Caligula’s Horse – Charcoal Grace (InsideOut Music)

Wednesday, 17th January 2024
Rating: 9 / 10

Our major exposure to Caligula’s Horse was in the build up to ProgPower USA XX in 2019. When announced during the 2018 edition – of which is customarily done so at the festival via a cool video presentation – they immediately piqued the ear, and to that point, we had only really listened to them in passing. Well, a deep dive into their discography later, and we were sold. Seeing them live in 2019 was cathartic, and there they announced Rise Radiant along with a return for a tour the next year. Well, yeah, we know what happened next. This past year’s return to ProgPower was just as memorable, though they once again tempted fate by announcing their sixth album Charcoal Grace. Hopefully their well-laid plans don’t get derailed by something equally cataclysmic. If they do, the warning was right in front of us.

Kidding aside, we arrive at Charcoal Grace. As with all of their previous full-lengths, beautiful melodies and richly detailed songwriting are at the center of their ethos, though they never truly repeat themselves. Rise Radiant was a forward-thinking release that saw the band dabble further into their rock sensibilities, being a little more melodic and slightly pop-adjacent to go along with their djent oriented guitar work and weaving musical structures. An album we enjoyed very much that contained some of the band’s best moments thus far.

Charcoal Grace builds from Rise Radiant, emerging further refined with added hooks and a little more on the proggy end of the spectrum, all while being the catchiest and most emotive album of their career. Parts of the album are connected with experiences had throughout the pandemic, lending towards a range of ups and downs. Opener “The World Breathes with Me” is exactly this; vibrantly layered with crunchy guitars and luminous melodies, topped off via Jim Grey’s smooth delivery. A heavier track that ranges a bevy of themes and feelings, and frankly, a better start there couldn’t have been. “Golem” quickens the pace, with Grey utilizing lower volume spoken word vocalizations and screams that are a new element that work nicely for the song’s heavier bits, whereas the chorus is soaring and infectious. Definitely one of the riskier forays on Charcoal Grace, and per usual when Caligula’s Horse tries something different, it pays off.

Following is an ambitious four-part song – “Charcoal Grace I – IV” – centered around, quoted from the promo materials, “the story of a child and their relationship with an estranged parent.” This of course lends itself to be a roller coaster both musically and subject-wise, surely hitting home for those who may have experienced such a scenario, and of course all of us who can imagine the difficulty of such an ordeal. Caligula’s Horse tackles this narrative with grace and top tier songwriting. Containing some of the prettiest and contrastingly stinging moments on any of their releases, Caligula’s Horse tackles this narrative with exceptional grace. What follows is what may be one of this scribe’s favorite Caligula’s Horse tracks in the dizzying and tense “The Stormchaser.” That chorus is a pure aural contagion. Bookending the album is “Mute”; charmingly elegant, yet defined by an urgent tonality that leaves a lasting impression over its twelve minute run time.

There isn’t a band on the planet who easily compares directly to Caligula’s Horse, who somehow is furthering the gap still on their latest opus. Cinematic in breadth, harmonious to all of the elements that have gotten these Aussie’s to where they are today, but even more dialed-in than ever is Charcoal Grace. An early contender for progressive album of the year already? That’s entirely plausible, though don’t act surprised. Caligula’s Horse are standard setters, and even a pandemic that blasted their then preparations into pieces has in part resulted in what could be their best work – for now, at least.

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