Diamanda Galás at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Melody Maker, 14 January 1989
by Simon Reynolds
Diamanda Galas's AIDS trilogy Masque Of The Red Death draws a mixed bunch to the Queen Elizabeth Hall on New Year's Day — 50 per cent goth/immaculate consumptive types, whose pierced flesh, cryptic jewellery and uniformly black garb makes the theatre attendants' noses' wrinkle in disdain; 50 per cent rather more respectable, arthouse types.
But then Galas operates on the fringes of both the rock left-field and of modern classical music, and her work can be "enjoyed" on two levels — vicarious voyeurism (lookit da spookeee ladeee) and sober appreciation of her Statement.
After a prologue of deliciously hammy, Hammer House/Dr Phibes organ, Galas steps out and lets rip her infamous Munch howl. Her first "piece" is like a Muslim widow's prayer wail, a fathomless abyss of grief. She bucks and writhes as though struggling to unwind, work out and expel via her throat a giant tapeworm of ectoplasm. She cuts between this laser-searing scream and a verminous babble of multiple voices, like a horde of vindictive goblins. Or she sings against backing tapes of her own voice multi-tracked into a choir of wizened Middle Eastern crones.
It's impossibly intense, hideously beautiful, and the air crackles with the static electricity of a thousand heads of hair standing on end. I came at least partially prepared for this, but it's nice to think that some must have come with no expectations or prior experience. Some rape of sensibilities! And indeed, a few chickenshit members of the audience get up and leave. But, after 20 minutes of unmitigated vertigo, the impact dims, for no readily apparent reason. Perhaps because enough is as good as a feast. Perhaps because 20 minutes is long enough to acclimatise to even the most hostile aesthetic environment. Perhaps also because Galas stoops to didacticism, albeit of a rabid, spume-flecked sort.
Delivered, with pointed irony, from a pulpit, Galas' demonic sermon/tirade is sometimes platitudinous ("Don't give up the fight against the order of the homophobe", "all mandatory testing is aimed at containment"), sometimes acute ("big buck penitentiary USA…controllers of slow death…sifters of compassion") but always manageable in comparison to the inchoate, unarticulated grief of her wordless pieces. The same problem afflicts her attempts to inhabit more conventional musical genres, like the good-time R&B groove of 'You Must Be Certain Of The Devil', or the vaudevillian piano numbers that close the performance.
Masque Of The Red Death is most effective when Galas eschews commentary or irony, and simply drops us in it. The work may be intended as a plea for compassion, but it has no truck with the kindliness and good sense of therapeutic and counselling language. Instead Galas almost revels in the intoxicating imagery of exorcism and excoriation, scapegoating and pariah-dom. Perhaps she aims to show us, by induction, how deeply embedded in our souls is the medieval mindset — both the palpitating horror of invasion, corruption and pollution of the wholesome integrity of our own bodies, and the panic-reflex to segregate in order to purify and protect the social body. Whatever, this was at least a partial triumph for the demon diva.