Lingua Ignota's track by track guide to new album CALIGULA

Lingua Ignota press shot
(Image credit: Lingua Ignota)

Some albums are so remarkable, they take root under your skin the second you hear them. CALIGULA – the second album from US experimentalist Lingua Ignota, also known as Kristin Hayter – is one such album. Brutal, ugly and deeply cathartic, it's an astonishing piece of work that tackles life as a survivor of domestic abuse. 

Confronting the myriad conflicts that come from living with (and subsequently surviving) abuse – from craving the love of those who hurt you all the way through to 'dropping their body in the fucking river' – it unflinchingly turns that conflict into visceral, honest art.

If it sounds like a difficult listen, that's because it is. And if it makes you feel uncomfortable, that's because it's meant to. Lyrically vulnerable but furiously confrontational all at once, CALIGULA forces listeners to confront Hayter's demons alongside her, and delight in their vengeance as she mercilessly berates and conquers them. 

Musically, it's no easier. Resolutely difficult to categorise, CALIGULA layers caustic, operatic vocals with orchestral instrumentation, black metal inspiration, flashes of trip hop, obscured blast-beats, punishing rhythms and dark, hypnotic folk. It's not hyperbolic to state it's quite unlike anything you've likely heard before.

Here, Hayter talks us through the brilliant CALIGULA one track at a time.

Faithful Servant Friend Of Christ

CALIGULA starts with a warning. I wanted this record to begin with an overture that anticipates melodic themes and material you’ll hear later on. I was thinking of the Vorspiel to Wagner’s Das Rheinhold and also of a traditional vocal round or the all-knowing Greek Chorus, and the song creates a ring like the record creates a ring. Variations of that cello line are heard throughout the record. I made it a little more organic than operatic by pitting a major droning arpeggiated base below a plaintive minor line, and vocals that are slightly off. It ends with altar bells, which is an homage to the bells on All Bitches Die. Because I’m not interested in working within any genre, my approach to creating a line/thread through the music is to build on the vocabulary of my previous work. 

I remember with this one, Seth and I were both really grossed out by the tone of my high voice in the harmony, how shrill it was, and we kept it specifically for that reason. Many many times on CALIGULA we kept the ugliest take. 

Do You Doubt Me Traitor

This is maybe the most complex and counterintuitive song on the record. The piano here is a variation on the cello part you just heard in FAITHFUL SERVANT. DOUBT is crowded, intentionally so, and I think the most important thing is the use of space to create a real sense of dread, encroaching. The vocals at the beginning are very quiet but incredibly close, they move away when it gets loud, and move back in at the end for that polyphonic moment, which is loosely based on a medieval song Chanterai pour mon Corage. The final lines of the song, uttered alone without accompaniment, we tried to make the loudest part of the record. 

A lot of people have asked if my vocals are pitch shifted in this song but nope I was just truly ruined at the time of recording. I tracked these vocals in one take on the floor of my closet, and when I sent Seth a picture of the extremely basic, bad quality mic I used to record, he said “never send me anything recorded with that.” Sorry Seth! 

We introduce Ted Byrnes on percussion here, who scrapes and squeals around in this wonderful way that really influenced my own use of “percussion” and texture that you hear throughout; after we had the record kinda put together I crashed around with aluminium utility lights in my garage for the full hour and we picked moments from out of that.

I don’t know what to say about the text for this song, as usual there are multiple sources at play here, and this song is about multiple things with specific references to multiple people. It is a song of pursuit, of betrayal, it is an oath. 'Throw your body in the fucking river' is one of my favourite lines on the whole damn thing. I wanted that pulse at the end to reference a very vivid memory I have of sitting in my room in the dark while cop cars approached outside, the rhythmic flashes of red and blue. 

Butcher Of The World

This is the first song I recorded and it is now the one I’ve just listened too many times. The sample of Henry Purcell’s Funeral Music For Queen Mary, aka the theme from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was the very first thing I wanted on the record. This sample also appears in Cage’s similarly brazen track Agent Orange so for me it’s a cultural signifier for stylised gratuitous violence, despite being originally a stately piece written to memorialise the death of a queen. I like to think about the cultural history of something that has been plundered through sampling, or the different contexts a thing can have interpreted different ways. I want to deconstruct that and turn it around myself. 

BUTCHER has a good fake-out, and then blasts you with that nasty synth that appears throughout the record, but it’s fleeting. Destabilising the listener by not allowing them to know what’s going to come next is part of the cycle I want to create. Intermittent reward.  

