Monday, October 19, 2009

The four freaky octaves of Diamanda Galás

I first discovered Diamanda Galás some months ago when I was looking for a really, really gloomy recording of “Gloomy Sunday” – the notorious Hungarian Suicide song, perhaps made most famous by Billie Holiday, but covered since then by everyone from Björk to Ray Charles to Sarah Brightman. But no one seemed to invest the song with unbridled freaky horror as much as Diamanda Galás, pounding black chords out of the piano, and declaiming the song with her unmistakeable scary voice, growling away somewhere in the depths of the bass baritone register.

Today I bought her most recent album Guilty Guilty Guilty – a collection of seven songs, performed live with piano, with her massive four octave voice singing and snarling its way through some of the most powerfully dark blues you will ever hear. Her singing makes Nick Cave sound like Julie Andrews.

While everything on Guilty Guilty Guilty is unmistakeably the work of Diamanda Galás, we still see the incredible versatility of her craft here – the almost psychotic wailing that brings the audience to involuntarily shout its ecstatic approval in the middle of “8 Men and 4 Women”; the brooding blues of “Long Black Veil”; the way her voice screeches to ridiculous heights, after crawling through ridiculous depths, in “Down So Low”; a chilling, haunting lyricism in “Interlude (Time)”; the jazz like piano rhythms underpinning “Autumn Leaves” which, at Diamanda Galás’s fingers sound like skeleton bones dancing; the eerie, haunted, spooked out pleas of “Heaven Have Mercy”.

But the album’s greatest track, where we see the enormous range of mind-boggling, jaw-dropping, nerve-jangling things that Diamanda Galás’s voice can do, is surely the utterly nightmarish journey of “O Death”. Here her voice sometimes roams through long phrases of dark, hellish moans that seem to be coming to you, amplified, from the grave itself; sometimes it creeps through gruesome, ghoulish passageways of dark blues; sometimes it lets fly with manic blood-chilling screeches; and yet always, while it pushes music into regions to which it has never dared venture before, it never, ever loses its music.

Diamanda Galás looks and sounds pretty scary and even on this, one of her more accessible albums, she pushes music to some of its darkest limits – squeezing the soul out of every note, sells it to the devil, and turns everything into night. But the experience is incredible – and you are riveted, every bit as much as you horrified, by the sheer force and brilliance of her artistry.

Guilty Guilty Guilty is certainly not jolly music but, in its own macabre way, it is invigourating. I wouldn’t like to meet Diamanda Galás in a dark alley at night, but I would definitely like to have her music with me, just in case some thug should be there. I reckon it’d be a helluva lot better protection than a gun.


  1. Just a coincidence? I went shopping on Saturday and outside my local Safeway was an elderly busker accompanying himself on a battered guitar. (Echos of the later Blind Willie McTell??) As I arrived, he was singing 'Long Black Veil' - but with a boogie beat, which enabled him to segue effortlessly into 'Sunny Side of the Street'.

  2. Normally, Patrick, I'd agree with the coincidence hypothesis, but given that we have a Diamanda Galás element here, I reckon there's something much more sinister at play!!