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Caligula’s Horse “Charcoal Grace” Album Review by Friedrich Christian Stenzel

Caligulas Horse

Let’s take a minute to appreciate that 55 years after the big bang that was “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, there are still artists out there, immersing themselves in polyrhythms, crafting 14 minute mini-operas, and delving into lyrics about history and philosophy rather than umbrellas or partying. Enthusiasts of multi-part longtracks out there, consider yourselves spoiled. Prog is flourishing. While half a century ago, we (well, at least some of us) might have witnessed the release of “Topographic Oceans”, “Selling England” and “Lark’s Tongues” within one year, the last 12 months gifted us “Fauna”, “War Of Being” and “The Harmony Codex”, just to name the obvious ones. Now, within the same 12 months, prog metal powerhouse from a world Down Under, Caligula’s Horse, gifts us another hour of melodic, intricate, polished and all in all excellent prog metal that leaves nothing to be desired.

The pandemic forced many artists into hibernation, away from the road, and at times, kept them apart. In many instances, these difficult circumstances provided artists the opportunity to write, record and release new albums. For Caligula’s Horse the anticipation of taking their 2020 album “Rise Radiant” on the road was abruptly halted. Sam Vallen, co-founder, musical director and guitarist of the band, recalls that because of this, the “Rise Radiant” album cycle has never been truly concluded until 2023. The band’s summer tour last year felt like an cathartic release for both fans and band members alike, as heated atmosphere during the concerts attested. The concise, catchy nature of songs like “Tempest”, “Slow Violence” or “Oceanrise” were ultimately written for an enthusiastic crowd to sing along to.

Now, with the path cleared for a new chapter in Caligula’s Horse history, the quartet’s newest offering, “Charcoal Grace” takes an entirely different approach. The enigmatic title aims (and manages) to be thought-provoking and works on multiple levels. As Sam Vallen explained during an interview with LotsOfMuzik, “Charcoal Grace” can be interpreted as a personification of silence, with charcoal symbolizing an end or the final stage of something and grace representing beauty. However, there is a dark element in that same silence. Vallen emphasized that this interpretation of the album’s title is just one of many and the titling was chosen meticulously to encourage unthought-of interpretations during heated fan discussions.

The music mirrors the nuances suggested by the album’s title. Where “Radiant” was concise, positive, and punchy, “Charcoal” is expansive, contemplative and, well, graceful. It is also notably somber than anything the band has ever released, and this might be due to it reflecting darker times, a difficult experience and, hopefully, the end of that experience, as Vallen frames it. On “Charcoal Grace”, Jim Grey’s one-of-a-kind voice sings about hypocrisy, sin, broken relationships, guilt, failure, war, regret. And the music takes its time to let these heavy thoughts sink in.

The opening track, “The World Breathes With Me”, takes a full three minutes introducing the song’s musical motives before Jim Grey compels us to confront our own pretenses. Memories of Tool’s “Vicarious” resurface. Caligula’s Horse are back. While “Rise Radiant” culminated in the epic “The Ascent”, “Charcoal Grace” lavishly throws one of three similarly oversized multipart tracks at us right at the beginning. “The World Breathes Me” already has it all. Roaring melodies, a busy rhythm fundament by clockwork-like rhythm section Josh Griffin and Dale Prinnse, epic guitar leads. It speaks volumes about the album’s quality that “The World” ranks “only” as the third-best of “Charcoal’s” three longtracks.

For the album’s longest piece and title track, the band set out to create something they have never done before. The four-part suite combines everything that makes this band unique, condensed into a 24-minute epic track, following a tradition of the genre many prog-nerds both love and fear. It’s quite the endeavor to compose a track of these proportions, risking accusations of incoherence, patchwork, anticlimactic structure, introducing too many ideas in too little time or too few ideas to fill more time… Prog-fans have heard and said it all. Being a prog-nerd himself, Sam Vallen is very conscious of all these obstacles. As a result, the song “Charcoal Grace” is cohesive, featuring numerous recurring motives both musically and lyrically, and adeptly knows when to build up and break down. The demonic climax towards the end is particularly striking.

