(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
I don’t think my contribution to the music world is just being some jumped-up bitch who has to scream. It’s not quite like that – Diamanda Galas in a 1989 interview
Diamanda Galas’s performance at the Palace of Fine Arts last Wednesday night was far more subtle than anything she’s done so far. It was an evening of spirituals, blues and gospel music self-reflectively focused around outlaw tonalities and darker readings embedded in that kind of materials’ falsely appeasing sense of hope often based upon pacts made between god and the devil.
Her latest work must have been difficult to accurately promote because the persona of Diamanda has come to represent dynamism in the extreme, while most of the music performed last week raked the low range – unflinchingly. After the first three songs, the musical theme and range didn’t change that much. But the full hall of listeners affectionately attended to Galas’ latest dirges, performed in relative absence of diva camp and technical gimmickry for which she is better know, and is unassailably expert. It was just the singer, her piano and simple discernible sound mixing, all spot lit in serous profile.
“Reap What You Sow,” “Let My People Go” and “Balm in Gilead/Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” all selections from Diamanda’s recent album, The Singer, were featured in this touring show, Judgment Day. Though it is helpful to listen to the new work within the context of an incredibly varied vocal/performance career, the title piece stands up well on its own.
The sentiment behind “Judgment Day” applies pretty much to almost any of the overwhelming social wounds witnessed or experienced today. For instance, I kept thinking of thousands dying from bombs or inhalant from burning oil derricks in the Persian Gulf while listening, as well as many other tonally hellish images of the contemporary world often redacted by the media, except for the aesthetic efforts of performers like Galas. This kind of work is the best antidote to pacifying forms of entertainment, bootlicking journalism, aversion to the unknown, and, our fears of fear.
As an Ornette and Coltrane jazz influenced performance artist, Galas has a rich history of courting controversy ever since industrial music began its scathing intellectual and theatrical critique in the 1970s, skewing attempts to distinguish between operatic and salon delivery systems of culture. For example, her better-know “Plague Mass about AIDS,” released in the U.S. as “Masque of the Red Death,” and consisting of “The Divine Punishment,” “Saint of the Pit” and “You Must Be Certain of the Devil,” features an array of clashing vocal styles that range from accusatory blues sung in different languages to a punk kind of scat.
Galas’ “Plague Mass” selection in the middle of the program provided a helpful bridge to her current projects. Without a frontal view, however, her trademark operatic range of facial expressions and sound production was so absent it changed the reading of the work, from a visually exciting performance work, to an introspective and intense musing.
The only un-serious, playful, if not chilling tease of the evening was her rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkin’s “I Put a Spell on You.” Here camp crept in to break the ice and fan an old flame, though perhaps too sparsely. It’s a big shift from the ice pick and blast furnace body/sound experimentation Galas is better known for, to the referential singer of historically reinterpreted songs. So, sit back, let go, and don’t believe the hype.