The Litanies of Satan by Diamanda Galás

Release date: May 1, 2020
Label: Intravenal Sound Operations

Diamanda Galás reissues her debut album, the coruscatingly brilliant and extreme The Litanies of Satan from 1982. It by no means wants a regular listen, but it’s an absolute benchmark of experimental intensity that always rewards a spin at the right darkened moment.

Listening again now it makes me think of Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain or Come out to Show Them, at the same time as the wild sprawl of Keijo Haino and the throat-scraping rawness of proper black metal: it’s a genuinely rare combination of formal sonic science and searing human intensity. It’s a formal experimentation, in this case into the extremes and diversities of possibility contained in a single voice and its electrical treatment, and at the same time and in the same noises it’s a fierce, raw, direct but extravagant exploration of filth and blood, exploring limits of body, mind and the communicable possibilities of vocal sound.

 

The album consists of two tracks, one on each side of the original vinyl release: the seventeen-minute title track, and the slightly shorter ‘Wild Women with Steak Knives’, sometimes subtitled as ‘Homicidal Love Song for Solo Screen’. For some there could be interesting resonances in ‘Litanies of Satan’ with the Baudelaire text, but I don’t really have a connection to the original writing so it doesn’t really play into my reception of the album. More important is just the serious sonic experimentation with (or on) the voice, and at the same time a carny theatricality that steers clear of kitsch simply through the incredibly powerful delivery. The two different album covers that have accompanied versions of this release neatly tell this story, the original (as reproduced in this reissue) bringing a kind of flaming, daring flourish, with the alternate, a shadowy red-lit face and hands hinting at the devilish dark intensity contained.

This is laid bare in devilish chirruping, wild shrieks and stretched rasping moans, shadowy mutterings and obsessive rants, tortured and torturing growls, at times an almost industrial whirling noise created by the vocal chords. Among the most striking manifestations is the sorcerous circling high cries, like witches or carrion crows or a damaged alarm signal. Elsewhere the voice is jogged as if thrown around by a satanic infestation, or extremes of mental preoccupation or obsession. It’s just a staggering achievement of coruscating gothic noise, entirely bursting the conventional constraints of genres which (often years after this) trade in such associations.

This would be an outlier if released tomorrow, but the fact that the recording is not far off forty years old is shocking. The only clue to its age in the sound is some of the effects perhaps, the electronically-treated low voice coming in after a couple of minutes comes across a bit over-familiar, the “spooky” effect dulled by repetition on cheap horror tv. The curse of influence perhaps, but I’m more surprised by the fact that the record is not more widely referenced across various avant-gardes.

‘Wild Women with Steak Knives’ explores similar manic jabbering and screeching, with occasionally more decipherable fragments in English about steak and dinner and demands about her name, occasionally the menace compounded by restrained churks and jags of distortion. Entries like the in-breath croak are gruesomely fascinating; the odd language wrongfoots easy interpretation; some of the piercing screams are almost jump-scare interruptions: in the right mood all of it is wide-eyed weirdly compelling. The title furthers a sense of bloodsoaked feminist fury already implicit in the fact that this is an album entirely founded on the extremes of a female voice, together with its intimations about demonic and the psychological, oppression and protest, fear and excess, questions of the relations between body, voice, world and mind; possession and who is possessed by whom. A fearsome and uncompromising landmark in extreme sound.

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