Though I have no first-hand experience with this, my sense is that it’s more difficult for women and members of the LGBTQ+ to break into the relative mainstream of experimental music. Sure, you could argue that people with an affinity for “outsider” art would naturally be more inclined to accept communities broadly persecuted by society. But on the other hand, the challenge of gaining prominence in an underground genre is significant in its own right, even without the added barriers faced by marginalized groups.
That’s why it’s heartening to see a noticeable uptick in non-men earning attention in the experimental music scene. Before the 2010s, there was a shortlist of women who broke into the underground limelight, namely Laurie Anderson, Diamanda Galás, and Jarboe. (Please, feel free to prove me wrong on this one. I’d love to learn about more fantastic female musicians.) However, in the last handful of years alone, we’ve seen truly bold, exceptional new music from artists like Holly Herndon, Pharmakon, Puce Mary, Uboa, and others. (Again, please chime in with any other recommendations.) Their music is noteworthy independent of the diversity they bring to experimental music, but ignoring the significance of their presence in the underground would fail to recognize the gradual crawl of progress.
As you likely guessed, this preface applies to the brilliant work of LINGUA IGNOTA, the pseudonym of classically-trained composer Kristin Hayter. I write “composer,” because the songs on CALIGULA (as well as 2017’s ALL BITCHES DIE) are written with the scope and detail of avant-garde classical and opera, with added darkness via shades of death industrial, power electronics, noise, dark ambient, and darkwave.
Hayter’s approach to song craft, and especially her vocals and focus on impactful lyrics, have clear parallels to the work of Galás, particularly her “Masque of the Red Death” trilogy. Lyrically, Hayter draws from her prior experiences of abuse, self-labeling her songs as “survivor anthems.” The results are harrowing, massive performances that are purposefully perturbing, so as to accurately convey her strife.
Hayter starts out conservatively with “FAITHFUL SERVANT FRIEND OF CHRIST,” a stirring hymnal of sorts pairing her soaring voice with an orchestral swell. The tone on “DO YOU DOUBT ME TRAITOR” takes an immediate, sharp downturn, with Hayter putting her vocal range on display. Atop a sinister, churning, piano-driven soundscape, her vocals fluctuate between anthemic bellows, snarls, whispers, and blood-curling screens. As she delivers brutally honest details from a past relationship, she asks, “How do I break you before you break me?”
With her lyrics, Hayter employs a style that blends language akin to religious texts with pure, unfiltered emotional honesty. She displays this on “MAY FAILURE BE YOUR NOOSE,” with a brutal opening salvo: “Who will love you if I don’t/Who will fuck you if I won’t/May failure be a garment to wrap ’round you/May failure be a belt with which to gird you/May failure be a noose with which to hang you.” The track’s accompanying music is equally epic, showing prominent elements of noise alongside her classical stylings that erupt with cacophonous percussion.
Hayter also toys with traditional singer-songwriter tactics on tracks like “FRAGRANT IS MY MANY FLOWERED CROWN,” though it’s still dripping with experimentalism. The piano driven pseudo-ballad sees her singing modulate with vocal effects and the overall peaceful instrumentation play from within dense, dark soundscapes. The transition into “IF THE POISON WON’T TAKE YOU MY DOGS WILL” is jarring, with a generally tranquil midsection bookended by intense bursts of noise, percussion, and Hayter’s howls. An organ- and harpsichord version of this extreme approach appears on “DAY OF TEARS AND MOURNING,” along with the fitting “lyrics” of incomprehensible screaming.
By the time “I AM THE BEAST” arrives, the listener is surely exhausted from the sonic and emotional weight of the album. The finale offers a fitting response to this state, with a grandiose, doomgaze-inspired vibe that matches the sorrow Hayter has captured on the preceding tracks. It’s on this track that she belts out perhaps the most heartbreaking lyric on CALIGULA: “All I want is boundless love/All I know is violence.”
Pain is a difficult emotion to effectively convey through music. While the general feeling is easy enough to capture, few artists can truly allow listeners to vicariously experience their struggles through transportive lyrics and compositions. With CALIGULA, Hayter excels at creating this sensation. Her latest release is musically challenging and lyrically devastating, further establishing LINGUA IGNOTA as an essential figure in modern experimental music.
That our celebration of her burgeoning musical legacy stems from compositions built on the terror of her past is a tragic irony. Yet, often times, it takes survivor anthems to adequately capture the reality of the horrifying actions behind abuse, and to properly convey why these issues remain a grave concern in desperate need of our collective efforts to address them. Considering recent events, CALIGULA is precisely the kind of cathartic, honest, and impactful collection of survivor anthems that the heavy music community needs to hear. Hopefully they listen.
CALIGULA is available now via Profound Lore Records.