In a career spanning over 30 years that has brought her renown as one of the world’s most original vocalists, it’s hard to know where to begin with the force of nature that is Diamanda Galás as a live entity. After a 10 year absence this unique performance artist, interpreter of song and composer returns (presumably in a cloud of sulphuric smoke) with the release of two new studio albums, All the Way and O Death, to sate the hunger of her dedicated followers.
Indeed, looking around the Barbican before the start of the show you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at a convention rather than a concert, judging by the number of lookalikes in the audience, as well as those clearly inspired by her individuality to create their own particular looks. Galás’s presence however is entirely her own. Before a note emerges from her throat there is a confidence in the way she carries herself that reminds you that while she inhabits such a dark spectacle, our role as audience is not to feed the performance, but to bear witness to it.
Galás’s infamous voice, while defying categorisation, is famed for being an avant-garde weapon but to summarise her output as merely ‘loud’ or ‘shrieky’ does her a huge disservice. While never confirmed, her eight octave range takes her from vibrato-heavy howls to baritone growls and snarls, which makes just listening to each lyric an out-of-body experience for the ears. On her rendition of A Soul That’s Been Abused she dissembled the blues number to the point of being unrecognisable, and there is a gleeful uncertainty that comes from taking in these transformations. When she takes on O Death her deeply skillful piano playing brings this traditional arrangement to an entirely new level of longing and frantic catharsis.
As well as her famed vocal gyrations there were plenty of moments throughout where she sank to a muted refrain, such as parts of Artemis when the absence of loudness served as a stark contrast to the chaos she then unleashed. Call her ‘one-note’ at your peril. Another string to her bow is the seemingly endless array of languages she sings throughout (French, Spanish, German, Greek as well as English) which at no point felt laboured, instead further opportunities to demonstrate what she transcends. When she spoke once briefly between songs to thank an early supporter for “taking a gamble” on her – by presenting her legendary 1990 Plague Mass gigs at New York City’s Cathedral of St John the Divine – the plainness of her spoken voice came as a surprise, although quite what was expected is hard to say.
With this prowess already present, it felt unnecessary to dress up the performance with strobe lighting through some of the more intense songs that achieved nothing other than make you wonder if Crystal Castles were about to appear on stage. The poetic interludes where Galás addressed the audience from a lectern were further impressive displays of her vocal abilities, but perhaps would have felt more significant if they had bookended the set, as opposed to being interspersed throughout.
When someone has been doing her thing for as long as Galás, and it’s not as though performers like her are dime-a-dozen, it’s hard to critique someone who knows their craft quite so well. By now her audiences have the expectation of dark reinterpretations that leave a unique feeling of rawness, and she certainly doesn’t disappoint. As she finished after her third encore to a standing ovation with the Plague Mass track Let My People Go, there was the tiniest flicker where the woman behind the performance was visible, looking as humbled as she had been haunting.