Never felt like this before
Like the window in the water
Worlds of worthy sacrifice
But you made me feel alive
Like the light through dreamers eyes
I’m taking what I need
— Caligula’s Horse, “Dream the Dead”
Ever since hearing Moments From Ephemeral City back in 2011, I’ve looked forward to every release from Caligula’s Horse, the outstanding progressive quintet from Brisbane, Queensland. I didn’t write a proper review of that first release, but did say, “First, that’s a great band name. Secondly, that’s a good album title. Third, the music is just as inventive and attention-grabbing. Finally, the 12-minutes song ‘Alone in the World’ is one of my favorite songs of the year.”
That fabulous song contains all the ingredients that continue to shine forth in the band’s subsequent releases: a heavy-soft dynamic rooted squarely on founder and producer Sam Vallen’s stunning guitar work, a dark-light dynamic flowing from singer Jim Grey’s rich and expressive vocals, complex longer songs mixed with more immediate and very melodic shorter songs, and opaque lyrics containing a mixture of “the usual” (angst, love, fear, hope) and unusual (classical and historical references, musings on religion and spirituality). To my ear, these guys are really a cut or two above in terms of songcraft; every single solo or instrumental passage serves the greater good. There is no noodling or showing off, even though everyone has chops to burn.
Not to oversimplify, but it seems to me that most (most, not all) really good to great progressive rock bands have a riveting combination of distinctive vocals and guitar work. Vallen and Grey are world class in their respective crafts; in fact, Grey has shown in his work with the now-defunct Arcane that his distinctive pipes will stand out in any context; he discusses both bands in this excellent August 2015 interview. (Speaking of Arcane, the band’s final album, Known/Learned, is one of the finest prog albums of the past few years.) Grey is a vocalist with a remarkable combination of technical skill, as evidenced in his perfect control and pitch, and emotive impact; he can convey anger, vulnerability, joy, despair, and ecstasy with stunning ease, often on the turn of a dime.
I thought that 2013’s The Tide, The Thief & River’s End was a landmark album for the band (see my Progarchy.com review) and that Bloom continued the positive trajectory. In Contact proves the band is incapable of producing anything less than exceptional, and it is arguably their best work to date. In fact, I likely would say it is their best—period—save for the inclusion of an annoying and momentum-killing three-minute-long spoken track #8 (“Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall”), which I skip on every listen.
The opener, “Dream the Dead,” begins with a salvo of soaring guitar and then segues into a melodic verse over a little riff containing hints of Daniel Lanois, then building upon the heavy-soft/dark-like dynamics mentioned earlier. “Will’s Song” is, to my ears, the most run-of-the-mill cut, with some basic djent riffing and shouted choruses. But the rest of the album (again, save cut #8) is either above average or outstanding. “The Hands are the Hardest” has a wealth of great tones, a wonderful guitar solo, and a melancholic yet rousing series of choruses and bridges. “Love Conquers All” is a pithy and lovely tune featuring Grey at his most vulnerable:
The beast that I have become
Could set me free of this
If only I had the time
If only these hands were mine
It fades away far too quickly, giving way to “Song for No One,” which is, along with the final song, the nearly 16-minute-long “Graves,” the heart of the album:
“Capulet” returns to a more subdued, acoustic-ish soundscape before “Fill My Heart” embarks on a yearning, mid-tempo slow burn that features some tasteful drumming from newcomer Josh Griffin; the final three minutes are a perfect example of the Vallen-Grey interplay, with impressive leads by both. “The Cannon’s Mouth” lives up to the name, with a series propulsive, shot-like riffs and soaring vocals. The epic closer “Graves” brings it all together, with a masterful musical arc, a lush series of a cappella harmonies, a ear-worm chorus, devastating shredding by Vallen, and final barrage of heavy riffs and atmospheric vocalizing:
My take: this is one of the best prog releases of the year. Unless spoken word is your thing, I recommend skipping track #8 and enjoying yet another impressive effort from the best-named band from Down Under.