Philadelphia-hailing rockers Mannequin Pussy have been conjuring music that moves, both physically and mentally, since …
About ten or so years ago, Caligula’s Horse were a plucky young prog metal band from Brisbane, sharing the stage with equally obscure names: Voyager, for example. Now, six albums down they’ve been around the world and back and ready to set loose their latest and greatest body of work to date: Charcoal Grace.
Before the inevitable hipster avalanche stripped the grunge out of Melbourne’s home of pub rock, the Esplanade Hotel, Caligula’s Horse were plying their trade atop the sweat-soaked floorboards of the Gershwin Room. They were there as an early act to open the dearly departed Sonic Forge Festival. The mere mention of that gig sucks the boys into a vortex of nostalgia.
“Holy fuck,” says Jim Grey, their vocalist, taking up pride of place on a Zoom call. “It was early on, so we’d done a handful of tours before that, I think in support of Voyager and Twelve Foot Ninja was another, but this was the first time that we’d gone and done something on that scale, played a little mini fest in Melbourne, and so it felt really special, especially because that lineup was incredible fucking heavy. That was really heavy. I mean it was Caligula’s Horse opening for King Parrot. We stuck out like a sore thumb, as we tend to do.”
That’s because they’ve also played Brutal Assault in the Czech Republic, known for its sonic assault, on account of all the brutality. If you know Caligula’s Horse, they’re about as brutal as a G-rated version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the best possible way, of course.
“I thought about that last year,” Jim says. “I was literally on stage looking out at the crowd of all these metalheads just sort of looking at us, ‘what’s going on there?’ Because everything else was so heavy on that lineup. And then we did our thing and in the back of my head I’m like, man, I just had this flashback to the Sonic Forge Festival, so that’s fucking insane.”
Bringing it back to the present, Caligula’s Horse have conquered overseas stages; and that band they opened for so many years ago recently represented Australia at Eurovision. Pretty good for a niche genre band that can tour on the regular. Then, that all came crashing down due to border closures and shutdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. If you know how an extended lockdown can sap the strength to even get up in the morning, it did the same for Caligula’s Horse during those glacially paced hours in government-mandated exile.
“I think it was kind of tough to get into the writing process this time coming out,” says bassist Dale Prinsse, taking over the screen from Jim. “It came off what was a very depressing set of years, and so coming into it we had no idea what the album would sound like. Trying to find that initial direction was quite challenging, but also exciting I guess, and inspiring because the world’s your oyster when you don’t know what an album’s going to sound like.”
I love the Charcoal Grace suite and I feel like the journey doesn’t feel like a long meandering, twenty-four minutes. It’s a journey that makes sense.
[ Jim Grey, vocalist ]
“There’s kind of a conundrum with it as well,” Jim says, “It’s little bit funny where it’s the paradox of the fact that we couldn’t write during the pandemic because I was personally broken. I was irreparably damaged by that and had no desire to create music anymore because of how sort of bad things were. I thought that I was stronger than that, but I wasn’t. But then thanks to the guys here and thanks to family and the music that we wanted to make, I was able to come out of that. Ironically, as a result of not doing anything and going through all of that dark stuff, all the stories that we had to tell afterwards are what make up Charcoal Grace. So it’s full of those personal stories and the things that we saw during a time that was totally destructive to ourselves.”
“I found myself getting bitter watching other people make music and being like, why don’t I feel like writing?” Josh Griffin, their drummer says. “Totally,” says Jim. “It was brutal, man.”
Up from the murk and self-doubt came the oddly – or aptly – titled Charcoal Grace. Stuck in a world of endless grey, one can draw out endless forms most beautiful. That’s especially the case on this album, which is nothing short of breathtaking in every aspect. What will go down as their Scenes from a Memory or New Mythology Suite, the four-track, twenty-four minute Charcoal Grace suite is a sprawling epic teasing out every ounce of passion and creativity stirring within these four men.
“It is funny with stuff like this,” says Josh, “because often with the longest songs that we write that are more sort of through composed stuff, like the World Breathes with Me and previously the songs like Dream the Dead and to even more of an extent Graves, we had a mission that we set for ourselves. It’s like, ‘Hey, let’s try something. We’ve never written a side-length song. We’ve never done that before.’ We started on that process and the ideas and themes were growing and we realised that between Sam [Vallen, guitars] and I at the time, and obviously these guys have been so involved with the writing process, now I do this because on my screen they’re next to me,” he points to a window that stars me, and not any of the band. Me, I quip?
“He’s pointing to you,” Dale says, pointing a finger toward god knows where. It’s like the worst Brady Bunch intro you’ve ever seen in your life.
“Yeah, thanks to your contributions, Tom,” Josh says, laughing.
A spontaneous chant of “Tom! Tom! Tom!” breaks out. Too kind, you guys. Anyway, Jim picks up the baton:
“There was so many different themes coming through and we’re experimenting and getting excited about so much, we realised that we needed to break it up into those chunks, into those sort of chapters that make up the suite so that each one could have its own identity and each one have its own part of the story.
“I think we succeeded in that because I love the Charcoal Grace suite and I feel like the journey doesn’t feel like a long meandering, twenty-four minutes. It’s a journey that makes sense. We’re trying to cut it down at the end as well. We had to intentionally wrap up writing that song. We could keep going with it if we wanted to. We had so much work with, interestingly, we reached that point. We just like, we looked at it and we went like, ‘yeah, cool.’ We should be wrapping it up. And then when we start looking at it going, it really is complete. It doesn’t have anything more to say. We’ve allowed it to have that conversation. We’ve allowed it to express itself and the song exists.”
With what is set to be their biggest and most succesful release (in my not so humble opinion), what’s next for the house of Horse? With their contemporaries headlining overseas tours and becoming household names, do you dream big or go home?
“Well, I mean it is hard not to get excited about the momentum that we have now, again, after it was gone,” says Josh. “but I think after seeing it sort fall apart the way that it did, I think we’ve sort of grown attached to the small world that we built for ourselves around us as well. So at the same time, it’s exciting to get out there on the road and tour the United States again and sort of find our feet as a band and go like, ‘yeah, what’s the next thing?’
I think what we’ve realised is that the next thing for us is writing more music and spending more time with each other and family and friends, and if more touring comes off the back of that music and success comes off the back of that music, great.”
SOPHIE’S CHOICE: CHARCOAL GRACE EDITION
We asked the Caligula’s Horse boys which of their songs from the new album is their favourite – a Sophie’s Choice round of picking the first among equal darlings. Here’s what they had to say:
DALE: Mute is the one that effects me every single time.
JOSH: I’m going to have to agree with Dale. Mute. No matter how many times I listen to it, it still manages to take my breath away. Without getting too lovey-dovey Jim, that is some of your best work.
JIM: Yeah, umm, fuck off [all laugh] I think it’s The Storm Chaser. This is where I get with albums. It’s like favourites will sort of come and go and things that I’ll want to listen to or imagine playing and live and going, ‘I can’t wait to bring this one to life,’ that kind of thing. That’s where I’m at with The Storm Chaser right now. But obviously I’ve had a lengthy love affair with Mute and with all of the songs as they’ve grown. And because the lyrics are mine and the stories sort of come from all of us, but directly out of my brain, I kind of have a really personal attachment to them all. So they are my babies and I love them all deeply.