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Diamanda Galás, "In Concert"

In ConcertAs far as I can tell, this is probably Diamanda Galás's tenth live album to date and it documents a pair of 2017 performances in Chicago and Seattle (Galás's previous live album, At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem, dates from the previous year). For the uninitiated, that probably sounds like an excessive number of live albums, but the improvisatory nature of Diamanda's art ensures that every single live performance is a truly singular event. Of course, actually experiencing Diamanda Galás live (an essential experience) is not quite the same as hearing a recording of the performance, much like watching a professionally shot video of a burning house is not quite the same as actually being inside one. That said, it is still a wild and compelling experience nonetheless and the lines between studio albums and live albums are increasingly academic given her volcanic spontaneity and preference for single-take recordings. The similarities to jazz do not end there, however, as Diamanda Galás in Concert is devoted to radical piano-and-voice interpretations of an eclectic and fascinating array of unconventional standards.

Intravenal Sound Operations

I recently saw someone suggest that Diamanda Galás "has felt the pain and suffering of the entire world her whole life" and it unexpectedly stuck with me. Regardless of whether that statement is actually true, it occurred to me that Galás is somewhat akin to a cross between a sin-eater and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but instead of allowing guilty souls to finally rest in peace, she just screams humanity's ugly sins right back in our collective faces with harrowing intensity. The most obvious illustration of that dynamic is Galás's undiminished rage and sadness over the cruelty of how the world handled the AIDS epidemic, but she has plenty of similarly strong feelings about oppression and genocide too and that comes through even in her choice of cover songs (though "cover" is a hopelessly inadequate term for any song reshaped by Diamanda Galás). In keeping with that theme, Diamanda describes four of the songs included here as being "for and by the forsaken, outcast and debased," while the remaining three tackle yet another familiar theme: the dark side of love. That said, the stylistic breadth of her source material covers an impressively wide swath of both time and space, as she gamely finds and celebrates the connective tissue that runs through "rembetika, soul, ranchera, country and free jazz" (and even that is hardly a comprehensive list of all of the various cultural threads that Diamanda Galás In Concert touches upon).

Characteristically, Galás selected several pieces with deep personal meaning and interesting histories for the album. For example, "La Llona" is ostensibly a traditional Mexican song, as Galás grew up near the Mexican border in southern California and heard "corridos, ranchera, and ballades daily." However, Diamanda also notes that she departed from the original by incorporating Byzantine scales and a healthy influence from Spanish cante jondo singers like Manuel Agujetas. Elsewhere, "O Prósfigas" references the death marches of The Ottoman Empire's early 20th century genocide of Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis, and Azeris. Notably, "O Prósfigas" is also an example of an ancient song form (the amané), which is an "Anatolian Greek style of vocal improvisation" that aptly originated as a "primal lament." Unsurprisingly, "primal lament" is a solid description of Diamanda Gal​á​s In Concert as a whole, as the overall aesthetic resembles a cathartic and fiery cross between the blues and an exorcism. As colorful as that sounds, it actually feels more accurate to describe the listening experience as something more akin to getting on a rollercoaster ride that winds up being dramatically more bizarre and intense than I was expecting…but then the rollercoaster (full of screaming passengers, of course) breaks free of the tracks entirely and spectacularly bulldozes its way through a cathedral, an opera, a honky tonk, and a cabaret before finally grinding to a stop in hell itself.

It is not exactly breaking news to state that Galás is a polarizing artist (by design, really) and I am occasionally guilty of wishing that she would refrain from disruptively incorporating blood-curdling shrieks and guttural bellows into these songs. Then, of course, I remind myself that Galás is an uncompromising artist and that listenability and entertainment are extremely far down her list of priorities. In fact, I am not sure those things are a consideration at all, as sowing discomfort and unease is often an essential component of truly challenging and provocative art. Obviously, being provocative and challenging is the water that Diamanda Galás has been swimming in for more than four decades now, but that is merely the most prominent feature of her art and attentive listeners will find a number of other compelling facets to her vision on Diamanda Gal​á​s In Concert, such as her murky and rumbling low-end piano improvisations.

That said, Galás manages to make even the word "vision" feel inadequate and inappropriate, as that word suggests a conscious, premeditated decision to project something specific. In reality, it seems more like Galás as a person is a complicated mixture of playful raconteur, ethnomusicologist, vengeful opera diva, and the conscience of humanity and an album like this is simply what erupts from her when she sits down at her piano: she is clearly a person who feels deeply and there is no filter between the intensity of those emotions and how she plays and sings. As she explained in a recent Quietus interview (in reference to Ornette Coleman's belief that he was essentially a bluesman): "You don't become avant-garde by trying to be avant-garde. You've just evolved the music to a station in the frontlines." That is exactly where Diamanda Gal​á​s In Concert lands, as it is damn near impossible to imagine anyone producing something more fearlessly spontaneous and genuinely incendiary from just their voice and a piano.

Listen here.