Graded on a Curve: Diamanda Galás,
All The Way, At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem

Crowned as an avant-garde diva way back in the mid-1980s, Diamanda Galás has spent the ensuing decades embodying and eclipsing the designation. Her oeuvre evinces pure operatic skill, elements of cinematic and literary horror, consistent activism on the behalf of the victimized, potent threads of blues and jazz, and boldness of personality likely to make many popstars jealous. After a nine-year recording absence, she’s back with a double whammy; All the Way (vinyl, compact disc, and digital) and At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem (CD and digital only) reinforce that Galás’ abilities and creative passion are undiminished. Both are out now on her Intravenal Sound Operations label.

An avant-garde diva indeed, but for many budding music enthusiasts of the 1980s, Diamanda Galás’ music was a primary escape from the predictability and smallness of scale that occasionally afflicted the rock output of the time (yes Virginia, even the underground variety). In this, she can be placed in the company of Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, and John Zorn, but with the distinction that Galás, at least at this point in her development, was untethered to “rock” in any form.

She did find herself attached to the industrial fringe in part due to a large lump of her work carrying the logo of the Mute label. This relationship made it easy for curious suburbanites to special order LPs from their local wax shack, but to this day some erroneously assume that it was Mute’s Daniel Miller who discovered her.

Nope. Her debut on record came on Jim French’s 1979 effort If Looks Could Kill; she intermittently appears on side two alongside the multi-horn specialist and guitarist Henry Kaiser, who issued the disc on his Metalanguage label. An interesting artifact, it establishes Galás as part of the late ’70s West Coast avant-garde (she was born in San Diego and moved to San Francisco in the ’80s), but it’s ’82’s The Litanies of Satan, first released on Y Records and reissued in ’89 on Mute, that effectively commences the lengthy first phase of her discography.

As the title underscores, it’s also where she began emerging as the leftfield horror priestess of the era’s u-ground. An excellent self-titled LP came out on Metalanguage in ’84, but the rest of her material up to the cathartic ’91 live recording Plague Mass enhanced the horror association: that’s The Divine Punishment and Saint of the Pit, both from ’86, and You Must Be Certain of the Devil from ’88. These albums complete her Masque of the Red Death trilogy.

That title points to her interest in Poe (she later read his short story “The Black Cat” on Hal Willner’s 2CD Edgar Allen tribute Closed on Account of Rabies), as The Litanies of Satan’s title piece adapts the poems of Poe’s translator Charles Baudelaire. This hits the high literary end of the spectrum as the opposing side is covered by her professed love of horror movie soundtracks. Love of and contribution to, as her vocals have lent supernatural ambiance to Ninja III: The Domination, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and The Conjuring.

Galás’ music of the period was at times downright creepy, with this writer having witnessed reactions spanning from uncomfortable to flat-out freaked-out, in part through electronic manipulation (with the help of engineer Richard Zvonar) but primarily due to pure vocal ability. And yet giving people the willies wasn’t her primary concern; Masque of the Red Death and the related Plague Mass speak on behalf of those stricken by AIDS and further harmed by odious governmental and religious reaction to the epidemic (her brother Philip-Dimitri Galás, a playwright, died from the disease in 1986).

Recorded at NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Plague Mass finds Galás near peak effectiveness, and it represents something of a culmination to her avant-horror-protest period, at least in studio. With ‘92’s The Singer she broadened her horizons, or more to the point she made overt stylistic aspects that were always there; these traits became more pronounced in You Must Be Certain of the Devil, which opens with “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and includes “Let My People Go” (the album also found her fleetingly playing around with rock, or more accurately electro-pop elements, in earnest).

The Singer is succinctly but aptly described as a blues record, though one that’s far from trad, spanning from the rudiment of Blind Lemon Jefferson to the songwriting advancements of Willie Dixon to subsequent rock-tinged choices (Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites’ “Reap What You Sow”), with stabs into Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“I Put a Spell On You”), country gospel (‘Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”) and spirituals (including a reprise of “Let My People Go”) that strengthen the connection to her prior work.

However, Galás’ sheer depth of emotion reinforced the diva-ness amid her still demanding approach and spotlighted her talent as pianist. Stephen Holden made the avant-garde diva comparison in his short New York Times article from ’85, but for many The Singer’s gestures toward recognizable norms will still be tough going. Her skill-based swagger is retained on This Sporting Life, the ’94 collab with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones (and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas), the LP placing her directly in rock and soul realms for the first time; by extension, it provides the easiest entry into her stuff.

