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!

Links:

Advertisements

Nina Hagen

Nina Hagen

So it being Halloween and all, we were going to make some wacky costumed act our Weird Band of the Week. But then we were going through some old reader comments and a few different folks mentioned Nina Hagen and we said, “You know what? Other acts wear Halloween costumes. Nina Hagen is a Halloween costume.” People have been ripping off her unique style for decades, to the point where some of them (ahem, Lady Gaga) probably aren’t even aware of the original source. So for all you young’uns out there, let’s get acquainted with the so-called Mother of Punk, shall we?

Nina Hagen was born in 1955 in East Berlin, at the height of the Cold War. She was pegged very early in life as an opera prodigy, but she was more interested in pop music. After singing in a more traditional German pop band called Fritzens Dampferband (you can hear one of her early vocals here), she formed a “rock” band called Automobil in 1974. I put “rock” in quotation marks because this was one of their more rockin’ tracks:

The song title translates roughly to “You Forgot the Color Film” and the lyrics are basically all Nina Hagen berating her boyfriend on their vacation for, well, not bringing color film. Apparently it was interpreted at the time as a sly critique of the drabness of East Berlin. Yeah, life behind the Iron Curtain was not fun.

In 1976, she and her parents defected to West Germany, and that’s when the Nina Hagen we all know and love really began to blossom. Inspired by the nascent punk scene on a visit to London, Hagen formed the Nina Hagen Band and began playing a theatrical mix of punk, glam and progressive rock, all punctuated by her increasingly over-the-top, operatic vocals. The music was frankly not all that exciting, but Hagen was developing into an astonishing vocalist and live performer. Here, for example, is the Nina Hagen Band in 1979, performing a track called “Naturträne.” It’s basically one minute of song followed by three minutes of Nina wailing over a bunch of prog-rock noodling, but this woman could wail over a Yanni record and I’d still camp out for tickets.

By the end of ’79, the Nina Hagen Band had already broken up, as Hagen went off to explore wilder musical frontiers as a solo artist. Even in this 1980 clip of her covering “Ziggy Stardust” on Swedish television, the style and attitude she became famous for is pretty much all there: the crazy hair and eye makeup, crazier facial expressions, and positively batshit vocals.

In 1982, Hagen released her first solo album and first album sung entirely in English, NunSexMonkRock. Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds recently called it the post-punk era’s greatest “unsung masterpiece” and it’s hard to argue with him. From beginning to end, the record sounds like it was flown in from another planet, not exactly punk or glam or New Wave but somehow channeling all those forces into a totally original sound. The best-known track is an anti-heroin anthem called “Smack Jack,” which isn’t the weirdest thing on the album but which features a music video that has to be seen to be believed. Yes, that’s Nina in male cop drag. And Nina singing backup. And another Nina singing the other backup. It’s a Nina-palooza.

Hagen’s done plenty of other weird shit in the years since: One of the most amazingly ’80s videos of all time, “New York New York” (her only real hit here in the U.S.).  A Rammstein cover with the Finnish cello-rock band Apocalyptica, which is fitting since Till Lindemann stole many of his vocal affectations from Hagen. She released an album of Hindu devotional chants, with cover art featuring herself dressed up as the goddess Kali. She once told David Letterman about a UFO she saw over Malibu—actually, she told lots of people about UFOs. In more recent years, she’s recorded an album of big band standards, covered Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” and, sadly, lost much of her once-astonishing vocal range. She’s also become a devout Christian, which probably alienated some of her old punk fan base. But she remains as refreshingly kooky and totally original as ever.

We’ll leave you with one of Nina Hagen’s signature cover tunes. Sid Vicious may have punked up “My Way” first, but Nina’s version is untouchable, even after all these years.

P.S. Thanks to readers Singing Grass, Alex and Denny for reminding us to add Nina to the Weird List. Better late than never, right, guys?

Links:

Klaus Nomi

Today’s weird band…or rather, weird artiste…was suggested by a reader named Aaron, who notes that New Wave opera singer Klaus Nomi was “most defiantly a awesome weird guy.” True dat, Aaron! Even if you meant to say “definitely,” there was also something defiantly weird about Mr. Nomi, too.

Klaus Nomi was an opera-obsessed gay kid from Bavaria, which is sort of the German equivalent of being from Alabama. He moved to Berlin as a teenager to attend a music conservatory and work at the Deutsche Oper where, legend has it, he gave impromptu concerts for his fellow ushers while they were sweeping up after the shows. But he didn’t really fit in with either the Berlin opera community or the gay nightclub scene (which wasn’t used to drag queens singing arias), so like many of the world’s great freaks, he finally washed up in New York City. The year was 1972.

By 1978, Nomi was finally making a name for himself in the East Village art scene, performing arias in a melodramatic counter-tenor and even more melodramatic costumes, engulfed in smoke bombs and sci-fi sound effects. His reputation eventually caught the ear of David Bowie, who invited Nomi and one of his backup singers, Joey Arias, to perform with him on Saturday Night Live in 1979. You can watch clips of the performances over on this site, and marvel at how much tamer pop music is these days (yes, even you, Lady Gaga).

The SNL appearance changed Nomi’s life. Not only did he borrow the oversized plastic tuxedo look Bowie sported and make it his signature outfit, he also scored a record deal and released two albums, Klaus Nomi (1981) and Simple Man (1982), before his AIDS-related death in 1983. He was 39.

Nomi’s music was a bizarre and totally unique mix of original pop tunes done in a campy, New Wave style, avant-garde covers of oldies like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” and Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” and operatic pieces–his set closer was an aria from the 19th century French opera Samson and Delilah. You could call him a trail-blazer, but really, no one’s quite followed the trail he blazed. Everyone from Morrissey to Jean Paul Gaultier has acknowledged him as an influence, but really, there just ain’t that many pop/New Wave opera singers in the world. Klaus Nomi was probably a one-time deal.

Here’s a clip of him performing his most famous tune, “Nomi Song,” on French TV. Purists might prefer the original “Nomi Song” video, but the picture and sound quality are a little better on this version.

Links:

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine