Diamanda 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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