I interviewed Diamanda way back in 1992 as part of a two hour documentary spanning her career up to that point during which she vehemently denied having ever had anything to do with the Gothic movement or subculture, claiming that she thought it was something “bored kids do and that gothic had more to do with Edgar Allan Poe or something”. The obvious contradiction that here we have a trilogy of albums collectively named after Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” aside, this seems disingenuous at best, her image on album covers and in live performances of this period, her thematic approach to her art during this period and in some cases the musical direction of certain pieces tells a quite different tale.
There really is no-one quite like Diamanda, an artist who believes her multi-octave voice that ranges from the demonic to the spectral was given to her as a weapon for the destruction of her enemies.
I doubt I can word things any better than Tim Holmes writing in the liner notes for Plague Mass (Mute Records, 1992);
“Nervous-system shattering, harmonic shards echoing through the vaults, choirs of Diamanda’s blathering demons and madonnas”
Commencing her solo career with the terrifying electronica of Litanies of Satan (Y Records, 1982), The Masque of The Red Death Trilogy would see the conjunction of Diamanda the artist with Diamanda the AIDS activist, a project given added impetus after the disease would claim Diamanda’s brother shortly after recording had commenced.
The trilogy kicks off with the extraordinary and compellingly weird electronic soundscapes of The Divine Punishment (Mute, Records, 1986), for the most part taking its lyrics from Old Testament biblical scripture, specifically Psalms, Lamentations and Leviticus. Skillfully turning these texts on their head, perhaps most dramatically in “This is the Law of the Plague”, Diamanda employs them to become an ironic and damning mockery of those who would insist AIDS to be the wrath of God visited upon homosexuals and drug users.
Let’s begin with this little clip, in which Diamanda ably and conclusively demonstrates that she absolutely never ever had any connection whatsoever to Goth…honest to God, cross my heart etc etc. (I have absolutely no idea why Youtube has this labeled as the non-existent track “Saint of the Pit” since it’s actually “We Shall Not Accept Your Quarantine” from The Divine Punishment.)
The Divine Punishment
- Deliver Me From My Enemies
I. This is the Law of the Plague
II. Deliver me From my Enemies
III. We Shall Not Accept Your Quarantine
IV. EXEAOUME [Deliver me]
V. UIATI O QXOS?
VI. Psalm 22
2. Free Among the Dead
I. Psalm 88
III. Sono l’ Antichristo
The electronics are largely abandoned by the second installment of the trilogy, Saint of The Pit (Mute Records, 1986), replaced instead with a lush if extreme operatic style as Diamanda explores the bleak psyche and self-consciousness of the HIV positive through the charnel-house verses of French Symbolist poets Baudelaire, Nerval and Corbiere. A new version of EXEAOUME [Deliver Me] from The Divine Punishment also appears here and would later resurface as “The Ring of Fire” on the soundtrack to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Columbia, 1992).
Saint of the Pit
- La Treizieme Revient (The Thirteenth Returns)
- EXEAOUME [Deliver me]
The final part of the trilogy You Must be Certain of the Devil (Mute Records, 1988)
returns us to the reality of AIDS in
using both contemporary rock and gospel styles to direct scathing criticisms and accusations at the homophobic stance of both conservatives and the religious right. A surprisingly accessible album for Diamanda, including pieces like “Double Barrel Prayer”, “Malediction” and “Birds of Death” that would prove musically far closer to what is generally understood as Gothic Rock than anything she has released before or since. Regan-era America
You Must Be Certain of the Devil
- Swing Low Sweet Chariot
- Double Barrel Prayer
- Let’s Not Chat About Despair
- Birds of Death
- You Must Be Certain of The Devil
- Let My People Go
- The Lord is My Shepherd
Upon the release of You Must Be Certain of The Devil, the entire trilogy was repackaged as the boxed set Masque of the Red Death (Mute Records, 1988) with The Divine Punishment and Saint of the Pit appearing on the same CD. More importantly, the trilogy was reworked into the massive live work known as Plague Mass (Mute Records, 1992), arguably the pinnacle of Diamanda’s career. At once epic, terrifying and compelling, the tremendously powerful Plague Mass would see Diamanda performing stripped to the waist and covered in blood and ultimately denounced by the Italian Government of the day for blasphemy against the Catholic Church.
Diamanda’s works since have generally been far removed from anything resembling Goth, but both awesome and far ranging from pieces for piano (The Singer – Mute Records, 1992, Malediction and Prayer – Mute Records, 1998, Guilty, Guilty, Guilty – Mute Records, 2008) spoken word & experimental (Vena Cava – Mute Records, 1993, Shrei X - Mute Records, 1996) and even alternative rock in collaboration with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame (The Sporting Life - Mute Records, 1994). Although currently having severed ties with Mute Records, Diamanda continues to release new material as MP3s via her official website.
I saw Diamanda perform at the Perth Concert Hall back in 2002 with the cycle of work that would eventually be released as Defixiones – Will and Testament (Mute Records, 2003), an spectacularly awesome performance that I’d just kill to see again.
But you know what? For an artist who swears blind she never had any association with Goth, there was more blue/black hair dye in that audience than I’ve seen anywhere in a very long time.
It may soon be time
For you to guard a dying man
Until the angels come
Let’s not chat about despair
If you are a man (and not a coward)
You will grasp the hand of him denied by mercy
Until his breath becomes your own.”