A colossal  song like the title track demands a moment of respite for the listener, and Caligula’s Horse always know there has to be a cigarette after, or rather a calm after the storm (and before the next one). The band placed three shorter cuts between their sprawling epics. “Sails” portrays a floating boat with a relaxed 6/8 – with the occasional 3/8 in between, because you never know when a crossing wave might disrupt your course. On that boat is an individual (or each one of us), sailing forward, away from past mistakes, promising to never forget. “Golem” and “The Stormchaser” wouldn’t have been misplaced on either of Caligula’s Horse’s past two albums, featuring precise riffing and plenty of catchy melodies for future concerts to rock out and sing along to. These two tracks once again showcase the quartet’s impeccable skill in constructing a concise song you’ll still find yourself humming weeks later.

If that weren’t enough, “Charcoal Grace” closes with another track of epic proportions. “Mute” is a song that, according to Sam Vallen, “could have totally failed”, but ended up being his personal favorite (and the reviewer’s) on the band’s new release. Packed with extreme dynamics, gut-wrenching vocal melodies, an orchestral middle section and, inevitably, an end on a high note, “Mute” might be the best song Caligula’s Horse have released to date.

The same applies to the entirety of the band’s newest offering. Caligula’s Horse’s musical and lyrical approach is very distinctive, and it has become more and more refined over their recent releases. “Charcoal Grace” is somber, epic, thoughtful, grand. It’s Caligula’s Horse at their most mature. 

Prog is flourishing, and we owe this to people like this bunch of talented musicians from Down Under. Welcome back from hibernation, Caligula’s Horse, and we’ll see you on the road.

Charcoal Grace” hits the shelves of every well-sorted record shop near you on 26 January 2024. Don’t miss out on this one.

Reviewer Rating: 9/10 — (Note: A full 10/10 rating can only be given in good conscience by the reviewer after the test of time has been passed.)

Caligulas Horse album cover

Tracklist:

Side A
The World Breathes With Me (10:00)
Golem (05:20)
Side B
Charcoal Grace I: Prey (07:48)
Charcoal Grace II: A World Without (06:48)
Charcoal Grace III: Vigil (03:22)
Charcoal Grace IV: Give Me Hell (06:13)
Side C
Sails (04:31)
The Stormchaser (05:57)
Mute (12:00)

Charcoal Grace is available as Ltd. CD Digipak, CD Jewelcase (US only), Gatefold 2LP in various colours & Digital Album. 

Caligula’s Horse are

Jim Grey – lead vocals
Sam Vallen – lead guitar
Josh Griffin – drums
Dale Prinsse – bass

The band recently announced their Charcoal Grace North America Tour 2024 with special guests Earthside. Tickets available at caligulashorse.com.

US:  

01/31 Union Stage – Washington,DC
02/01 Underground Arts – Philadelphia, PA
02/02 Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
02/03 New York, NY – The Gramercy Theatre
02/04 Montreal, QC – Le Studio TD
02/06 The Axis Club – Toronto, ON
02/07 Thunderbird Cafe & Music Hall – Pittsburgh, PA
02/08 Lincoln Hall – Chicago, IL
02/10 Exit – Nashville, TN
02/12 The Underground – Charlotte, NC
02/13 The Masquerade (Hell) – Atlanta, GA
02/15 Come Take it Live – Austin, TX
02/16 Granada Theatre – Dallas, TX
02/18 Nile Half House – Phoenix, AZ
02/19 Brick By Brick – San Diego, CA
02/20 The Echoplex – Los Angeles, CA
02/21 Cornerstone – Berkley, CA
02/23 El Corazon – Seattle, WA
02/24 Hawthorne Theatre, Portland, OR
02/25 Rickshaw Theatre, Vancouver, BC

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