Diamanda Galás is Now on Streaming
The first sign of trouble came when singer Diamanda Galás performed two shows in Mexico City in February 2010. “I played for an audience of 3,500 people and there was only one record they could find [in stores] near the capital,” she tells TIDAL. “I found out that I could not get hold of my back catalog, and nobody else could, either.”
Galás has been battling to get the rights to her masters back for seven years — and now that she’s got them, she’s embarking on a full-scale reissue campaign, beginning with streaming and digital sales and eventually proceeding to CDs and vinyl.
From 1986 to 2008, Galás’ music was released on the Mute label, home to acts like Depeche Mode, Erasure and Nitzer Ebb, as well as more fringe artists like Laibach and Einstürzende Neubauten. But thanks to corporate shuffling, her albums disappeared from stores and weren’t even available to stream — until now. As of May 3, Galás’ entire catalogue (save a 1984 self-titled album on the Metalanguage label, which will also be reissued soon) is streaming on TIDAL.
“I wanted them back because I wanted to be the one who determined my own fate, my own legacy — I didn’t want to give up all the work that I had done since 1982,” she says. “I mean, that’s ridiculous,” she adds.
Below, we delve into the musician’s newly released catalogue, which includes some of the most powerful and harrowing music on earth. Galás’s voice is uncanny, and she has an extraordinary range. She is capable of operatic and bel canto singing — and a stunning array of growls, hisses and breath sounds — and can inhabit blues, country and gospel songs, as well as jazz standards, with deep feeling and a unique take on soul. She uses that voice, and her formidable skills as a pianist, to honor and pay tribute to those less fortunate in the world, from AIDS patients to victims of genocide and those driven into exile by war. Dive in.
The Masque of the Red Death Trilogy
Galás’ best-known work is the Masque of the Red Death trilogy of albums. The first two volumes, The Divine Punishment and Saint of the Pit, were released in 1986; You Must Be Certain of the Devil appeared two years later.
In the 1980s, Galás’ music was inextricably tied to her AIDS activism. She has “WE ARE ALL HIV+” tattooed across the knuckles of her left hand, and in December 1989, she was one of 43 people arrested at an ACT-UP protest in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral – the largest protest against the Catholic Church in history at that time. Her brother, the playwright Philip-Dimitri Galás, had died of AIDS three years earlier, and the trilogy was her artistic response to the devastation wrought by the disease.
On The Divine Punishment’s 19-minute opening track, “Deliver Me from Mine Enemies,” Galás howls Old Testament verses about deciding who is “clean” and “unclean,” her searing voice laid over ominous electronic drones, the sampled roaring of a massive crowd, and booming, ritualistic percussion.
Where The Divine Punishment was an attack on unfeeling authority figures, Saint of the Pit spoke for the victims of the plague. The texts Galás interpreted included three 19th century French poems: Charles Baudelaire’s “L’Heautontimoroumenos (Self-Tormentor),” Gérard Nerval’s “Artémis” and Tristan Corbière’s “Cris d’Aveugle (Blind Man’s Cry),” all of which were favorites of her brother’s.
“I was grieving my brother when I chose those poems [for the album], and that work came together very rapidly,” she tells TIDAL. “So rapidly that it was my treatment, in a sense, because I had to go back soon after his death to the studio, because it had been reserved, in Berlin – Studio Hansa – and I had to continue the work.”
The third and final album, 1988’s You Must Be Certain of the Devil, was as furious as its two predecessors, but musically it was a bit more conventional. In addition to Galás’ piano, organ and synths, it featured guitar and drums on several tracks. The title piece is an unnervingly intense gospel number, while “Malediction” is industrial funk. She even made a video for the pulsing, electronic “Double-Barrel Prayer,” on which her upper-register ululations punctuate verses delivered in a guttural groan.
Although the governmental response to HIV and AIDS has improved in the U.S. and elsewhere since the 1980s, the issues she raised are far from resolved. “I do think that The Masque of the Red Death will definitely be referenced as an artwork of that period of the epidemic,” Galás says. But she adds, with imperial hauteur, “Whether it will interest new generations is not my concern.”
Beginning with 1992’s The Singer, Galás embarked on a new artistic path: that of interpreter. Over the last two decades, she has recorded multiple albums of jazz standards and country and blues songs, many on themes of death and romantic obsession; The Singer includes impassioned takes on “Gloomy Sunday,” Son House’s “See that My Grave is Kept Clean” and Otis Rush’s “My Love Will Never Die.”
