By Tim Hinson

Progressive metal can be tricky. Bands struggle with balancing complexity and accessibility, with combining high concepts and catchy hooks. The bands that find a successful formula often struggle to repeat the success of their debut albums, and many reinvent themselves several times during a career. The most successful bands evolve, and bring their fans along with them. Opeth and Porcupine Tree are both “mainstream” yet highly respected examples of bands that evolve and maintain excellence.

Based out of Brisbane, Australia, Caligula’s Horse brings us their third offering – “Bloom”. It’s an evolution and improvement from their previous recordings, and considering the quality we’ve already seen from them, that’s no small feat.

Fans of the aforementioned bands will immediately hear the parallels between here, the evident influence to their sound. It would be a disservice to draw too many comparisons, though, as this record should exceed expectations for fans of the genre. Complex progressions, unusual time signatures, virtuoso musicianship, exceptional vocal ability, it’s all there. Absent are the guttural vocals of similar bands – vocalist Jim Grey’s vocals are very expressive, with a wide range, but if you’re looking for a more primal sound, you won’t find it here. That’s not to say the album is devoid of angst; they chose a more melodic approach. It’s all wrapped up in a textured ambiance that permeates the album, adding an understated layer of depth. It could be argued that none of these aspects bring anything particularly new to the genre. But when taken together, combined with a generally empowering, positive lyrical direction and production quality, it’s absolutely one of the best progressive metal albums of 2015.

The titular track and opener for this album, “Bloom” starts out with a melancholic sound, very familiar to fans of the genre. After a brief, almost Pink-Floydish build up, the song explodes into harmony and rhythm, setting the tone for the rest of the album. It blends seamlessly into the second track, “Marigold”, a tour de force for progressive metal. Layers of sound create an ethereal atmosphere while tasteful guitar playing and a solid rhythm section enhance the already impressive vocals. If you listen to nothing else, this is the song by which this album should be judged.

The third track – “Firelight” – opens with a lush vocal harmony, and moves into an upbeat, rolling feel. Lyrically, it’s arguably the strongest song of the album, while musically it presents a more accessible sound. The soloing is reminiscent of Steve Vai circa his “Sex & Religion” album. Vocally there’s an interesting harmony in the chorus that’s worth mentioning. The song is relatively short, and acts as something of auditory intermezzo, giving the listener breathing room between two epics.

The fourth cut – “Dragonfly” – is much more in line with what we expect from the genre – nearly nine and a half minutes long, several tempo changes and dynamic shifts. It begins with a lullaby feel, moving into a rather formulaic but well executed verse. Jim Grey’s vocals are on full display, and keep the verses from feeling stale, as his somewhat unusual delivery style requires attention. The interlude is beautifully layered, and segues into a tasteful solo, followed by dual performances on the guitars, an area where this band excels.

Track five – “Rust” – is another relatively short track, featuring a chugging tempo that builds into resolved harmonies during the chorus. The dynamic of the song is interesting, and for those who pay attention to such things, you’ll get a kick out of the atypical arrangement, and appreciate how effortlessly it just works – the hallmark of great progressive music is that complexity works without the listener having to think about it.

“Turntail”, the sixth track on the album, is probably my favorite song on the album. Syncopated vocals work with harmony to paint a rich, full sound over a solid backbeat, creating a musical inertia that is very nicely complimented by the bridge section/solo. Perhaps more so than the rest of the album, this song is considerably layered, and takes a number of listens to pick up the nuanced atmospheric effects.

“Daughter of the Mountain” is another opus, nearly 8 minutes long, with quiet, reserved verses blending into powerful choruses, including some interesting tempo and time shifts and a pair of back-to-back solos. That being said, it could be argued that the band could use a little “less is more” philosophy here. Essentially, it’s a terrific song that wouldn’t have been harmed by being a little bit shorter.

Now, in my opinion, you could just stop listening at the conclusion of this song. The album is complete at this point, and the next two songs feel unnecessary. It’s almost as though some producer decided that the run length wasn’t quite there for a full album.

“Undergrowth” is a remarkably short piece, and feels like an afterthought. It’s pure acoustic plus vocals, and comes across as a showcase for Jim’s vocal range. It would have worked as a “secret track” – the songs that would appear at the end of a very long silent track, so popular in the mid-90s to early 2000s, but for this band it feels out of place.

“City Has No Empathy” is another departure for the album, as it heavily features an acoustic guitar as the predominant instrument but includes drums and bass. A strong intro turns into a lackluster song, and for all the power of the delivery, the song just doesn’t fit. Lyrically it feels a little disjointed, and for all that I enjoy Jim’s vocal idiosyncrasies, it just doesn’t work for me here. The redeeming point for this song comes in the soloing, which has an obvious Spanish flamenco inspiration. This song could be an excellent single or B-side, but as the conclusion of an otherwise mostly exceptional album, it doesn’t make much sense.

Ultimately, this album presents us with two specific feels. The longer songs are excellent examples of progressive metal, similar in scope and feel to any quality band, with enough uniqueness to stand out. Yet the shorter songs are the strongest parts of the album. Each is complex enough to feel right, yet short and just approachable enough to play on any rock radio station without a blink. Caligula’s Horse blends complexity and accessibility, combines high concepts of positivity and empowerment with hooks that will stick long after the last chord is struck, creating a musical gestalt greater than the sum of its parts.

You can find “Bloom” on iTunes.

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