May Failure Be Your Noose

FAILURE is the biggest risk on the record to me. It’s short, it’s accessible. I kept forcing Seth to reassure me it didn’t sound like Imagine Dragons or Evanescence. I thought there was something fucked up about how open it was, musically. The text is based on the biblical Imprecatory Psalms, and it was all built around that march-like chord progression with a slightly off-kilter time signature, which fittingly follows the march from BUTCHER. A lot of the way music was written here references Baroque marches or ceremonial pieces from composers like Purcell and Handel. 

Mike Berdan came in to the studio to guest here, and originally we collaborated on this pretty straightforward power electronics song where we hurled lines from the psalms at one another, and it turned into this very incongruous four on the floor techno thing that made absolutely no sense with the rest of the record. I kept trying to save the song but I couldn’t, which was probably a metaphor for something else, then I was like fuck this and made it into something totally different and completely mine.

I think this is where Lee Buford starts drumming. I love his style, which is big and bold. 

Fragrant Is My Many Flower’d Crown

I wanted to give the listener a break, sort of. Something simple, quiet, and brutal as a counterpoint to all of the elaborate, labyrinthine moving parts prior. 

Lyrically this is one of the most important songs to me, largely lifted from the song Tender Comrade by Billy Bragg, which is significant to me – one of my abusers named his record after it, and a lot of this record is about my experience of speaking out about this person in my community. 

This song is about wanting to be loved and being unloved – I know many people may only hear rage and despair and spite in CALIGULA, but there is so much fucking love on this record I can’t stand it. The flowers abundant in my art and in this song have to do with flowers being given as a conciliatory gesture after abuse in a past relationship, that I was given flowers many times, and they became a symbol of cruelty. I introduce an extended vocal technique to accompany the word sorrow. I was trying to think of a way to give something really fecund to that word, how to impart the feeling of what the word means, and I settled on the really lonely, bizarre sound of overtone. 

If The Poison Won’t Take You My Dogs Will

This song is also pretty brutal lyrically, it examines the concept of not being able to go on, reclaiming autonomy through suicide, which sometimes has felt like my only option. The Kyrie Eleison ('Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy') descends down the scale and then you are left with only voice, piano, and cello. The lyrics are a sort of recontextualisation of the Jonestown death tape, the way Jim Jones kept manipulating until the very end. I wanted to replicate also the really fucked up ambient sound in the death tape, the people screaming, the panicked energy, and I remember someone commenting on a post Full Of Hell made about my music that I had “zero blast beats” so not only are there blast beats ripped from youtube hidden all over the record but they’re especially present on this song, as well as a sample of a black metal track that will remain nameless. 

As dark as it is, there are little jokes like that everywhere – self-awareness. I am really interested in the “gaze” of this music, who is being looked at and who is doing the looking, and how that shifts rapidly. 

Day Of Tears And Mourning

TEARS has a big macho sound but it comes from something else entirely. Like the Funeral Music For Queen Mary, the source for this song is a meditation on death; O Death Rock Me Asleep which was supposedly written by Ann Boleyn right before her execution. 

Any time there were heavy moments on CALIGULA I wanted to stay away from metal formulas, so instead of beefy beats we did trip hop fills. I put the electronic snare I use in the big track on All Bitches Die, Woe To All in here, and if you look up the lyrics to Woe on the internet, they are listed as “[incomprehensible screaming]” so while the lyrics are actually sort of significant here, strongly tied to Stabat Mater dolorosa, this song is aware of itself, and is aware of the world it is built upon. 

Dylan does guest vocals here and I love working with him, I think his harsh vocals are so great and our voices occupy a sort of similar frequency and it can be hard to tell us apart. I like how we weave in and out. 

Lingua Ignota press shot

(Image credit: Lingua Ignota)

Sorrow Sorrow Sorrow

The jump scare in this one gets me every time.  I feel like it sets you on edge for the rest of the song. The prelude to this is the lightbulb rolling around on the floor throughout CROWN

I truly hate this vocal performance, but Seth insisted we keep it. I can barely listen to this song, even though the ugliness is intentional. The overtone singing returns and 'god alone knows my sorrow' is actually from a suicide note written by a man who killed himself and his girlfriend, but it is meant to speak to the ineffable quality of trauma, something my music tries to express. This song is, again, about abdicating your body to find freedom. 

Eventually this is interrupted by a sample of Lars Ulrich feeling bitter and defeated while eating a sandwich. I put this in there to make fun of myself, and perhaps to express what I know some people are thinking while they listen to me, but also to pay homage to something that commonly happens when I play – someone talking during the quiet part of the set.

