Century Media/Sony Music
After the critical success of their 2020 release “Rise Radiant”, the Australia progressive metal band had expected to push on, take their new record out on the road after some encouraging international chart positions. And then the world stopped.
Many musicians have chosen to respond to the COVID pandemic, to use the circumstances and consequences as fuel for their creative efforts. As guitarist and composer Sam Vallen explains that the record “acted as a deliberate desertion of the Rise Radiant period an acceptance that it, and everything it had promised our career in late 2019/2020, was gone, and that we would need to move on artistically”. The subtext is clear – the pandemic had hit the band hard. In 2021 guitarist Adrian Goleby had left the band after four years, leaving them as a quartet for the first time. Given the situation they found themselves in, this may have echoed bassist Dave Couper’s decision to leave in 2018.
You might argue that we are replete with pandemic-reflection albums – it was bad enough living through it without having to experience it again through the filter of a musical interpretation. However, the important thing here is the choice the artist makes as their way of exploring the pandemic or the emotions it brought. Caligula’s Horse have chosen to step away from the reality of it and find another story which brings forward the same emotions of frustration, claustrophobia, loss, angst. And it is this which makes any post-pandemic work of art – and this record – interesting.
The album is not a concept album but rather two nested song-cycles, the record itself being the looser of the two. It is book-ended by “The World Breathes With Me” – the name being perhaps the most explicit evocation of the pandemic – and “Mute”, two long, complex pieces with shifting, episodic arrangements but clear and deliberate similarities in the instrumentation and musical themes. If you put the record on repeat, it really would seem to go on forever, an irony not lost on composer Sam Vallen, I dare say.
Then, at the heart of the record, is the four part “Charcoal Grace” song cycle, which tells a tale about an abusive relationship between a child and parent, a tale of abandonment, loss, coming to terms, and a hint at redemption. If this is an allegory for the pandemic, it is a clever one, since it uses the common emotions as the point of contact, not a contrived similarity. The world is not our mother, abandoning us to our fate – or is she?
So, we can say this is an ambitious record. In reviews, that term can carry a negative connotation – a suggestion of “they tried, but failed”. In the case of “Charcoal Grace”, the band have in no way fallen short of what they set out to do. The sophistication of the songwriting never seems pretentious. Though episodic, the long pieces which start and finish the record seem symphonic not stitched together, with the music carrying the pieces along as they grow. Of the two, “Mute” does this the better, with its changes of colour, tempo, and weight giving the piece the right amount of dynamic movement. The recent single “The Stormchaser” has a more consistent feel, but still pulls off the episodic songwriting trick, the song unfolding from its initial structure into something else, but never ending up sounding like a different piece.
The central song cycle is very well constructed, starting with a tense energy in “Prey”, before slowing in “A World Without”, where Jim Grey’s vocals are most obviously and directly brought to the fore and are given plenty of room in the arrangement to dazzle. Here, we see the trademark duet-style vocals which always sound so satisfying. The cycle expands further on “Vigil”, with the vocals building and expanding as the emotional intensity of the piece increases, and we reach a tangled and ambiguous conclusion in “Give Me Hell”. It is exultant, but not celebratory, and the tone of the music leaves the listener unsure about whether the central characters have found any kind of peace. The music turns around itself, reprising themes from earlier in the cycle.
“Sails” that follows is gentler piece, a kind of ballad in 7/8, which seems most obviously intended to please the ear, to be radio-friendly. It’s a nice piece, with a strong vocal performance, but it sits uncomfortably next to the rest of the record which is so musically and emotionally complex.
Throughout the record, there are the tropes of the Djerv sub-genre – deep, pulsating guitars, dense supporting rhythm patterns, and a dark, enervating intensity. “Golem”, another of the singles, exemplifies this, but this arrangement style occurs throughout the record, particularly in “Give Me Hell” and “Mute”. Occasionally, when the music breaks down into a slower or more ambient passage, the arrival of this darker counterpoint could be felt beforehand. How you see this is probably a matter of personal taste. For me, it was too predictable on at least two occasions, but for another listener, it may have been something expected and anticipated.
Overall, the record has a very consistent sound-world, with high, echoing guitar and piano motifs marking most of the pieces, combined with the aforementioned Djerv rhythm guitar sections. Grey’s vocals emerge as the record grows, with the vocal lines buried in the arrangements in the early pieces, difficult to pick out of the texture of the music, but growing in strength and clarity – not to mention range – as we travel through the “Charcoal Grace” songs to “Mute”, where the vocals are impressive. Overall, we get an excellent performance from Grey, with some interesting new tones to his voice at the start of “Vigil”.
Likewise with Sam Vallen, now operating without a second guitarist as foil, who gets to show a variety of musical styles, particularly in his solos, which are sometimes standard pyrotechnic prog-metal, but sometimes show a strong blues influence, as on “A World Without”. In some ways, this record could be seen as the many faces of Sam Vallen. Certainly, he takes every opportunity to bring the lead guitar to the front of the music, and the record could have lost one or two solo passages without suffering, or have what seem like obligato pieces reduced more to the place of guitar melody lines within the music.
We should not pass over drummer Josh Griffin and bassist Dale Prinsse’s contributions. Their foundation as the rhythm section for the album is flawless. Griffin’s playing stands out most of all on “The Stormchaser”, though his snare drum serves as punctuation across the record alongside the piano and treble guitar phrases. Prinsse can be felt most of all in the Djerv passages, but the basslines live up to the standard of the rest of the record, subtle, adding contrast or support as required, and easily as nimble as the guitar in their own way.
This is a strong, subtle record, with a mature and sophisticated emotional landscape. It is unapologetically ambitious but it is not grandiose. Rather, it is complex and powerful, angry and melancholy by turns, and never without an emotional logic in the changes of pace or tone. The cyclical structure holds the record together well without feeling like it is contrived or pretentious and the arrangements and production are consistent without being samey or dull. Nor is it overcooked, with too much instrumentation for the music to stand out.
For anyone new to this band, you will find similarities in this record with Haken in general, Tesseract’s recent release “War of Being” in particular, Leprous and Novena. However, do not make the mistake of thinking that Caligula’s Horse are just the “Queensland Haken”. This album is a clear move forward from “In Contact” and “Rise Radiant” into different territory. It is not exactly accessible, but that should not detract from it at all – there are enough catchy chorus lines and musical phrases for the record to demand a second or third listen. Besides, the complexity alone should grab the listener. If “Rise Radiant” was a critical success, this is a dark, brooding, triumphant return.
Redemption? For the characters on the record, it is unclear. For the band, undoubtedly.
5/6 | Alex Maines
Release date: 26 January 2024