“To illustrate: to walk ten miles in an enclosed space of ten feet is not really movement. There are not ten miles of space, only time.” - Jack Abbott ‘In the Belly of the Beast’
Recently in March, the Queen of Hell Diamanda Galas has released two long-awaited new albums in what appears to be 9 years. Galas has worked and reworked on American blues and gospel materials on several records, but what continues to attract me is not her diabolic approach to the great American songbook, but her earlier experimental efforts that demonstrate her unusual visions and disdain for boundaries. Her self-titled second record, originally released in 1984 and consisting of only two pieces ‘Panoptikon’ and ‘Τραγούδια από το Αίμα Εχούv Φονός’ (Song from the Blood of Those Murdered), is one great example of how far she can go with the mere assistance of her voice and occasional electronic elements.
It is disappointing that critics of her music have a tendency to focus on the level of sonic pleasure it can offer. ‘It is just a mad woman barking gibberish’, or ‘it is not musical, therefore shouldn’t be called music’ is what I can imagine many critics saying. What is even more disappointing is that most people who would actually listen to this body of work and find pleasure in it only do so because it sounds insanely scary, evil and sadomasochist and prefer to leave it like that. ‘She sounds like Maria Callas on crack’ is what I imagine this group of people might say.
Despite what ‘Diamanda Galas’ sounds like on a purely sonic level, there is so much depth and lushness to it that without delving into the subject matters these two songs explore, it is nearly impossible to decipher and therefore truly appreciate this record. The first track ‘Panoptikon’ is built upon the image of a Panopticon, which is a type of prison architecture conceptualised by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham, designed to achieve absolute obedience and break down prisoners’ mental state. In this design, numerous prison cells are built around an observation towel paced in the centre of the compound guarded by a single watchman and inmates are unable to tell if they are being observed at all times. Galas closely examines and harshly criticises the Panopticon, now commonly used as a metaphor for ruthless control and discipline, by playing the role of a prisoner languishing in close confinement and slowly but inevitably slipping into schizophrenia.
On this track, Galas, no longer the performer but the actual prisoner, carries out a serious of internal conversations between multiple fractions of herself in her mind that are at times in conflict. She profusely asks herself ‘What is my name?/What is my name?’ and her authoritarian self ‘Your name is that of a condemned man/You have no name.’ The poetry, mixed with lines from letters written by American convict and author Jack Abbott whose work later became ‘In the Belly of the Beast’, is powerful enough to send chills down the spine, not in spite of its haywire nature but because of it. At this point, this track has almost become a black-and-white film that allows the audience to crawl into her mind poisoned by psychosis and hysteria as a result of inhumanity and brutality of the Panopticon system, an approach Galas later perfected on her infamous 1996 ‘Schrei x’, which also deals with imprisonment, isolation, torture and extreme alienation.