Guilty Guilty Guilty
There is no more apt summation of the career of Diamanda Galas than the banshee wail of her voice ringing out accusatorially over two decades of our trivial milquetoast popular culture, ticking off the ugly truths of civilized man — AIDS, rape, genocide, man’s inhumanity to man. She has honed her demon voice into a blunt force weapon for the voiceless; so loud and so extreme that she cannot be ignored. I saw her ten years ago in Miami almost empty out a hall of unsuspecting civilians when she showed up stripped to the waist, covered in blood and began performing her Plague Mass with several microphones and nothing else.
The latest installment in Diamanda Galas’ exploration of traditional and popular songs — the term “covers album” applied to Galas seems both trite and woefully inadequate in describing what she does to these pieces of music — Guilty Guilty Guilty is perhaps the most powerfully performed and beautiful interpretive album yet, even outstripping seminal The Singer. While using the same basic setup, her voice and a piano, Galas makes it sound like veritable orchestras and choruses of the damned. Guilty is recorded live in front of an appreciative and, let’s face it, terrified audience. Diamanda, over twenty years into a singular “career” in the outer reaches of jazz, blues and improvisational noise, is in masterful form, her voice showing no signs of slowing down (and in no way is she coasting or cheating on any notes) and her piano playing is two-fisted and barrelhouse, while being nimble and quick-witted enough to follow her tornado of vocal possessions. Whoever engineered this record should be lauded, the sound is visceral and intimate and overwhelming all at once.
The third cover I’ve heard of “Long Black Veil” recently (the others being the Band and Gene Clark), Galas’ version trumps them all by dint of sheer power and conviction. The ringing and pounding piano chords that start off the song are full of darkness and menace. Using the bare bones of this country murder ballad, Galas recasts the song as a bluesy mournful belter, late-night juke joint regret from a woman scorned by death itself, Galas holds her voice in check and the whole thing is just starkly beautiful. And “Down So Low”? Those improvised operatic moans and pained cries of “I just can’t find another man to take your place.” This IS soul. Galas then turns “Time (Interlude)” — last popularized by the Siouxsie/Morrissey duet — into seductive, sultry tear-stained torch; it’s a great big fuck you to everyone who castigates Galas as a shock screamer. This gorgeous, smoldering performance could go toe to toe with any R&B diva right now and knock them the fuck out.
The most audacious cover on this album has to be her showstopping take on the Stanley Bros’ final lament “O Death” — last popularized on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack — delivered by Ralph Stanley as a sepulchral a capella lament. Galas utilized their spare Appalachian folk as a launchpad for showstopping theatrics and tonal experimentation. One moment it’s a weary talking blues, the next exotic Eastern intonations, the next choking screams, the next ancient half-spoken regrets, singing in tongues at a revival meeting, even a quickstep tempo change where Galas sounds like demons performing the Sound of Music The song itself breaks down into wordless, breathless vocal acrobatics and banshee wails testing the boundaries of lung capacity and the human ear, before a section of fiery gospel call-and-response and one last crash of the piano.
With nary a hint of slowing down or compromising in sight, Galas has released her newest album, and — for me at least, as an enthusiast of black metal — I had to have a good fucking long sit-down and think about what was really heavy and what was just playing at evil. God, what a night that must have been.
Mute Records: www.mute.com