In 2019, Kristin Hayter—for years best known as the ferociously voiced singer and multi-instrumentalist leading Lingua Ignota—told a Guardian reporter she’d been exploring Roman Catholic concepts after a period of atheism. “It is all-powerful and there’s a finality to it, a stoneness, an unquestionableness, that I like a lot,” she said. Her newest work as Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter, SAVED! certainly reflects her interest in those ideas, but uses the iconography of Pentecostal, tent-revival Christianity and the musical language of gospel. The results are as harrowing as anything Hayter made under the banner of Lingua Ignota: quieter, to be sure, yet arguably more challenging. And anyone familiar with the Ignota material will know that’s saying a lot.
SAVED! will unsettle you in ways for which you may not be prepared. The word that comes to mind is haunted, in a literal sense. The sepia-toned album cover photo of Hayter in a white dress splattered with quite a lot of blood or mud, hair obscuring her face, evokes the mysterious, malevolently charged photographs and videotapes of countless horror films. This impression solidifies before even one minute of the opening track “I’M GETTING OUT WHILE I CAN” has transpired when Hayter’s vocal is interrupted by a sudden slowdown of the tape and an equally sudden return to normal speed. Variations of this effect and others like it occur throughout the song and elsewhere on the album, but the first one sticks with you: An aperture has opened and something has come through. It will exert its influence on the rest of the proceedings. The song’s denouement, with Hayter professing a desire to leave this world as soon as possible followed by a burst of glossolalia (speaking in tongues), furthers the impression that the album is possessed.
Hayter and co-producer/fellow multi-instrumentalist Seth Manchester go to great lengths to create the sound and atmospheric impact of SAVED! The music is spare, often little more than vocals and piano (sometimes prepared with bells, chains and chimes). In addition to the aforementioned pitch-shifting and distorting effects, the finalized recordings of each song have been deliberately manipulated and degraded, resulting in a sound of no particular space or time.
All of these songs are either indebted to gospel or standards well-known to those familiar with the genre. (For some background on the areas of gospel SAVED! is somewhat similar to, see the fifth installment of Will The Circle Be Unbroken.) At times, Hayter plays it completely straight: “THERE IS POWER IN THE BLOOD,” “PRECIOUS LORD TAKE MY HAND” and “NOTHING BUT THE BLOOD,” all traditionals, are presented with no embellishments. The first is a capella, the other two only accompanied by acoustic guitar, and Hayter doesn’t use her haunting (and often immaculate) upper register or vibrato. She sings these old hymnal melodies in an alto you can imagine hearing at a tent revival. “MAY THIS COMFORT AND PROTECT YOU,” an original song, returns to the prepared piano and classical vocalization while largely eschewing any effects and is easily imaginable in a more traditional gospel arrangement. But these are outliers; Hayter never meant this album to be straightforward gospel, and the songs that approximate it make the unsettling nature of every other track stand out that much more.
Her version of “HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING” begins with unaltered piano and vocals. Then, during the second minute (of eight), an initially undecipherable stream of speech enters the mix alongside Hayter’s performance of the standard. It’s soon revealed to be Hayter in an extended state of glossolalia, transitioning between mutter and scream and sob. In the track’s final stretch, everything but the glossolalia drops out, and then that’s gone too, left with tape hiss until it ends. The experience is scarier than most horror films, and sequencing it as the album’s final track is nothing less than a carefully orchestrated gut punch. “THE POOR WAYFARING STRANGER” employs similar vocal dramatics before proceeding mostly as piano-driven gospel, yet, the song choice reveals Hayter’s intention to challenge. “Wayfaring Stranger” can be a comforting song, but it’s unmistakably about death, and you fear for the soul of whomever Hayter is embodying as she sings it.
This brings us to what the press materials posit as the album’s thematic crux: The world’s evil and the danger of hell are, in all likelihood, inescapable. Salvation is necessary, but so is death—Hayter begs “Release me! Release me!” on the pitiless doom-folk march of “I WILL BE WITH YOU ALWAYS,” and it’s unclear if God is willing to grant the request. This is removed from the Lingua Ignota who screamed for God to smite a male tormentor—and seemed very much to have the power in the dynamic—on the stunning SINNER GET READY track “I WHO BEND THE TALL GRASSES.”
Kristin Hayter is a particularly intelligent and thoughtful performer, and one of the most adept at performance art. The Reverend character is a suit of armor—like Lingua Ignota, though the metal is of a different forge. SAVED! does explore trauma, as Hayter’s music always has, but through some layers of performative remove. When Hayter sings “Brother who knows what goes on in the night/He won’t lift his voice to speak up for what’s right” on the original composition “ALL MY FRIENDS ARE GOING TO HELL,” you may know exactly what Hayter is indicting from her past, or you can read it as another of several Jonathan Edwards-influenced warnings the Reverend is giving on the track.
I could be wrong. I’ve gotten away from the music itself, which is often quite beautiful for all its unsettling overtones (sometimes because of them). All the tape degradation in the world can’t hide that Hayter’s voice is stronger and more expressive than ever, whether in melody or in bloodcurdling howl, and she effortlessly uses the prepared piano, an instrument that can easily sound scary but is difficult to master. Hayter’s version of the spiritual “IDUMEA” is an arresting piece of music and a perfect embodiment of this album’s mix of the beautiful and terrifying, as she and Manchester turn overdubs of her voice into a Sacred Harp chorus and cause the lyrics to hit you like grapeshot: “Soon as from earth I go/What will become of me?/Eternal happiness or woe/Must then my portion be.”
Those who come to SAVED! expecting the extreme catharsis of Lingua Ignota may be somewhat disappointed. The original “I’LL BE WITH YOU ALWAYS” and Hayter’s fierce cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “I KNOW HIS BLOOD CAN MAKE ME WHOLE” are as close as this album gets to that sound. But anyone who approaches this album openly will be rewarded, if also terrified. As the Reverend, Kristin Hayter has made one of the most original, striking and challenging albums of the year.
Label: Perpetual Flame Ministries
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