Vitriol – Suffer & Become (brutal prog-death)
I've (and many others) have spent a long time waiting for a true successor to Rivers of Nihil's Where Owls Know My Name (2018), and while I don't think Vitriol have concocted something quite as groundbreaking and momentous as that record, I think this is probably come as close as anyone has in the half-decade or so since its release, while also carving out an extremely brutal path all of their own. Indeed, Suffer & Become sounds like the follow-up to Owls had been written while listening to a whole lot of Hate Eternal, instead of like Emerson Lake and Palmer and a bunch of right-wing conspiracy podcasts or whatever. Throw in some mid-period Decapitated and early Ulcerate for good measure and we've got ourselves an exceedingly volatile stew going.
I don't think a single album has had me laughing so hysterically at the sheer brutality of it all since Hate Eternal's Phoenix Amongst the Ashes all the way back in 2011, but it's not all blasts and tremolo. Beneath all the brutality are some serious song structures, memorable melodies and manic musicianship that makes Vitriol stand out above the crowd and their competitors and comrades alike tremble before them in terror. The album is also expertly paced, balancing its ostensibly unrelenting offensive with more restrained, Psycroptic-style instrumental interludes that give the listener a chance to catch their breath while bracing themselves for another onslaught. Suffer & Become impresses with its intensity, but there's an underlying restraint to its proceedings that, even at first glance, suggests it's a genuinely landmark genre record that we'll not only be talking about again in twelve months' time, but for years to come as well.
Caligula’s Horse – Charcoal Grace (prog metal)
At the more relaxed end of the metal spectrum, we also have a new Caligula's Horse album. The sheer fact of its existence would be cause for celebration on its own around these parts, but is made all the more monumental by also being one of the best and most ambitious albums of the band's already highly acclaimed career. I think Eden and I agree far more often than he thinks, but we're definitely coming at this one differently. While he found Charcoal Grace "more of a grower than any other Caligula's Horse album", I find it to be their most immediate; satisfying outing since The Tide, The Thief & River's End (2013).
Rise Radiant (2020) had/s its moments, but the album as a whole felt overly ponderous and hasn't really stuck with me at all since its release. In contrast, Charcoal Grace feels much more refined and directed, with many of its offerings being built around the kind of heavier riffs and refrains which were all too fleeting on its predecessor. It's also a much darker and more driving offering than Bloom (2015), with the band these days having far more in common with progressive tech-metal acts like Tesseract than Karnivool or any of the other Aus-prog acts they came up with. Charcoal Grace is also a noticeably less dense record than In Contact (2017), while also maintaining the band's now trademark sprawling prog metal ambition and grandiosity.
Therein lies the album's one true weakness, however. On the whole, I think Caligula's Horse suffer from the "friend who won't leave when you're done hanging out" complex Eden so expertly (and rather viciously) identified of fellow Australian progressive metal institution Ne Obliviscaris, and—as comparatively streamlined as Charcoal Grace is—at just over an hour long, it's also a pretty tall ask. In particular, I don't think there was really a need to chuck the twelve-minute-long track "Mute" on the end of the album, especially when its first three-or-so minutes of mellow monotony rather undermine the climatic, cathartic effect of "The Storm Chaser" before it. Perhaps it was an attempt to recapture the magic of "Graves" from In Contact (although even then I'd argue that album/track overstays its welcome somewhat). Vocalist Jim Grey's frequent falsettos don't always feel like the most comfortable or fitting choice for their compositions either. In each instance though, what is truly impressive about Caligula's horse, and what ultimately sets them apart, is their ambition. There really hasn't been an album like this since Rise Radiant or In Contact, and there probably won't be another one until the next Caligula's horse album rolls around either.