*prognotes – Caligula’s Horse’s The Tide, The Thief & River’s End

If you’ve been following this blog for more than a few months, you might have noticed that we really like Caligula’s Horse. Honestly, it’s one of the

7 years ago

If you’ve been following this blog for more than a few months, you might have noticed that we really like Caligula’s Horse. Honestly, it’s one of the bands that reflect the most what a lot of our staff members like in their music. It’s modern and well produced, leaning on “djent” influence, but it’s also groovy, intelligent and melodic, blending progressive attention for detail with a heavy, instinct driven approach to composition. For many of us, this approach was introduced to us with their second album, The Tide, The Thief & River’s End (which shall be referred to as The Tide from now on). As such, we’ve spoken about it numerous times on the blog: in posts celebrating its art, its music and its release.

However, we’ve always hinted at the deeper concepts that make up the album without diving too deep into what they mean, how they’re constructed and what story they tell. Well, what better than a *prognotes post to do just that? As always, we’ll use it to take a closer look at the lyrics of the album, focusing less on the thematic ideas expressed within (although, this being a post by me, you know we’ll touch on them at least for a bit) and more on the story that drives this album forwards. Well, in this case, backwards. That’s right: The Tide is a story told (mostly) in reverse, playing around with our perception of narrative time to tell its story.

One last thing. While every *prognotes runs the chance of making mistakes and misinterpreting certain parts of the story, or perhaps even all of it, I feel like this is doubly the case here. The Tide is a lyrically complex album and one which I’ve refrained from tackling until now because I’ve never been 100% certain if the structures I’ve constructed in my head are justified in reality. However, what’s life without risk and how will I know if I don’t try? With those words of ringing encouragement, let us begin!

Remember how I said that we start at the end? Well, the first track’s name should be a large enough clue for you. Not only that, but “A Gift for Afterthought” opens up The Tide with a line that first gave me the idea of the album’s reversal: “Here and now it ends”. This line will have more impact at the album’s end, when we’ll come to realize that it’s not just the story that’s ending here but also a state of mind that our protagonists have carried with them from their captivity. For now, we are acquainted with the basic balance which propels the album forward: a people expelled, fleeing from captivity, seek a new home. However, it appears that whatever home they found only brings with it a new captivity:

“This is more than each of us
This will be the end of us now,
I swear it
Believe me
Just one word
And welcome home was all we heard
Through bars we built ourselves
They’d already won
Just one word
And welcome home the empty herd”

So, escape and what seemed to be, finally, release has turned into a prison. A mysterious “they” have triumphed since, we assume, the people we are following thought they were escaping from them but only ended up in their clutches. The last three, “the empty herd”, hint towards one of the dualities of the album. Although it’s clear that escape, loss, victory, and struggle all have outwards, physical manifestations (that is, people are actually fleeing a place and literally struggling against some oppressor, for example) they are also internal and, interestingly enough, social. Throughout the album, we’ll be following a people, a nation or, more like, an ethnic group united around a belief system. Their struggle is both physical and incorporeal. They must find a new place to reside but they are also struggling with their inner demons. These demons include, and are focused on, betraying your own culture, your own faith, giving up the ideals and core beliefs which made you work.

This is “the empty herd”, a group that has forgotten its ideals. What are these ideals here? Throughout the album, we’ll see the importance of perseverance, internal cohesion, dedication to one’s beliefs and more. What were they lost for? What is the single word with which everything can end? Hope. That is how this track ends. At the end of this path, at the end of the story, we find a people led astray, made to flee and struggle, for the hope of a better place and a better state. The next two tracks show us the journey that has brought our empty herd to the place where the story (supposedly) ends. It focuses on two figures, both apparently leaders of the people but very different. One, the first, is unnamed. He is introduced to us by proxy in “Water’s Edge“:

‘To the fray you pay no mind
But the blood we share dispels disguise
You’re weak and human, just as lost as I
Try and stand against the tide
Your grip on all they know begins to slide
Repeat the words “I’m fine.”‘

