Radical Southern California avant-garde diva Galás, the caterwauling post-opera vocalist, keyboardist, composer and political activist capable of the most unnerving vocal terror this side of grindcore movies, first unleashed herself on The Litanies of Satan, not a heavy-metal prayer but rather a vocal adaptation of a poem by Charles Baudelaire. Using many electronic modifications (many learned during her working with such exemplary contemporary composers as Iannis Xenakis), Galás created a disturbing and provocative piece that was almost topped by the composition on the album’s second side, the amusingly titled but harrowing “Wild Women With Steak-Knives (The Homicidal Love Song for Solo Scream)” — an endurance-defying unaccompanied demonstration of hideous vocal noises.
Besides showcasing her astonishing voice and real knowledge of electronic manipulation, the two pieces on Diamanda Galás display her social conscience: “Panoptikon” is based on Jeremy Bentham’s 1843 proposal for a prison where the inmates could be kept under constant observation by unseen captors, while “Tragouthia Apo to Aima Exoun Fonos” translates from the Greek as “Song From the Blood of Those Murdered.”
Desperate times lead to desperate actions. The Divine Punishment, Saint of the Pit and You Must Be Certain of the Devil comprise Masque of the Red Death, “the plague mass,” Galás’ strident but striking response to AIDS, sparked by her brother’s 1986 death.
The Divine Punishment is a collection of somehow appropriate Old Testament quotes delivered — in everything from a glass-breaking soprano to an urgent whisper to a depraved shriek to a wicked multi-voiced regurgo rumble — over droning synthesizer music with jarring sonic effects. The more operatic Saint of the Pit sets French decadent poetry (by Baudelaire, Nerval and Corbière) into wild vocal excursions, accompanied by keyboards that vary from subtle atmospherics to melodramatic horror-movie organ. Galás’ astonishingly varied singing styles and the hypnotic effect of the record’s three claustrophobic, obsessive pieces makes Saint of the Pit a powerful document of suffering.
Completing the trilogy on a conceptual high note, Galás fills You Must Be Certain of the Devil with lyrically specific (mostly) original songs, played with backing musicians. The record gets off to a bracing start with a unique a cappella interpretation of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and continues in an unassuming electro-rock vein as Galás warbles, sometimes singing counterpoint with herself in multi-track arrangements, using voice as both a percussion and melodic instrument. The audio intimacy here exaggerates emotional intensity beyond legal limits.
After completing her Masque of the Red Death trilogy, Galás saw to the collective repackaging of all three harrowing albums of shriek. The Divine Punishment and Saint of the Pit are contained on one CD; the limited edition two-CD Masque of the Red Death Trilogy is a complete set of all three albums. She then recorded a sepulchral, breathtakingly dramatic and, in the best possible sense, appalling live album, Plague Mass, at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine and began laying the groundwork for a new creative phase in the ’90s.
The Singer finds Galás, a Greek-American born in San Diego, injecting herself into the rootsy fringes of popular music via some of the same spirituals (“Let My People Go,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”) she incorporated into the trilogy. Following the traditional pathway of gospel into the blues, she reworks classic material of long-forgotten authorship (“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” which gets a fairly straightforward reading over skittish churchlike organ) as well as more recent creations by Willie Dixon (“Insane Asylum”), Mike Bloomfield (“Reap What You Sow”) and, in a provocative creative leap, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Accompanying herself on skilled stride piano, she attacks “I Put a Spell on You” like a jazzwoman possessed, tearing it apart, reassembling pieces to her own ear-curdling specifications and generally casting off demons in furious flights of vocal invention. Launching her high-wire act from once-familiar terrain makes Galás’ work more accessible; the singer is still a highly challenging prospect (we’re not talking some Ella Fitzgerald wanna-be on a creative bender here), but The Singer occasionally brings her into a less eccentric orbit.
Don’t take the admonition to play Vena Cava “at maximum volume only” seriously — the a cappella undertaking can be plenty stressful at minimal sound pressures. Speaking, singing spirituals (a nervously vibrating but lovely “Amazing Grace”), seasonals (“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”) and even the polka classic “In Heaven There Is No Beer,” rambling, reciting, trying on Southern accents, choking, preaching and occasionally (especially in one piece’s room-clearing opener) launching aerial missiles of unredeemed screeching, Galás makes Courtney Love’s worst excesses on Live Through This sound like a tender lullaby. There’s fine art at the heart of this album (like the trilogy, largely inspired by the life and death of her brother, Philip-Dimitri Galás) but getting to it through the razor-tipped underbrush can be too daunting a challenge.
Fortunately for pretentious wimps desperate to find a Diamanda Galás album they could honestly claim to have made it all the way through, she made it easy (well, easier) with The Sporting Life. In a shockingly productive collaboration with ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones (who, for a smidge of out-there shooting practice, produced a Butthole Surfers album the previous year), she sets her wildwoman voices, throat-grabbing lyrics and some sublime organ playing in the context of a rock-solid rhythm section (Pete Thomas of the Attractions does drum duties). The bottom-heavy setting renders Galás’ birdcage squalling more palatable and gives her safe passage for a unique approach to street-level considerations. Whether reining herself in for the dramatic “Do You Take This Man?” and the barrelhouse balladry of “Baby’s Insane,” spewing sinuous melodies in “Tony,” finding a potent reformulation for Dan Penn’s back-door soul classic “Dark End of the Street” or making a riotous B-movie out of threatened girl-gang violence (“The Sporting Life”), Galás — who is a mighty, if bizarre, blues singer when she set her gears to it — balances unfettered expression with the intrinsically rowdy power of swinging electric music to produce her most stimulating and broadly appealing work yet.