A Gift to Artwork, taken from the Caligula’s Horse song “A Gift to Afterthought”, breaks down and analyses your favourite album artwork. The first time an album’s name appears, it will link to a large and (where possible) high-resolution image of the cover so that you can take a closer look. Read other entries in this series here.
Today is the day this column comes full circle. Almost five years ago I wrote one of my first articles for Heavy Blog; A Gift to Artwork: Caligula’s Horse. At the time I didn’t know much about describing artwork (spoiler: I still don’t), but I felt there was a need for someone to discuss the beautiful album covers out there. I didn’t anticipate it turning into a regular column, and for a long period it wasn’t, but it was one of the first steps the blog took towards the recurring columns we’ve all come to know and love, like Death’s Door, KVLT KOLVMN and others. And now here we are, almost five years on from that first post and approaching two years of bi-monthly consistency, circling back to the band that started it all: Caligula’s Horse.
I love Caligula’s Horse, and have from the moment I first heard “A Gift to Afterthought” back in 2013. The Tide, the Thief & River’s End and In Contact ranks among my favourite albums of all time, and while Bloom is less to my taste its highlights are among their best. Thus, it’s fair to say the excitement was palpable when word arrived that a new record was on the way and this went into overdrive the moment I first laid eyes upon the cover. It was love at first sight, and I knew then and there that Rise Radiant would be the subject of this column at some point this year. And here we are. At a glance, the visuals immediately scream Bloom, the vibrancy of the colour palette a clear parallel. Further, unlike their past three records, there is no hint of danger or darkness. Taken together, this set the expectation that we were in store for a record with shorter and more immediate songs (ala Bloom), but with a more uplifting nature throughout.
The cover depicts a quaint valley replete with rolling green hills and a small, slithering stream of steel-blue water. A large stag stands in the foreground, peering out towards a mountain which towers in between the zig-zagging peaks of smaller mountain ranges. The peace of the scene, the subdued yet bright colours, and the harmonious natural imagery exudes an aura of calm and tranquillity. This sense of peace, harmony and balance is aligned with the near symmetry of the scene, with the central stag and mountain flanked by two trees and smaller mountain ranges, respectively. The colour scheme, as well as succinctly expressing the colourful phrasing and melodic choices of Sam Vallen’s signature playing style, ties in beautifully with the symbolism of the stag, namely themes of fertility and life. Viewed through this lens, the cover perfectly embodies a song such as “Autumn”, the most beautiful song on the record and of the best of their career.
Alongside harmony stands another central motif to this work of art: power. The stag may stand calmly, but it radiates power with its long antlers stretching to the sky like a crown atop its head. In some cultures, stags are considered the kings of the forest, while in the Wiccan religion it is associated with the Horned God, the personification of masculinity, nature and the cycle of life. The latter is represented by the seasons here. The snow-capped mountain could represent Winter, the standout track is “Autumn”, and the scene’s vibrancy evokes a strong sense of Spring. This cyclical motif could also capture Caligula’s Horse’s sound, with the immediacy of Rise Radiant circling back to Bloom, while the progressive and conceptual nature of In Contact harks back to Tide. The mountain serves as a similarly powerful and religious symbol, its peak closest to heaven. Coupled with the uplifting nature of the artwork and the record, this sense of power is embodied by “Valkyrie”, with its pounding drums, driving riffs, momentum driving verses and huge chorus screaming power at the top of its lungs. Our power, our inner power, to push forward, to persevere and, ultimately, to triumph.
Finally, alongside tranquillity and power, one final motif strikes me: that of the journey. For power only has meaning within context, and here that context is the journey in life that we’re all on. This can be symbolised by the winding trail or stream that stretches through the piece, leading us from the valley towards the great mountain. Mountains themselves are emblematic of journeys, as metaphors for struggling, climbing and reaching the end abound. Just as all roads in the art lead towards the central mountain, so too does the record lead to the closing track “The Ascent”. The song’s lyrics and pacing bear out this motif nicely, while also bringing in power and tranquillity to varying degrees. Its catch-cry of “Rise, Radiant!” and the artwork’s focus on the ascent mark it out as the eponymous track, the one which neatly ties together its key themes. And there we have it – another stellar work of art from a fantastic band. Chris Stevenson-Mangos has done a fantastic job with the cover and we’re thrilled to be here to talk about it, almost five years from where it all began. See you in two months.