Although she uses just voice, piano, and electronics live, Galás’ music remains technically challenging. “When I do sound checks they are really laborious, because I have to go into a different theater each time and that requires a three-hour sound check,” she says. “Tuning myself for the room, and adjusting the electronics — every single thing has to be readjusted for that room.”
She doesn’t bring her own piano on the road, of course, which makes her dependent on the instruments provided by the venues. Sometimes they’re great, and sometimes they’re not.
“I’m a pianist since five years old; I want a piano I can sink my teeth into,” she says. “I ask the engineer for no effects at all [at first]; I want to play it really dry and get a sense of what the piano’s going to give me and what it’s not. And it’s astonishing; you go into some of these gorgeous places and they’ve given you a Steinway, all the specs are right, and then you sit down and you realize that the piano has been in a dry, cold room, which has totally frozen the action. The pads are dead, they’re not spongy, so it’s like your fingers are playing bone against bone.”
The Singer exposed Galás in an entirely new light, but it did the same thing for the songs she chose. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” had been reduced to a goofy novelty number, but when she was finished with it, it was a terrifying imprecation from a lover one dared not spurn.
The 1990s & 2000s
In the mid-1990s, Galás released one of her most commercial albums — and two of her most harrowing. The Sporting Life was a collaboration with former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Elvis Costello’s longtime drummer, Pete Thomas. Cranking out powerhouse organ lines over churning blues-rock grooves, Galás cackles her way through gleefully macabre tales of romantic obsession, like “Do You Take This Man?”, “Baby’s Insane,” and “You’re Mine.”
By contrast, 1993’s Vena Cava and 1996’s Schrei X were as punishing as her work’ has ever gotten. Each is a solo vocal performance, using multi-tracking and electronics to create the impression of being trapped inside the mind of a madwoman, or inside a torture chamber with a screaming victim. Galás performed Schrei X in total darkness, shrieking at the uppermost limits of her range, seemingly intent on terrifying — if not traumatizing — the audience.
Continuing her exploration of other songwriters’ material, she released two live albums, Malediction and Prayer and La Serpenta Canta, in 1998 and 2003. On each, she delivered chilling re-examinations of pop hits, notably the Supremes’ “My World is Empty without You.” Her voice ducks and dives seamlessly from a soft croon to a low, declamatory growl to a long, vibrato-soaked cry, as she strikes the piano with precise, controlled force.
Her most recent album of new compositions, Defixiones – Will and Testament, was also released in 2003. Dedicated to the victims of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides, all of which took place between 1914 and 1923 and are frequently overlooked by history, it included poems by writers from around the world, set to music by Galás. She also wrote lyrics for two pieces, “Birds of Death” and “Orders from the Dead.”
The latter struck a chord with the Greek metal band Rotting Christ, who were in the process of embracing their cultural heritage on their 2010 album AEALO. They reached out to Galás, asking to include a version of “Orders from the Dead.” What emerged was somewhere between a cover and a remix; they added crunching guitars, pounding drums, and a four-woman chorus to her original vocal from Defixiones. “I gave them permission to use the lead line of what I was saying and my voice, and then to do what they wanted,” she recalls. “I liked what I heard [of their music], and I thought, ‘Yeah.’”
The Present & the Future
In 2018, Galás released two albums, the half-studio/half-live All the Way and At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem, which documents a 2017 concert. “I have done a lot of music that’s not on record,” she says, dismissing what could look from the outside like a lost decade between her final Mute release, 2008’s Guilty Guilty Guilty, and her 2018 albums.
“I would send the material [to Mute and say] ‘Here’s the next record,’ and suddenly, they weren’t recording my music, and they weren’t doing anything, and a lot of people noticed that. There’s a lot of work using Turkish poets, Greek poets, French poets…I have live recordings, but they haven’t been mastered.”
So, Galás has new projects in the pipeline — for several years, she has been shaping a multimedia piece, Das Fieberspital (The Fever Hospital), based on a Georg Heym poem about patients with yellow fever — and she continues to be a fearsome live force. Until her next dispatch from the pit, then, dive deep into the work of one of the most intense and uncompromising artists of our time.
TIDAL is proud to announce the world's first music service with High Fidelity sound quality, High Definition music videos and expertly curated Editorial.