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Caligula’s Horse: Scholars of prog

Being label mates with Dream Theater, touring the world with Opeth and headlining stacked bills across the US are things that are unheard of for a ‘prog’ band from Australia. Yet, for Brisbane-based quintet Caligula’s Horse, named after the legendary relationship between a Roman Emperor and his beast of burden, playing proggy jams to thousands at home and abroad is something that they’ve excelled at.

Now five records in, the group’s newest effort Rise Radiant is as focused as they’ve ever sounded; crushing riffs mixed with beautiful textures and the occasional 10-minute epic, resulting in a richly versatile, yet digestible listen.

However, for guitarist and chief composer Sam Vallen, the composition of the new album was anything but smooth, with the multi-tasker juggling dad, PhD and album duties at once.

The fact that said PhD was focused on progressive music makes the chat all the more sweeter, with the ‘Professor of Prog’ admitting that things were chaotic, yet beautiful at the same time.

“I wrote the majority of the record in this crazy four or five month period just after the birth of my son. I was doing some at-home fathering and I was also finishing my doctorate in that period, so everything that I did circulated around those three things for awhile. I was working on some of these songs way into the wee hours…but the difficulty has really been overshadowed by how proud we are of this,” he says with a hint of relief.

“The writing and recording of this was tied up in all these incredibly joyful new experiences…it ended up being this one beautiful memory of all these crazy things, so it’s a really amazing punctuation point in a sense.”

Contextually, it sounds like Sam’s life while composing Rise Radiant was metaphorically similar to C-Horse’s brand of progressive music; incredibly exciting yet explosive, crammed into a finite space. It turns out that doing a lot in a condensed time is something of a mission statement for the band, with the notion of producing a half-an-hour prog epic not the main priority.

“If it’s an explosion of all the ideas that you can add in a longer song, well that to me seems like a more potent artistic statement. I get more excited by that. If I can make an eight-sixteen bar long solo, yet it’s memorable….well why the hell would I need it to be longer….that’s also why we like to (mostly) write shorter songs!” he says.

While some purists might turn their noses up at the length of the tunes (only one song passes the ten minute mark – the nerve!) there’s no lack of artistic boldness from the group, with Sam asserting that breaking new ground has always been first on the agenda for the band, especially as they begin to experience increased success.

“Even if we just offer our little piece of art to throw out in the world….even if all that does is give you a distraction for an afternoon, well that was really important to us.”

“Every record that we create, we begin with a meeting that we all have where we talk about what it is we’ve done in the past, and now what kind of new chapter we’re going into…this was, in a sense, focused on destabilizing what we do as artists,” he says.

“I have this fear of basically becoming a band that repeats themselves….for us, although we’re ostensibly a progressive metal band, we still want to inject some new perspective or set of tools or overarching concept….this time around that’s the idea of getting away from a record that flows as one big track, like our last record In Contact was, and instead creating an album that looks at a topic….especially one that’s explicitly personal.

“Both ‘Autumn’ and ‘The Ascent’, for example, are both about fatherhood and explorations of that…the former was very much approached with the idea that, production speaking, it’s not going to be ‘metal’ in either way….and then ‘The Ascent’ turns that on its head entirely….two sides of the same coin, in a way.”

“’The Tempest’ and ‘Slow Violence’ are also good examples of this. The former is very intense, with lots of different ideas, whereas the latter is purposely very simplistic. There’s not a lot of stuff filling in the gaps….and that’s meant to create an ebb and flow in the listening of the album that might not be as obvious at face value.”

For many, dropping their most exciting record amid a global pandemic would be incredibly frustrating, more-so for C-Horse, who were forced to postpone a huge headlining tour of North America which was to kick off this album cycle.

However, Sam notes that there’s no better time to be contributing art to the world than now, no matter how big or small.

“Of course we lament the fact that we have to postpone our tour plans, but…we thought it was really valuable, at a time where everyone is locked away and the world is sad, to put it simplistically. Even if we just offer our little piece of art to throw out in the world….even if all that does is give you a distraction for an afternoon, well that was really important to us.”

“If artists can’t offer what they’re best at, then we’re in a really sad space.”