We Americans don't have much use for the stuff usually; nor does anyone else, really, though college students who spend a semester in continental Europe tend to return with the idea that everyone besides us is still interested in high culture, bless their hearts. Some people imagine that there was a time in the undated past when high art was the same as popular art. A quick look at history says otherwise. People have been poking fun at poets at least since Aristophanes, and perhaps even longer.
Diamanda Galás has been making "serious art" since 1979. Her vocal chops would allow her to sing opera if she wanted. Apparently, that's not what she wants. Instead, she makes singular records. Neither "rock" nor entirely not rock, they're nearly bottomless abysses of darkness that inhabit a space all their own. Her best work is provocative, engaging, often terrifying and pretty far over the top; an early piece had the memorable title "Wild Women With Steak Knives (for solo scream)," while her first album offered a version of Baudelaire's "The Litanies of Satan."
Her big moment to date has been 1989's Masque of the Red Death, a three-album sequence about the AIDS epidemic. Masque was at once endlessly lush and utterly searing, and its third installment even had some outrageous drums, but that still didn't earn it much play at parties. The '90s found Galás acting out her doomsaying-diva shtick partly for camp value: The Singer (1991) was an album of covers, while The Sporting Life (1994) found Galás recording murder ballads with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. She continued to hone her craft, but after Masque, she seemed in search of a muse.
Well, Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one: On December 25, Galás releases two double albums' worth of material. The first two discs, Defixiones: Will and Testament, Orders From the Dead, cover the emotional brutality of mass killings. The second pair, La Serpenta Canta, offers what may be the most creepily fascinating palette of cover tunes you'll ever hear.
Boasting her first new studio material since 1998, Defixiones: Will and Testament is a meditation on the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides carried out by Turkey between 1914 and 1923. The first disc stands with her best work. Beginning with roughly nine minutes of drone and minor-key vocal improv, it accomplishes in 49 minutes what the Faces of Death videos have aimed to do for 20-plus years. Its high points are harrowing, while its missteps are at least as jaw-dropping as they are excruciating: Did Paul Celan's great poem "Todesfugue" really require a dramatization to get its point across?
On balance, though, as has always been the case with Galás, the listener is repaid handsomely for suspending judgment and just going with the (molten-lava) flow. As Galás hollers, spits, hisses and keens her source texts over relentlessly dirgelike beds of piano and synth, our reactions range from amusement to horror until we are completely immersed in darkness -- which is exactly the point of the whole endeavor, one supposes.
The album's second disc -- the Will and Testament part -- is a recording of Galás in concert; so are both discs of La Serpenta Canta. Before anybody cries foul, it's worth noting that Galás brings at least as much craft to bear on her solo performance as she does to her studio work. The recording is pristine; the energy of her performance sizzles in every note. The franchise-defining Galás histrionics, sometimes given too-free rein in studio, are here utilized to thrilling effect. Her gift for nuance is often astonishing, and the breadth of feeling present over the course of the set's nine songs is nothing short of a revelation. This is not Tori Amos; the piano is as much Galás' enemy as her co-conspirator, and she attacks it with a heavy hand. The end result is what most live albums promise but can't deliver: a total experience, a journey from whatever space one inhabited before the assault began into an entirely new place.
Ditto La Serpenta Canta, kind of, except that here Galás returns to the über-goth-chanteuse routine that she first broke out on The Singer. More than 80 minutes of music yields only one Galás original -- an abattoir gem called "Baby's Insane" -- devoting the rest of its time instead to crypt-scouring reinterpretations of Motown, Delta and traditional blues, Ornette Coleman, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and Hank Williams Sr. A big part of Galás' charm beams through in merely trying to describe the album. It sounds like it'd have to be awful, doesn't it? But not only is it not awful, it's a complete triumph. The trade Galás plies is both cathartic and emetic; there's no way around that. Yet whether it's her inner showman peeking out from behind the shroud, or whether it's just that La Serpenta Canta is a different kind of work from Defixiones, there's an exuberance to the proceedings here that's hard to miss.
Take "Dead Cat on the Line," a blues chestnut about adultery. You can hear the 12-bar original that's buried underneath what Galás has done to it, but all that's really left is the skeleton. Galás dresses up the bones in gruesome flesh; a menacing piano jaunt stands in for the guitar, attempting and perhaps achieving complete transformation of its source, and asserting that this must have been what the song has been meaning to say all this time. While the original's lyrics were spicy, Galás' revisions are gleefully unprintable. Her vocals, naturally, include a hair-raisingly accurate impersonation of a terrified cat. It's burlesque of a sort. Dirty old men, of course, don't need burlesque halls to indulge themselves anymore. Seen in this light, "Dead Cat on the Line" seems a foreboding look at old attitudes toward infidelity, and casts a pall over a now-extinct cultural phenomenon often seen as racy but harmless fun.
What La Serpenta Canta does, then, besides establishing Galás as one of the most underappreciated and greatest divas of her day -- Celine couldn't do what Galás does, but on "At the Dark End of the Street," Galás proves that she could pull off the Celine routine with one hand tied behind her back -- is point toward what's fun and liberating in Galás' craft. The album asks where the darkness is in things that seem light and harmless.
Defixiones is probably the more important work, but La Serpenta Canta, with its self-absorbed delight in the perverse, may be the better one. It's a contradiction that should please Diamanda Galás, a "serious artist" who's at her best when she's having fun.