Album Review: Caligula’s Horse – Charcoal Grace

Album Review: Caligula's Horse - Charcoal Grace
Reviewed by Dan Barnes

Hailing from Brisbane, Australia – home of the second most famous Rugby League team in the world – progressive rockers, Caligula’s Horse return after a near four-year absence with their sixth album, Charcoal Grace.

Having attracted much attention with the 2015 release, Bloom, the band pushed on, garnering further acclaim but, like many artists, found themselves grounded in the early years of this decade.

Not having been able to tour previous record, Rise Radiant, properly was something of a blow to the group and saw them losing second guitarist, Zac Greensill during this period. However, they pushed on and got out on the road again in the spring of 2022, leading them to a slot at last years’ RADAR Festival in Manchester, where they were, to quote one reviewer (me), “[in] full mastery of the complex musical passages.”

Charcoal Grace finds Caligula’s Horse slimmed down to a four-piece, with songwriter Sam Vallen handling all the six-string duties and, in the process, giving the record a coherence of sound and intent. Both Sam and vocalist Jim Grey are original members from back in 2011 and the relationship between the two feels organic.

The nature of Caligula’s Horse in general – and Charcoal Grace in particular – means there is a certain freedom of expression within the compositions, where each member can spread their wings and explore ideas to the full.

Album Review: Caligula's Horse - Charcoal Grace

Bookended by lengthy passages, the opening second single of The World Breathes With Me and the concluding, Mute, demonstrates the band’s lofty ambitions. From extended run-times and widescreen introductions, through juxtapositions of fragile passages and stomping forays, to smatterings of the more unexpected – such as eastern influences and flutes – the album never feels overwrought or overstuffed.

First single, Golem, is all about the funk and an asynchronous rhythm pattern, whereas the most recent release, The Stormchaser combines huge soaring passages with moments of reflections; an aesthetic displayed across every track of Charcoal Grace and used to great effect throughout.

Prior to The Stormchaser is Sails, built from the gentle overlapping lines of simple guitar and piano, it evokes the sound of water caressing the hull of a ship, the passive feel of the Steve Rothery-style solo adding to the overall reflective vibe.

Sitting central to the album is the four-part suite of the title track. I: Prey begins with the acoustic beauty of a Genesis tunes before taking on the hard rock fervour of Dream Theater. Jim tries his hand at a bit of scat-vocals, and a bit of Scot-vocals as he channels his inner Fish. II: A World Without End leads us through a haunting narration and III: Vigil finds the band in full acoustic mood, down to the inclusion of string-drag and a Maynard James Keenan vocal.

Thankfully, the urge to explode is reserved for IV: Give Me Hell, which feels like Vigil’s natural denouement, the storm after the calm, if you will, leading to a tempestuous fury of guitar and drums, classical crescendo and intense musical fury.

Josh Griffin on drums and bassist Dale Prinsse deserve a shout for grounding all of this and keeping an eye on the clock.

Incorporating influences from the likes of Maillion, Opeth, Tool and more, Caligula’s Horse have created a lengthy record that is a constant treat from the ears and the brain. At over an hour, it would have been easy for Charcoal Grace to run out of steam, but it never does. Instead, we have an expansive, but deeply personal, collection of progressive tunes; and a record that, in my opinion, is better than Bloom. There, I said it!

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