“We weren’t really sure if we could keep being a band – it was very hard to be motivated to remain”: The desperate meetings that saved Caligula’s Horse from self-destruction

Caligula's Horse
(Image credit: Jack Venables)

After they released 2020’s Rise Radiant into a world in facing the unknown, Caligula’s Horse began to question their existence as a band. However – despite creative uncertainty and line-up changes – the Aussie prog rockers persisted to make their heaviest and most ambitious material. Guitarist Sam Vallen tells Prog about Charcoal Grace’s black heart.

A picture is worth a thousand words. It’s a cliché we’ve all heard too many times in our lives. However, when the artwork for the new Caligula’s Horse album, Charcoal Grace, is compared to that of its 2020 predecessor, Rise Radiant, readers will see everything they need to know about the Aussie prog quartet’s last four years.

Rise Radiant’s cover was a lavish, colourful painting. Crammed with springtime imagery from deer to flowing water and emerald grass, it was created at a time when, as guitarist Sam Vallen phrases it, the band had “all their ducks in a row.” Then the pandemic happened. Now, Charcoal Grace is jet-black; flora and fauna are replaced by a human face distorted and washing away into nothingness. It’s a pretty surefire sign that some morale has been bludgeoned to death.

“It seems like a kind of dark way to begin this conversation but, around 2020 or 2021, we didn’t really see a future being in a band,” Vallen explains. “I don’t know if you remember, but we saw a tonne of bands break up in that time – obviously, this was not an experience that was unique to us in any way.

“We had this view from the top of the world, which was immediately cut off into nothing, which is depressing enough, but then we also had this push that a lot of bands had. There was this external motivation to rebook tours six months ahead, making plans that are probably not going to happen. It required all this creative energy and felt like it was for nothing.”

Before the pandemic Caligula’s Horse were one of the most prolific acts in progressive music. Vallen co-founded it as a project with vocalist Jim Grey in 2011; they released their debut, Moments From Ephemeral City, later the same year and, between that point and 2020, put out new albums within three years of one another.

The band even found the space to tour with such genre icons as Mastodon, Opeth and Sleepmakeswaves in between. Following a record deal with InsideOutMusic in 2015 (home to Dream Theater, Devin Townsend and Jethro Tull), everything was going the right way – and then, nothing.

“I have to be careful how I frame [the band’s lives during the pandemic],” Vallen says. “You saw the deaths in Italy and even New York City early on, while we in Australia – this little island that we live on – were basically immune to that. We went into some of the most severe lockdowns in the world, unable to do anything whatsoever, but I feel like it would be in bad taste to suggest that our experience was any worse than anywhere else.”

Vallen’s being diplomatic. For Prog in London, our call is taking place at the sociable hour of 10.30am, but it’s currently 8.30pm in Brisbane. The guitarist admits his brain is “fried” at the end of a long working day, which has also included parenting his young son, and he speaks carefully to avoid saying anything too dramatic or sensational. We also know he’s being diplomatic because the lyrics on Charcoal Grace (like its artwork) paint a far more evocative and traumatic picture of the past few years.

The band say it isn’t a concept album, but its songs all relate to the tribulations of the pandemic, even if tangentially – and they’re all pretty bleak. Lead single Golem is about struggling with hope when lockdowns were ending only to ramp up again, repeatedly. ‘I’m on my knees at the end to beg for that feeling again,’ Grey sings, before depressingly replying to himself: ‘Sling hope around your neck.’

We try to avoid repeating ourselves, and the punchy, concise Rise Radiant approach wouldn’t make sense a second time

Meanwhile, the album’s centrepiece – the four-part, 24-minute Charcoal Grace itself – challenges the virtue of forgiveness and candidly unpicks how child abuse survivors deal with trauma as they grow up. ‘Hit me again and I’ll spit out the blood of your saints!Charcoal Grace IV: Give Me Hell, angrily declares.

Vallen also likens the suite’s lyrics to an exploration of life amid the pandemic. “One big element is the idea of the people who had relationships fall apart, before or during the pandemic,” he says. “It was a time where people, especially a lot of the older generation, were dying. How do people deal with the forgiveness of parents, loved ones or even old foes when there’s that shift?”

To accompany that darkness, Charcoal Grace also contains the heaviest, densest music Caligula’s Horse have ever unloaded. Golem is a tightly-packed progressive metal anthem, defined by Grey’s flighty, gorgeous voice clashing with the impactful rhythm section and Vallen’s fast-fingered riffing.

The album is also the band’s most progressive. There’s that central, multipart suite of a title track at its heart, which rises from spacious compositions and clean guitar tones to cathartic, complex aggression. Opening track The World Breathes With Me fills 10 minutes with its slowly rising introduction, followed by a host of soulful solos from Vallen: the guitarist’s ability to pull shimmering melodies out of the most callus-shredding technicality has made him one of the most distinct players in modern prog.

