My love for Caligula's Horse is probably the least well kept secret on the blog - it is quite likely they are currently my favorite band on the planet. This has always been driven by many things but chief amongst them was probably the duo of the emotional impact of their music and the fact that I discovered it during the worst year of my life. Back when I was suffering from emotional devastation, the thematic makeup of The Tide, The Thief & River's End meshed exactly with what I was needing, providing me with power and a willingness to go on. Since then, the band have only sharpened their capacity for incisiveness and storytelling, creating the explosive Bloom, the deep and moving In Contact (my favorite album of theirs and one of my favorite albums of all time), and the uplifting Rise Radiant.
And now, they are set to release Charcoal Grace tomorrow, Friday the 26th 2024. As Sam and I discuss in the interview you can check out below, there's a sort of expectation from diehard Caligula's Horse fans of what this album should be; in the band's discography and its patterns, this album should be an expansive and ambitious concept album. However, it is not that. Oh, to be certain there's a multi-part track right in its middle and other songs on it definitely fit into that series' mood and language. But it is not what In Contact was to Bloom, namely an album that's a cohesive whole, translating itself into a conceptual and grandiose journey. Instead, Charcoal Grace is Caligula's Horse most subtle and elusive album to date, an exercise in the ochre and coal tones that its name (and cover art) imply. It is chiaroscuro, a study in light and shadow, and what both of these modes reveal and obscure.
This begins on the level of the music itself. While opening track "The World Breathes With Me" has a killer and classic C-Horse riff, all staccato and chunky goodness, even that boisterous track is more muted and reserved than usual openers for the band. And this reserved elusiveness is only enhanced as the album goes on, finally culminating in the aforesaid four part track. This work paints a picture of a relationship falling apart, of people drifting into emotional and psychological distances, and of someone fighting for a world that is receding from them. Accordingly, it finds both Vallen and Jim Grey putting on some of their more subtle and "quiet" performances to date. Guitar riffs are "backwards" in the mix, with prominent and redolent synth tones communicating much of the dark color of the track. Grey is, as usual, excellent but there are less full throated screams (although those are there, especially on the first track of the quarter, "Prey") and more coaxing and twisting vocals and lyrics, inviting you into the psychological torment and struggle of the main characters.
Overall, everything is "less"; the mix is more laid back, the compositions take more time to develop, and the lyrics and vocals are more sly and beguiling. This is, by no means, a criticism but it does mean that Charcoal Grace "presents" itself less to the listener, certainly when compared to the very "forward" Rise Radiant. In fact, not only is this not a criticism, it is an accolade. It takes real courage to step out of the "obvious" structure of your career and shuck the chains of pattern to make something that truly communicates how you feel at a moment in time. That is, in many ways, the definition of the artistic gesture. You can hear more about that in my interview with Vallen below; how this album was born from the COVID-19 pandemic and the situation it thrust the band into; how it signifies a different approach for them.
But you can also just play the album; in true C-Horse fashion, while the release requires more from you to get there, there is a rich lodestone of thoughts, emotions, images, and words (see what I did there) communicated as effectively with sounds as they are with verbal intention. As a result of the increased subtleness in approach, Charcoal Grace is more of a grower than any other Caligula's Horse album but if you give it time, as I have, it will work its ephemeral roots into your heart just like all of their previous albums. At the outset I would also like to say how promising this release is for the future of the band, showcasing their ability to adapt and modify their sound while still hanging out to the identity which first caused listeners like me to gravitate towards them.
Charcoal Grace releases tomorrow, Friday the 26th 2024. You can head on over to InsideOut's bandcamp above to grab it.