Review Summary: After struggling through the pandemic, Caligula's Horse return as triumphant as ever
Caligula’s Horse had a rough time during the pandemic. Like other bands, they had to cancel tour dates, and send an album out into the world without any live representation. I enjoyed Rise Radiant a lot. It’s the album that introduced me to the band and provided a hopeful backdrop to a time in my life (and mostly everyone’s I imagine) when things were feeling very grim and unpredictable.
While having to be still in the pandemic, it seems Caligula’s Horse struggled with a lot of things. When can we tour again? Can this band continue as our primary focus? Can humanity not devolve into “every man for himself” and band together for the good of everybody for once? That last question seems to be a driving theme behind Charcoal Grace, an album that is immediately grimmer than its predecessor. This comes across in singer Jim Grey’s lyrics, as well as the compositions that main songwriter/guitar virtuoso Sam Vallen writes this time around.
Where Rise Radiant seemed to streamline the more progressive tendencies of its predecessor In Contact, and take a more traditional songwriting approach, Charcoal Grace harkens back to In Contact in a lot of ways. The album’s centerpiece, a 24 minute, four-song suite called Charcoal Grace, ebbs and flows in ways that Rise Radiant never did. Where Rise Radiant was very eager to get to a hook, or to never let an instrumental section overstay it’s welcome, the title track suite allows for plenty of room to breathe, with softer passages, with only acoustic guitars (Vigil), loud sections with some of the heaviest Caligula’s Horse instrumentation to date (Give Me Hell), plenty of instrumental sections, and plenty of guitar solos, most of which are emotive, and seem to serve the song and not just to be virtuosic for the sake of it (A World Without containing one of my favorites).
Placing a 24-minute epic in the middle of your album is an interesting choice. Normally we see the big epic towards the end of the album on progressive metal albums like this one, but putting it in the middle allows for some thoughtful sequencing. Before we get to the epic, we have two singles, The World Breathes With Me and Golem. The World Breathes With Me is a 10-minute opener, basically giving you a crash course of what to expect sonically on the rest of the album. It opens with a 3-minute instrumental section with a guitar solo, before we get a hushed Jim Grey melody before opening up in the chorus. The highlight of the song is the outro, featuring an absolute earworm of a riff, that lasts just long enough to leave you wanting more, which seems to be a running theme on the album. Golem, on the other hand, is the outlier from the album. Featuring one of the more traditional song structures on the album, and more straightforward djent riffs, it’s the perfect first single, bridging the new and old, sounding the most like Rise Radiant than any other song here. Jim here self admittedly starts employing a Michael Jackson-esque cadence in his vocals, adding an almost percussive tone to his delivery. It works to his advantage, and gives a nice variance compared to his normally straight forward choir-like voice.
After the title track, we soften things up a bit with Sails and The Stormchaser, the former of which is a pallet cleanser ballad, a la Resonate or Love Conquers All, and the latter being an emotional high point on the album, putting Jim’s vocals at the forefront with a ferociously delivered bridge that makes it very clear how Jim feels about how humanity as a whole reacted to the pandemic.
Where the last album finished with back-to-back songs in Autumn and The Ascent that worked better together than separately, Mute, the closer, makes a pair with the opener, even sharing melodic callbacks in guitars, keyboards, and even a vocal melody at the end that is pulled from the outro of The World Breathes With Me. Being just as epic in scope and execution as the opener (flute solo included), Mute ties the album up well, and it’s connection to the opener brings a sense of continuity to the whole album.
Caligula’s Horse survived the pandemic, and self admittedly they weren’t always sure that was going to be the case. They seem to be stronger now than ever, as Charcoal Grace builds on what previous albums did well and adds in a few new wrinkles for an easy frontrunner for progressive album of the year.