Diamonds Galás with John Paul Jones – The Sporting Life (Mute album, 1994)

  
I’ve maintained a healthy interest in Diamanda Galás since hearing her vocal contributions to Erasure’s Erasure album in 1995, but I’ve always found her music a little too impenetrable. I fully appreciate her dexterity and range as a vocalist, but I’ve never really ‘got’ her, though not through lack of trying.

The Sporting Life, Galás’s 1994 collaboration with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones was my first real concerted effort to get to grips with her music, and as an entry point to an artist that Daniel Miller signed to Mute precisely because she was ‘challenging’, it’s not a bad place to start.

A lot of what makes The Sporting Life relatively accessible is the multi-instrumentalist Jones’s arrangements. This is a a form of blues, accented with the kind of aggressively brutal funk shapes that draw parallels with the likes of Rage Against The Machine, particularly on tracks like ‘Do You Take This Man?’ and ‘Devil’s Rodeo’, where his low-slung bass anchors the whole track in rigid, unswerving time. Rooting the music in the blues seems to encourage Galás to play down some of the histrionics for which she is known, finding her instead singing relatively ‘straight’, especially on stirring numbers like the soulful ‘Dark End Of The Street’ or ‘Tony’ which are just about the most plaintive and troubled, almost theatrically soulful, moments in Diamanda’s catalogue.

The organ-led ‘You’re Mine’, with its Louisiana gumbo of reference points is where wildness starts to creep in, descending into a cacophony of tongues that render the tail end of the track a swampy mess, with the music feeling like it constantly wants to wrap up but where Galás just wants to keep going. It’s a definitive example of why less is more.

And that again is what I have a problem with. I could listen to Galás doing gravelly blues songs like ‘Dark End Of The Street’ all day, but I run out of patience when the vocal histrionics – irrespective of how technically accomplished her range and technique might be – reach the point of complete and noisy surrender. Even the masterful Jones seems to give up somewhere on this album, and the music begins to play a very clear second fiddle to the dominance of Galás’s voice. The only time I can really get on board with it is during the closing track, ‘Hex’, and that’s mostly because of the Nitzer Ebb-esque riff that runs through most of the track.

I’m honestly not sure what it is about her voice that troubles me so much; perhaps it’s that it carries a level of base anguish and emotional openness that I’m not prepared to give in to, or perhaps it’s a specific aversion that I have to vocal improvisation. I get jazz improv, but I’ve never developed a taste for either scat singing or the wordless vocalisations of people like Phil Minton, and I’m not sure I ever will. Whatever the reason, my relatively modest Galás collection is now up for sale via Discogs.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Recoil – Bloodline (Mute Records album, 1992)

Recoil 'Bloodline' LP artwork

mute records | lp/c/cd stumm94 | 04/1992

Released in 1992 between Depeche Mode‘s Violator and Songs Of Faith And Devotion, Recoil‘s Bloodline found Alan Wilder collaborating with Moby, covering The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s ‘Faith Healer’ with Nitzer Ebb‘s Douglas McCarthy and deploying the vocals of Curve’s Toni Halliday; nicking swathes of vocals from bluesman Bukka White, and even dropping in a spoken word prayer from Diamanda Galas.

Unlike Wilder’s previous two releases as Recoil (1986’s 1+2 and 1988’s Hydrology), Bloodline showcases a more uptempo, song-based album; whilst his painstaking studio endeavours and long-form sound designs are in evidence across Bloodline, what emerges is an album that benefits from having the various vocalist contributors add their respective sections, even if at times it’s more pop than one might have expected. Then again, if there was one criticism of Wilder’s two previous releases, it was that they didn’t fit into any particular electronic genre – too pop to be ambient and too organic at times to be suited to the electronic music purist; clever, certainly, but somewhat impenetrable.

I like to think that Recoil showcases a certain ‘big budget’ electronic music. It’s the difference between a big Hollywood picture with all the special effects you can imagine and a tiny indie flick. Sonically, it feels like Wilder had access to all the best kit and equipment because of his role in one of the biggest bands in the world; in the hands of a bedroom-confined electronic musician the result would have been different and perhaps a little edgier, a touch grittier maybe. According to Wilder’s helpful Q&A on his website, the reality was somewhat more toward the ‘small’ end of the studio spectrum compared to his later studio, with Bloodline put together in the back room of his London home. Nevertheless, Bloodline still has a glossy high-end sheen to most of the tracks.

