Most of us, perhaps nearly all of us, listen to music in a largely absent way. We spin a record, and maybe find a song or two we really appreciate to toss into a playlist. Those songs shuffle on in the background of our days, our jogs or drives, or if they’re really special, give us a refuge when we’re feeling a specific way.
CALIGULA is not for the absent.
The latest LP by multidisciplinary artist Lingua Ignota is very hard to consume, probably because it’s not meant to be consumed. It’s meant to be experienced, perhaps even endured. I had to take breathers the first few times through. It is brutally intense, breathtaking in its beauty and yet so visceral and remorseless in its delivery. CALIGULA is the first record I would describe as “difficult” to listen to, and I mean that as the highest of praise.
This album is dominated by dynamics, by juxtaposition: nearly every tune on CALIGULA builds up to incredible heights, only to swan dive off into deepest oblivion. Pretty passages shining with an almost hopeful light are soon extinguished by crushing heavy darkness: the gentle piano chords that open “MAY FAILURE BE YOUR NOOSE” are quickly stifled under massive gritty lows and vicious screams, while “SORROW! SORROW! SORROW!” uses intrusive smashes and audio of a disgruntled Lars Ulrich to disrupt what would otherwise be a beautiful meditative piece.
CALIGULA moves slowly, deliberately, like a hyperintelligent predator stalking a kill. This record turns time and space into weapons: only one song clocks in at under four minutes, while the rest on average approach seven. Lingua Ignota lets musical movements breathe, building tension at a dreadful pace before releasing it like a shotgun blast. Even the most minute decisions, the tiniest of tones, are laden with intention: ambient creaks and clicks litter the mix like roaches, crawling in and out of scenes in defiance of the music’s energy. The album’s composition as a whole reflects this too: “FRAGRANT IS MY MANY FLOWER’D CROWN” sits in the middle of two very volatile sequences, a tiny oasis of respite from the crushing and undulating energies of the surrounding songs.
A whole orchestra’s worth of sounds and instruments lend their voices to CALIGULA, yet the focal point of intensity must be Kristin Hayter’s vocals. Their power is utterly unmatched, each belted note loaded with energy and passion and emotion. Songs like “DO YOU DOUBT ME TRAITOR” play with this power, starting with small, near-breathless notes before slowly blooming into expansive harmonies and throat-shredding screams. Hayter layers take after take into a massive moving sea of vocals that chime in and out like a Greek Chorus. Sweet, timid passages surge into overloaded screeches on a whim, wreaking havoc in a sonic space that moments before seemed safe and comforting.
Hayter’s voice is used on CALIGULA with terrifying precision, delivering messages that bite so, so deep. The lyrics are emotionally crushing, cutting away all pomp or presentation to present a bare and brutalized truth. The music of Lingua Ignota confronts the realities of abuse, and so much of the writing embodies the fear and uncertainty that undoubtedly pervades such an experience. The questions “Who will love you if I don’t? Who will fuck you if I won’t” break down the subject by gaslighting them into dependence and self-doubt, while lines like “If you don’t fear me yet / you will” and “If you rise up to heaven / I turn the sun to blind you” skip all pretense in favor of direct threats. Heavy use of repetition in both musical and lyrical themes deepen the peril, reflecting the cyclical nature in which abuse lives and thrives.
Even more poignant are the moments on CALIGULA when Hayter’s voice moves to the receiving end of this verbalized abuse. The desperation in the lines “How do I break you / Before you break me” soon collapses into pure despair: “If you lay down your life / No man can take it.” By the end of the record, the voice becomes desensitized to it all with a resigned recitation of “Beast he named me / Beast I am.”
Yet for all the pain laden in these words, Lingua Ignota does not surrender. CALIGULA is a record seething with anger, and that anger belongs to and exudes from Hayter. CALIGULA is a battle cry; it takes the terrible realities of Hayter’s experience and bares them for the world to hear, bringing to visibility something that for so long has lived in shadows, screaming truths that have existed only in whispers.
Perhaps that’s what makes CALIGULA such a “difficult” album. This isn’t a collection of songs meant for consumption—it’s a trial, a feat of will. Like Virgil and Dante, Lingua Ignota brings the listener on a tour through hell, a passage through the fire and horror that hides all around us, unspoken, unacknowledged. It is a challenging journey, one that we—unlike survivors of abuse—are able to choose, and thus abandon at any time. In listening to CALIGULA, we share in a very small part of the story and the suffering, taste tribulations we can only begin to imagine. What reward we find at the end is up to us, but one thing is guaranteed: this record does not leave us the same as we arrived.
My Top Track: “MAY FAILURE BE YOUR NOOSE”
CALIGULA is out via Profound Lore Records. You can grab a vinyl from their website, or stream the record on Bandcamp and Spotify. For more news on Lingua Ignota including upcoming tour dates, check out Hayter’s website.