Album Reviews

Issue 2024-010

Round Table Review

Caligula's Horse — Charcoal Grace

Australia
2024
61:59
Caligula's Horse - Charcoal Grace
The world breathes with me (10:00) Golem (5:20) Charcoal grace 1:Prey (7:48) Charcoal grace 2 A World Without (6:48) Charcoal Grace 3 Vigil (3.22) Charcoal Grace 4 Give Me Hell (6:13) Sails (4:31 The Stormchaser (5.57) Mute (12.00)
9
Chris Rafferty

One of Australia's finest, Caligula's Horse, have just released their 6th studio album, Charcoal Grace. Coinciding with an already busy schedule, they are also embarking on a tour of North America. Following up on their critically acclaimed 2020 release, Rise Radiant, Caligula's Horse have set a formidable challenge for themselves in maintaining the standard they have set with their previous albums.

Originating from Brisbane, Australia. Caligula's Horse are a four-piece band formed by Sam Vallen and Jim Grey in 2011. For the train spotters among you, it is important to know that Jim Grey named the band Caligula's Horse while he was studying Ancient History and Classical Languages in University. The band is named after Incitatus, the prize horse that belonged to the Emperor Caligula. To add to their academic achievement Sam Vallen holds a Doctorate in Music and lectures in Audio Production and Music Theory.

The genre they occupy is prog-rock / prog-metal, and they have been compared to up-and-coming Danish / Swedish band Vola and eccentric Canadian Devin Townsend, both bands which I had the pleasure of seeing perform in Dublin a couple of years ago.

Among the Australian bands that are making an impact on the prog metal scene are Karnivool and Voyager, not forgetting to mention Melbourne's finest, Teramaze.

C-Horse made their debut, Moments From Ephemeral City in 2011, this was followed by the dark concept album The Tide, The Thief And Rivers End (2013). In 2015, Inside Out Music acknowledged Caligula's Horse's increasing success by signing them to their prodigious label, leading to release of their breakthrough album Bloom. The success led to touring outside Australia. In Contact (2017) continued their upward success. Despite the onslaught of Covid, Rise Radiant (2020) successfully charted in Germany, the UK and the US. The album was described as “an uncompromising exploration of human experience dressed in vivid musical colour and virtuoso performances”.

With the departure of guitarist Adrian Goleby during Covid, the band chose not to replace him. Sam Vallen took over responsibility for guitar work. The album is full of excellent solos, the guitar work on The World Breaths With Me being a good example. Jim Grey's vocals are soft and melodic, yet can be aggressive when required.

The pandemic has had a considerable impact on Caligula's Horse, this has manifested itself in the darkness and aggression of the lyrics. The artwork on Charcoal Grace in comparison with previous albums has darkened considerably. “Charcoal Grace is borne of the static hopelessness that the pandemic forced on the band, and indeed much of the world”. Yes, the album's lyrics explore dark themes, yet they are cathartic in that there is a desire to leave the darkness behind and to embrace hope.

The first track and their second single, The World Breathes With Me, sets the scene for the rest of the album. Launching itself with a raft of Djent guitar, they are not slow in articulating the damage from the pandemic. The themes that are explored are, loss of faith in humanity and subsequent reconnection. Breathe eases into the track's 10 minutes with its slowly rising introduction, followed by a host of soulful solos from Vallen.

Riff-laden Golem opens the second track and first single. It is the most straight forward Djent riff laden track. Following Golem, the centrepiece, of the album, Charcoal Grace is made up of four parts — Prey, A World Without, Vigil, and Give Me Hell. The 24-minute opus tells the story of estrangement between a child and a parent, “This is where we find ourselves too far gone to save”. A World Without has a soft intro building up with nice vocal arrangement. Give Me Hell changes the mood back to anger, the track concluding with an upbeat finale.

The concluding three tracks commence with Sails, nice acoustic intro ending with a mighty guitar solo. The Stormchaser, one of the singles, if there is a weak track, this is it.

Finally hitting the last track, Mute, concluding with a pandemic reference "In the year we died, you found yourself alive".

Caligula's Horse are going from strength to strength. Although I found the album difficult to get into, this album deserves to be listened to, absorbed and appreciated for it is truly an excellent album. It says a lot about Caligula's Horse, equally it says a lot about the standard of music emerging from Australia.

8
Calum Gibson

Australia has produced many fine bands over the years, from the melodic death metal of Be'lakor, or the pop tinged prog of Voyager (who represented the country in 2023's Eurovision) and everything in-between. But for the last 13 years, at the forefront of the prog movement from there, has been Caligula's Horse. After emerging in 2011, they have now released their 6th album: Charcoal Grace.

Having been a casual follower since 2015's superb effort Bloom, I was looking forward to this album. Opener The World Breathes With Me starts the album off strong. It has that same modern prog sound, with crisp production and soaring vocals and guitars. But something in it feels different. The melodies are subtly more noticeable, the writing just that bit more on point and interesting, and the whole thing keeps your attention over the 10-minute length which seems to fly by.

The following tracks build on this, despite being lighter than Bloom and In Contact, it still maintains an aura of "presence". It refrains from self-indulgent passages, instead being an album that feels more purposeful and thoughtful. The riffs and solos breath a bit more, adding to the atmosphere of the overall sound of a band that has matured and is focused.

The album has a fairly punchy sound, straddling that line between prog metal and rock, with fantastic twisting riffs from guitarist Sam Vallen, all the while the precise drum work by Josh Griffin, backed up by bassist Dale Prinsse fill out the music for a heavy and full sound that hits hard enough to keep fans of harder music like Opeth or Enslaved happy, while also having the melody and sound perfect for fans of Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater. Jim Grey's vocals are a stand-out point however, perfectly capturing the emotion of the music and complimenting it spectacularly.

