Lingua Ignota’s Appalachian Gothic

Lisa Birds

Lingua Ignota’s Appalachian Gothic

Lisa Birds

Kristin Hayter on her operatic new album Sinner Get Ready, inspired by the religious history of rural Pennsylvania

Kristin Hayter sings, speaks, and occasionally shouts on her new record, but she doesn’t scream. Unlike her previous work as Lingua Ignota, there’s very little to tie her songs on Sinner Get Ready to black metal or noise. “It might be kind of divisive,” Hayter admitted. Her most recent album, 2019’s devastating Caligula, garnered international attention for its mix of metal, industrial, and opera tropes, which she combined with live performance art to terrifying effect. But the success of the project became limiting for Hayter: “When I was thinking about making this record, I was literally told, ‘You have to make Caligula 2, and it has to be better than Caligula.'” But those expectations didn’t align with her reality. “I think one of the major tenets of this project is to remain authentic,” she said. “I wanted to really make it about what I was experiencing at that time.”

At the time, Hayter was experiencing rural Pennsylvania. After first moving from her hometown of San Diego to Philadelphia to be closer with her partner, she finally settled in State College, a university town located in the Appalachian Mountains, over 100 miles from the nearest major city. Just before the entire world entered a state of prolonged separation, she unwittingly found herself secluded. “It was a strange experience to go there for no reason other than a relationship,” reflected Hayter, who has since relocated to Chicago. “I’m not sure I would do it again.” But she also began to take inspiration from the ghostly pastorals of her desolate surroundings, drawing source material from its cultural and geographic significance, as well as her own personal struggles. “I felt very alone, especially being in this zone where I was completely isolated,” she reflected. “I looked at Pennsylvania as a way to externalize that pain.”

Hayter began Lingua Ignota as an extension of her graduate thesis from her MFA at Brown University’s Literary Art Program, a textual, performance, and musical work about women who kill their abusers. Her music has since moved away from the exacting world of fine art into a more emotive mode, but she continues to approach each project with an almost obsessive conceptual focus. Even the series of covers Hayter released throughout the 2020 lockdown works as an extension of her thesis on women scorned: She transformed Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” into a scorched, slowcore panic attack, while her interpretation of Eminem’s “Kim” recontextualizes that song’s harrowing narrative of domestic violence within her operatic framework.

Her song choices reflect the intentionality with which she approaches her music; even as she leans away from the black metal of Caligula, her work remains thematically connected. “Everything I’m doing now is very research based,” she said. “It’s really academic in a lot of ways.” For Sinner Get Ready, she applied her archivist process to her Appalachian environs, reflected in everything from lyrics to the album’s cover art, shot in the eerily cold microclimate of Pennsylvania’s Scotia Barrens. The aesthetic change mirrors her jump from the extreme metal hub Profound Lore to the more metal-adjacent Sargent House, though Hayter believes she could have easily released this album on her old label. “It was a good shift, but it wasn’t necessarily prompted by a difference in sound,” Hayter said. “I feel like [Profound Lore founder Chris] Bruni probably would have supported my weird horror in any way.”

Lingua Ignota has always had an undercurrent of Christianity: Hayter first began singing in a church choir, and she took her project’s name from Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen, whom she has called “a major influence.” But on Sinner Get Ready, she focused her research specifically on local religious history, from the evangelism of tent revivalism to the region’s unique religious sects: “I worked a lot with old Mennonite and Amish texts, and texts from Pennsylvania from the 1700s or 1800s.” Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the Great Awakening and its return to religious devotion, becomes a site for body horror on “REPENT NOW CONFESS NOW.” She became particularly fascinated with a 16th century Catholic book called The Heart Of Man: Either A Temple Of God, Or A Habitation Of Satan, Represented In Ten Emblematical Figures, pulling lyrics directly from the book on “MAN IS LIKE A SPRING FLOWER.”

But just as on Caligula, her dedication to an overarching concept belies her personal struggles. “This record is about my most recent relationship and dealing with somebody who struggles with addiction. It’s about not being able to be loved and never being enough, especially when the addiction is to other people,” she said. It was also about her physical experience of moving to a new, remote location knowing absolutely no one except her partner: “I’m in this rural space, where it feels I never actually know what’s going on.” The grandiose metaphors of Christianity felt, to Hayter, like a perfect place to hide her pain in plain sight: “I try not to be super confessional in my language, and to obfuscate all of that with biblical and allegorical imagery, without ever actually talking about myself.”

Hayter’s obsession with rural Pennsylvania extended into the musicality of the record, too: Sinner Get Ready incorporates a bevvy of Appalachian instruments, from the banjo to a mountain dulcimer. What at first began as a hobby (“The only thing to do out there was to go antiquing”) evolved into a venerable collection of bells, drums, zithers, and local string instruments. “I wanted to take these instruments and contort them and subvert them in ways to make them sound painful,” she said. “Some of them already sound painful and plaintive. They have a really specific cultural resonance, a sharpness and angularity and lack of refinement that is really beautiful and wonderful. It does harken back to certain primitivism and American music making in that area.” Combined with her use of a prepared piano, which she plucked and prodded to a strangely percussive effect, her use of rural instruments creates a haunting, disquieting sparseness across the record, the same sense of quiet unease as the beatific eeriness of Midsommar or the small town secrets of The Lottery.

Though she preemptively dismissed the term as pretentious, Hayter acknowledged that she aimed to create a gesamtkunstwerk, or total art, on Sinner Get Ready. “Nothing is there without intention,” she said. “I was really trying to make the text as important as the music and the visuals as important as the text, and to make sure that all of these things were feeding back into each other.” Rather than repeat the electronic density of Caligula, she wanted to create intensity from the stillness of her surroundings, “lending a bit of darkness and subversion to the very kind of bucolic landscape,” in her words. “I think people thought it would sound bigger, and it would sound noisier,” she said. “And I didn’t want to do that.” Instead, she examines the unsuspecting horrors lurking in the folksy quietude of rural America, painting a sinister palette with its history.

Sinner Get Ready is out 8/6 on Sargent House.

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