There’s no ignoring Kristin Hayter’s voice. She’s not so much a singer as an exorcist, her impassioned and intense, bordering on outright terrifying vocal presence can ably transform from an almost sacred beauty to abject terror in a single song. And hers, to be fair, tend to stretch more on the lengthier side—that Hayter’s compositions as Lingua Ignota take their time to resolve, to let the listener linger in the agony and fear for as long as they do, showcases just how difficult a thing it is that she does. She’s in large part a descendant of the primal scream opera of Diamanda Galás, with a closer connection to contemporary metal. But even when lending her voice to music such as the sludgy industrial grind of The Body or the manic powerviolence of Full of Hell, it’s her own contribution that leaves the most indelible impact.
Members of those bands as well as Uniform’s Michael Berdan, Visibilities’ Noraa Kaplan and Wood & Metal’s Ted Byrnes make appearances on Caligula, Lingua Ignota’s third album, though there’s no mistaking whose vision this is and who’s in command of the gut-wrenching proceedings. Caligula is one of 2019’s most intense listening experiences, a visceral and frequently stunningly beautiful piece of neoclassical destruction that’s teeming with violence, anger and hurt. To call it cathartic is an understatement; by the end of its 71 minutes, your soul has been extracted from your body, torn into smaller pieces and scattered like salt upon the earth.
All of which is to say: Caligula is not for the faint of heart, the squeamish or those averse to truly harsh and confrontational art. In the first song released from the album, “Butcher of the World,” Hayter performs a piece of organ-driven medieval choral music made all the harsher by her distorted, black-metal style screams: “I’m the fucking deathdealer…if you don’t fear me yet, you will.” Yet within this duality of harshness and an almost spiritual approach to melody, there is transcendence. The crashes and overdriven rumble of “If the Poison Won’t Take You My Dogs Will” only serve to highlight the beauty of Hayter’s delivery, evoking Christian liturgy (“kyrie eleison“) in a gorgeously devastating hymn exploring suicide as means of protection from becoming a victim to someone else (“If you lay your life down, no man can take it“). And “Day of Tears and Morning” erupts into a thunderous mixture of sludge metal and gothic canticle, Hayter’s vocals too distorted to fully decipher. But the feeling of wrath and destruction is unmistakable.
On a thematic level, Caligula is even more intense than its explosive sounds let on. As an extended conceptual work revolving around ideas of violence, revenge and survival, the album neither turns its gaze away from atrocity and horror nor is it couched in metaphor. “Do You Doubt Me Traitor” is one of the most tense and unnerving of any piece here—which is, admittedly, saying quite a bit—gradually rising to a climax over 10 minutes, Hayter ultimately bellowing, “Bitch, I smell you bleeding/And I know where you sleep.” She echoes an ugly refrain of everyday misogyny in “May Failure Be Your Noose” (“Who will fuck you if I don’t?“) and in “Spite Holds Me Aloft,” her cries of “Betray me” precipitate an eruption of stormy, violent noise, only to return to a glorious chant of “Kill them all.”
If some of the ideas and voices that pierce through the noise and the serenity on Caligula sound dangerously familiar to those who so often occupy media airtime, it’s not coincidental. In an interview with Treble, Hayter explained that what began as something personal expanded into something that speaks to a bigger cultural moment: “Caligula took on all these other connotations and became less about me, and more about surviving in the world at-large that we live in, as well as under the political climate that we exist.” It’s a political album in the sense that it reflects a real darkness that so many are struggling to survive through, but to leave it at that feels reductive. This is a work of great power and endurance, a statement of survival in its harshest and most uncompromising form. Hear it and bear witness to anger and vengeance made flesh.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.