One of the most surprising (and most adventurous) tracks is ‘Curse’, which features Moby – at this point still in his pre-Mute Instinct days – rapping desperately about social and moral issues. I say surprising, because Moby hasn’t ever been known as a rapper; he’s clearly dabbled in a whole spectrum of different musical genres from ghostly ambient stasis to thrash metal but actually rapping remains something of an oddity. To confound things yet further, ‘Curse’ finds Moby’s vocal pitch-shifted downwards, giving his contribution a dark, aggressive quality, even if it means that his voice is unrecognisable. Wilder drops in slowed-down wheezing sounds, beats that sound like they originate from a steam-powered production line and liquid electro bass riffs. In keeping with a number of other tracks on Bloodline, ‘Curse’ is lengthy, the second half here being dominated by a more robust beat and samples of a manic orator delivering a religious protest speech.

‘Electro Blues For Bukka White’ proves categorically that Moby’s sampling of old blues records and hitching them to more modern soundscapes wasn’t necessarily all that innovative on Play, Wilder here doing the same with lengthy a cappella section of White’s vocal while a throbbing electro rhythm and some meditative bass noises drift along underneath. At times it feels like Depeche’s ‘Waiting For The Night’ from Violator only with a more pronounced beat. Neat symphonic strings add an unexpected emotional quality to this song, highlighting just how adept Wilder has always been at forcing out the emotions in a song. A similar effect is achieved on the closing track, ‘Freeze’, which has an austere sound, not dissimilar from some of Wilder’s more grandiose classically-informed work with Depeche at the time of Music For The Masses.

One of the best tracks on Bloodline is ‘The Defector’, a pulsing and mostly instrumental electro track that was Wilder’s self-confessed homage to Kraftwerk; that’s certainly evidenced in the thippy electronic sounds and clattering industrial beat reminiscent of Trans-Europe Express-era Kraftwerk. That said, ‘The Defector’ retains a robustness to its rhythms and synths that Kraftwerk have never quite been able to deliver. The two tracks featuring Toni Halliday (the languid ‘Edge To Life’, mooted as an ultimately abandoned second single, and the harder ‘Bloodline’) are among the most ‘pop’ tracks here, Halliday’s strained vocals for some reason getting a little too close to Madonna for comfort. Wilder’s backdrop, particularly on the twitchy ‘Bloodline’ has an edginess, an definite apocalyptic tone, but on the whole, while they’re undoubtedly clever sonically, there’s something vaguely disappointing about these two songs that I can’t quite put my finger on. ‘Bloodline’s saving grace is the dense middle section featuring lots of wordless singing from Halliday, dubby guitar plucks a la ‘Policy Of Truth’ and all sorts of drama, not least from Jenni McCarthy (Doug McCarthy’s daughter) who provides an unsettling vocal section.

Bloodline also includes two unnamed link tracks, one between ‘Electro Blues For Bukka White’ and ‘The Defector’ and one between ‘Curse’ and ‘Bloodline’. The former is a short atmospheric piece with a threatening, claustrophobic quality, a little like being surrounded by looming clouds of noxious electronics; the second features a heavily-processed Diamanda Galas delivering the Lord’s Prayer, creating a similarly unsettling effect.

Galas’s religious contribution, whether you can make it out or not, as well as the occasional use of preacher samples, highlight a vague theme that exists at various points during Bloodline. The album’s sequencing, from the possessed sounds of a man speaking in tongues at the very start of ‘Faith Healer’ through to the redemptive, elegiac sound of ‘Freeze’ creates the impression of someone moving from darkness to light, a theme that Wilder’s bandmate Martin L. Gore would use to devastating effect time after time in his writing for Depeche Mode. If anything, Wilder’s approach to enlightenment and salvation on Bloodline is more subtle and somehow all the more dangerous for it.

***

I bought this album whilst on holiday in Southend-on-Sea during Whitsun week in 1992, a few weeks before my mock GCSEs, along with Mute’s International compilation and Nitzer Ebb’s Belief. As it’s Whitsun this week, I decided to head down memory lane and re-post this review from 2012.

Thanks to Andy, Lyn and Jonathan for their help with this review.

Track listing:

lp/cd/c:
A1. / 1. Faith Healer
A2. / 2. Electro Blues For Bukka White
A3. / 3. The Defector
B1. / 4. Edge To Life
B2. / 5. Curse
B3. / 6. Bloodline
B4. / 7. Freeze (cassette and CD bonus track)

First published 2012; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence