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I will be the first to admit that I have a hard time getting on with djent. While it can sometimes be a crutch abetting thin songwriting, my hangup has more to do with a generational gap regarding prog metal than anything inherent to it. I discovered prog metal in the early 2000s, which means Opeth and Dream Theater, bombastic and lengthy virtuosic instrumental sections, and convoluted conceptual pieces. There's a tremendous power to that stuff and knowing the major figures of that era are necessary, given that only two or three can describe almost the entire arc of progressive metal's main branches for at least a 15-year span.

Hearing contemporary progressive metal begin to incorporate djent in a more and more supple way, perhaps I feel I was being judgmental much in the way that progressive metal fans who came up in the era of Fates Warning and Watchtower were judgmental of the 1990s and 2000s stuff that I cut my teeth on. This broad pattern, that of eating crow and admitting the short-sightedness of some fervently-held musical opinions and tastes of my earlier years, so far has been the dominant pattern of my 30s.

Rise Radiant is one of the records that makes me very happy to take a big bite of bird-flesh. The compositions here are very much from within the modern progressive metal playbook, with a dash of melodrama here and a dash of tense and dark groove there. Caligula's Horse have always had an excellent blend of lighter and heavier elements, something more purely progressive metal practitioners lose sight of occasionally, erring either to pure prog-rock or getting overbearingly extreme even when extremity isn't always their strong suit. There is a striking blend of organic and lush elements, with wide chords that evoke sheeting rain and sunlight against the multicolored and fauna-rich fields of the cover, against the inherently cyberneticism of djent and shred.

The band clearly views those elements that demarcate a rather modern sensibility of progressive metal as components that require context to work; they don't build metalcore-aping pseudo-breakdown djent sequences nor do they premise an entire song on it, instead using as a way to provide rhythmic interest against a set of chordal and melodic ideas that wouldn't be out of place on those 2000s-era classics of the genre.

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Djent, of course, isn't the only element of Caligula's Horse's sound that lives very much within the world of 2020. After all, while djent may have been a revolutionary force within the genre, alongside it we saw a rise of bands that deliberate draw very deeply from the 1990s and 2000s playbook of classic bands but curb the sometimes flagrant virtuosic shows for more song- and arrangement-oriented passages. Caligula's Horse can shred if they want, of course; that much is obvious, from the bouncing polyrhythms to the perpetually shifting time signatures and tricky fingerings all over the record. But they wisely choose to be more tactical in their deployment of virtuosity, expanding the inherent melodrama of the more programmatic elements of prog metal picked up from musical theater with a gentle sensuousness.

The vocals very much live in that hyper-expressive world of musical theater: you can almost imagine some bright and vibrant Disney feature swimming up around these songs, gestures of the hand sparking weaving tendrils of color in empty air. Caligula's Horse are prog metal, unabashedly, and with great pride, embracing and pushing hard on the elements that make people either fall in love or turn away from the genre. This is, ultimately, good. It is bold, decisive. They have a vision and shoot very clearly for it, not diminishing or distracting the arc of their record with digressions meant to curry them favor with people who wouldn't like this type of music anyway.

A sense of musical tautness means that none of the songs on Rise Radiant feel aimless or rambling, deciding to curb the excessive but sometimes gainless instrumental explorations for a purpose-driven and vocally-directed music approach. It's clear, however, that while there is nary a stretch across the record where vocals are silent, that the instrumentals are not left in the lurch the way that some prog groups shooting for more accessible pop sensibilities embedded in their technically demanding music sometimes can. The instrumental beds make up in richness what they might have lost in showcases of endless solos, another touch that the progressive metal bands breaking from 2010 have contributed to the lineage of the genre that often gets overlooked for endless fixating on djenting.

It's because of this richness that vocals feel fitting across the record, a series of equals including the vocalist rather than the paradigm certain even classic prog metal groups employed, where vocals seemed to either completely dominate the song or else be utterly absent.

This fine attention to the richness of their work -- of pointing everything from solos to the modulating keys and shifting time signatures and little programmatic imagistic flourishes of their work toward the song and not mere showcase -- makes the concluding ten-minute epic of Rise Radiant so satisfying. Caligula's Horse pull a real progressive metal classic from the playbook here, before the days of 10+ minute songs being the norm when it isn't a single sequenced album-length composition: that of delayed gratification. They well and truly earn an epic by the end of Rise Radiant and, by conditioning your ear with more constrained and typically-lengthed pieces, they are able to make that ten-minute span feel as profoundly world-filling and epic as what takes some other bands much longer.

It is a shock to see this kind of movement within progressive metal, especially of the sort Caligula's Horse plays. You could easily imagine them playing alongside some of the heavy-hitters and classic groups of the genre going back 20 or 30 years, having a set of sonic sensibilities that feels so commensurate with and in lineage with them. This is measured against a very modern sense of discipline and, well, earning it. Caligula's Horse treat a ten-minute span with respect, making sure to inject that piece with more dynamism than any of their other songs, clearly paying close attention to the fine details and segues and emotional logic of the piece to make the big song of the record really feel like a profound statement of intent of the guts of the album rather than just a series of minutes-long solos bookended by two choruses.

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Caligula's Horse is ultimately a band that lives within its paradigm rather than bursts out of it. For those acquainted with the genre's history and of some of the bigger bands of the present, their lineage will be readily apparent; fantasy-booking them with some of the bigger current names feels tantalizing and desirable, and the likelihood that it would be a killer show is almost 100%. This sense of connectedness to their genre, its history and its present isn't a bad thing. In music, we sometimes privilege pure novelty, viewing the ground-breaker as more important than the people that sharpen, perfect, and more subtly transmute the style over time, but the broader history of music and even our own listening patterns will show those types of groups are just as important. It is through that work, after all, that the previously broken ground is validated as creatively fertile, showing which ideas have a future and use to composers, players, and genre spaces in the future.

Caligula's Horse would not have been able to make a song like "Autumn," which swims and soars and climbs in all the majesty prog metal should, like perfect musical theater dressed in odd times and segueing so perfectly into the closing epic of "The Ascent" in a wonderful span of musical thought, were it not for those peers and mentoring figures of the genre. That they do the style such credit, producing an album as lush and commanding as Rise Radiant, indicates the continued power of not just Caligula's Horse but of prog metal more generally. People who find the Dream Theaters and Hakens of the world a bit of a test might struggle with Rise Radiant, but any fan or dabbler of the genre will find a lot to love here from a group that has been producing some of the best of the style.

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Rise Radiant released May 22nd via Inside Out Music.

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