Lingua Ignota: Small mercies
Photography: Emily Birds
Styling: All clothing by Ashley Rose Couture
When Kristin Hayter moved to Pennsylvania, she ended up inadvertently living across from Three Mile Island – the site of the worst nuclear disaster in American history. The morning of 28 March 1979, a pressure valve in the plant’s second reactor failed to close, causing a partial meltdown that led to the evacuation of thousands of residents. The remaining reactor operated for another 40 years and eventually shut down in 2019, leaving behind an eerie image: four large grey towers abandoned within a rural sprawl.
It’s this landscape of dereliction and decay that informs Hayter’s latest album, Sinner Get Ready. A multi-disciplinary artist originally from Del Mar, California, Hayter performs under the moniker Lingua Ignota – derived from the sacred ‘unknown language’, created by medieval mystic and composer Hildegard of Bingen. The solo project is largely about giving expression to trauma; an ever-evolving vocabulary of sound and performance used to convey the unspeakable. On previous albums All Bitches Die (2017) and Caligula (2019), this has taken the form of a torrential downpour of sound. As a survivor of abuse, Hayter has drawn on a wide range of influences from baroque and black metal to noise and neoclassical to match the overwhelming and incoherent nature of trauma, her classically trained voice gliding from operatic beauty to a scream sharp enough to cut through titanium.
But on Sinner Get Ready, Hayter renounces the scale and grandeur of her previous albums. Instead, trauma is externalised and held in a specific location; in this case rural Pennsylvania, where she has spent most of the pandemic. The howling rage of previous releases draws back, for the most part, allowing feelings of loneliness and abandonment to be explored through the austere religious framework of Pennsylvania’s past and present.
“We don’t really have common language to talk about trauma,” Hayter tells me, smoking a straight cigarette in a black hoodie over Skype. She’s in the middle of another big move, this time to Chicago, so everything is in a state of upheaval – but this morning the house is quiet. A red lamp emits a soft glow from one corner of the room as she speaks. “We can describe it, but we can’t describe it enough. I think that’s always something that bears into the [Lingua Ignota] project, and particularly with this record.”
This time she’s making a conscious move away from the metal and industrial influences of her previous output. “I wanted to conceptually bring out the uneasiness and anxiety and despair that I was feeling in my own life,” she explains, “and focus instead on creating powerful scenery with a different kind of dissonance, and a different kind of ugliness, and to have the ugliness be very close.”
"I wanted to conceptually bring out the despair that I was feeling in my own life, by moving away from the metal tropes and focusing instead on a different kind of dissonance"
On the face of it, the landscape of rural Pennsylvania isn’t dissimilar to former industrial towns in South Wales or the north of England; rough and rich farmland dotted with remote communities. But, located in Appalachia, colonised by the Quakers and now populated by large Amish and Mennonite communities, Hayter believes that rural Pennsylvania has a uniquely strange vibe – based in the beginnings of American colonialism, and defined by a specific religious severity. “My experience [of it] has just been like a very weird, lonely, decaying God’s country,” she says. “So giving [my] pain to Pennsylvania and getting incredibly entwined in its religious history and the spiritual pain of feeling abandoned by God, I think, is a kind of primitive or elemental force that many people can relate to.”
Beginning work on the album in the autumn of 2019 and chipping away at it throughout the pandemic until January 2021, Sinner Get Ready is largely a product of circumstance. Hayter was initially thinking along the lines of making “Caligula 2” – something “bombastic, larger, on a more gigantic scale” than its predecessor – but that ultimately proved untenable. “With the stuff that was going on in my personal life and in the world and where I was living, it didn’t feel appropriate or accurate to make a record like that,” she explains. “It felt authentic to make something that is intimate and self-contained and very lonely-feeling.”
As a result, anything too elaborate or technically faultless was left at the door. Across the record’s nine tracks, Hayter’s voice, typically immaculate or actively non-melodic, is occasionally pitchy or out of tune – moments of imperfection purposefully left intact. “We really focused on stripping away the veneer of beauty,” Hayter says. “The vocals are partly inspired by Appalachian vocals, but I didn’t want to mimic them necessarily. I wanted to take the conviction of a vocal sung by an untrained person in an act of worship, like a congregational vocal, and focus on that tone.”
The instrumentation, too, focuses on dissonance. Working with her long-time engineer and producer Seth Manchester, the album is made primarily with traditional instruments of the Appalachian region – a bowed psaltery, a mountain dulcimer – and early instruments in general, including a banjo played by Providence songwriter J. Mamana, and bells and percussion that Hayter acquired from various places around her house. She also plays the cello (“in a terrible way”), while multi-instrumentalist Ryan Seaton adds his own knowledge of instruments and arrangements native to his home in the Ozarks. In some instances they’re honoured in terms of their original tone and context, while in others they’re subverted – like on penultimate track, Man is Like a Spring Flower, where traditional instruments are used to recreate the feeling of American minimalism in the vein of modern composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Using place “as a kind of artistic constraint”, Hayter also absorbed Mennonite, Amish, monastic and ascetic texts, using their vernacular and vocabulary to talk about her own experiences. Thick with lyrical references to the blood of Christ, disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, her own physical surroundings – calls to ‘Repent Now Confess Now’ written on barns in Amish Country, a nod to an abandoned mining town where fire has been burning underground since 1962 – and the lore of the Pennsylvania Dutch, Sinner Get Ready combines the personal with the allegorical. And through the lens of the more evangelical sects of Christianity, Hayter looks to God in the absence of hope for justice. “Glorious Father intercede for me/ If I cannot run from you, neither can he,” she sings on I Who Bend the Tall Grasses, the most cacophonous track on the album, and the only one on which she does allow her voice to lash out into a gravelly roar.
“I’m looking at biblical consequences for behaviour and biblical consequences for betrayal and abandonment,” she explains. “It’s definitely looking at myself and the people around me through the lens of sin, and being good or bad via the tenets of Christianity. It’s thinking about the blood of Jesus as this element that is supposed to wipe free your debts of sin and that, ultimately, trying to absolve yourself is self-seeking. It’s looking at how people manipulate the concepts of being absolved to do further harm.”
The ending resists the impulse to escalate into something big and climatic. Instead, it does the opposite, attempting to sit with an inability to right the scales – abandoned, as the devout may sometimes feel, by God. Closing track The Solitary Brethren of Ephrata eases into a state of synchronicity, its minimal instrumental and multi-layered vocals ebbing and flowing with the grace of a hymn. In a chorus of devastating harmony with herself, Hayter sings: “No longer shall I wander, ugliness my home/ Loneliness my master, I bow to him alone.”
“I think the record ending in that way is very much about acceptance of a terrible situation, and creating this beauty in a primitive sense that things may not end in a blaze of glory, or in a blaze of cosmic retribution,” says Hayter, taking a final pause to find the right words. “Things might in fact end in a much darker and sadder way, and I think it’s about accepting that or deciding to let go. At least a little bit.”
Sinner Get Ready is out now via Sargent House