The Quietus | Features | album of the week
Thirteen seconds later Broken Gargoyles, Diamanda Galás begins to sing. It’s a note that hovers above a rough background drone, a single frequency frayed at the edges like a crow whose feathers are missing from its wing. It’s joined by other vocal sounds, all similarly fractured, a chorus of noises that are just on the good side (or bad, depending on your constitution) of comfort. Other drones appear. There is a crash. Two minutes and a little later, a metallic ping. The ceremony begins.
There is simply no music like that of Diamanda Galás. Nothing I’ve heard has such a specific movement ability. Upon encountering his infrequent concerts, I entered a trance state without chemical or alcoholic help, felt my body begin to shake involuntarily, burst into tears. When she performed the songs of Jacques Brel at the Barbican a few years ago, she stripped down the joyful bonhomie and exposed their core – the grotesque sexuality, the broken drunkards, the untold humanity.
Even listening to the twelfth album Broken Gargoyles for the first time, with headphones in the calm of a library, placed me in a curious and exacerbated emotional state. A Japanese martial arts expert once told Galás that his voice had a “deadly energy”. The electronic music people are spending thousands of pounds on modular synths, music editing software, monochrome tattoos and Rick Owens clothes to try and make music that sounds as dreadful as this- this. All fail. Some even go to the trouble of acquiring or channeling doctorates in cultural theory to enable them to write nonsensical press releases to justify their emotionless mithering. It is a practice (it is certainly a practice) a learned friend calls it “CV inflation”. Even these are doomed.
Because what they neglect, and what Diamanda Galás has in every note of the music she produces, is soul. No matter how wide the range she is able to occupy with her sui generis vocal ability, no matter how, seven minutes and a bit into ‘Mutiliatus’ she is able to sound like hellish beings se spilling out of a manhole cover into the third circle of hell, there is always a beautiful humanity to his music. She understands, as so few do, that to dive deep into human emotion is also to see the heights, to reach the transcendent, to retain in an instant the death and bloody energy of our bodies.
This is of course often misunderstood. When I first saw Galás play at the Southbank Centre, someone I was with refused to believe that all the sound was coming from a single, unmanipulated human voice. On stage, she raised an eyebrow and commented that a reporter from the Thread magazine dubbed her the “Goth Shirley Bassey.” “They’re wrong,” Galás said, “Shirley Bassey is a goth”. When I interviewed her, around the same time, she laughed and said, “Diva now means any pussy with an attitude that decides to do anything”.
I think it’s this essential and sublime humanity that lies in his voice that allows Galás to explore subjects that would be beyond the reach of most artists, for whom exploring them might seem left or in bad taste. In the 1980s, Galás published divine punishment, saint of the pit and You must be certain of the devil, the so-called Mask of the Red Death trilogy of albums that turned the shameful language of Leviticus into a weapon of rage to turn against the judgment of the AIDS crisis that had claimed his own brother’s life. She was also arrested for participating in ACT-UP protests. Other subjects of his work have been the Armenian Genocide, schitzophrenia and the poetry of exile. On Broken gargoyles, Galás vocalizes the words of the German poet Georg Heym, who at the beginning of the 20th century wrote verses about the suffering of soldiers in the trenches of the First World War. The title of the album is also inspired by the conflict of 1914 to 1918, referring to photographs taken by Ernst Friedrich of the faces of soldiers brutalized by shrapnel and bullets.
With that in mind, I look at this page and feel like my lines about crows and “hellish beings” seem trivial. All sorts of gothic superlatives could be deployed in the review of this astonishing record, but this not only belittles the music, but also makes it feel like a slight interpretation of the embodiment – or perhaps disembodiment – of the trauma of a conflict that not only spiritually haunts our lives a century later, but in the geopolitical turmoil is very present. Suffice to say that this disc is built around the piano, the violin, the guitar, the underground electronics and above all the astonishing voice of Galás. The sounds it is able to create, the frequencies it not only visits but inhabits, make it an amazing work of war art, an incantation for the psychologically traumatized and physically brutalized.
Broken Gargoyles makes most contemporary black metal, edgelord power electronics, or moans exploring femininity through sorcery (there’s a lot of Fisher Price Diamandas out there right now) sound like they’re auditioning for a part in a local production of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Diamanda Galás has produced not only one of his finest works, but a record that equals and arguably surpasses other records that have the ability to swallow you whole and spit you out that have been released over the last decade or so – Sunn O)) ) Monoliths & Dimensionsby Scott Walker Bish Bosch, for example. No other new record you’ll hear in 2022 so beautifully explores the limits of what the human voice is capable of, and the stories it is capable of bringing to life in doing so. A masterpiece.