And so, we are faced once again with the idea of a band’s “career”. I spent my first few years with the blog grappling with this idea; what do we mean when we use it? Do we mean just the chronological order in which albums were released? Surely not; a career seems to imply intent, something to bind or explain the steps taken, and not just the march of time. But, on the other hand, do we necessarily mean an object created with forethought, as if the band/musician/artist consciously make art so they can craft something worth categorizing as such? That also seems lacking; we want to believe in the spontaneity and creativity behind music and that vision, so cold and calculating, seems incongruous with it.
It’s a question we’ll probably never answer definitively but we can safely say that, after the third album usually, many artists start to experiment with meta. Perhaps it is that making music becomes “easier” in some regard; there’s less friction between veteran band members who know each other, you likely have a label, there’s some money in the piggy bank. And so, when every note and track recorded is not so much of a struggle, perhaps you have some time to plan ahead and carve out a more intentful path for your music. Regardless of the veracity of such theorizing, it’s safe to say that it stands the test of reality: many artists do indeed start to consider their formula and where they want to take it once a few albums are under their belt.
Which is where we find Caligula’s Horse. If The Tide, the Thief & River’s End is the album which first brought them to the attention of the international scene (with Moments from Ephemeral City playing the role of an underrated, or underbaked depending on your view, debut album) then In Contact was their high point. An ambitious concept album, In Contact also imported the clearer sound forged on Bloom and more accessible song writing. Thus, we got an incredible album which hinted at a band at the height of their power, able to channel aggression and beat into even more elegant and decisive forms than they did on The Tide. Which brings us to Rise Radiant and to the understandable amount of meta that surrounds a fifth release.
To wit, the question being asked is “what now?” What comes after In Contact, an album that seems to take the Caligula’s Horse formula, first presented to the world on The Tide, and perfect it? The answer, interestingly enough, is Bloom. Which is not to say that Rise Radiant is the same album. Rather, an interesting symmetry presents itself: if In Contact is The Tide perfected, namely an ambitious concept album, then Rise Radiant plays the same role for Bloom. First, it is not a concept album; it features tracks which are not tied together by lyric or by musical leitmotif. Second, it is more aggressive and bouncy than the two grandiose albums, focused on punch and verve rather than intricate storytelling. This also means that the tracks are, on average, shorter and possessed of a more straightforward structure.
But whereas Bloom seemed to suffer inordinately from some of these reductions (it was a good album, and remains one, but lacked a bit of umf) Rise Radiant only seems to benefit. The pointed nature of the album, its economy, means that ideas pop out more readily, hooking us directly into the music. Take the second track, “Slow Violence”, one of the leading singles for the album. It is four and a half minutes long and contains some of the band’s tightest writing to date. The main riff which fuels the track is both interesting and groovy, displaying the Caligula’s Horse penchant for djent-y yet progressive riffs that first put them on the map. More than anything though is is the chorus, featuring the incomparable Jim Grey in his most theatrical, convincing mood yet, that captures your heart.
That’s why it’s a good thing that the track is direct, unburdened by sprawling, progressive song structures. There’s more time for that infections chorus to do its work. This is also true for “Valkyrie”, further down the album, but this time it’s the guitars and the bass which you want more of. The opening riff, with its unstoppable groove and mass, is something you just want to hear more and more of and the track supplies it in droves. Yes, it could have been ten minutes longer and that riff could have returned, resplendent, as a reprise, but that’s now what Rise Radiant is about. The proof is in the pudding: it’s called Rise Radiant! This album is about power and, unlike the muddier Bloom, it wastes absolutely zero time to deliver that power directly to the listener.
Of course, listeners of the band who crave the more varied mode of the band might find somethings missing. This ache is alleviated, somewhat, by tracks like “Resonate” (a touching piece of ars poetica) and “The Ascent”. The first is quieter, a kind of somber anchor at the middle of the track. The latter is the album’s closer and, keeping true to Caligula’s Horse tradition, it’s longer and more epic, containing more complex ideas and composition (and also one of the most satisfying riffs on the album, of course). These tracks work nicely with the other, main mode on this album, the more direct one, by offering a bit of contrast. In that regard, and perhaps most typified by the massively infectious, sweeping, and emotional “Autumn” (with its elongated vocal passage and build-up/crescendo heavy structure), these tracks are a reminder of where this album came from and from where it departs.
But they are, essentially, a departure from the energetic, bouncy, and bright vibe of Rise Radiant. As we wind down this review (finally, thank god, won’t he shut up already), a confession: it was inevitable that I try to compare this album to In Contact. Not only is it the band’s most recent album, it’s also one of my favorite albums of all time. But, as I hinted above, that comparison is misplaced: this album should be compared to Bloom, as it presents the same perspective on the band’s music, what it means, and what it tries to achieve. Viewed under that lens (beyond just the “objective” one where, of course, the album is still great) Rise Radiant is another bold, interesting, and promising step in Caligula’s Horse career.
Whether the band considered this “meta object” when they were making it, one fact remains: Rise Radiant showcases many of the reasons that we (and I) fell in love with this band originally and rockets them to new heights. It’s polish given to an aspect that other bands might have discarded, a poppier, more immediately gratuitous part of Caligula’s Horse sound. But for all of that, it’s still an important, beautiful aspect of their music and I’m absolutely delighted that they decided to see it through to the potential that we always felt was there. In Contact is an album to listen and cry to, with rage, with the pain of growth, with sorrow, with defiance.
Rise Radiant is an album to listen and shout to, to dance to, to feel angry and cathartic and hopeful and powerful to.
Caligula’s Horse Rise Radiant releases tomorrow, May 22nd, via InsideOut Music. You can pre-order it right here. And remember: we reach forward.