Seth and I recorded the piano for this over my original vocal demo for the song well after midnight, and Seth was lying on the floor in silence, and it was a very crushing, special experience.

Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft

This is another big complex asshole of a thing, a secret black metal worship track. The chord progression I based off primitive black metal but with a weird chromatic twist, and it’s another one where we did fucked up stuff to the drums. Ted did really brilliant percussion here over the piano, working the cymbals to follow the line, and I kept the melody simple and mostly didn’t stuff this song with words. Instead of coming in with blasts, there are improv jazz drums in the B section. 

The only line attributed to Caligula himself 'Let them hate me, so long as they fear me' appears here. 

My friend Noraa, who I think is a real visionary and one of the most incredible vocalists, joins me here. Her voice soars and cuts through everything. The polyphonic incantation 'Kill them all' is another favourite moment. 

Fun anecdote, Seth did tremolo guitar here (Seth is also a brilliant instrumentalist, and played everything I couldn’t play and filled in for Lee on drums a few times as well) and when we told Lee we were doing that, Lee texted Seth “bet you can’t do it.” The amount of fun we had recording this damn thing is pretty criminal for how destructive and real it is. 

Fucking Deathdealer

This track is just voice and psaltery, inspired equally by Appalachia and early music. It’s very quiet and short but menacing, it’s meant to help bring you down to prepare you for the last track, a bridge. It was one of the last things recorded, and honestly I would love to make music that sounds just like this for the rest of my life. 

'Throatslitter of the world' is something that my friend Josh Landes (Limbs Bin) told me sounded like a Lingua Ignota lyric, so it became one. It repeats lyrics from earlier songs but gives them different context, echoing the impossibility of breaking a cycle.

I Am The Beast

This is my favourite song on this record. It has a direct link to Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament and I also wanted it to channel the depletion of the Wagnerian Liebestod, an aria that is notorious for being full of cracks and exhaustion when performed in context at the end of an incredibly gruelling opera. 'All I want is boundless love, all I know is violence' could be the tagline of the record, that violence begets violence, and also directly rips my favourite Frank O’Hara poem, from Meditations In An Emergency: 'I am the least difficult of men, all I want is boundless love'. And it begins with speaking to invalidation and verbal abuse, 'Beast he named me, beast I am, grief: come claim me' to when the song opens up: 'I am the beast, I am, praise me.' It is weaponising yourself with what has been used against you, cruelty flipped on itself, used to make oneself powerful. Also a self-aware acknowledgement of the satanic posturing of metal put in context of something real. 

The song flows out into a cacophony of lights being smashed around, and noise provided by the ever brilliant Sam McKinlay (The Rita) and then the strings from FAITHFUL SERVANT return to bring you back to the beginning, and then you are suddenly abandoned in silence, left with nothing, or to repeat it all again. 

CALIGULA is available now via Profound Lore Records. Catch Lingua Ignota on tour at one of the dates below:

Sep 09: Chicago Empty Bottle, IL
Sep 10: Detroit Deluxx Fluxx, MI
Sep 11: Toronto Baby G, ON
Sep 12: Montreal La Vitrola, QC
Sep 13: Providence The Columbus Theater, RI
Sep 14: Hudson Basilica Soundscape, NY
Sep 15: Brooklyn Public Records, NY
Sep 17: Philadelphia PhilMOCA, PA
Sep 26: Brussells Centre Tour à Plomb, BE
Sep 27: Amsterdam de Brakke Grond , NL
Sep 28: Amsterdam Paradiso, NL
Sep 30: London Oslo, UK
Oct 01: Manchester Pink Room, UK
Oct 02: Bristol Rough Trade, UK
Oct 04: Lille La Malterie, FR
Oct 05: Nijemegen Soulcrusher, NL
Oct 06: Berlin Urban Spree, DE
Oct 07: Krakow Unsound, PL
Oct 08: Prague Klub 007, CZ
Oct 10: Kosice Collosseum, SK
Oct 11: Budapest LARM, HU
Oct 12: Wien Rhiz, AT
Oct 13: Liepzig Mörtelwerk, DE
Oct 14: Mannheim Forum Mannheim, DE
Oct 16: Milano Macao, IT
Oct 18: Clermont Ferrand Raymond Bar, FR
Oct 19: Paris Espace B, FR
Oct 20: Menen cc de steiger/ stadsmuseum, BE
Nov 08: Empire, Austin, TX
Nov 25: Zebulon Los Angeles, CA
Nov 26: Bottom of the Hill San Francisco, CA