Like a little boy with a mile-long wishlist waits for Christmas, I’ve been chewing nails waiting for Caligula’s Horse to release In Contact. After 2015’s Bloom and 2012’s The Tide,the Thief and the River’s End, Caligula’s Horse established themselves not only as one of the best prog metal bands in the game, but one of my favourite bands as well. Their colourful, scintillating sound simply breathed beauty while remaining tethered to the realm of metal. Such a dichotomy between mood and genre isn’t unheard of, but isn’t done nearly enough, making the band’s discography a refreshing listen in between 40 minute platters of Norwegian blastbeats. Their particular brand of prog borrows more from Leprous than it does Dream Theater (thank god for that), but to call them a copycat band would not only be unfair, it’d be downright criminally ignorant. They have a unique sound all their own, and while you can hear faint traces of their influences echoing from time to time, it still sounds like Caligula’s Horse, and that’s a damn good thing. So it was with rabid impatience that I demanded everyday, when the IMV staff descended into our office’s dungeons to bring me food [ed. note: Reese is lying – we don’t actually feed him]: “When does the new Caligula’s Horse come out??”
As I counted the days with tick marks on the side of my Indy Metal Vault detainment cell [ed. note: again, he’s lying – it’s more like a dank hole in the ground than a cell], I entertained myself by repeatedly blasting the album’s two lead singles, “Will’s Song” and “Songs For No One.” The former represented a much more aggressive side to Caligula’s Horse’s sound, whereas the latter was pure, undiluted majesty. Needless to say, I loved them both. So when the day finally came, and my editor opened my cell door [ed. note: it didn’t put on the lotion, so it got the hose], I rushed to grab the album as quickly as possible. The opener, “Dream the Dead” immediately knocked my socks clean off, with its soaring guitars and masterful vocal performance. As mentioned earlier, the follow-up track, “Will’s Song” is also wonderful, but it’s as soon as that song ends that the wheels start to shake, and then proceed to fall off entirely.
One area Caligula’s Horse have always excelled in is crafting albums that each have their own defining sounds and personalities. Every song was different, but it was still very easy to figure out which tracks came from which album. ‘Tide had a majestic, glistening frostiness to it, and Bloom was one of the most joyous, exuberant albums I’ve ever heard. By comparison, In Contact feels unfocused, and even disjointed. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that it’s a concept album, but each of the songs feel completely detached from those surrounding them, and though each song is supposed to represent a different character’s point of view in a story, this scattershot approach does not help the album stand up to front-to-back listening.
One track I was looking forward to hearing was “Love Conquers All.” I was beyond eager to hear how a band with a sound as vivacious as Caligula’s Horse’s would tackle such subject matter. What I got, however, was merely a throwaway track, one I suspect is only there to connect the two songs that bookend it. Fortunately, the song it leads into is the album’s best. “Songs For No One” starts off with Jim Grey’s undeniably astonishing vocals, and quickly swings into a series of upbeat riffs. Poignant lyrics not only justify, but bolster the song’s luscious, effervescent sound. The meaty chugs that make up the chorus section are visceral in their impact, and the song remained stuck in my head well over a week after I first heard it. But of course, it would be too much to ask for the album to keep up the momentum it just barely recovered after “Love Conquers All.”
“Capulet” is a slow burner of a song that really goes nowhere and says nothing during its brief three minute runtime. It’s not even as if the acoustic guitar that shows up on the song offers much of a contrast to the extremely clean tones found on the rest of the album. But this is far from the album’s worst track. After the very enjoyable “Fill My Heart” (which even offers up some death metal-flavoured blastbeats, which make their first appearance in the band’s entire discography), we’re met with “Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall.” I mentioned that In Contact was a concept album, but you’d never guess it by simply reading the lyrics without the booklet that comes with the vinyl/CD package. The band do a relatively poor job explaining the story in the songs, and as such, “Inertia,” a completely spoken-word track with quasi-Shakespearean dialogue, is a remarkably alienating listen that goes on for far too long. And by the end, listeners are led to believe that something big is looming, something of great importance.
In reality, “The Cannon’s Mouth,” the follow-up track, is a plodding, trondeling affair with an intro featuring some of the goofiest, most out-of-place vocals I’ve ever heard. This problem is only compounded with the knowledge that Caligula’s Horse possess one of the greatest vocal talents in metal. The song plods on, occasionally breaking into a swinging riff, or squealing mid-paced solo, but it never really ups the energy, and after sitting through the entirety of “Intertia,” it’s not unfair for listeners to be expecting something a bit more lively than this. Fortunately, the album’s closer, “Graves,” offers just that. At a whopping fifteen minutes, it makes up a not-insubstantial amount of the album’s runtime, but fortunately, I’d say that for the most part, it does its job. It has great riffs, cycles through multiple different moods, yet it may very well be the most cohesive thing about the album. Resisting the urge to wander into the realm of needless prog wankery (like I said, not much Dream Theater influence here), the song flows elegantly and seamlessly through its various segments. Until you hit the 11:27 mark that is. At that point, I wondered if my earbuds had simply gone wonky, because I was introduced to an absolutely hideous sound. Repeat listens lead me to suspect that the instrument in question is a saxophone, but I’ve taken to calling it “a crime against god.” It comes in, plays a brief, yet ugly solo, then mercifully fades away. Even still, the song finishes strong, providing a satisfying conclusion this oddly charming, yet flawed album.
This piece has gone on significantly longer than most of my reviews, but there’s a lot to talk about where In Contact is concerned. I was never floored by it, but repeated listens (I gave it a total of sixteen over the course of six days) saw my opinion of it declining each time as the flaws became more and more grating. I’ve spoken to several people who have vastly different opinions on the album, and if that’s you, more power to ya. I was all set for this album to take a spot on my year-end list, but my youthful optimism was sadly misplaced. And before the senior editors come to throw me back into the IMV dungeon to live off a diet of black metal and stale bread [ed. note – again, we don’t actually feed Reese], I feel the need to point out that Caligula’s Horse are still a great band with near-infinite potential. I simply view this album as a hiccup in an otherwise top-shelf discography, and even then, there are some proper bangers to be found here. When it comes time for a new Horse album, I’ll be waiting just as eagerly as ever.