Australia has a simply world-beating stable of Prog-Metal bands at present. To name but a couple, Voyager go from strength to strength; Acolyte’s most recent full-length production Entropy was universally admired….and then we have Caligula’s Horse. Hailing from Brisbane, this band has grown into one of the premiere progressive metal bands in the world over the last decade. Formed in 2011 by Guitarist/Songwriter Sam Vallen and Vocalist Jim Grey, the band released two albums independently before signing with InsideOutMusic in 2015 for the release of their breakthrough 3rd album, Bloom. Combining raw rock power with immense emotional depth, the group has released five simply outstanding albums – from their debut, Moments from Ephemeral City, to most recently, 2021’s critically acclaimed release Rise Radiant. Now, the band returns, taking another monumental leap with their sixth studio album. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Charcoal Grace.
The album Charcoal Grace was borne of the static hopelessness that the Pandemic forced upon the band, and indeed much of the world, these past few years. It is an album dealing with the experiences and outcomes of this time geared, ultimately, towards catharsis – moving towards a more hopeful future after dealing with the largest setback the band had ever experienced.
Guitarist and songwriter Sam Vallen explains, “Charcoal Grace acted as a deliberate desertion of the Rise Radiant period – an acceptance that it, and everything it had promised our career in late 2019/2020, was gone, and that we would need to move on artistically. The album embodies time and place in a way I don’t think we’ve been able to before”. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed an artist being so brutally frank before?
While Charcoal Grace is not a concept record in a narrative sense, the songs centre around a series of consistent themes. The band explain how the title refers to a sense of grim allure and strange beauty in stillness, silence, and loss. This album takes everything they’ve previously created, extends and builds upon that and seamlessly and cohesively evolves into something altogether special.
The band lay out their stall with the opening track and second single The World Breathes With Me – a ten minute beast that introduces you to the overall vibe and emotions of what’s to follow. The band tell us that the track is a powerful musical journey that sets the stage for Charcoal Grace as a whole. It pulls right back to a bird’s eye view of what the band saw and experienced during the years of the pandemic, making the point that whilst they did temporarily lose their faith in humanity, they eventually reconnected to the notion that, for better or worse, we are all forever connected to one another through breath and to the world through each other. Powerful stuff, illustrated musically in a sense of contrasts – from the lightest ebb to the heaviest flow, contrasts in the harmonies and melodies reflecting that. I particularly like the following line, now being enacted around the world: “Truth, a patient weapon, waits to sting the spiteful again” – the lyrics alone of this album are a genuine work of art.
The second track and first single from the album, Golem, examines struggling with the weight of expectation through the pandemic. Vallen explains “We felt that weight acutely as musicians, being trapped with no notion of when, or even if, we would return to the life we knew, all while feeling the pressure to create our next work rising. While that’s our specific experience, the themes of Golem are something we can all relate to. It’s a heavy song with an emphasis on riffs and driving rhythms.”
Now then – at the core of the album is the four-part title track suite, a 24-minute opus that represents some of the band’s most ambitious music to date. While the rest of the album deals in personal experiences and observations, the Charcoal Grace suite is a self-contained story of a child and their relationship with an estranged parent. About the suite, Vallen says, “It explores cycles of abuse, our understanding of our humanity and responsibilities, and questions of the need for, and validity of, forgiveness. Although this story is fictitious, it acted as a means through which to push deeper still into the album’s foundational themes: connection, alienation, and the ways we act under duress. Musically, it covers every facet of our vocabulary, from heavy and dense orchestral, accompanied intensity embodying the song’s darkest lyrical ideas, through to soft acoustic-driven moments and introspection.” The guy’s a poet, a philosopher, wrapped up in a rock’n’roll singer!
Part One of the suite is Prey, a hypnotically driven where again the rhythm sucks you in and absorbs you – I also love the smooth dexterity of the guitar breaks; this is a seriously strong track in itself, before being followed by Part Two, A World Without. Paradoxically this track has everything, fully unleashed by a flawless production. Part Three, Vigil, is delicate, a simple gentle ballad…until you scan the lyrics – there’s something almost biblical in the “epistle-like” quality of the narrative, visceral in its quiet intensity. Vigil flows into Part Four – Give Me Hell, a more pacey Prog number with some superb guitar work – it’s not really appropriate to have a “favourite track” out of what is definitely a modern concept album, but Parts Three and Four combine to give me my favourite segments of composition and musicianship in what feels like part Nightmare, part Redemption.
Sails is pure poetry set to a smooth ballad of a backdrop – this album’s lyrics ought to be released in book form, they’re that captivating. Although this is a simple arrangement, it shimmers with the effortless togetherness of a properly together band – all four musicians involved in this – and the backroom crew – are world-class. The Stormchaser is the album’s third single, again the imagery is simply monumental, the arrangement cinematic in its sweep, just under six minutes of musical perfection – what more to say!
Mute is the closing movement in this symphony – and I choose my words carefully. Twelve minutes to sum up and distil this Tale of the Ages, the lyricism is (dare I say it?) almost God-like in its sweep. Luscious strings and flute are revealed before the big choral mantra, jagged guitar work, angelic vocals, simply fantastic percussion, probing basslines, swirling synths – this is Orchestral Rock at its finest – without an orchestra!
Charcoal Grace is the sixth studio album of the band, and it combines raw rock power with immense emotional depth. It’s borne of the static hopelessness that the pandemic forced upon the band and, indeed, much of the world, these past few years. It is an album dealing with the experiences and outcomes of this time geared, ultimately, towards catharsis – moving towards a more hopeful future. Having spent the last few years unable to represent their last album to the world in the manner they would have hoped for, Caligula’s Horse is now ready to take Charcoal Grace to the masses in relentless fashion.
This collection is ambitious, expansive, creative, dynamic…there’s so much going on within it that I struggle to do it justice with mere words. The breadth of arrangement is matched by the astonishing poetry of the lyrics, the quality of musicianship on display, married to a production that perfectly captures the full orchestral majesty of the band. Spoiler alert – I’m not even a particularly massive fan of “Prog” as a whole, but I have to say that Caligula’s Horse has made an amazingly mature musical statement with this album, a world-class creation for the world to listen to and take note of. It’s a very important release, right up there already as a candidate for AOTY…