Later, Mute goes on to conclude the album as a 12-minute behemoth, endowed with flute passages and post-rock-like crescendos. It’s all the polar opposite to the more direct, uplifting Rise Radiant – and, says Vallen, that progressive scope was not explicitly planned.

“The assumption from the beginning was that we weren’t going to be able to avoid it,” he remembers. “There are probably two reasons why: one would be that we try to avoid repeating ourselves, and the punchy, concise Rise Radiant approach wouldn’t make sense a second time. The second is that the darker and more thoughtful themes required more rumination and more space.”

When I started writing Charcoal Grace, admittedly after Adrian left, I felt liberated – and he wouldn’t have had the chance to feel that

Caligula’s Horse – then composed of Vallen, Grey, co-guitarist Adrian Goleby, bassist Dale Prinsse and drummer Josh Griffin – put off starting a follow-up to Rise Radiant for months. Although that album had come out in May 2020 (weeks after the lockdowns came into effect), the band avoided re-entering writing mode. They instead waited, hoping for the chance to properly promote the release on the road. But with that came a serious downside: these prolific creatives could suddenly not create.

“A lot of our identity is tied up in the experience of touring,” Vallen explains. “This is something that Jim felt even more acutely. I stayed busy with a lot of things, but he was very concentrated around that. All of a sudden, he’s a singer in a band, I’m a guitarist in a band, but I’m sitting at home and trying to make sure my incredibly bored son can go for his one designated walk a day.”

The pressure and tedium of staying in isolation – scheduling tours, cancelling them, rescheduling tours, re-cancelling them – eventually broke Goleby. The guitarist’s exit was announced to fans on social media in July 2021. The band have since continued as a four-piece and have no plans to replace him.

“I don’t have to be diplomatic about this one,” says Vallen, “because Adrian and I are still great friends. He felt the same stasis and pressure that the rest of us did, but he was someone whose creative input in the band wasn’t particularly great. He was a guitarist foremost and he was great in that role. When I started writing Charcoal Grace, admittedly after he left, I felt liberated – and he wouldn’t have had the chance to feel that.”

After Goleby’s departure, the need to create among the members of Caligula’s Horse only grew more intense. Vallen says that, by that point, the remaining musicians “weren’t really sure if we could keep being a band – it was very hard to be intrinsically motivated to remain in this ensemble.”

Vallen, Grey, Prinsse and Griffin had to rediscover what it was that made them want to play together to begin with. So, the four organised a series of what the guitarist retrospectively describes as “desperate meetings.” If they couldn’t agree on what they needed, what made them love what they do, the unit may very easily have imploded.

The kind of dark cloud that everyone felt during Covid, that’s no longer something we need to be immersed in

“We asked, ‘What are we doing? What are we getting out of this?’” remembers Vallen, “and we all came to the same answer. The question was, ‘Why are we in a band?’ And the answer was, ‘Because we love writing music with one another.’

”We all realised that we were getting caught up in a lot of external things. We were getting caught up in this pressure to try and keep the touring plans alive, even though that was killing us. There was a realisation that the only thing that we absolutely get from this, the only thing that Caligula’s Horse always gives us, is that creative outlet.”

Thanks to its sheer scale and unapologetically honest lyrics, Charcoal Grace is the most unabashed statement of that creativity yet. And, happily, the period around its release has once again seen the band get their ducks in a row.

Five days after the album’s January release, the band embarked on a tour of the US and Canada. Vallen says that the remainder of 2024 will similarly be dedicated to letting him and his cohorts reclaim their road warrior status. “It was fun to be in this band again as soon as we started writing,” he adds, “but I think there was a real change around the first couple of tours that we did.

“In 2022, we did an Australian tour, and by then we were already scheduling the European shows we did a few months back now. Rekindling the creative element was amazing, but it was another thing to reconnect with fans after two, three, four years away.”

Through all the turmoil of the past four years, as well, Vallen believes he’s finally found the answer to the crisis he mentioned earlier: what does the future of Caligula’s Horse look like?

“We’re definitely not a band who’s ever going to repeat Charcoal Grace,” the guitarist answers. “We’re always a band that goes back to the drawing board, so it’s safe to say that whatever we do next will be just as distinct.

“We’ve just made a truly dark record, but it’s a dark record that’s framed around the idea of leaving that darkness behind. Hopefully it can be cathartic for all of our listeners, as well. The kind of dark cloud that everyone felt during Covid, that’s no longer something we need to be immersed in.”

Matt Mills
Contributing Editor, Metal Hammer

Louder’s resident Gojira obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.