Weird Band of the Week: Diamanda Galás

diamanda_galas_photo_by_austin_young

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!

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Weird of the Day: Teatr Dada, “Das Produkt”

Teatr Yada

A reader from Russia named Lianna sent us this amazing animated video for a song called “Das Produkt” by the Russian Goth/industrial band Teatr Yada, whose name translates to ‘Theater of Poison.” We couldn’t find much information about them, but apparently their lead singer Yan Nikitin died of a drug overdose a couple of years ago. Which is too bad, because based on “Das Produkt” and a few live clips floating around YouTube, he was a talented singer and his band had an arrestingly creepy sound.

Besides the music, the other star of “Das Produkt,” obviously, is the animation, which is the work of a very talented Russian artist/filmmaker called Kol-Belov. If you have an hour to kill, we highly recommend deep-diving into his website.

Sopor Aeternus and the Ensemble of Shadows

Sopor Aeternus

This week’s weird artiste makes most other so-called Goth bands look like posers by comparison. Anna-Varney Cantodea is so Goth she never performs “in front of humans,” preferring instead to save her striking, vampire/Butoh appearance for eerie photo shoots and the occasional blurry music video that flickers like a faded silent movie print. Her music is so Goth it defies easy categorization, mixing neoclassical, darkwave and synth-rock elements into long, lugubrious songs that occasionally erupt into densely orchestrated bursts of melodrama that would do Danny Elfman proud. She’s so Goth that her “band,” the Ensemble of Shadows, is apparently her nickname for the ghosts and restless spirits who crowd around her and provide inspiration for her work. Sopor Æternus is, in short, probably the Gothiest musical project ever.

Anna-Varney was born male and now identifies as a transgendered female. She took the name Varney from a 19th century Gothic horror novel, later adding the more feminine Anna and eventually the surname Cantodea, Latin for “I sing, Goddess.” She grew up in Frankfurt, Germany and her birth year is commonly listed as 1952, which would make her 61 or 62.

As a child, she had a vision of her future self in a train station, which she described thusly in an interview: “an ageless creature (of undefinable gender), all dressed in black, with a beautiful, kind of pennate black mohawk.”  By 1989, the year she first began making music as Sopor Æternus (Latin for “eternal sleep”), she had apparently modeled her appearance on that childhood vision.

Her early music mixed baroque and neoclassical acoustic instruments with synthesizers and drum machines and was generally categorized as darkwave or a then-popular German Goth-rock subgenre called Neue Deutsche Todeskunst (“New German Death Art”). But aside from sharing themes of death, despair and the occult, especially vampirism, Cantodea’s music bore little resemblance to that of her contemporaries. After parting ways with an early collaborator named Holger, she worked, by her own account, in near-total isolation, battling chronic depression to compose her music and only enlisting other musicians when it finally came time to enter the studio. She’s continued to make occasional use of synths, but mostly her work now is richly orchestrated chamber music, heavy on strings, horns and more exotic instruments like dulcimers and harpsichords.

Since releasing her debut album, …Ich töte mich…, in 1994, Anna-Varney has released about a dozen Sopor Æternus albums, plus EPs, singles, remix collections and a box set of rarities and demos. Many of her releases come in elaborate, limited-edition packages, accompanied by books of lyrics, stories and photographs—if you search “Sopor Aeternus unboxing” on YouTube, you’ll find at least a dozen videos of fans lovingly removing the shrink wrap from their prized copies of her work. Her latest album, Mitternacht: The Dark Night of the Soul, is due out Sept. 23rd and can already be pre-ordered in one of four different packages, offering various combinations of books, CDs, vinyl and T-shirts.

Anna-Varney remains fairly secretive about her personal life, but she does regularly advocate LGBT causes, veganism and animal rights. She’s really into numerology, specifically the numbers 2, 11, 13 and 4, although she won’t explain what they represent to her. She also won’t explain her interest the Roman gods Saturn and Jupiter—she uses a combination of their astrological symbols as a glyph she calls Jusa on all her records, and they appear frequently in her lyrics (especially Saturn), but it’s unclear whether she feels a spiritual connection to them or simply finds them useful as metaphors for death and rebirth.

She’s a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe (having set many of his poems to music, including an entire album’s worth of them on 2013’s Poetica: All Beauty Sleeps) and Rozz Williams, the lead singer of the goth-rock band Christian Death, who took his own life in 1998. In fact, she just visited Williams’ shrine at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery here in L.A. earlier this year. She wrote a blog post about it in which she mostly talks about how much she hated L.A., which I guess shouldn’t surprise me, since everything about her music and appearance pre-dates nearly every aspect of this entire city. Still, I hope next time she’s here she’ll come for Dia de los Muertos, or visit the California Institute of Abnormalarts, or the Museum of Jurassic Technology. L.A.’s a great city for Goths, if you know where to look. But I digress…

We’ll leave you with a few samples of Sopor Æternus’ Goth-tastic music and videos. First up: 2010’s “A Strange Thing to Say,” the first part of her A Triptychon of GHOSTS (or: El Sexorcismo) trilogy. Much of this video was shot in, of all places, Montana, at a ghost town called Bannack. The carousel is in the decidedly non-ghostly Montana town of Missoula, where we can only imagine the townspeople were really confused to see a woman dressed up like Gary Oldman’s Dracula riding the plastic ponies.

