Diamanda Galas :: Meltdown, Royal Festival Hall, London, 1-8-12



The advance group in any field, especially in the visual, literary, or musical arts, whose works are characterised chiefly by unorthodox and experimental methods.


Of or pertaining to the experimental treatment of artistic, musical or literary material; belonging to the avant-garde: an avant-garde composer; unorthodox or daring; radical.

What has the over-used term avant-garde come to mean? Anything that’s even a millimetre outside of the perceived mainstream; perhaps a Whistle Test prog throwback glaring blankly at their audience through their beards while new instrumental shoegaze swirls around an East London club with a dreadful sound system; or a hipster Brooklyn electronic ‘collective’ declaring their album works best with 12 concurrent mixes. Ok, I’m guilty in this regard: from Okkervil River to Dirty Projectors to the Flaming Lips, count me in. But I know, truly, that calling something ‘experimental’ is a lazy term used entirely too often to describe anything that’s even a little sonically different or visually intriguing, and it’s mostly used inaccurately to label music that isn’t daring or radical at all… and then, among all that wankery, with thanks to Antony Hegarty’s first Meltdown night, I found the real thing.

The audience are always a fascinating barometer of the artist. I keenly observed the Guardian-reading South Bank crowd + a few specs-wearing, plaid-clad hipsters + a hell of a lot of alternatives (a Torture Garden kinda crowd: all tattoos, flesh tunnels and those who graced the 90s as goths). My gig companion had seen Ms Galas at a Brel tribute in the same venue, singing Amsterdam, alongside Marc Almond and other kind-on-the-ear artists: she was booed. I asked why, but he found it hard to explain, exactly.

Within a minute of her striding to the piano, I knew why. Out came this… noise. Operatic and dramatic, enveloped by dark, rolling piano trills, this instrument, this vocal, guttural sound, coming from some unholy place, filled the auditorium. My earholes were being assaulted. I had no idea what this insane woman was screaming about but I knew it was in Italian. The next song was in Greek, then Italian again, then Spanish, then German, then French, one in English, back to German, Italian and so on. Every song was about death. It was unbelievable, truly. You just never knew what was coming next – more ear-splitting soprano shrieking? A chanson-style growl at least two octaves lower? A middle eight which consisted of only high-pitched, but completely controlled, banshee wailing? Yoko’s got nothing on Diamanda. It was sometimes unlistenable, yet often deeply moving, and you wanted it to be over but you never wanted it to end. The most traditionally enjoyable song was a little bluesy, but still ended with a truckload of piano banging.

Near the end I played out several fantasies in my head: Diamanda on the X Factor, the look on Cowell’s face; Diamanda invading a hen-night-jukebox-musical, like Dirty Dancing, and the theatre staff locking the doors; Diamanda on a Lloyd Webber Saturday night BBC1 West End competition show – perhaps she could be the next Wicked Witch? Diamanda on the Royal Variety Show: following Brucie, bowing to the Queen, perhaps a duet with Gary Barlow?

I’ve been watching live music for 24 of my 35 years. I have never seen a gig like this. It was like being punched in the face with sound. Half way through the show an audience member dared to express her devotion with a plain ‘I love you!’ The Cruella De Vil-esque response: “Do you know who you’re talking to? Shut up!”

At the end of the show, as my entire being tried to recover from this unique experience, Antony quietly made his way on stage to hand her a bouquet of flowers. A symbol of traditional beauty, grace and elegance, she accepted it with an affectionate, benevolent smile, took her bow and her standing ovation and walked slowly into the wings.