Even a handful of Emperor Caligula’s misdeeds justify the Roman leader’s legacy as an insane tyrant. His decedent sadism undercurrents Kristin Hayter’s latest album as Lingua Ignota. The Rhode Island experimental artist is no stranger to appropriating evil and violence. Infusing death industrial, avant-metal and ritual ambient music with classical piano, choral aesthetics and even “death gospel,” her “survivor anthems” unveil the hideous underbelly of patriarchal power structures. Building from 2017’s All Bitches Die, Hayter augments her instrumentation, vocal performances and thematic breadth for a majestic draconian opera. Caligula follows a tortured soul gleaning strength from the depravity that surrounds it.
Dusky cello notes glide over an electro-acoustic drone collage during “Faithful Servant Friend of Christ,” highlighting Caligula’s grandiose sonics. The song’s vast scope and deepened soundscape gives a panoramic view of Lingua Ignota’s desolate inner world. Her voice builds and crescendos, calling for a relinquishing of light—to stare into the abyss and behold its unpleasant realities. It’s an apt prerequisite for the soul-rending 10-minute monster “Do You Doubt Me Traitor.”
From a demure foundation of piano and timpani, Hayter’s voice overflows alongside the instrumentation from a ghostly groan to manic shrieks. Ted Byrnes’ frenetic percussion propels the melancholic strings and chilling chords in grating chaos, growing alongside the petrifying narrative. Lingua Ignota has long been a vehicle for Hayter’s voice, but she’s now pushed herself to unheard levels of transfixing terror. During the chamber noise midsection, anguished rage billows from her screams. In the ghoulish choral finale, her harmonies are immaculately spine-chilling. The song is disorienting in its intensity.
Caligula arguably reach its emotional peak on its second track, but in no way does Hayter loosen her grip afterward. “Butcher of the World,” maintains a propensity for bipolar dynamics. The jump from hushed dissonance to hellish fanfare is physically jolting. Hayter has the building and cutting of tension down to a science, dominating the senses at her most furious, and haunting to the core at her most ethereal. Couple that with imprecatory psalms for lyrics and classically trained arrangements, and a singularity of nihilistic eloquence emerges. In this way, “Fucking Deathdealer” retains its impact over an etheral tapestry of chimes, strings and expressive vocal trills. When she says, “If you don’t fear me yet, you will,” she could not feel any more convincing.
As if it needs repeating, Caligula is not a pretty album. Even within the delicate solo piece “Sorrow Sorrow Sorrow,” Hayer’s sustained notes assume a throaty, visceral timbre. The minimal piano arrangement amplifies every sound, from creaking piano pedals to her breath. It’s close enough to touch, giving tangible realism to her pain. She’s willing to tear her heart out, detailing her lived experiences. Nowhere is this more heartbreaking than in the midsection of “If The Poison Won’t Take You My Dogs Will.”
Sandwiched by crushing doom passages—the latter of which benefits from the inhuman rasps of Full of Hell’s Dylan Walker—Lingua Ignota paints a devastating picture of the toll of sexual violence: “Make worthless your body/ So no man can break it.” She’s herself a survivor and her rapturous melodies carry the raw despondence of a death rattle. This makes the final drone-metal explosion that much more cathartic, complete with a liturgical repetition of “kyrie eleison”—Latin for “Lord have mercy.”
Caligula’s unforgiving potency persists, but the enveloping darkness cultivates arresting artistry. The resonant church organ of “Day of Tears and Mourning” quickly becomes a destructive dirge driven by the percussion of The Body’s Lee Buford. Harsh noise architect Sam McKinlay may pile on layers of grinding muck, but elegance remains central to the overall effect of the song. It’s a compelling contrast, especially on the polarized ballad “Fragrant is My Many Flowered Crown.” Mirroring the lyrical refrain of “Sorrow Sorrow Sorrow,” she laments the merciless nature of the world while resolving to fight fire with fire.
Hayter spares no opportunity to thicken her fog of vengeful agony. Even the nimble piano lines that start “May Failure Be Your Noose” are joined by filthy guitar strains and Uniform vocalist Mike Berdan’s animalistic brays—not to mention the biting question: “Who will love you if I don’t? Who will fuck you if I won’t?” By relinquishing tenderness from those who would abuse it, she finds empowerment through her woe. The switch from “betray me” to “fear me” in “Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft” achieves a similar effect. The progression from forlorn piano chords to caustic sludge metal follow, from transcendences to retribution.
Closing track “I Am the Beast” effectively brings Caligula’s journey full circle. Hayter harmonizes with singer-songwriter Noraa Kaplan, filling in the space left by resonant harpsichord with a fatalistic self-examination. The elegy reaches its bombastic culmination with Hayter’s devastating screams: “Praise me/ Praise me/ I am the beast.”
Though she acknowledges her scars and trauma, she rises from the hardships a grieving, wrathful force of nature. It’s this self-determination that gives Lingua Ignota so much force. The bravery she shows in expounding on such catastrophic subject matter is only matched by her ability to redirect her inner darkness to those would entrap her. In this sense, she has become stronger than the tyrants of the world. By harnessing her suffering, Hayter throws Caligula like a javelin into the heart of her persecutors.