Many musicians incorporate Christianity into their music, but few focus on the fire and brimstone elements that are in no shortage across the Old Testament and pulpits across the world. Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter does, and does so with a precision and sense of terror that is unrivalled.
Saved!, Hayter’s first project since shelving the Lingua Ignota pseudonym, begins with a stark warning: “Get out, get out, get out while you can / On judgement day, do you know where you’ll stand”. Across three-and-a-half minutes, Hayter sings and wails over a piano prepared with bells, chains, and even forks and fishing wire. The tape recording is audibly damaged and scratchy, with its volume jarringly shifted up and down throughout. As the song progresses, Hayter’s proclamations evolve into stark confessions that speaks to deep terror (“I’ve shuttered my windows and locked myself in / I won’t succumb to this world full of sin”), before the song devolves into an unnerving passage of glossolalia. As is true for much else of the record, Hayter alternately sounds like the preacher at the pulpit, and the believer at the altar paralysed by the fear of God.
“I’M GETTING OUT WHILE I CAN” proves a fitting opener, effectively capturing an album of contrasts – or, more fittingly, of transformations. It’s an album split between a damnation-heavy first half, and a salvation-centred second half. “ALL OF MY FRIENDS ARE GOING TO HELL”, is bracing Appalachian folk with yet more stark messages (“Cruelty and greed may serve you well / But when you die, you are going to Hell!”). Later, the droning “IDUMEA”, sees Hayter ponder the question at the very centre of the LP: “What will become of me? / Eternal happiness or woe?”
Arriving near the album’s halfway point, “I WILL BE WITH YOU ALWAYS” is SAVED!’s centrepiece – a bracing six-and-a-half-minute statement that ushers in the album’s central thematic transition. After opening with a glossolalic passage, Hayter cries “Once I was as ugly as a harpy-bitten tree” – a reference to the Harpies in Dante’s seventh ring of Hell that haunt those who committed suicide. She proceeds to wail “release me, release me, release me” to the demons who beset her, only for them to retort, “I will always be with you”.
But, the terror and helplessness that define the song’s first half takes a revelatory turn in its final leg, as the demons respond again to her cries for freedom: “I cannot release you for you are already free / I made you as perfect as a single blade of grass / Have you not seen?” Suddenly, the voice that she “spat” at and ran away from is as “sweet as a bright bell”. It’s a staggering metamorphosis – a moment where what once appeared as a shackle reveals itself as a source of transformation. The once haunting cries of “I will be with you always” ring out the song, now providing comfort instead of torture – a reminder that nothing is ever entirely as it first seems.
Hayter has spoken of her disconnect and discomfort with terms like ‘healing’ and ‘self care’, and while those terms do apply to the journey taken across SAVED!, her take on them remains singular and, no less disconcerting than her previous excavations of trauma. On “MAY THIS COMFORT AND PROTECT YOU”, Hayter delivers the LP’s most reassuring quartet (“Your sorrows here shall end / Know that in death / You’ll live again / May this comfort and protect you”), but her voice still cracks and booms, and her prepared piano still vibrates with enough intensity to raise every one of your hairs.
On the album’s epic eight-minute closer, the contrast between comforting lyrics and unnerving soundscapes reach their most dynamic and affecting. The song begins as a straightforward cover of Pete Seeger’s “How Can I Keep From Singing”, with Hayter singing of devotion over a straightforward piano line. It’s probably the only part of the album that you can imagine being delivered to pews of regular church goers without anyone raising an eyebrow.
Standard religious imagery persists throughout – of clinging to rocks and standing tall amidst storms – but at the 1:30 minute mark, an indiscernible sound begins to emerge from the background. As it grows in volume, Hayter’s “HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING” reveals itself as another passage of speaking in tongues, which alternately transforms into wails, gargles, coughs and weeping. As the sounds grow louder and more alarming, Hayter continues to deliver her message of deliverance and healing, though it’s now overshadowed by something far more unnerving.
Perhaps this is a purposeful metaphor about so many religious tradition’s dark underbelly: of compassionate words and graceful music disguising dark pasts and a steady trail of victims. It’s another reminder that things aren’t always as straightforward as they seem – those who promise to save you can herald your demise, just as those who haunt you are sometimes only trying to save you. Meanwhile, as paramount as healing from the past is, it can’t save you from the horrors of the present and the future.