Next: “In der Palästra” from 2007’s Les Fleurs du Mal, probably her most famous release. Incidentally, in case you haven’t guessed by now, the warning at the beginning of many of her videos advising that “it’s naturally fabulous, but shows NO signs of humour” is itself a bit of a joke. Many of Sopor Æternus’ best songs and videos have a definite element of camp to them.

Still don’t believe us that some of this stuff is supposed to be funny? Fine, we’ll leave you with “A Little Bar of Soap.” Slippy, slippy, slimy!

We owe thanks to many readers for helping introduce us to the tragic charms of Sopor Æternus: Andres, Rembrandt, Michael from Mexico, Cr0w, Denny, jeanbannon and I’m sure we’re forgetting a few. For someone who never performs live, Anna-Varney has quite the legion of devoted fans.

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Weird of the Day: Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows, “It Is Safe to Sleep Alone”

Sopor Aeternus

Sopor Aeternus (Latin for “eternal sleep”) & the Ensemble of Shadows is a one-woman Goth/darkwave band from Germany led by Anna-Varney Cantodea, who may be the world’s most theatrical performer who doesn’t perform live. She’s released several videos in which she crawls and staggers through dimly lit, claustrophobic spaces, looking androgynous and vampiric as she keens her Dead Can Dance/Bauhaus-inspired songs of darkness and doom. But she never does concerts.

“Singing is a very intimate thing,” the transgendered Cantodea explains on her website. “The mere thought of repeating what I created in the seclusion of the studio on a stage in front of people is not only ridiculous…it is almost a perversion.”

So if you want to experience a Sopor Aeternus show, you’ll have to settle for lighting a bunch of candles and projecting this video onto a dirty bedsheet. Just remember that the act you’ll be committing will be almost a perversion. Although if you’re really into Sopor Aeternus, you’re probably cool with that.

Did you recognize that song as a Marianne Faithfull cover? Then bonus points to you, my friend.

Many thanks for reader Andres for introducing us to the amazing Ms. Cantodea. If you want to hear and see more, hit up Sopor Aeternus’s Bandcamp page or YouTube channel. You can also find most of the Sopor Aeternus catalog (perversely) on Amazon.com.

Santa Hates You

Santa Hates You

Just to clear up any possible confusion: No, this week’s weird band has nothing to do with Christmas or Santa Claus. Their name is merely a statement of fact because, let’s face it, Santa has never actually given you shit. Spoiler alert: It was your parents the whole time!

Now that we’ve cleared that up: Santa Hates You is a self-described “dark electro” duo from Germany who make industrial-tinged dance music accompanied by goofy/creepy/sexy videos that we can’t seem to stop watching. The goofy part comes from Peter “PS” Spilles, a German singer/producer also known for his electro-industrial group Project Pitchfork. The sexy part comes from Jinxy, an Italian singer about whom we know very little, except that she looks great in red vinyl. They both get in on the creepy part. (Actually, Jinxy gets a little goofy sometimes, too, and I suppose Spilles might be sexy if you’re into cigar-chomping German guys in evil clown makeup.)

Santa Hates You’s graver (goth + raver—yes, that’s actually a thing) music isn’t actually all that weird—honestly, we mostly picked them this week because Christmas falls on a “Weird Wednesday” and they have Santa right there in their name—but they bring a twisted sense of humor to everything they do that’s definitely unique. How many other electro-industrial bands can you name who’ve released a pirate-themed album? With track titles like “Watch Out Motherfucker, I Know Karate“? You can’t, because there aren’t any. Santa Hates You has cornered the market on pirate karate goth electro tracks.

But it’s in their videos that Santa Hates You’s weirdness really shines through—especially thanks to Spilles, who mugs his way through them all like some kind of demented mix of Rammstein‘s Till Lindemann, the Tiger Lillies‘ Martyn Jacques, and Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s hysterical, in every sense of the word. And yeah, Jinxy’s pretty great, too. And not just because she looks amazing in vinyl. She, too, sells the whole goth/industrial “I’m so evil. And sexy. But mostly EVIL!” thing with a giggle and a wink.

SHY’s latest album, released last year, is called It’s ALIVE! and trades in the pirate theme for more of a classic monster-movie motif. But it’s not all reanimated corpses and vampires. Some of the monsters PS and Jinxy take on are just the religious hypocrites and raging dickheads who watch too much Fox News. Merry Christmas, you fucking scum!

P.S. We almost forgot to give a shout-out to reader Emily Brown for recommending that we plunge into the electro-goth funhouse that is the Santa Hates You oeuvre. Thanks for the early Christmas present, Emily! We love you, even if Santa doesn’t.

