When Caligula’s Horse released Rise Radiant in early 2020, the band seemed to be in an ebullient mood with an album about triumph in the face of adversity. Looking back now, it seems almost eerily prescient: like everyone else, they saw their plans to promote the album crash into the unyielding brick wall of the pandemic.
Four years later, Charcoal Grace feels like a sombre, reflective counterpoint to Rise Radiant, that sense of exuberance exchanged for a melancholy born from the isolation and self-examination of recent times.
The album is informally divided into three acts. The opening tracks showcase the group’s contemporary prog metal stylings via the drop-tuned riffing of The World Breathes With Me and Golem. The former exudes anger and sorrow as vocalist Jim Grey pleads, ‘God forgive us,’ addressing ‘the suicide, the addict, the voyeur, the dead.’ Despite its sense of darkness, the track moves towards a tentative hopefulness, as Grey declares, ‘I breathe, and the world breathes with me’ at its conclusion.
The production and arrangements are assertively modern, with Sam Vallen and Dale Prinsse playing extended range guitar and bass respectively. The biggest sonic surprise is how often Grey’s voice sits low in the mix. The singer explores a wide dynamic range, from his full voice to a high falsetto and even a breathy whisper in some sections, but the words themselves can struggle to penetrate the density of the music.
It’s mainly in the heavy sections where the riffing overpowers Grey, which may simply be a product of the fact that extended range instruments fill up a lot of bandwidth and there’s not much space available for the singer to inhabit.
The centrepiece of the album is the four parts of Charcoal Grace, about the fractured relationship between a child and their parent. Moving the record away from the djent stylings of the first two tracks, Prey layers longer melody lines, carried by Grey’s vocal and Vallen’s guitar over the riffing. Musically it inhabits the same territory as VOLA or Devin Townsend, while the track finds Grey at his most impassioned, singing, ‘Without the hate to carry, I could have been somebody.’
From there the band flow into A World Without, bringing the tempo down and finding a style somewhere between alternative rock and emo. Vallen has the chance for some expressive soloing in the outro before they switch gears again. Vigil is so subdued that it’s possible to discern the sound of Vallen’s fingers as they slide up and down the fretboard of his acoustic guitar, an effect akin to Ry Cooder’s playing on the Paris, Texas soundtrack. Lyrically, the band wade out further into the gloom of doubt and regret, with Grey full of anguish as he sings, ‘I refuse to heal, I refuse to let go.’
Give Me Hell, the final movement of the titular four-part suite, brings the full band back in as the conflict between parent and child reaches a disturbing zenith. Musically, Caligula’s Horse sound little like Leprous, yet there’s common ground between this album and the Norwegians’ Aphelion from 2021 in their willingness to explore vulnerability and the long shadows cast by the legacies of trauma or loss.
Give Me Hell offers no ready resolution for the characters trapped in their dysfunctional relationship, ending with an angry howl of despair: ‘I am the hate you gave me/I am only what you made me/Hell is you.’ So much for redemption – the unresolved rage of the song marks the starkest contrast to the hopefulness of Rise Radiant.
After the prog metal of the first act and the anguish of Charcoal Grace, the final three tracks present another change of tone and mood. Sails, The Stormchaser and Mute put the spotlight on bigger hooks, reaching towards Muse-style anthems. They suggest a band of big ambition with songs crafted for arenas, although there’s a constant tendency towards verbosity – and the avoidance of standard verse-chorus-repeat structures preclude any possibility for big sing-along moments. What remains constant throughout the album is the sense of yearning, given form in Mute when Grey demands to know, ‘Who will love me now?’
Charcoal Grace feels like something of a gamble for Caligula’s Horse. There’s bravery in their willingness to express deep, often dark emotions. That approach firmly situates the Aussies among the younger generation of prog metal bands, but the subject matter may be confounding for those accustomed to the escapism of more traditionally inclined bands like Dream Theater or Queensrÿche.
However, Caligula’s Horse sound completely assured of their direction, expanding upon their palette and vision with an admirable confidence and clarity of purpose. Hopefully, they’ve found some catharsis along the way.
Charcoal Grace is on sale now via InsideOut.