Graded on a Curve: Diamanda Galás,
Vena Cava

What to make of a woman who makes Yoko Ono sound like Janis Ian?

I’m referring, of course, to Diamanda Galás, who can certainly sing but on 1993’s Vena Cava prefers to shriek, screech, scream, keen, warble, jabber, ululate, moan, hiss, speak in tongues and sing “In Heaven There Is No Beer.” I suppose we’re meant to think she’s in the throes of demonic possession, and that “In Heaven There is No Beer” almost convinces me. Had she tossed in “How Many Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” I’d be a believer.

After consulting my Ouija board I think it safe to call Galás the most pretentious avant garde artist of our time, and kindly suggest that anyone who takes her cheesy Linda Blair act seriously invest in a new pentagram. If this is what Satan really sounds like, I suggest he rethink his approach. He certainly isn’t going to win any converts by annoying the fuck out of them.

I’m sure the songs on this concept album are meant to convey a message of deep artistic import, but I for one lack both the curiosity and aural fortitude to figure out what that message is, unless it be to turn it off and listen to something else. In 1993 the FBI used dying rabbit screams to drive David Koresh’s followers from the Branch Davidian compound. It didn’t work. Vena Cava would have worked. Say what you will about the album, it might have saved lives.

Our cherished First Amendment guarantees Galás the right to do this sort of thing, but I for one would prefer she do it in the privacy of her shower, and pray the landlord doesn’t evict her for scaring bejesus out of the Chihuahua in Apartment 8-D.  The only analogy to Galás I can think of is the free jazz quartet Last Exit. But theirs was a noble endeavor to stretch the limitations of jazz. Galás’ Exorcist shtick, on the other hand, is pure hokum. When I want to hear from Satan I listen to Barry White. His modus operandi is seduction–all Galás succeeds in doing is clearing the room.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
F

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  • faulknersaysrelax

    This is a lazy review that completely avoids any actual information or insights about Galás for a series of not-particularly-clever put-downs bordering on outright misogyny.

    It’s fine to pan a record that you, as a reviewer, don’t enjoy with, but doing so with sub-“SNL” doggerel is lazy and reflects poorly on this site, music criticism in general, and obviously, the writer.

    There are two main points I would like to stress:

    1. Had Little done any research instead of assembling a list of pat jibes to take the place of actual critical thought — and he admits as much at the beginning of the third graf — he would know that portions of the text Galás is drawing from here were written by her brother Philip-Dimitri, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1986.

    Much of Galás’ work is informed by the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, and the performances here are explicitly meant to portray both clinical depression and AIDS dementia, rather than a concrete set of songs. Galás’ work often blurs the line between theater and music, but considering Little’s professed lack of curiosity, I suppose it would have been too much to expect him to give her Wikipedia page even a cursory scan.

    2. The Last Exit comparison is particularly galling, for a few reasons. Firstly, Galás cites Alfred Wolfsohn — a pioneering German vocal coach and war medic whose methodology created new extended techniques for singers — as an influence. To that end, Galás is literally part of a continuum of individuals undertaking the “noble endeavor to stretch the limitations” of the human singing voice.

    Why is Last Exit’s anarchic playing — which I happen to be a huge fan of — to be lauded, while Galás’ similar experiments with her own instrument are derided as “pure hokum?”

    Secondly, Last Exit guitarist Sonny Sharrock has a series of early, free jazz records with his first wife Linda that are — at least on a surface level — similar to Galás’ work in their seemingly atonal, “difficult” musical choices. I would go so far as to place Linda and Galás on the same continuum of “free” vocalists utilizing non-traditional or extended techniques. Is Little aware of these records? If he is, did he conveniently ignore them while mentioning Last Exit, who happen to be an all-male group?

    Ironically, I’m not some die-hard fan of Galás. I would really only recommend “The Singer” or “You Must Be Certain of the Devil” for anyone interested in beginning to investigate her work. But regardless of individual opinion, she is objectively a fearless, fascinating artist, one who deserves better than trite assessments like this “review.”

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