Country: United States
Release Date: 19 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Wikipedia
This isn't metal in any definable way, but it features on at least five best of 2019 metal lists and in the top ten of four of them. It's performance art as much as it's music but it's not the unapproachable noise that you may be imagining from that term. It's raw and it's visceral and it's heartachingly real, a sort of therapy for musician Kristin Hayter, a survivor of domestic abuse who describes her songs as "survivor anthems".
At times, this is sheer noise. On her Bandcamp page, the lyrics for Day of Tears and Mourning read simply "[INCOMPREHENSIBLE SCREAMING]". Sure, it has quiet organ music to start but it gets very dark very quickly and her vocals resemble black metal shrieks, albeit over a plodding and ominous beat rather than hyperspeed blastbeats. Do You Doubt Me Traitor has a full on assault on our senses, Hayter primal screaming into the void, transforming the words of her abuser into fierce art.
At other times, it's exquisitely beautiful. Hayter was a church cantor who's classically trained in piano and voice and a number of songs here feature a polyphony that I recognise as Bulgarian from Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, a glorious album of world music that led the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir to places they never expected to go, from Xena to Kate Bush via The Tonight Show. This style is especially obvious as the album begins on a song called Faithful Servant Friend of Christ.
Sometimes, the beautiful and the noise merge, like on the utterly brutal and unforgettable If the Poison Won't Take You My Dogs Will. Hayter chants, the beauty fragile and cracking over a soft drone, but when she reaches a Kyrie Eleison refrain towards the end of the song, that being the Greek for "Lord have mercy", a curtain of noise descends over her in a way that any extreme metal band would dearly love to emulate. There's a similar curtain in I am the Beast and before Do You Doubt Me Traitor gets visceral, it's a heartfelt invocation.
What amazes me is how well read Hayter is musically. She's only in her mid-thirties and she didn't find rock music until a cousin left behind a copy of Nirvana's Nevermind. Yet, even in high school, she was listening to Ornette Coleman, Cattle Decapitation and John Zorn. "It's not too difficult", she's said, "to get from Nine Inch Nails to [Einsterzende] Neubauten to Merzbow." That's true, though most people aren't going to make it all the way! I wish I could mention influences like Klaus Nomi, Diamanda Galás and Nick Cave on more reviews. She even performs throat singing on Sorrow! Sorrow! Sorrow!
It's impossible not to be affected by this album. I popped it on, expecting to listen to a couple of tracks and head to bed. Instead, I devoured it and let it devour me, finally dropping at six in the morning. Hayter's mantra in Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft is "betray me" and she wrings more emotion out of those two words than you can comfortably imagine. And that's before shifting to "kill them all". The album wraps up with I am the Beast, a sort of vicious madrigal, in which the mantra becomes "all I know is violence".
Frankly, Caligula shocked me, not just as statement but as musical vision. I may have encountered a lot of experimental noise albums, but it's a rare one that I'll go back to or even finish. This is something as brutally impactful as it is entertaining. It's certainly not going to be for anyone but it's a lot more accessible than it might seem. The dynamics are amazing and it will make you read up on Hayter's background. The combination will tear out your heart and leave it bleeding in your hand. It's the most vital piece of avant garde music I've ever heard in my life. And it loops, because the saddest thing about abuse is that it's a cycle and the music reflects that.