We’re starting the New Year right at WKNC with death, sadness, and AIDS. If you’re tired of the general malaise and continued pandemic of 2022, let’s throw it back to the bright shiny 80s, a time of general malaise and a pandemic that continued for far longer than it should have. Today, we’re taking a look at one of the few musicians to tackle this weighty subject head on, Diamanda Galas and her avant-garde classic, the Masque of Red Death.
Diamanda Galas Herself
If you’re into noise, then Diamanda Galas is your favorite artist’s favorite artist. I can guarantee that by the assumption that most noise listeners’ favorite artist right now is probably Lingua Ignota, and Galas is a touchstone for Lingy’s whole shtick. Galas, in fact, is an inspiration to a lot of legendary vocalists and musicians, most prominently John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. That acclaim is quite unusual considering her background is in opera and avant-garde. She was even a student of 20th century classic heavyweight Iannis Xenakis. She’s also one of the most uncompromising artists I’ve ever heard, sacrificing none of her artistic vision to spare the listener’s comfort. To cross the barrier between pop and so-called “art music” in the 80s was no small feat, much less for someone so willfully uncommercial. To understand what made Galas stick out, we have to talk about her voice.
Diamanda Galas is an operatic soprano, but you’d never notice that from her records unless you tried to mimic some of her vocals. She mutters, grunts, wails, laments, or just plain old screams 95% of her vocals, it’s really quite unpleasant. Her debut album featured a song hilariously titled “Wild Women With Steak-Knives (The Homicidal Love Song for Solo Scream),” which should give you a pretty good idea of where she’s at musically. But beneath this image of a literal madwomen, her vocals are extremely compelling. Not in an aesthetic sense, but almost athletically. I get the same feeling listening to her vocals that I might watching Usain Bolt in person, it’s like watching a person do something with their body at the very edges of human ability. Her songs are arranged with an electronic minimalism, typical of Xenakis’ students, which allows the raw extremes of range and breath control she pushes towards to shine through. However, all of this is more interesting than it is compelling, and her early records make her feel like something of a rebel without a cause. Tragically, that cause would come in the form of the AIDS crisis, and unspeakable personal tragedy.
The Masque of Red Death
Diamanda Galas’ brother died of AIDS sometime in the mid 80s, I don’t wish to linger on that or make it into a dramatic beat, but it is relevant for understanding her masterpiece, “The Masque of Red Death.” Soon after his death, she released a hasty, mostly orchestral album called “Saint of the Pit,” which was an unfocused cry of personal anguish. After some time to grieve, she involved herself in ACT-UP, the most radical queer liberation movement of the era, and began to envision a pointed trilogy of albums, in which the most ambient “Saint of the Pit,” would serve as the second act. From here, she began crafting the first and last albums in the trilogy that would eventually be compiled under the name “The Masque of Red Death.”
This album cycle is one of the most brutal things I’ve ever listened to, and I’m not a man of sensitive tastes. Galas effortlessly eclipses her metalhead and industrial contemporaries with only the raw power of her voice and undistorted electronica. The album cycle is an hour and a half long, and I can say without question it was the worst listening experience of my life. It’s ugly, uncompromising, refuses even the slightest ray of hope, and I never want to hear another second of it ever again in my life
I love it.
She begins with a cliché for discussions of AIDS (which to be fair probably wasn’t as cliché in 1986): Old Testament readings. However, her taste in Leviticus is strong, as she pulls the section known as ‘the law of the plague,’ a step-by-step instructional guide for how to stigmatize and mistreat those suffering from illness. It’s a section so transparently horrifying that even Jesus himself was not a fan if certain parables are to be believed. Ever the minimalist, Galas follows this with about half an hour of untethered wailing. Then comes the aforementioned second act and its more, well, musical approach to music.
Rather than try to explain why this album got to me in the way that it did, I’d like to describe my inner monologue as I listened to the last album in the series, “You Must Be Certain of the Devil. First, I noticed that the final part had several hymns and gospel standards I love like “Were You There?” and “The Lord is My Shepard.” I then realized she was going to leave off using her operatic talent to do something beautiful to contrast the last hour of sheer pain. I hit play on the first track, a gospel song… and it was not that. I’ve never heard something as unsettling in my life as this conscious subversion of “Swing Low.” Maybe it was the hour of punishment that preceded it, or the fact I had been punked by a 35 year old album, but this song just absolutely destroyed me. It was followed by a carnival-sounding, cheesy electro rock song drenched in mocking sarcasm by the way.
The whole of the album is not a particularly unique or brilliant commentary on AIDS. The appeal is not what she says, but how she says it. Romanticizing illness is extremely common, and hard to avoid when trying to create art, as making someone feel a satisfying or cathartic emotion is usually the goal. Galas, to be frank, never really specialized in satisfying the listener, so this isn’t an issue. The album is brilliant for showing what disease looks like when it’s not made into an aesthetic or dramatic choice. It’s just pain, meaningless suffering. And that, for Galas, is enough. And that, crucially, is all the album is about. She never gives the beautiful rendition I was hoping for, she never caves. The album exactly as beautiful as AIDS is.
I don’t know if I recommend this album per se, but I respect the hell out of it. That’s probably the only positive emotion I’ll ever have towards Diamanda Galas: respect.