Artist: Caligula’s Horse
Album Title: Charcoal Grace
Label: InsideOut Music
Date of Release: 26 January 2024
Oh Caligula’s Horse, you don’t make it easy, do you? Back in 2020, when I reviewed ‘Rise Radiant’, I struggled immensely at the start, not liking any of the music delivered up to us on that record. However, with a great deal of time and effort, I finally saw the light and took that fifth album to my heart alongside ‘Bloom’ and ‘In Contact’ before it. Well blow me down with a feather if the very self-same thing happened again with ‘Charcoal Grace’, the Australian progressive metal band’s sixth full-length album. To the point where I actually reached out to one or two people directly on social media to secretly profess my initial disappointment with the album.
I should have known, though, to take my time, and trust the fact that, until now, Caligula’s Horse have rarely put a foot wrong. And once again, the result is the same. Whereas my love of ‘Rise Radiant’ was a slow-burn affair, a gentle seeping into my affections, ‘Charcoal Grace’ was a case of ‘nope’, ‘nope’, ‘nope’…’holy mother of all that’s evil, this is stunning!’ Or at least with a couple of the tracks initially. But once they had whacked me hard around the face, the rest started to quickly fall into place.
I can only put my initial disappointment and apathy down to an unholy trinity of being tired and distracted on a first spin in the car, listening to the songs out of their correct order thanks to the way the promo uniquely downloaded (well, duh), and such high hopes and expectations based on the calibre of the band and my history with them. Once I put the songs into the correct order, paid full attention, and put all else to one side, it was like I was listening to a completely different beast. And what a ‘beast’ ‘Charcoal Grace’ is. It’s only January, but if it does not end up as most people’s favourite progressive metal album of the year, I’ll be left a little shocked, and definitely wanting to hear what could possibly top this.
I said at the outset of the year that I wanted to see if I could write shorter, more succinct reviews throughout 2024. Not for any other reason than to take a bit of the pressure and burden off my shoulders. Unfortunately, because I rather like being able to delve deeply into albums, I haven’t really managed that aim so far. And I’m sure as hell not going to start here, either, because the Australian quartet of vocalist Jim Grey, guitarist Sam Vallen, bassist Dale Prinsse, and drummer Josh Griffin deserve to have this record explored as fully as possible.
Perhaps, rather unsurprisingly, ‘Charcoal Grace’ is heavily stained by the unprecedented events of the past few years at the hands of the global pandemic. Caligula’s Horse go to great lengths to distance themselves from the ‘concept’ tag but, at the same time, recognise that the album, more than any other in their discography ‘embodies time and place in a way I don’t think we’ve been able to before’. It is also a rather dark affair at times, with lyrics that touch on the beauty that can be found in ‘stillness, silence, and loss’.
Before moving on to the songs themselves, I have to spend a moment on the production as, once again, Caligula’s Horse have excelled here. Every instrument is provided great separation, allowing everything to be heard, even when things get heavy – and, believe me, they get heavy. When the music does get aggressive, however, the clarity never leaves, allowing as much enjoyment as when it’s just a gentle vocal line, or tinkling acoustic guitar. There’s obviously a place for different kinds of production, but crystal clarity is perfect for Caligula’s Horse, and that’s exactly what we’re given.
Cards on the table, I will admit that it is the opening and closing tracks that stand out most for me on ‘Charcoal Grace’ and it was these two, namely ‘The World Breathes With Me’ and ‘Mute’ that acted as the gateway to falling fully for the charms of the album. They are two of the longest single compositions on the record, both into double figures, but neither feels bloated or boring. Quite the opposite in fact, as I often get to the end of one or either of them and wonder where the time has gone.
‘The World Breathes With Me’ kicks things all off via a gorgeously delicate intro, that’s quiet, but self-assured, immediately showcasing the band’s melodic intent. Indeed, it isn’t long before the central melody gets its first airing via the lone lead guitar of Sam Vallen. The track then explodes into a heavy, bruising riff that underlines the metal side of Caligula’s Horse. Indeed, this is a track that never sits still, that is always evolving, and is built of strong contrasts, from fragile and minimalist, right through to sections of multi-layered heavy attacks. The verses deliver that staccato stop-start riffing with Jim Grey’s familiar voice working its magic, a wonderful counterpoint to the more glorious, almost whimsical melodies that never cease to hook me in time and again. The lead guitar work in the latter stages is stunning, and full of emotion, increasing the impact of the song, especially as it leads to an almost complete silence directly after, only to build stubbornly again towards a muscular conclusion, the riff in question echoing their compatriots Voyager just a smidge.
