CALIGULA’S HORSE are perhaps the most successful of the 2010’s prog renaissance from Down Under, and five albums in it’s probably time to stop referencing Bart vs. Australia and give Jim Grey and the Ponies a real examination as one of the premier acts making progressive metal in 2020. Rise Radiant is an album that is incredibly pretty, and incredibly heavy, and that’s because Jim Grey has one of the best voices in progressive metal and Sam Vallen writes some of the most outstanding riffs and leads I’ve ever heard. Ever since these two started collaborating around the general ballpark of “superheavy STEELY DAN” I’ve been a fan of the dynamic song structures and delicate harmonies that have come to define their sound, and I’m thoroughly pleased to see them build an incredibly talented cast of musicians around themselves, growing and refining their musical formula into its best iteration yet.
The opening song, “The Tempest” is downright deceitfully conventional with a huge opening riff, sweeping orchestral flourishes, a singalong chorus and a gorgeous sounding, melodic and expressive guitar solo. It’s not until the closing moments of the song, when Josh Griffin lays down CALIGULA’S HORSE’s most devastating secret weapon: The groove. Listeners get a few closing seconds of rhythm driven bliss before the album’s second single, “Slow Violence” sets in, which is an absolute powerhouse of chop rock rhythm and big energy attitude, and even as they chase the songwriting dragon that basically led LEPROUS to give up lead guitars entirely, it’s all still building to a centerpiece guitar solo you can write home about.
Rise Radiant is an odd-numbered album, so it features a lot more color and single song songwriting focus as opposed to the darker, more conceptual even-numbered ones. More importantly there’s more of the purdie shuffle on the album’s most memorable track “Oceanrise.” I don’t mean to overestimate the extent to which progressive metal bands are referencing each other, but it feels like this is taking a shot at the “short but epic and lush” vibes of the similarly named “Earthrise” from Affinity, and it’s a really excellent execution thereof. I think I almost drove my roommate out of my apartment listening to a moment in the bridge where the song drops to silence before roaring back to life. There’s big “Bloom/Marigold” vibes at play on this one in more than one way.
“Autumn” is a welcome update on “Dragonfly”’s power ballad-adjacent vibes. It’s always pissed me off when power metal bands croon on and on to try and ‘build suspense’, but the rhythmic and harmonic nuance to the early parts of the song do a good job at holding my attention until the more momentous back half sets in and I don’t find myself impatient like I usually do in a song that hits its stride near the end. There are of course, more traditional progressive metal staple songs like “Salt” or the 10+ minute closer “The Ascent” which will sound great live and give the diehards something to really chew on, but it’s really CALIGULA’S HORSE’s ability to embody the light and heavy of progressive metal with such compelling aptitude that keeps me coming back, and you should definitely swing by and give it a shot too. The record comes out May 22 on InsideOut Music.
STANDOUT TRACKS: ALL OF THEM