Diamanda Galás All the Way / At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem

[Intravenal Sound Operations; 2017]

Styles: jazz standards, folk standards, curses, lamentations, speaking in tongues
Others: Scott Walker, Lydia Lunch

“Thus the dark, mysterious, oriental strain of the Greek character is linked to the feminine through the art of lament. As a sort of stylized lament, the amanes is associated, in the Greek tradition, with the female voice. In rural Greece, as in the majority of pre-industrial societies, it is women who sing the laments for the dead, and not only women who are the immediate kin of the deceased, but those who are regarded to be especially skilled in the art of expressing the pain of the community through the improvisation of an artful song.”
– Gail Holst-Warhaft, Amanes: The Legacy of the Oriental Mother

The century-old folk song “O Death” is said to have sprung from the divine vision of its author, musician, and Free Will Baptist Preacher Lloyd Chandler. Playing out a conversation between Death and a dying man, the song’s message is plain: young or old, rich or poor, ready or not, Death’s power over life is absolute. No doubt, the song helped to set many a wayward heart back onto the path of righteousness, but beyond its didactic function, it serves as a snapshot of the desolation and destitution of its Appalachian audience.

My mother came to my bed
Placed a cold towel upon my head
My head is warm my feet are cold
Death is a-movin’ upon my soul

The scene of a mother tending to her son’s deathbed would have been familiar to Chandler’s congregation, living as they were in isolation, cut off from the medical and technological advancements that the rest of the nation was reaping. Hidden beneath that Appalachian stoicism is a terror, a stifled scream in the face of that final, horrifying mystery.

Diamanda Galás begins her 11-minute interpretation of the song on All the Way (recorded at the 2012 All Tomorrow’s Parties festival), with a low, moaning plea that slowly, almost imperceptibly, twists into the shape of winding arabesques. “I do a long, long amanes,” she told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. “It’s an improvisation that comes from the Middle East. […] A lot of the people that were put on those forced deportations [from 1915 to 1923], which were basically genocides, would sing amanes. Their whole culture would sing amanes. The whole culture around this understanding that, at any moment, we can be moved. At any moment we can be annihilated.” Through this interpolation, Galás brings two far-flung cultures into dialogue with one another and unites them along the common threads of misery and grief.

This is all familiar ground for the singer, who has made a career transcending and transgressing cultural boundaries, throbbing freely between the rarified worlds of opera, the avant-garde, and the earthier realms of blues and rock. Galás is also well established as a spokeswoman for the miserable and violated. Many of her current fans came to her through her harrowing chronicle of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s in the Masque of the Red Death trilogy and its live companion piece, Plague Mass. She has similarly lent her considerable vocal talents (insert obligatory reference to her five-octave range here) to the victims of imprisonment, torture, and genocide.

The pair of albums, her first in almost nine years, feel like two halves of a whole. All the Way is a combination of live and studio recordings and is composed largely of more recognizable songs made popular by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker, and Johnny Paycheck, while At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem, a collection of recordings from her residency at the New York church, consists of more wild re-envisionings of what Galás dubs “death songs.” In both cases, the instrumentation is limited to Galás’s voice and her piano, and aside from a little crowd noise, there’s nothing to distinguish the songs captured in the wild from the ones produced in a hermetically sealed environment.

Of the two, I favor St. Thomas. The diversity of the material provides Galás with an opportunity to showcase the full range of her vocal talents. Album opener “Verra la morte e avera tuoi occhi,” an adaptation of a poem by Cesare Pavese, is one of the most conventionally beautiful pieces of music that Galás has recorded. Similarly enchanting is her vocal reinterpretation of jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler’s “Angels.” Her wordless intonations lilt above the gentle, rolling strains of the piano, gradually growing in intensity until they teeter on the edge of becoming shrieks. A double-shot of Jacques Brel (“Fernand” and “Amsterdam”) find the singer dipping into her bluesy gothic mode. Brel’s lush French curdles in her mouth, melting into something between a croak and a sneer.

The more populist material that makes up All the Way is stripped of any comfort such familiarity may provide by Galás’s jarring reinventions. The title track is slowed to a crawl and delivered with the slow-burning menace that made her version of “I Put a Spell on You” so legendary. On “The Thrill Is Gone,” she descends into tortured keening as the song wears on. By the time we reach the album’s end, her relatively straightforward approach to Johnny Paycheck’s “I’ve Got Someone to Kill” feels like an olive branch extended to those who have braved the emotional carnage that preceded it.

Of course, both records are essentially delivery systems for their parallel versions of “O Death.” Each rendition is a vocal and compositional tour de force. “In that track, you will hear jazz, bebop, the blues, the New Orleans influences — you will hear practically all of my musical influences in one track,” she boasts. Galás’s playing skitters seamlessly between musical idioms, while she performs her vocal shapeshifting routine. The version that appears on All the Way is by far the most intense, with Galás’s wails splintering into glossolaliac scatting by the song’s end.

Galás’s art shines brightest at those junctures where language fails. The singer closes St. Thomas with a reprise of Gerard de Nerval’s “Artemis,” a poem she originally performed as part of her Masque cycle. This time, as she enters the song’s middle stretch, the gentle, plaintive ululations of the amanes make their reappearance, conveying a sadness too pure to be confined in words. In 2017, it’s easy to feel like the world is barrelling inexorably toward some sort of large-scale calamity, that the human race is in its final, convulsive throes. If that is the case, then we are fortunate to have Diamanda Galás keeping vigil, singing us into that goodnight with such a sweet and terrible threnody.

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