CALIGULA’S HORSE – Charcoal Grace (Album Review)

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Caligula’s Horse have spent the last decade determinedly climbing their way to the apex of the progressive music scene, and there are few acts whose ascendency has been so well-deserved. Their signature sound is soaked in the heavy dregs of djent while simultaneously uplifted by the mesmerizing aura of front man Jim Grey. The progressive hooks and thematic threads of hope that reach defiantly through anguish are unmistakable, and have drawn in droves of listeners from around the globe. It’s no exaggeration to describe Caligula’s Horse as one of the premiere representations of this versatile genre. The long-awaited album “Charcoal Grace” arrives with a dramatic delivery of the familiar sound fans have been craving while simultaneously departing from the expectations “Rise Radiant” had once set. Yet as certainly as Caligula’s Horse steps forward into their respective future, they have done so with an intentional pensiveness, and thus have crafted catharsis that meanders away from what once made their work so memorable.

This modest Australian metal outfit proceeds with a profound sonic history behind them. Their debut arrived in 2011, titled “Moments From Ephemeral City,” and its abrasive kiss was but a small taste of the talent that would blossom in following years. The pop-infused heights of “Bloom” brought additional dynamics and soaring choruses that were easy to love and latch on to. 2017 saw the arrival of “In Contact,” a rich conceptual album that spanned from spoken word to ballads to fiery metallic numbers, all before closing with the fan-favorite epic track, “Graves.” When “Rise Radiant” opened 2020 with its delicate melancholy and bare emotional fervor placed front-and-center, it was hard to imagine where Caligula’s Horse would venture next.

“Charcoal Grace” Artwork

Now standing as a quartet after Adrian Goleby’s departure from the band in 2021, Caligula’s Horse answers four years of speculation and clamoring with more than an hour of new music, an opus they have titled “Charcoal Grace.” 

With even a short glance at the tracklist, it’s clear that “Charcoal Grace” offers something new. Not only does it begin and end with two mammoth tracks – “The World Breathes With Me” and “Golem” at ten and twelve minutes, respectively – but its centerpiece is the titular four-part suite, “Charcoal Grace.” These songs offer the band opportunities it had last reserved for itself in “The Ascent:” an expansive playground to weave progressive melodies, a near-boundless canvas on which to paint their vision, and the time to build an atmosphere that listeners can fully surrender their imagination to. 

But there’s something amiss with “Charcoal Grace.” Years of thoughtful reflection and creativity have left Caligula’s Horse like architects building an opulent temple, taking care to engrave intricate designs across the parapets, gild its frames, and lay elaborate mosaics across its floor. There is immaculate attention to detail that comes from artists of the highest caliber. Yet, when walking through the temple halls, it’s as though there was no god in mind upon its design, no deity to adore within these stained-glass walls. The act of building this house of worship was a hollow exercise, lacking the spirit necessary to bring it to life. Undoubtedly, Caligula’s Horse have done something impressive – they’ve created another excellent Caligula’s Horse album worthy of technical praise. They haven’t done much more.

If Grey and his merry band of metallers have succeeded at anything in their career, it has been infatuating the masses with sensual bliss and irresistible charisma. Their music has been renowned as emotionally charged, passionate, and driven. They’ve been a force of nature that is impossible to look away from. Upon listening to “Charcoal Grace,” however, it begs the question: without the artist’s preexisting reputation, would this album ever be more than a blip on the radar? 

Charcoal Grace” is an opus chasing a specter of the band’s prior acclaims – or perhaps it is the specter itself, a restless ghost that takes on the shape of a Caligula’s Horse album without its beating heart. The pieces are there, and the formula is sound. “The Stormchaser” is a massive endeavor with bombastic leads and an ominous atmosphere. “Charcoal Grace IV: Give Me Hell” is blisteringly heavy without losing that tempered soulfulness that mimics dappled sunlight. As for “Mute,” it is a delectably resonant and compelling piece that lingers as its last notes fade. Some critics have said that this is the most mature album the band has made yet, but in maturing, Caligula’s Horse seem to have lost the spark of ambition that once made their work so magnetic. 

None of this is to say that “Charcoal Grace” is anything less than magnificent. Grey’s voice has reached new heights as his emotive qualities expand (although the album’s mixing does him no favors), while Josh Griffin’s percussive abilities continue to evolve and compliment the fleet-fingered work of bassist Dale Prinsse. As for remaining guitarist Sam Vallen, he is as talented as ever, but the dual-guitar hooks that once made Caligula’s Horse so recognizable are notably absent in this latest release, a gaping hole where Goleby once stood. This more minimalist approach has given the instrumentation more room to breathe, and Grey more room to fill the empty space with his powerful voice, but these opportunities are often overshadowed by album production that buries these musician’s strengths. “Golem” is one track that stands apart from the rest in truly highlighting the talents each member brings to the table. 

Long awaited and likely to be well-received by fans, “Charcoal Grace” is exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a new Caligula’s Horse album, and it’s a new album without the talents of Adrian Goleby to back it up. It has additional years of songwriting maturity and experience, and there are notable areas where the band continues to push their skills to new heights, but “Charcoal Grace” has distilled magic into a formula or mere recitation. As delightful and adept as “Charcoal Grace” may be, some listeners will likely be left pining for the sonic soul that once lifted their spirits. The lightning in a bottle has faded, and the soot that remains is what paints this poetically sober “Charcoal Grace.

Released By: InsideOut Music
Release Date: January 26th, 2023
Genre: Progressive Metal / Djent

Band Members:

  • Jim Grey / Vocals
  • Sam Vallen / Guitars
  • Josh Griffin / Drums
  • Dale Prinsse / Bass

“Charcoal Grace” track listing:

1. The World Breathes With Me
2. Golem
3. Charcoal Grace I: Prey
4. Charcoal Grace II: A World Without
5. Charcoal Grace III: Vigil
6. Charcoal Grace IV: Give Me Hell
7. Sails
8. The Stormchaser
9. Mute

7.0 Very Good

"Charcoal Grace" brings back the familiar embrace of hope-tinged melancholy that Caligula's Horse fans have come to crave, and it does so with a fresh pensiveness and sonic maturity.

  • Songwriting 7
  • Musicianship 8
  • Originality 7
  • Production 6

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