September 4, 2019

Lingua Ignota - Caligula

Way back in 2011, Tori Amos threw out a random comment in an interview about the power of emotion in music: “I'll stand next to the hardest fucking heavy metal band on any stage in the world and take them down, alone, by myself.” As I remember it, there was a
By Justin C.

Way back in 2011, Tori Amos threw out a random comment in an interview about the power of emotion in music: “I'll stand next to the hardest fucking heavy metal band on any stage in the world and take them down, alone, by myself.” As I remember it, there was a short burst of garment rending and name calling from the dumber side of the internet metal community, completely missing her point and falsely equating “power” with “volume.” There are a lot of metal bands Amos probably isn’t familiar with (see, for example, Immortal Bird) that do deliver the kind of emotional experience Amos was referencing. But the fact remains that Tori is and always has been metal in spirit, and for emotional power, she easily outshines basic-bro metal bands.

This memory resurfaced when I first heard Lingua Ignota’s debut full-length, Caligula. Kristin Hayter is the creative force behind the project, and although she and Amos don’t share a lot of sonic similarities, they do share some experiences. Both Amos and Hayter have played with or have ties to the heavy music scene (Trent Reznor and Maynard James Keenan in Amos’s case vs. The Body and Full of Hell in Hayter’s), both have “complicated” relationships with Christianity, and both have classical music training, piano and voice, respectively. But while Amos has often mixed her emotional power with a bit of sweetness in presentation, Hayter’s music is the ragged edge of an exploding star.

That’s not to say there isn’t beauty in Hayter’s work. Album opener “FAITHFUL SERVANT FRIEND OF CHRIST” finds Hayter’s voice riding on a beautiful string arrangement. You might mistake it for a legitimate hymn if it were not for the dark timbres and the final lyrics, “Bend before unending night.” The fact that she invokes Satan to stand beside her in the next song is another hint that we haven’t stumbled onto Profound Lore’s first gospel record.

Picking genre tags is even less helpful than usual here. The accompaniment to Hayter’s singing is often minimal, with piano or keys punctuated by an occasional industrial or noise flourish. But Hayter’s work is first and foremost defined by her virtuosic voice, ranging from the choral to the operatic and all the way up to black metal-esque screams. “FAITHFUL SERVANT” has a stunning choral arrangement of layers of Hayter’s voice in a striking-but-clean vocal style, but the very next track, “DO YOU DOUBT ME TRAITOR,” finds her diving into the lower depths of her impressive range, pleading, “How can you doubt me now?” The song eventually erupts into Hayter’s barely contained shrieks, and the dripping venom she adds to the line, “Every vein of every leaf is slaked with poison” is delivered with such nuance and delicately applied timbre that it’s difficult to imagine anyone singing the word “slake” in a way that’s more viscerally evocative of the word’s literal meaning.*

There are too many amazing moments to detail here, although I’m tempted to do it. The album is a tour-de-force performance pitting Hayter’s substantial chops against soul-shattering emotions barely restrained. I’ll confess: I wanted to write this review much earlier, to coincide with the release of the album, but I just couldn’t do it. Part of that was because the usual b.s. and work stress, but part of it was that the music demands an investment that can be difficult to give. That is in no way a critique--great art should challenge us, or maybe more than that, great art should sit us down in a chair in a room and scream in our faces until we acknowledge it, and Caligula does that. Hayter has been relatively open about her history of a domestic abuse survivor, and although she describes her music as a way of talking about those experiences allegorically, there’s very little to shield the listener from that power, and as someone who’s had some run ins with abuse in my own adult life, I initially shrunk back.

But much like Hayter had to write this music, I felt I had to write this review. I’m going heavy on the astronomical analogies, but this album is a meteor strike to your soul, and if it doesn’t produce a reaction in you, then you might be dead inside. If your takeaway from another site’s blurb is, “Oh, singer-songwriter with electronic/industrial touches, a pretty voice, and occasional metal shrieks,” your expectations going into this are going to be shattered like the breaking glass in “SORROW! SORROW! SORROW!” (even after many, many listens, the sound still startles me every time. That’s where this music is going to take you.) I know I’ve paraphrased this Iggy Pop quote about Coltrane dozens of times, but this is music that can be difficult to get close to, and it’s not going to be for everyone. And that’s fine. But for those who can engage with this work, I think you’ll find yourself changed to a degree you wouldn’t have expected. I am.

*It’s at 1:07 in the track. Go listen now. Do it. I’ll be here when you get back.

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