The speaker seems to be addressing a trendsetter, someone who shapes the thoughts and beliefs of his fellow people, rather than to a general. Slowly, as the path winds on (remember that this is near the end of their journey, not the beginning) the iron fist of this priest/politician/figurehead begins to slip and the price that people have paid for his convictions become apparent. He is chided by his subjects/fellow travelers and urged to let himself go, to let himself drown. The metaphor of water as both domestic embrace and final death will return countless times all across The Tide. This image perhaps ties our two figures into one, unlike what I had said in the past paragraph. Perhaps these are not two leaders but just two faces of the same one, as his authority and his status degrades. The next track, “Atlas“, perhaps shows us who he was before the journey began to wear him down:

“The ocean at my window
Here I find myself again
All broken bones and eyes that wear their age
Like going home is etched on every page

Fragile Atlas
He carries that old smile
He will stay his weary arms
To just lay down a while

Lay me down
The ocean at my window
Here I find myself again
All broken bones and eyes that wear their age
Like going home is etched on every page”

Here, we see a man already tired by the journey. Going home, the main goal of our protagonists, has already taken its toll on him. This will be explained in the next track, as we come to understand the exact plight of these people. For now though, we are left with the image of a leader buckling under the weight of the world (his name is no accident). However, on “Atlas“, his resolution is still fiercely clear. He sees the end, the final embrace of water and home, and chooses to go on even though he beckons for the end to arrive. Notice the difference between the previous track and this one: here, our narrative focus asks to be laid down. In the next track, he will be implored to do so by the people around him. Perhaps his resolve was so ironclad that, when finally faced with the peace of home, he could not stop? Thus, others were forced to “spit truth like fire” and make him stop? If so, his character is even more tragic since he rightfully saw the deception in the promised end.

This might be corroborated on the final track but, for now, it is time for us to look at the very first steps of this journey and, finally, understand why it is so egregious. “Into the White” is perhaps the most important track to understanding this album’s story and one of the best on the album. Here, we see Atlas’s generation, those old when the road ends, still young and motivating their people to escape. In order to do so, they must move not only through physical hardships but also abandon their culture, leave behind their religion and everything else which was inexorably bound to the place which they had left. Regardless of how terrible that place was, the journey itself require of them to shed the beliefs, ideas and, indeed, some of the people that made them who they were and still are:

“Into the white
The scent of fire behind
First steps to freedom are lighter than we ever knew


We left our prayers with our old gods
White hand, release
Leaves in the fading smoke
So easy to forget the voice that never spoke”

The last line is pure genius. In their arrogance and desire for freedom, these young people have discarded aside their belief and abandoned their gods. That’s “the voice that never spoke”, the silent partner to the religious dialogue. Now, in the midst of this shattering and exodus, they must forge that hope and swear the oaths which will, inevitably, lead them to just another prison. This is one of the main thematic points of the album: in pushing ahead and setting our eyes on an impossible dream, we often chain ourselves to things which we will ultimately regret chasing. Not only that, but we will bequeath these ideals to the next generation, forcing them a dogmatism ill-forged in the hours of our greatest despair and longing. This hope mingled with fear will possess them and prevent them from correcting course, essentially binding them to our mistakes:

“Called through the cold
Road to a home we’ll never know
We gave to our sons a heavy burdened hope”

The real world, political and social implications of these ideas is plain to see and requires no exegesis. For now, we return to our story, skipping over the beautiful (mostly) instrumental “Old Cracks In New Earth” and wind up with one of the harder tracks to place within our narrative. “Dark Hair Down” is a story of a captive striking against a tyrant, freeing herself by killing him. It is a story about shamanic power (both in the implications of resurrection and the mental imagery associated with long hair and power), personal might and freedom. How does it fit into our story? I believe, since it is the only explanation that fits, that this is the story of what first released this people from their original captivity. A tyrant had been oppressing them; soon, in the next track, we’ll see that they were complacent in their captivity. But, a single soul fought back and killed the tyrant, giving the people the signal which they needed to find a better place for themselves:

It was his neck or her wrist
Clean nails on iron fist
Dreams of peace beyond the wall
She’d cry out for mercy but she had no voice at all

Here and now it ends
This quiet victory
Her promise she would make amends
He lay not yet cold on the ground
This day of all days she would wear her dark hair down

This time the wheel has come around
Free of her cage she crows with a fearless sound
“Your fists can’t hurt me now”
A fearless sound
She’ll wear her dark hair down”

