2020 was a strange year, the pandemic and the worldwide lockdown that ensued put everything on pause and ushered in a sense of uncertainty and some real existential dread, particularly for musicians. There has been a glut of lockdown albums, many of which are extremely optimistic, fuelled by the quiet and the togetherness of the shared experience to hold up a light and bask in humanity’s best side (Marillion did that very successfully). But what about those bands in the early stages of their careers, the ones who are building momentum and a fanbase only to have their legs cut out from under them? Understandably, they might have a more visceral reaction to the pandemic, less philosophical and more aggressive as a result.
Released in May 2020, the critically acclaimed fifth release from Caligula’s Horse, Rise Radiant, put them on the map, and their prog star was definitely on the rise. With touring not on the agenda, the band was left in something of a holding pattern, unable to capitalise on the hard work they had put in. Guitarist Adam Goleby left in July 2021 and there was a risk that things would completely fall apart.
Instead, the Australian prog metallers used the uncertainty as creative fuel for their next record:
“Charcoal Grace is 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 reckoning 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.”
Caligula’s Horse are a band whose name I have been familiar with for a number of years, but I’m ashamed to say that this is the first album of theirs I have listened to (their last album’s bonus tracks were covers of Peter Gabriel and Split Enz for goodness sake). On first listen I could hear how the band could sit alongside the likes of Haken, Leprous, Vola, Novena and especially fellow Aussies Karnivool in my collection. One thing that seemed to be missing for me was memorable hooks, the kind of elements that help to etch a song into your mental jukebox, which would encourage further listens. I used to feel the same way about Karnivool, and outside of Themata, their songs can lack the earworm factor too. It’s Sails that sits with you the longest on this record, thanks to the delicate vocals and evocative melody. Though opening song and latest single The World Breathes With Me hits hard with a salvo of drums and guitars.
What I realised on repeated listens is that this isn’t about a collection of songs listened to passively. Like the best progressive rock the real experience is the album as a whole. You may not feel emotionally transformed by a single song, but when you listen to the record in full, you get to experience the angst, emptiness, sorrow and then the hope and potential joy they are exploring.
Lead single Golem is a riff driven song that “examines struggling with the weight of expectation through the pandemic”. You can feel the weight of the world on your shoulders as the song hits you with its heft, much like Haken’s Taurus.
There are nine tracks on Charcoal Grace, but four of them combine to make the Charcoal Grace suite which is the bedrock of this record. This 24-minute opus is a self-contained story of a child and their relationship with an estranged parent. Having mentioned Marillion earlier, although sonically this is quite different from that band, it moves emotionally through a story in a way Marillion would be proud of. The four part epic takes you on a real journey through the psyche of the child who feels abandoned, using moments of beautifully light touches alongside outbursts of definite heaviness to really explore the maelstrom of emotions being experienced. It’s definitely a highpoint on the record as a result.
I love their strong sense of melody that punctuates even the most powerful sections within their songs. The guitar playing on this record, from Sam Vallen, is exquisite, at the risk of mentioning Marillion again there’s almost a Steve Rothery feel to the tone of his playing. Jim Grey’s voice is so disarmingly beautiful, almost fragile, which helps give the band their own distinctive feel.
There are three more concise tracks on Charcoal Grace, and three sweeping epics including the titular suite, which gives the album a really strong sense of balance and some definite prog cred, even before they bring out the flute on hypnotic album closer Mute.
It took a good few listens to really get it, but once I did I was really taken by it. I’d love to see them live and I’ll be checking out their previous five albums off the strength of this record. If you like emotionally driven progressive music on the slightly more metal side, with barrel loads of light and shade, then I think you will really enjoy this album. All in all, this is a quality entry to the prog metal canon, with enough to interest even those whose preferences aren’t at the heavier end of prog.
01. The World Breathes With Me (10:00)
02. Golem (5:20)
03. Charcoal Grace I Prey (7:48)
04. Charcoal Grace II A World Without (6:48)
05. Charcoal Grace III Vigil (3:22)
06. Charcoal Grace IV Give Me Hell (6:13)
07. Sails (4:31)
08. The Stormchaser (5:57)
09. Mute (12:00)
Total Time – 61:59
Jim Grey – Lead Vocals
Sam Vallen – Lead Guitar
Josh Griffin – Drums
Dale Prinsse – Bass
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: Australia
Date of Release: 26th January 2024