The closer, ‘Mute’ is very similar in many ways as it turns out, especially in the way in which it smoothly and effortlessly moves from idea to idea, from complex rhythm to complex rhythm, from heavy to subtle and back again, whilst managing to remain cohesive as a single composition throughout. In common with the opener, ‘Mute’ is also blessed with some of the most powerful and arresting melodies and harmonies anywhere on the record, littering the twelve-minute affair with some achingly beautiful moments. It all begins with Grey singing alone and runs the gamut of thunderous double-pedal drumming, pinched harmonics and a myriad of guitar histrionics, the inspired introduction of a flute, not to mention some of the most potent lyrics on the album.
‘Golem’ is immediately a more hard-hitting and ‘to-the-point’ track, albeit very ‘proggy’ thanks to the sharp riffing that starts it off before the bass comes into its own alongside a cheeky lead guitar lick. A few gruffer vocals appear sparingly, too, just to underline the slightly more abrasive nature of a song that confronts the pandemic head-on with unflinching resolve. The ‘chorus’ is a classic grower as it took ages to click in any way, shape, or form. But as a counterpoint to the slightly hypnotic, churning verses, it finally hits and does so very nicely indeed.
Sitting at the heart of ‘Charcoal Grace’ is a 24-minute central piece, split into four movements. This was the most difficult portion of the album to get into, and it took the longest to ‘click’. Hardest of all was, and still is, the third part, ‘Vigil’. It’s an acoustic guitar and vocal composition initially, before it surreptitiously increases the electronic soundscapes and keys to largely replace the guitars. As a section within the overall suite, it makes much more sense than when played on its own, although for my money, it’s the only time I feel like I could lose a little interest. Either side, however, are some wonderful moments. The first part, ‘Prey’ calls to mind Kingcrow with the use of bold electronics at the beginning, creating a dense atmosphere, almost at odds to the ensuing passage that sounds brighter, breezier, and more hopeful in tone, perhaps. In keeping with much of the rest of the album, there are arresting contrasts to be heard as the opening gives way to a minimalist passage which brings with it the vocals of Grey. As this composition continues, and indeed the number of spins increases, the melodies get stronger, whilst the riffs start to hit harder and more accurately.
‘A World Without’ is the title afforded the second part of this epic, and is possibly the dark horse of the album, coming from absolutely nowhere to suddenly leave me spellbound in the last couple of days. Of particular note is the energetic bass that throbs throughout, as well as the explosion of lead guitar exuberance, not to mention Grey’s vocals that really elevate the melodies to the next level – once they start to burrow their way into your brain, of course! The centrepiece is rounded out by the altogether broodier and darker sounding ‘Give Me Hell’ which features some of the most potent drumming from Josh Griffin on ‘Charcoal Grace’. In a similar manner to the aforementioned closer, it carries with it a rousing quality, full of controlled anger blended with a stubborn stoicism and ultimately a touch of hope.
Fittingly, after such a forceful and intense closure to the preceding suite, ‘Sails’ is a more relaxed affair. It has a whimsical air to it, drawing parallels a little with some of the more ‘pastoral’ progressive acts of the current day and yesteryear. And the lead solo unleashed by Vallen towards the end is superb.
Last, but definitely not least, is ‘Stormchaser’ that’s nestled in the penultimate slot on the record. I’m not sure if I’m the only one to hear it, but the increased synths, the chosen beat, the flow, and the melodic intent all whisper ‘Karnivool’ to me. Regardless of any particular similarities, this song has blossomed into one of my favourites on ‘Charcoal Grace’ simply because it’s a killer track, that ebbs and flows wonderfully, unleashing a devastating chorus, full of anguish, frustration, and scintillating melodic power, made all the more potent given the surrounding quieter passages. I adore some of the drum work on this song, too, although once again the entire band has clearly worked in unison to create another marvellous composition.
As I mentioned before, I really cannot wait to hear the progressive metal album that beats ‘Charcoal Grace’ to the number one spot in 2024 because, on the evidence of this, it’d have to be utterly perfect. Caligula’s Horse have laid a marker down so strong that it should have all potential challengers just a little bit anxious to say the least. There’s a reason why progressive metal is without question my favourite sub-genre of heavy music because when it’s delivered in this manner, it is damn-near untouchable. Emotional, compelling, intelligent, challenging, and ultimately incredibly rewarding, this is Caligula’s Horse at their very best. Yet again. But please don’t ever take your foot off the gas pedal, guys, not if this is the result of you collectively ‘flooring it’. Magnificent.
The Score of Much Metal: 97%