Caligula's Horse

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The intertwining of mythology and history has played an integral part in the story of Australian alt-rock band Caligula’s Horse. From the band’s name, taken from a joke made by Roman writer Suetonius about the Emperor’s affection for his steed, to the folkloric themes that run through the band’s three-strong discography, the melding of artistic licence and real life have defined the band’s short but expansive career.

“Anyone working in fiction should have a broad understanding of history,” the band’s vocalist and founder Jim Grey explains. “And you can abstractly refer to mythology in a subtle way to try and conjure an image based on something that is in the community consciousness. Pandora, for example, is pretty familiar – if you make a reference to that story, people will understand what you mean metaphorically.”

For Grey, who straddles time zones to catch up with Prog from his Brisbane-based home, the intersection of fiction and reality exploded together in the most dramatic way last year when the band started writing Bloom, the quintet’s third release.

“I lost a close friend and had my daughter enter my life at a time when I was creating new things,” he explains. “Bloom is a reflection of that in terms of its content, talking about the fragility of life, but also growth and self-belief. As a new dad, I’ve had a fundamental change in the way my mind works.”

Bloom’s message is ultimately life-affirming, which may come as a surprise to fans of the band’s markedly darker efforts that they’ve put out since their inception in 2011. Moments From Ephemeral City was Caligula’s Horse’s debut, and was originally intended as a side project by guitarist Sam Vallen, who was working with the band Quandary at the time, as a receptacle for all his “mad ideas”.

I’d rather our music was special than perfect.

Grey and Vallen brought in former Quandary bandmates Dave Couper (bass/vocals) and Geoff Irish (drums), along with Zac Greensill (guitar/vocals) ahead of their second album The Tide, The Thief & The River’s End. The resulting record is a mesmerisingly twisted concept album based on humanity’s inability to reform.

“We don’t want to repeat ourselves,” Grey explains of the swerve in subject matter. “We want to write music that suits where we’re at now as musicians and people.
River’s End is an album we’re really proud of. The energy is very good and so is the songwriting on that album. The only thing that is missing is getting a little bit more variation in the colour and texture of the record.”

The word that comes up again and again as we speak to Grey about Bloom is “colour”. From the measured acoustic meanderings and soft, fireside hues found on the title track through to the hook-ridden and celebratory Firelight, Caligula’s Horse have created an album that’s awash with vibrancy. Although there’s none of the overt miasmic heaviness found frequently on …River’s End, bruising riffs frame Marigold’s sweetly delivered main thrust, paying credence to Grey’s assertion that on Bloom, “the vibrant definitely outweighs the dark”.

Then there’s Dragonfly, the album’s keynote piece and a dazzlingly intricate and mature work that swoops between Anathema’s Judgement-era menace, soaring solos and a vocal delivery that sounds closer to Jeff Buckley than any of the band’s contemporary progressive counterparts.

When we push Grey on the comparison, he admits: “He is a personal hero of mine. The reason it’s coming through so much on this album isn’t because it’s a delivery choice on my part. With our moderate success as a band, I keep finding my feet a little bit more. Songwriting and performance-wise with this album, I feel we’re a little more off the leash. So now, rather than trying to create a sound that I think is appropriate, I’m writing more like myself.”

Jeff Buckley also provides a useful reference for the band’s attitude to recording and production. “Buckley is the most honest vocalist I’ve ever heard,” Grey continues. “Some people listen with their own box-ticking criteria, asking, ‘Is it perfectly edited? Is it a perfect song?’ For me, I’d rather it was special than perfect. That is part of the approach we took for Bloom – it has to be real and special and communicate something honest.”

Jim Grey

Jim Grey
(Image: © Stefanie Vallen)

The natural themes that pervade the album give colour and form to the band’s deep well of emotion and empathy. “We had such a clear idea in our minds of those images of growth,” Grey says. “I had this bizarre image in my head which was a cracked old brick wall that had been abandoned and overrun and was barely being held together by vines and flowers.”

Caligula’s Horse’s hard work and talent have paid off: as an affirmation of their success, progressive behemoth InsideOut snapped up the band ahead of the recording of Bloom, which the vocalist describes as “mind-boggling”.

The tie-up with the label will also see the band embark on a European tour with Norwegian blackjazz troubadours Shining throughout November. The tour will allow Caligula’s Horse the opportunity to venture outside Australia for the first time, and to try out much of Bloom’s material that was “written with the live show in mind”.

For Grey, the ability to engage audiences with new music that is both energetic and incredibly emotive is something to treasure, something the band discovered when demoing Firelight on their last live circuit.

“We did that one live, touring it through Australia at the end of last year, before we announced the album,” he explains. “This was right after I lost my friend so we were dedicating it to her as we were travelling around. It was kind of a ‘no more tears’ sort of celebration of life.”

Bloom is out now on InsideOut. For more information, see www.caligulashorse.com.