No one likes to see an established performer lose their power with age; tenth generation line-ups playing the same best-of sets to Baby Boomer audiences at casinos looks like a living death; trapped in limbo, repetitiously playing the same songs that once brought glory. Thankfully, Diamanda Galás shows no signs of abdicating her throne anytime soon. As her recent tour in support of All the Way showed, she is still just as much in control as ever. Though she has moved beyond the all-out viciousness of her earlier works, what would once be a jackhammer to the skull is now a carefully concealed blade. Her choices in repertoire—always stylistically diverse, but thematically linked—draw on the misery of desire, murder ballads, and conversations with Death.
Stylistically, All the Way is geared towards Galás’s piano playing, more so than her vocals (check out the live At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem LP for some really staggering vocal flourishes). Her arrangements and playing are as fierce and dynamic as ever though, often serving as a substitute for the sheer vocal terror that defined her earlier work. Here, however, the terror and violence comes from the stories themselves, hidden behind a melange of jazz piano, blues riffs, and near industrial key pounding. Particularly on “O Death,” where the piano arrangement swings from Cecil Taylor-influenced swing to ragtime, to tumbling motifs played out-of-sync, speeding up under vocals which fly along a trajectory from guttural to atmospheric. The changes never come across as jarring—a credit to Galás’s skill as both an arranger and a pianist—allowing the listener to be dragged along a pathway through human pain and sorrow. Moments of unease grab focus like an arm from a darkened alleyway, only to let go as suddenly.
What would normally show up in the songbooks of Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Bobby Darin is transformed from nostalgic schlock into existential angst. Basic melody is eschewed for jazz improvisation, allowing Galás the space to extend each tale into its own miniature concerto. Unfortunately, there is no real fever pitch moment, though there are moments on “The Thrill Is Gone” and “O Death” where Galás allows her voice the freedom to shriek and howl as only she can. Obviously each piece does not call for an ecstatic wail, but the expectation builds tension. That technique in and of itself is to the benefit of these six selections, but, at times, the payout feels like less than what was hoped for. When taken into account with the album’s overall tonal homogeneity, what remains of All the Way is a solid performance; not astounding, certainly not bad, but restrained, in a sense lacking the full-on artistic ferocity that helped propel Galás to her current stature.