coloratura is adventurous musical territory to traverse, and at other times its simply way over the top, and frankly ludicrous. Galas' voice, however, is always an uncomfortable beast to listen to, and an angry demon it is too. More a performance artist than rock opera, her music attempts to capture using only her heavily amplified voice, a psyche that's mentally fracturing.


For myself, who at the time loved anything that was boldly different or extremely difficult to like, she fit the bill exactly. In fact, I often used this record as a deterrence. Whenever my neighbours played music too late at night, I'd respond by giving them a blast of Galas, and things soon quietened down, I can tell you. I came to respect her for other reasons, more closer to home. As the panic over AIDS/HIV began to hit the world in 1984. Good people began to die without much hope of a cure. Previously good people started talking as if the emergence of such a disease must be all someones fault. That God was punishing gays for their perversion and immorality. The liberal and more tolerant permissive world was caught seriously off guard.

Gala' response to this was to produce a trilogy of albums, that explored the religious mythological imagery and prejudices surrounding plagues and death. She put her voice at the service of the contemporay zeitgeist. These albums became known as 'The Mask of the Red Death Trilogy,' consisting of 'The Divine Punishment,''The Saint in the Pit'and 'You must be certain of the Devil.' These doom laden works, were very much for and of there time, and can seem now a distinctly OTT response to the re-emergence of the word 'plague' into common parlance. They use the imagery, myths and stereotypes as a means to debunk, a cathartic release of the irrational fears surrounding disease epidemics. Its as if a festering boil is being lanced. They speak loudly, and I do mean loud! that we are all doomed, to a life of pain and suffering.

Diamanda Galas thus became very strongly associated with the cultural fight back against the prejudices associated with AIDS/HIV. As the public outcry faded, and the media focus shifted, as it does, onto other matters, so Gala's star likewise faded from prominent view. She's still around, still wailing like a banshee, and it all seems rather sad. Particularly because she's been adopted by The Goths, because of her obvious affinity for occult and satanic imagery. At her height she was never about such empty posturing that flirted safely on the fringes of transgression - there was a definite moral purpose behind what she was doing, and it was artistically brave.

Her music is very literary in its sources, drawing heavily on the late Victorian Gothic novel, she was never about a bland version of reality. She was livid, possessed menace,and was a classically trained singer to boot, so everything was grotesquely heightened to the level of 'operatic horror.' Yes, I admit, she was also dressed in black, plastered her face in white pan make-up, often had back combed hair,and was back lit by flames - so her image at the time was not Boy George, OK! . Yet this was all part of a hugely fake melodrama, a visceral performance style, that unfortunately has now become a bit too Las Vegas, if you get my drift. She is now stuck in a caricature, that in the eighties this was deadly serious, but now without an ounce of humour, or self-deprecation, it indicates a lack of perspective. For her to still be screaming and screeching twenty odd years later, about the infested darker side of human existence, seems a little unbalanced, an unhealthy preoccupaton. It's like someone continues to masturbate without discovering there's such a thing as intercourse with another person. What does this woman do for light relief?

She reminds me of Betty Davis in her later horror movies, with a bit of the high camp Gothic of the Roger Corman / Vincent Price films, based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, thrown in for good measure. If you want to try a taste of her, I recommend 'You must be certain of the Devil' which is the nearest she comes to being accessible or mainstream, which isn't that close actually. It has all her usual vocal hallmarks, with a cracked Southern Gospel veneer. There are some superb moments of arche derision on such songs as 'Lets Not Chat About Despair' and a particularly disturbing version of 'The Lord is my Shepherd'- obsessive, mad and pacing around incarcerated in a dungeon of derangement - not easy listening then!

1 comment:

diamanda said...

ah too bad you have not
purchased the defixiones
work; there is nothing about
that work which is remotely
camp and is not about
anything you describe.

you need to be in europe now
to see her fan base,not america.
america is not interested in
13 languages or genocide issues
of the greeks assyrians or armenians.