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The scariest seven minutes on record

October 29, 2013

When I was a little brat, one of my sisters scared the pants off me by exposing me to the first Black Sabbath album. If the creepy green-faced woman on the album cover wasn’t enough, there was a song – I think it was “Wasp” – with a blood-curdling scream partway through.

timthumbI was petrified, too frightened from even laying my eyes on the album for years after, as if the record held some kind of dark spell.

I admit I’ve never been a fan of Sabbath – too sludgy – but I decided to listen to the song when I was in my 20s and found the thing, and my young self, a bit comical. The thought of being frightened by music seemed laughable.

I was wrong. A couple of years later I was listening to CBC’s late night music show, Brave New Waves, while lying in bed. Instead of drifting off the sleep, I was petrified by the sounds coming over the airwaves, strange Eastern sounding semitones, strangled whispers, sadistic groans, all under electronic keyboards and percussion. I hated it, but I couldn’t stop listening.

This was my introduction to the work of singer and performance artist Diamanda Galas. Again, my first reaction was revulsion, at least to the whispers and screams, but in the mix were some frighteningly beautiful, or beautifully frightening, passages. (Turns out I already had something by her in my collection, as she had collaborated with John Zorn of his first Filmworks CD.) If part of me wanted to turn the radio off that night, it lost out to the part that kept listening, though I confess I had to turn my bedside lamp on to keep from getting too freaked out. The CD that host Brent Bambury was playing was Galas’s operatic trilogy, The Masque of the Red Death (Mute Records).

A short time later, I ended up back at my old music warehouse job, where I made sure the collection was one of my first purchases, with other Galas disks to follow. On the surface, her work might seem like shock for shock sake, but I learned that most of it was in response to the AIDS crisis and her brother’s death.

I was able to catch Galas at the Moore Theater in Seattle when she and Led Zep’s John Paul Jones were in town to play a show. Then in 1996, I was sitting in the front row of the Knitting Factory in New York where Galas, alone onstage with four microphones, performed Schrei X in total darkness for 45 minutes.

timthumbSchreiX It was one of the most intense things I’d ever witnessed, especially the ending, a seven-minute “shriek-out” called “Hee Shock Die,” which at times sounds like someone being tortured or laughing to death. I later reviewed the CD, calling the closing section possibly the most frightening seven minutes ever recorded. I also wrote that in a bygone era, she would like have been tried as a witch. My guess is her work would make Ozzy Osbourne shit himself!

I admit I haven’t dug into my Diamanda disks too frequently in recent years, but every so often at this time of the year, when the ghouls and ghosts are about, I like to turn out the lights, throw on one of her pieces and remember what it’s like to be one scared-shitless little kid. Happy Halloween!

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From → Essays

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