After formal and informal justice failed her, the artist expresses her pain from past abusive relationships with expansive, uncensored metal.
“Survivors don’t really get to explore many emotions in healing,” says singer and musician Kristin Hayter, who records under the name Lingua Ignota. “The healing model is be gentle with everything and to be gentle with yourself. It’s about forgiveness and kindness. And that wasn’t the model that I wanted to explore.”
Hayter’s music is neither gentle nor forgiving. Her newest album, Caligula (Profound Lore), is a withering 67-minute cry of rage and pain, mixing metal trudge, noise feedback, and agonized quasi-classical vocals to confront the singer’s history of domestic abuse. It’s intense, exhausting, and bleakly beautiful—a record of brutal music addressing brutality and trauma.
Noise and metal are genres often associated with male performers and male aggression. More, Hayter’s two abusive relationships, over seven years, were both with men in the extreme music scene. Hayter loves the music too, though, and as she considered making an album about her abuse, she “started looking at the things that I found effective in these genres. And a lot of it is, as effective as it is, is posturing. It’s fantasy violence or fantasy aggression. And I wanted to take that and dramatically re-contextualize it in terms of something that I thought was real, which was survival. I found that extreme music, and that aggression was very helpful not only in conveying my own feelings of despair, and aggression and rage, but also in expressing the actual feeling of having violence done to you.”
Instead of the demons, Vikings, corpses, and theatrical gore which burst and ooze from metal lyrics, Caligula‘s songs are sad, introspective, and personal. The last track on the album, “I Am the Beast,” starts out as a quiet dirge framed by classical harpsichord, with Hayter singing a multi-tracked plainchant lament which vibrates with grief. “All I want is boundless love,” she intones. “All I know is violence. Violence. Violence.” Then the track is crushed beneath a slow, serrated wave of doom metal, with Hayter howling like a wolf being tortured to death.
The enormous noise on the track can be heard as an expression of Hayter’s own anger, Or it could be the trauma taking her apart. Abuser, abused, and abuse are all wrapped around each other in an indistinguishable roar. In the last minute of the song, a melody begins to rise out of the static feedback, moving towards a possible clear resolution. But that resolution never comes; the tune breaks off abruptly. “It abandons you at the end,” Hayter says. “It just leaves you in silence.”
That lack of closure reflects Hayter’s ugly experience with her abusers. After her first relationship ended, she says, “I tried to pursue accountability via the court system. And it didn’t work out well for me.” With her second abuser, she spoke out to the DIY arts community in Portland. “And that didn’t work out well for me either. Or for anyone really.” After formal and informal justice both failed, Hayter decided that “there was no other way for me to process my experiences” other than through her music. “I had a lot of difficulty finding the healing that I needed in the real world,” she says. “So I tried to create it in my art, I think.”
Even in the art, though, healing is messy, contingent, and difficult to express or resolve. On “Sorrow! Sorrow! Sorrow!” Hayter sings the title phrase with a yodeling, ululating technique inspired by throat singing, creating odd microtones. She sounds like she’s simultaneously being strangled and turning into an alien. “I read a review where someone said there was an error in production,” she laughed. “They said I needed to go see a vocal coach.” The sound is broken and strange, capturing the way trauma alienates you from yourself.
The song “May Failure Be Your Noose” captures a sense of wrongness in a different way. It’s based on the text of imprecatory songs from the Bible. As a Catholic, Hayter says, “we weren’t supposed to pray them, because they’re so nasty. You’re calling on God to intercede and exact vengeance on your behalf.” The song’s lyrics also include some of the most painful things her abusers had said to her, sung over a pretty piano rock ballad accompaniment.
Who will love you if I don’t?
Who will fuck you if I won’t?
May failure be a garment to hang around you
May failure be a belt with which to gird you.
May failure be a noose with which to hang you.
The lyrics could be Hayter condemning her abusers to torment, or it could be an account of what her abusers did to her. “It creates a destabilizing perspective,” she says.
The name Lingua Ignota is latin for “unknown language;” it was the term Hildegaard of Bingen used to describe an invented language she used for mystical purposes. For Hayter, the name refers to the effort to speak what can’t be spoken. “Trauma can’t be expressed. It can’t be verbalized. It’s beyond expression; we don’t have language for trauma,” Hayter told me. “So taking this postmodern approach, and putting all of those things together, is an attempt to express something that cannot be expressed, or that we don’t necessarily have language for. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Confessional healing narratives about trauma and metal lyrics often are both, in their way, about empowerment. You’ve overcome your past and are stronger, or you’re a monster trailing hellfire and smiting the earth. Hayter draws from these traditions, and others, to speak a more conflicted truth about how empowerment and justice are elusive, pain persists, and things don’t necessarily get better. Caligula hurts, and won’t let you turn away from the hurt. At the heart of the noise and of Hayter’s lovely, thoughtful compositions sit the bleak lines from the song “Butcher of the World:” “In return for my love/He strikes me down.”