It’s also an anomaly, and interestingly, until now it was the last studio album in a career shifting the focus, in true diva fashion, to performance; she’s released six live albums since ’93’s Vena Cava, with the string extended through At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem. Largely a made up of studio tracks, All the Way was cut in hometown San Diego, and knowledge of this fact adds intimacy to these frequently magnificent and thoroughly welcome pair of late works.

All the Way begins with the title track, a Jimmy Van Heusen/ Sammy Cahn composition perhaps best-known through its ’57 hit version by Sinatra, although her hearty breathiness of voice is preceded by a Cecil Taylor-ish excursion on piano. Some would call what follows a subversion or at least a deconstruction of the source, particularly when the studio echo effect on her vocal is most pronounced, but that’s off-target.

Read a lengthy interview with Galás (e.g. the amazing discussion in Forced Exposure #15) and her encyclopedic knowledge and respect for music from the avant-garde to pop classicism is unavoidable, and her reading of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is similar in spirit to the take found on John Coltrane’s Ballads, if obviously different in execution (hers has vocals, Trane’s doesn’t, for starters) and temperament (one is reasonably assessed as romantic, the other is not).

It certainly feels true that any tune Galás chooses to tackle becomes more intense in the effort. Here, the piano at the start of “The Thrill is Gone,” which is not the B. B. King hit (that one is found on her ’98 set Malediction and Prayer) but a Tin Pan alley chestnut well-known through Chet Baker Sings, is gentle enough, but with little delay things start inching toward Patty Waters territory.

Of course, the song is still unmistakably Galás, though in a rarity, one is unlikely to say the same, at least initially, for “Round Midnight,” specifically because it lacks vocals. If the piano at the beginning of “All the Way” triggers thoughts of Taylor, the comparison is ultimately casual, having more to do with aggressive angularity and percussiveness. Those attributes are amplified here, but she sounds even less like Taylor and surely not like Thelonious Monk, as this version is likely to piss off purists everywhere.

The same can be said about old-timey traditionalists in relation to “O Death,” which eclipses standard lamentation through emotional explosiveness that would’ve made Dylan Thomas’ heart go pitter-effing-pat. It’s followed by Galás’ version of Johnny Paycheck’s “Pardon Me I Have Someone to Kill,” a combination that registered as beautifully wicked on the page. Next to the soul-purge of “O Death,” it closes All the Way in relatively straightforward and totally satisfying fashion.

At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem comes from a May 2016 concert held in a church in the titular NYC neighborhood, with the selections comprised exclusively of “death songs”; unsurprisingly, “O Death” gets a reprise, but it’s slightly shorter and moderately less galvanizing. Where All the Way focuses upon how Galás turns diversity of influence into a sui generis gush, it’s counterpart’s rumination on a theme finds her expertly delivering a sustained mood while adapting an even wider swath of source material.

Opening the disc in full operatic bloom, “Verrá la morte e avrá tuoi occhi” features text by 20th century Italian poet-novelist Cesare Pavese. It’s followed by “Anoixe Petra,” its words by Lefteris Papadopoulos and its music by Mimis Plessas, as the record’s geography shifts to Greece. Perhaps it’s just knowledge of Galas’ ancestry (she was born to Greek Orthodox parents), but she exudes natural flow here that carries over into an unexpectedly approachable and operatically bluesy transformation of Albert Ayler’s “Angels.”

“O Death” falls between “Fernand” and “Amsterdam” by the great Belgian vocalist Jacques Brel, each with music credited to his accompanist Gérard Jouannest. These pieces, their chanson origins intact, illuminate Galás’ deftness at adapting to and refracting classic pop forms through her unique vision. Along with the treatment of Pavese, “Die Stunde Kommt,” which reaches back to the 19th century for words from German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, and closer “Artimis” from a poem by Frenchman Gérard de Nerval, all with music by Galás, spotlight her ability as an interpreter and composer.

At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem’s ties to literature make it a likely grower, but right now, on deadline, it’s the slightly lesser of the pair. All the Way is a haymaker, and Diamanda Galás remains an artist to be cherished.

All the Way

At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem

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