Australian progressive rock/metal band Caligula’s Horse is one year away from their fifteenth anniversary, and they’ve accomplished quite a bit in that period of time. Over the course of six full-length albums, their music has taken elements of modern progressive metal and djent and fused it with a heavy dose of traditional progressive rock and alternative rock. Each effort has emphasized a different side of the spectrum, with 2020’s Rise Radiant going for a bit more hook driven melodies and a slightly more accessible sound. This year’s Charcoal Grace finds a healthy balance between that effort and Caligula’s Horse past discography. There are plenty of huge, soaring hooks that grab you upon first listen, but additional details and textures only start to stand out the more time you spend with it. It’s another noteworthy effort from a band that doesn’t seem to content to simply repeat what they’ve done before, and one of the first big progressive rock/metal efforts of 2024.
“The World Breathes With Me” makes a strong first impression, as not only does it have the type of huge, sweeping hooks Caligula’s Horse has become known for over the years but it showcases a fantastic balance between the heavy and melodic side of the spectrum. The first minute or so draws you in with light and airier melodies that have a somber tone to them, but then the sound explodes into a big, booming sound which brings in djent grooves. If you were thinking that the group might be moving away from some of the metal elements, Charcoal Grace demonstrates that to not be the case and there are just as many dark, heavy moments alongside the ones that soar towards the sky. You do get tracks like “The Stormchaser” that are a bit more straightforward in how they build up to powerful choruses and draw you in with hook driven leads, but there are just as many songs that offer a bit more twists and turns. The bulk of Charcoal Grace is centered on the four-song suite that comprise the title track, and this is where Caligula’s Horse showcases the strength of their writing. Each piece flows seamlessly into the next, and the shifts from sparse and subdued instrumentation into powerful, heavy hitting riffs leaves a lasting impression. “A World Without” and “Give Me Hell” have stood out to me the most on repeat listens, as the former goes the furthest into traditional prog territory with soft textures and plenty of small details beneath the surface while the latter delivers some fantastic grooves and much darker tonality. None of this is a huge stretch from what the group has done before, but they’ve expanded upon both their accessible approaches and more complex ones in equal parts and the shorter bursts are well balanced with the lengthier tracks. There are a couple of lulls, particularly on “Sails” which feels like a softer interlude that’s a bit longer than it needs to be after the lengthy Charcoal Grace suite. But the peaks have kept me coming back so frequently that it makes up for it, and as a whole this feels like it’s enhanced all the best parts of Caligula’s Horse while still pressing forward.
While the instrumentals have always had a heavier edge to them, the vocal work has skewed towards the softer end of the spectrum with singing that fell somewhere between progressive and alternative rock. This continues to be the approach on Charcoal Grace, though you do get different approaches depending on what song you’re on. Whenever a track hits its chorus you’re often met with singing that soars towards the sky and grabs you with its sense of power and beauty, but there are plenty of softer and fragile sounding passages. “Golem” might be the most unique on the vocal front though, as here lead singer Jim Gray takes on a more rhythmic approach that reminds me of early A Perfect Circle, and there are also some screams that break things up. It’s the most metal leaning of the bunch, but still heads into alternative territory when the chorus kicks in. The vocal work continues to be a strong point of Caligula’s Horse music, as it draws you in with softer ranges but can head into some genuinely powerful and entrancing pitches.
A few of the softest sections come and go without truly making an impact, but the bulk of Charcoal Grace sticks with you thanks to its soaring melodic peaks and heavier grooves. The band has found the best balance between their metal and rock tendencies, hitting that level of accessibility that will draw in newcomers while still giving established fans plenty of twists and turns to discover. It’s exciting that after this many albums Caligula’s Horse can still sound fresh and tweak their approach in a meaningful way, and as they approach year fifteen they’re just as exciting as in their earlier days. Charcoal Grace is available from InsideOut Music.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg