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Farewell The Old: Caligula's Horse Discuss the Vibrant, Introspective Metal of 'Rise Radiant'

Thursday, 21 May 2020 Written by Matt Mills

Photo: Rachel Graham

It’s 6:30p.m. in Brisbane, Australia, and, for Sam Vallen’s baby boy, it’s showertime.

He doesn’t seem to like showertime.

“Excuse him, he’s having a bit of a cry,” the youngster’s father apologises, safely sealed away in his home studio the next room over. “Whenever he’s having a shower, it’s a very crazy and chaotic time.”

Vallen’s son is barely one year old yet,as you would expect, he has already had a profound, all-consuming impact on his parents’ lives. “Once you have a child, you are no longer the most important thing in your life,” Sam admits. “You’re looking forward not to your success, but to theirs. It’s amazing, but it’s tragic to think that you’re no longer the centre of your own world.”

When he’s not traversing the highs and lows of parenting, Vallen is the lead guitarist and producer for one of Australia’s leading progressive metal bands, Caligula’s Horse. The quintet, which he co-founded with frontman Jim Grey in 2011, are on the cusp of releasing their fifth LP, ‘Rise Radiant’. It’s an album that the littlest Vallen has his fingerprints all over.

“I’m one of the chief songwriters and run all the production through to the end of the record,” Sam says. “And I was doing all that after I’d just become a new father. So, there was an incredible amount of pressure on me coming from all ends.”

As a result, the newest Caligula’s Horse material is easily their heaviest to date. The single Slow Violence is a powerful track that gradually builds around one polyrhythmic guitar lead, while others like Salt are permeated by raucous, open-string chugging. The Tempest is a synth-laden opener full of swanky harmonic energy, and the chorus of Oceanrise packs enough unfettered strength to lift the spirits of even the most forlorn souls.

Lyrically, ‘Rise Radiant’ is its creators’ first autobiographical record. It openly analyses the personal progressions Grey and Vallen have made over the course of the last 10 years, fatherhood very much included. Conveyed through heavenly clean vocals, the twinned songs Autumn and The Ascent respectively tackle the joys and challenges of childbirth. Similarly, the hammering Valkyrie is about confronting your younger self. “It asks, ‘How would I speak to a young Sam?’ I’d probably punch him out, to be honest,” Vallen adds dryly.

All of this makes ‘Rise Radiant’ the polar opposite of its predecessor, 2017’s ‘In Contact’. That release–which would quickly prove to be an international breakthrough–was an elaborate concept album, with each song a chapter in one overarching, fictional idea. And, while ‘Rise Radiant’ invigorates with its concise metal, ‘In Contact’ was a meandering prog rock epic, dynamic and lengthy. On it, two-minute acoustic ballads stood side-by-side with 15 minute suites that incorporated stylings from jazz to metal to acapella music.

“‘Rise Radiant’ is the answer to this very expansive, dynamic, dense and thematic album that was ‘In Contact’,” says Vallen. “Jim and I especially, when it’s time to think about the next record, we put our heads together and go, ‘What did we do last time? What did we achieve? What worked? What stuck?’ And, as soon as we ascertain that, we set out to do the exact opposite.”

Much like how the heavy vigour of ‘Rise Radiant’ is the “answer” to ‘In Contact’, ‘In Contact’ was itself the “answer” to the preceding ‘Bloom’. The third Caligula’s Horse album, that LP was a short, simple experience, albeit bursting with colour and folk-rock overtones. “We released ‘Bloom’ in 2015 as this sharp, minimalistic, to-the-point record,” Vallen remembers. “It worked beautifully for what it was, but we decided that whatever was going to follow it needed a larger conceptual basis. It was, for us artistically, the right decision.

“We set ourselves up to be in a position where it had to be sink or swim,” he continues. “Calling ‘In Contact’ a massive risk, that’s an understatement! We were approaching an album that was over 60 minutes long, with a seven-and-a-half minute single. We were so set for it to have a divisive reception, [but] it’s that instability that really provides the opportunity for something to be exciting for us.”

Against all odds, the indulgent adventurism of ‘In Contact’ made the album a hit. It drastically increased the band’s notice in the experimental underground, going on to, in Vallen’s own words, “do as well as a prog metal album can do commercially.” 

Subsequently, the door was opened for a sold out headlining tour of Europe, followed by, for the first time, a string of dates in Central and South America. “It was a risk that we feel has worked out,” Vallen proudly beams. It gave him and his bandmates the confidence to, once more, pull a titanic 180-degree turn for ‘Rise Radiant’.

“The idea was to create a classic rock record, where every song has an identity of its own,” he says of composing the brand new offering. “From there, we said we needed to step away from the lyrics being highly mythological. If it’s going to be a host of unrelated songs, each one should have its own message that can be easily translated from one person to another.”

After rewriting their own rulebook yet again, Vallen considers ‘Rise Radiant’ to be his band’s “strongest artistic statement” to date. That may sound like a cliche, but, as the first Caligula’s Horse music to draw directly from the intense emotions of their own lives, it’s plain to see why. How successful the album will be after diverting so drastically from ‘In Contact’ remains to be seen. They themselves, however, couldn’t care less.

“If it does flop, I’ll still love it,” Vallen smiles. “And my mum loves it too. If your mum hates your album, just stop.”

‘Rise Radiant’ is out on May 22 via InsideOut Music.



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