Many of the artists we write about here on TWBITW are hiding in plain sight, as it were. They’re so famous or critically acclaimed or both that it’s easy to overlook how genuinely, groundbreakingly bizarre they are. Such is the case with the brilliant, mercurial, occasionally terrifying singer/pianist Diamanda Galás, who for nearly 40 years has been doing for the human voice what artists like Whitehouse and Aphex Twin do for synthesizers, stretching it almost beyond recognition and testing the outer limits of music (and some listeners’ tolerance) in the process.
Right from the start, Galás announced herself as an avant-garde force. Her 1982 debut album, The Litanies of Satan, featured a 17-minute title track based on the writings of Charles Baudelaire that was full of electronic distortion and eerily pitch-shifted vocals, as well as an even more astonishing track called “Wild Women with Steak-Knives (The Homicidal Love Song for Solo Scream)” on which Galás shrieked and gibbered with such demonic intensity — this time without any electronic embellishments — it was hard to believe the sounds were human:
The maker of those otherworldly sounds grew up in San Diego, which seems like an improbable point of origin but has long been an unlikely hotbed of weird music (see also: The Locust, Author and Punisher). She trained not as a singer, but as a pianist, and was a prodigy on the instrument — by age 14, she was performing Beethoven with the San Diego Symphony. She also performed with her father’s band, playing Greek and Arabic music — which must have influenced her ululating singing style, although her strictly religious Greek Orthodox parents discouraged her from singing because they considered it vulgar. It wasn’t until she went away to college that she discovered her unbelievable vocal range and got some opera training, which led to her first public singing performance in France in 1979, playing the role of a torture victim in an opera called Un Jour Comme un Autre (A Day Like Any Other).
It’s tempting to say that Galás has been playing the role of torture victim ever since, but less flippant and more accurate to say that she uses her remarkable voice to express human suffering in all its bleakly variegated forms. Her work in the late ’80s and early ’90s addressed the AIDS epidemic — which claimed her brother, playwright Philip-Dimitri Galás, in 1986. She based a 2004 piece called Defixiones, Will and Testament on the works of exiled poets and dedicated it to victims of the Armenian, Assyrian and Anatolian Greek genocides that occurred under the Ottoman Empire. Throughout her career, she has frequently returned to American blues and gospel standards, like “Let My People Go,” that are rooted in the African-American experience of slavery, segregation and racism (she’s cited Nina Simone as an influence, or at least a source of inspiration). “I’m doing music for people who are conscious and who suffer deeply,” she once said.
For all her avant-garde tendencies, Galás has had more than a few brushes with mainstream fame. She had a full-on MTV moment in 1988 with “Double Barrel Prayer,” a song from You Must Be Certain of the Devil, the third part of her AIDS-themed trilogy of albums, collectively called Masque of Red Death. I’m not sure how much this video for “Double Barrel Prayer” actually got played on MTV, but I like to think its operatic banshee wails and Carrie-like bloodbath climax blew a few minds in Middle America. Unless it was banned, which come to think of it seems likelier.
In 1994, Galás teamed up with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on an album called The Sporting Life, a collaboration that makes no sense on paper but actually resulted in a fairly awesome set of Middle Eastern-tinged rock stompers with Galás wailing and declaiming like the wild-child offspring of Grace Jones and Robert Plant. It also resulted in one of my favorite early ’90s cultural artifacts — this appearance by Galás and Jones on The Jon Stewart Show, a short-lived late-night MTV talk show hosted by the babyfaced future genius of political comedy. Despite the terrible audio, you can still hear how insanely hard Galás brought it with her incantatory vocals.
After The Sporting Life, Galás continued to tour and perform and occasionally release new music via live performance, apparently preferring that to the confines of the recording studio. She’s grown especially interested in performing in total darkness because, as she put it in one interview, “the visual world is much easier to access than the sonic world” — in other words, much like electronic experimentalists Autechre, she finds her audience can better commune with her challenging music when freed from any visual distractions. Her first such performance, Shrei x, took place in 1996 and was released as a live album; more recently, she performed a new work-in-progress called Espergesia in the darkness of a mausoleum in Oslo, the first of what she hopes will be “a series of performances of the work in highly reverberant sacred spaces.”
Although Galás is about as sui generis as they come, it’s fascinating to trace her own influences, which include such varied sources as Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, flamenco music, the lamentational amanedes singing style of Greece and Western Anatolia, horror film soundtracks, Greek-Romanian avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis, Arthur Brown, Peggy Lee and Chaka Khan. (She enumerated these and other influences once in a great list for Pitchfork.) And she in turn has influenced several generations of boundary-pushing singers, including Mike Patton (whom she despises), Björk, Anohni and Zola Jesus.
Last year, Galás released her latest album, All the Way, a hodgepodge collection of traditional songs and jazz standards, some recorded live and some in the studio, all split open by her swooping, melodramatic vocals and probing, expressionistic piano: “All the Way,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Round Midnight.” The whole album is amazing and almost hallucinatory in the way it twists familiar fragments of lyric and melody into alien contours, but I’ll leave you with what I think is the kill shot — an astonishing, 11-minute transmogrification of “O Death,” the folk song popularized in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? “O Death” is an unnerving song even in its most innocuous renderings, but Galás sings it like she’s trying to shatter the barrier between this world and the next. (In an interview with Rolling Stone, she described her “O Death” performance way better than I ever could; it’s well worth a read. “When I finished that performance, there was blood all over the keyboard,” she says at one point. “I couldn’t imagine why. What I had done is I had broken my nails, all of them, when I was playing. And I never enjoyed a performance so much in my life.”)
P.S. Many, many readers have suggested we add Diamanda to the Weird List over the years, but we have to give a special shoutout to readers Daniel and vvaspss for suggesting her almost simultaneously earlier this week. Weird minds think alike!