On September 15th, 2017, two of the most important progressive metal albums of the 10’s released: The Contortionist’s Clairvoyant, and Caligula’s Horse’s In Contact. Both albums were highly anticipated and well received by critics and fans, but one of them quickly became canonized as a new modern prog metal classic. While Clairvoyant received no shortage of acclaim and praise (and, I would argue, is the better album of the two), In Contact was treated as a new golden standard for modern progressive metal, and became a new bar by which future albums are measured both for Caligula’s Horse and the field as a whole.
Naturally, when Caligula’s Horse announced Rise Radiant, all attention was given to the question: could Caligula’s Horse match or surpass In Contact? It seemed unlikely that the band would be able to replicate their astonishing success; perhaps In Contact had set the bar a little too high. When Rise Radiant released on May 22nd, initial reactions were largely positive, but the consensus quickly emerged that the album, though good, wasn’t as good as In Contact.
I think this consensus is incorrect. Rise Radiant is not as flashy, cinematic, or innovative as In Contact, but this is a change for the better. Rise Radiant is a confident tour-de-force of progressive metal in it’s simplest form, leaning on the strength of it’s musicianship and songwriting to carry the day without depending on the gimmicks that many progressive metal bands often depend on. Everything that you love about progressive metal is here, and only the things that you love.
The album’s opening suite, consisting of the singles “The Tempest” and “Slow Violence”, had signaled that this album was going to be “heavier” in the sense that blistering guitar riffs were taking the forefront, and this would be largely true of the album as a whole. “Oceanrise” and “Valkyrie”, perhaps the safest two tracks on the album, further reinforce this shift, with Jim Grey’s stellar vocal work doing most of the melodic heavy lifting while the rest of the band contributes subtle polyrhythms and technical guitar work that never feels gratuitous or unnecessary. But Caligula’s Horse have not completely discarded their theatrical versatility, reminding us of what they’re capable of in the wonderfully musical (and wonderfully complicated) “Salt” and its subsequent interlude “Resonate”. The “Salt”/”Resonate” suite especially shows the increasing mastery of Caligula’s Horse over their ability to write widely within their genre without compromising the flow and feel of an album, correcting In Contact‘s missteps on this point and reminding us that an album’s music comes before it’s concept, and not the other way around.
But it isn’t until the closing suite, beginning with “Autumn”, where we begin to see the band enter its strongest form to date. The only true ballad on the album, “Autumn” is monumental in scope; it’s conceptual wholeness, from its nakedly transparent lyrics on change and growth to its seamless transition from movement to movement, is something that most progressive metal bands are incapable of pulling off for such a simple and common topic. Incredibly, the themes of change in “Autumn” continue in the closing track “The Ascent”, and as the name suggests, you will ascend higher from the peaks set by “Autumn” into one of the band’s best songs to date. Much like climbing a mountain, “The Ascent” is the prefect blend of ferocious heaviness and tranquil beauty, all seamlessly woven together in a journey with a glorious payoff at the end; the view at the top, in the last two and a half minutes of the song, is simply sublime, and not something that words can readily describe nor be fully appreciated in a single listen.
I am willing to accept that one finds In Contact to be more enjoyable based on personal taste and preference, but I think Rise Radiant takes everything that made In Contact truly good and expanded upon them while discarding everything that In Contact didn’t need and isn’t remembered for. While Rise Radiant may have been immediately overshadowed by the band’s previous work upon release, I think time will be kind to the album and eventually, Rise Radiant will rise radiant as among the band’s best work and among the best of 2020 progressive metal.