A particular note though, is the four-part title suite that makes up almost half the album. It is described as "a 24-minute opus that pushes deeper into the album's foundational themes: connection, alienation, and the ways humanity acts under duress" and inspired by the impacts of the pandemic. An ambitious step for the band, but superbly executed. It covers every area the group has travelled before, from the dark and heavy areas, to the softer acoustic lands they dabble in.

I thoroughly enjoyed this piece of work. It had all the hooks I have come to expect, with some added beauty in Vallen's exquisite solos sprinkled through, and with enough chugs to keep me happy, and enough gentler moments to cover all bases.

I'd recommend for fans of Soen, Riverside, modern Anathema, Haken or similar.

9
Greg Cummins

As much as I am a very strong advocate for just about anything that emanates from down under, it is not very often that a band piques my interest as much as some of the more recent exponents of progressive metal / progressive rock have managed to do. The names of those few include Anubis, The Butterfly Effect, Unitopia, Ben Craven, and Caligula's Horse. Naturally, I could include some of the more familiar stadium rock acts that much of the world knows about, (Midnight Oil, INXS, Hunters & Collectors, Crowded House, The Cruel Sea, etc.) but their output really lies elsewhere within my favoured styles of music. Thankfully, Caligula's Horse has become far more widely known in more remote parts of the world which is a testament to their enduring perseverance, musical prowess and good songsmithing talents.

Of all the different styles of music that we dumb punters can enjoy, I feel progressive metal is the one that has been overdone by many bands who, whilst having plenty of technical proficiency, simply can't write a decent set of songs to make up an album worthy of repeated spins. Thankfully, Caligula's Horse have defied that trend and can now be proud in delivering their 6th album which has received glowing reviews globally and has racked up the band's highest rated album on Rate Your Music.

Opinions can always vary between listeners, but I am detecting some influences by Opeth, Leprous, Haken, Porcupine Tree and Pain Of Salvation, while I also read that other acts have embedded their sonic tastes within those of the chief songwriters of the band. These include Steve Vai, The Beatles, Frank Zappa and those veterans, Steely Dan. Whatever your own interpretation of these influences might include, they have certainly developed a style and ability that is often the envy of their contemporaries whether from down under or elsewhere on the planet. Listening repeatedly to their latest album will have you wanting to explore their back catalogue (if you are new to the band), or will reinforce repeated beliefs that Caligula's Horse have well and truly arrived.

Fans of the band will almost certainly be enamoured with the soaring vocals which feature throughout many of their albums and this one is no exception, although I am reading some followers have commented the vocals are somewhat lost in the mix. I don't necessarily notice that as an issue as I am able to play my music in a sonically dedicated music room, through good quality equipment or headphones that reveal all the subtle nuances and features that other people may not hear.

After a slightly acoustic start, The World Breathes With Me, really kicks off with plenty of crunch in a slightly similar style to Porcupine Tree. The melancholy is soon overtaken by crushing riffs while the vocals include the tell-tale, slightly falsetto approach that their singer uses, but it is done so well that it becomes a benefit rather than an impediment to their overall sound. The song is a maelstrom of complex arrangements and difficult time signatures. You will really need to keep focused, lest you lose your way. I really liked the song as it was fresh, original, complex yet rivetting from the very first notes. 10 minutes of pure sonic bliss.

Golem is the song that relates so well to the effect that the Covid virus had on the band, it's not hard to understand the major concerns they had about where they would turn to for their next motivation. It is a heavy, driving song full of introspection about the virus and touches the listener on many levels. Grungy and crunchy to start but reaching the inner psyche so well when trying to probe the insanity of the virus and all of its side effects on the world.

The main act is the four-part epic, Charcoal Grace which, at over 23 minutes, enables the band to really explore some magic arrangements and complex time signatures, the likes of which, fans will have experienced on many of their previous albums. Some blisteringly intense guitar solos trade stage time with the vocals and keyboards but quickly give way to a softly spoken / sung style of dialogue that, only with access to the lyric sheet, would the full picture be revealed. The melodious singing however is incredible and is what lifts this body of work well above what the band's contemporaries are doing at the moment. Part 2 of this epic is somewhat softer and more introspective, yet it still holds your attention but in a more subdued manner. The falsetto vocals add enormously to the song as you are carried away with its melodious structure, then lifted aloft with some extraterrestrial guitar work from Sam. Part 3 lost me a little as I found less cohesion with the arrangements but all was returned to normal as the band then applied the Dream Theater magic to the final part of the song. Pyrotechnical guitar is interspersed with the rhythm section galloping away as usual yet with more complexity than a road map in China. The entire epic is however, an ambitious yet challenging piece of songwriting and will secure many new fans looking for something a little left of centre.

The remaining songs all carry themselves well above what else is doing the rounds these days and bring to a close what I feel is one of the best albums the band has ever made. The infectiously melodic vocals are so damned strong, I can easily see fans trying to emulate the same sound, complete with the full falsetto effect by using any means possible, just to reach the highest of registers.

One of the features about this band that I really enjoy is the relentless rhythm section which keeps the music driving at a steady and insistent pace but which allows the complex song structures to make their divergent manoeuvres in all directions ony to return to its original themes. They do this with absolute aplomb which is to be expected from a band who have remained true to their roots and beliefs since day one. Charcoal Grace must surely stand as one of the finest examples of modern progressive metal from just about anywhere but allow me to gloat a little here by recognising these guys only live 100 kms from my house. It's great being an Aussie when you have excellent bands like Caligula's Ghost playing exactly the style of music you have come to really admire amongst the mishmash of mindless drivel the radio stations pour down the listeners throat.

A top effort from the blokes in Brisbane. I can't wait to see the arrival of their next album.

Album Reviews