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Dvar

Dvar

This week’s band is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a bunch of untranslated Russian websites. Meet Dvar, a Russian Goth/darkwave/synth-rock band whose music allegedly has the power to ruin people’s lives. Which we hope isn’t actually true, because we’ve been cranking it all evening. So far the cats are all still alive and no inanimate objects have attacked us. But consider yourself warned.

Dvar (not to be confused with Dwarr, another evil-sounding band shrouded in mystery) is probably a duo from Moscow, but that intel is based solely on a single grainy piece of record artwork (seen above) and the fact that their self-released early material seems mostly to have circulated in the Russian capital. They’ve been active since the mid-’90s, but didn’t really begin to attract much of an audience until 2002, when they got some international distribution through an Italian industrial/ambient label called Radio Luxor S.P.K.R. Their first album for Radio Luxor, Piirrah, is hard to listen to alone. Full of ominous, droning synths and strangled vocals allegedly sung in an ancient occult language called Enochian, it sounds like party music for some cave-dwelling race of gibbering, subhuman troglodytes. No, scratch that—if those cave-dwelling troglodytes spawned a generation of disaffected youth who took to piercing their snouts and sewing metal studs into their loincloths, it would be party music for those kids.

The creators of this creepy shit claim that they don’t actually come up with it themselves. Instead, it is transmitted to them in their dreams by a creature called Dvar, an angel or demon or possibly both, who takes the form of a giant bee. (Bees figure prominently in most of the band’s album artwork.)

Over the years, Dvar’s music has evolved away from its Goth/darkwave beginnings to encompass everything from quirky 8-bit to quasi-reggaeton to, most recently, avant-minimalist compositions played out on unlikely mixes of synths and what sound like medieval instruments, as if Philip Glass and the guys from Sparks were co-leading a troupe of wandering cyberpunk minstrels. The only constant has been those weird, strangled, Enochian vocals, which even over some jaunty chiptune circus pop kind of sound like they’re being delivered by someone or something on the verge of ripping out your esophagus because it thinks you stole its “precious.”

At some point, either the band or one of their labels began calling their new sound “lightwave.” They also began to be represented on their album covers as Gorillaz-style cartoon characters (complete with bee antennae, naturally), but fortunately they seem to have since dropped this gimmick. On their most recent release, the double album Deii, they’ve taken the much more tasteful route of using Renaissance paintings as album art. Renaissance paintings with bees in them, I might add. Yeah, these guys really like bees.

The origin of the word “Dvar,” incidentally, is a matter of some debate, even among the band members themselves. In one of their few interviews (and the only one, as far as we can tell, that’s ever been translated into English), a Russian journalist asked them if it bore any relation to the Hebrew word “Dvar,” meaning “word” or “thing,” and more specifically to the Hebrew phrase “Dvar Torah,” which translates roughly to “sermon.” This was the answer they gave:

It doesn’t have any connections with Dvar Torah, but all the coincidences evidently are nonrandom, if say more exactly, Dvar Torah means “penetration.” And we already feel this penetration.

Elsewhere in the same interview the Dvar guys says stuff like, “Ignoramus, juggles a saber, can leave himself without hands.” So maybe Dvar speaks to them through the medium of fortune cookies.

Oh, about that whole life-ruining thing: Dvar’s biggest online fan, a Russian Goth dude called (of course) Shadow Angel, claims that within just a few weeks of first hearing an early, self-released Dvar album called Raii, his dog, grandmother and best friend all died tragically. “The strange thing,” Shadow Angel wrote in a review of the album, “while my nearest and dearest ones were gone, Dvar became closer to me”:

Their melodies dyed with new colours and hidden tunes arose from the depths. I started to worship them, while my health started to fade. I lost my immunity and now I can catch almost every disease.

Shadow Angel’s response to all this was, of course, to build the Dvar unofficial homepage, which apart from a Bandcamp page is pretty much Dvar’s only English-language presence on the web. Remember, bands: Afflict a Goth with pain and tragedy and you’ve made a fan for life.

Because we’re a blog about weird bands, we’re obligated to mention the weirdest and most random factoid about Dvar: At some point, some genius (possibly someone at Rolling Stone) started the rumor that Dvar was the secret side project of Michael Jackson. The other, more plausible rumor is that they’re a side project of one of these guys.

As far as we can tell, Dvar have never released any official music videos. (They never perform live, either.) But there are a handful of cool fan-made videos of YouTube, most of which are the work of a superfan called freakrobot99. This clip is fairly typical of his creepy yet amusing output.

This is less typical of both freakrobot99 and Dvar, but it’s too fantastic not to share. Apparently it’s a parody/remix of this near-forgotten piece of YouTube detritus, which was a viral video campaign about the disappearance of honey bees launched by, of all things, Häagen-Dazs. I love bees and ice cream as much as the next sucrose consumer, but I still think I prefer the Dvar version.

P.S. Thanks to reader Robert for suggesting these guys.

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