Mark that phrase, “dreams of peace beyond the wall”, will you? It will tie a neat bow around my theory for this track when we come to the next. For now, let us note that basic story being told to us here. Enslaved, finally the prisoner taps into a hidden source of internal reserves. This burgeoning forth of power is symbolized by the letting down of hair, a gesture of defiance and of freedom. What answer can such pent up power and rage give to a tyrant? Only death. And, indeed, death comes to him. However, when reading the next paragraph, note the similarities between this personal, small story and the grander one at play: tired of waiting, a hero (this protagonist or the general one, the people) rises up and breaks the peace, swearing an oath to do the impossible through personal perseverance and power. Thus, within the smaller story of “Dark Hair Down”, we find a mirror for the entire album:

And blood brought the answer that time could not provide
Scars that read like home could hide
Her prison swallowed everything but piercing open eyes
She proudly bore the mark
Where his brand had met her head
She spat “The coward could not kill what was already dead.”‘

And with that, skipping over a short and sweet interlude called “Thief”, it is time for the last track. Now, “All Is Quiet By The Wall” is complicated so bear with me. It is complicated because its first half continues the backwards movement of narrative time, showing us the primal state of this people, the place from which they sought to flee. It describes a people both complacent, dreaming of peace, and defiant, unwilling to let go of their right and desire to their culture. On one hand, they wish for nothing but silence and the continuation of their way of life. On the other, their children are being taken from them, fed through the fires of re-education. This re-education, as such tyrannical projects usually go, probably teaches servility, despise for their way of life and submission. Perhaps even the protagonist of “Dark Hair Down” is one of those children, her defiance finally showing her people that victory and freedom are possible:

Reach for the light
Like a child
Desperate grip on the passing breeze
Cling to peace
Close to your chest
There’s cracks in your voice as we sing
“When the world is quiet, just a whisper breaks your rest…”

“Give me the child, I’ll give you the man!” They say
No – We’ll walk through fire to fight you
Asleep or awake
It’s not the simple sacrifice you planned
I’ll wait by the wall – let them come
Here I stand”

Thus, with her refusal of peace in favor of liberating violence, she broke their complacency, making them look for “peace beyond the wall”. The wall, which is also a river’s end like where we had started, is where they’ve always lived but now comes the time to shake that place in the favor of a promised land. This is heartbreaking, since we know where such a quest will lead them. However, do we? This is where the second half of the track comes in as it jumps back to the starting point of the album. That is, back to the future (heh) of our narrative.  Now, a certain defiance comes into their voice as they look back on their current predicament in light of all that has happened. They begin to realize their mistake and how their empty dreams doomed them:

“The stars were just beacons then
They will make amends
Colour to his eyes
Let the light pour in
We’ve already lost enough time to shadows
And damned ourselves to empty oaths we wear like broken glass to make us whole”

But what is their reaction in light of such a revelation? They stand at their promised land and their dreams are ash. They see that their own folly, generational at that, passed down from parent to child, has brought them to this new prison. They discarded their faith, their home, their culture, the same culture that they had thought they were fighting for. All of this would be enough to completely break even the strongest of spirits. But is it despair we find in the last words of the album? No. It is defiance:

Out of my cage
Out of this place… Finally

Hand in hand with our own
This is our home. This is our home
Let our sign say: “Let them come and meet their end”

Now the world is quiet, this is where we make our stand”

Remember the parallels between the places: both are at the end of a river. Both have a wall. Both are quiet, where just one word (hope in the first, peace in the last) carries the weight of culture, world’s end and doom. But, at the end, their complacency and their foolish idealism are both transformed. Instead, there is defiance and understanding that this, this place that they have found, is where they must fight for what is theirs. That mysterious “them”, which must be understood here as all who would have them bound and shuttered, let them try and once again trick them into false hope. This time they will find defeat. And how will such defeat be accomplished? By standing together, by drawing a line in the sand and screaming “enough!”.

The answer, according to The Tide, is neither to accept the current situation or to run from it. The answer is to fight for where you are and make it home. Instead of dreaming of a promised land, instead of forcing your children to believe in it as well, seek to better the place where you already are. Stick together with your fellows and draw that line in the sand wide and deep and let whoever tries to budge you know that they will be the first to blink. Consider this in the light of political plight: often, people conceive of the situation as either something they must accept or as something they must escape from. Caligula’s Horse would have you do neither. Through this backwards told story they would have you stand fight. Forget peace; leave hope they say. Stand. Fight.

Spit truth like fire.

Eden Kupermintz

Published 7 years ago