Caligula’s Horse – Charcoal Grace


‘Any criticism of a record that tantalises you with the need for more is doing something right,’ said Scream Blast Repeat about the 2020 Caligula’s Horse LP, Rise Radiant, in a glowing 8 out of 10 review. At forty-six minutes, it needed just one more song to achieve its full potential. Now, they return with their sixth album, minus their rhythm guitarist, and they have no trouble passing through the one-hour threshold. “Careful what you wish for,” might be the sentiment at the end of your listening experience.

Caligula’s Horse fit into the Tesseract and Haken bracket with ease and deserve to be lauded in the same circles as these two English prog metal giants. Perhaps, as an Australian force, it’s more convenient to see them as a conduit between Karnivool and Ne Olbiviscaris. In Jim Grey, they have one of the finest singers in the world. Guitarist, Sam Vallen, can also hold his own with the greats of the technical djent era. Both men dominate the band’s soundscapes on Charcoal Grace, yet they seem to have stripped out the multi-dimensional aspects that make prog metal so exciting.

Vibrant guitars shine like meadow rays permeated by a gentle breeze before the drums add their beats in opener, ‘The World Breathes with Me’. There’s no rush to get to the first verse as the arpeggios continue until 01:38. Then the distortion pulsates with melody and the lead axe shreds through the fretboard like Steve Vai; Jim Grey enters at 02:40 in an introspective awe of deliberate hesitancy. Do we need such a long intro? Tesseract fans will fawn over it when the misaligned syncopation of guitar and drums gets into gear. A semblance of a chorus appears at the four-minute mark, but that might just be an extraordinary moment of melodic vocal reach. Vallen’s guitars threaten to growl at a more aggressive intensity as the song progresses, with each chugging riff becoming crunchier with every new section. But is the aim here to avoid an anthemic song? Catchy vocal lines deserve a stadium of rock acolytes singing the lyrics. They give us ten minutes of consistent emotional clarity rather than unpredictable but enthralling peaks and troughs.

Fortunately, they follow it with ‘Golem’, which is the heaviest composition on the album and the one most attuned to the prog metal virtuosity of Haken and Periphery. This is rock with a capital R like Ty Tabor (King’s X) at his imaginative best. Here, Jim Grey’s breath control is more urgent in the verse before he releases the tension in the chorus. Listen how he pivots towards a falsetto at the end of each bar – Caligula’s Horse are proof that you can phrase catchy singing melodies over tech metal guitars without compromising the efficacy of either. More artists should study the way Caligula’s Horse immerse their vocals into heavy soundscapes.

The fecundity of melody is the most admirable asset in the Grey-Vallen combination. Pitch bends ache like a damaged heart in the intro to ‘Charcoal Grace I: Prey’ as the band indulge their Dream Theater roots. The mellifluous arpeggio shapes and patient tom drum patterns allow Grey to express the thoughts in his head in an intelligible language. It means that the sharp riffing flows like an autumn brook when Vallen embraces the heavy gain settings. Listen how the celestial segue into the next track excites the intellectual impulses of the mind. ‘Charcoal Grace II: A World Without’ places you in a permanent state of cerebral contemplation. Light rimshots and jazz chords sow the seeds for Grey to go back into his shell as if singing the words to himself rather than an audience of listeners. Other than Daniel Tompkins (Tesseract), there’s no one more adept at using falsetto vocals in heavy music. High-register guitar notes vibrate like glow worms in the night, yet there’s always a strain of sorrow in the melodies. If only this song did not saunter towards the end.

Clearly, Caligula’s Horse expect you to put in the time to understand their art rather than give it to you as something to absorb on first listen. At their best, you could advise Tool’s Adam Jones to benefit from listening to this band for ideas on how to refresh his guitar playing. Meshuggah are the main influence on the rhythms and double-kick accents of ‘Charcoal Grace IV: Give Me Hell’ – that’s inevitable for any band with an advanced grasp of rhythm. Yet the heavy parts are never abrasive enough to distinguish themselves as dynamic changes – that’s where Caligula’s Horse can claim some originality as a prog band. It’s also the one thing that holds them back on this offering.

There’s always a feeling that you can race through this album in the knowledge that you’ll understand its brilliance on the next listen – but that does not happen. Its confidence does not always translate into a seamless experience for the listener even if its technical prowess and luscious melodies are undeniable. To be fair, the chorus in ‘The Stormchaser’ is memorable after one listen. The lead guitar is as expressive as a sage relaying a new revelation to his followers. If they were a film genre, Caligula’s Horse would be in the art-house cinema category where the story is less important than the dialogue and the human interactions of the characters. The same applies to the novel category – they’d be in the literary fiction section. Good luck to you if you can sit through the twelve minutes of closing track, ‘Mute’, with anything other than fatigue. An A Cappello vocal projection from Grey at the beginning indicates that this will be the anthemic song of the album. The paradoxical guitar chugs and double-kick sixteenth notes from the drummer present melody and aggression as if the two are as familiar to each other as water and fire. It’d be much more effective slimmed down to six minutes.

Charcoal Grace is far from disastrous, and it contains moments of supreme excellence among the one hour and one minute of confident prog metal sound design. But these high points are too infrequent for it to reach the levels of 2015’s Bloom or last year’s efforts from Tesseract and Haken. Caligula’s Horse have the tools and the musical ability to write anthems. By avoiding them, they leave you with a sense of unfulfillment.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 26/01/2024

Record Label: Inside Out Music

Standout tracks: Golem, Charcoal Grace I: Prey, Charcoal Grace IV: Give Me Hell

Suggested Further Listening: Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void (2020), Karnivool – Asymmetry (2013), Tesseract – War of Being (2023)