Caligula’s Horse at Lincoln Hall in Chicago

Caligula’s Horse on stage

Something happens when seeing a band live that you can’t capture from an album recording. The atmosphere the musicians create on the stage, the new context for listening to the music, the sheer visceral experience of engaging with a band’s music in person through all of your senses–all of these factors create a truly memorable moment for the right band at the right time. For the wrong band? It’s dull at best, a dumpster fire at worst. I’m quite happy to report that Caligula’s Horse at Lincoln Hall were utterly superb and memorable in some of the best ways, leaving me with sensory experiences and memories I’ll reflect on for years to come.

Confession time: I’m not the world’s biggest Caligula’s Horse fan. I think they’re a hugely talented group of musicians putting out compelling work on album after album, but if you were to ask me who my all-time favourite bands are, they wouldn’t necessarily crack the top 5. Still, there was a particularly difficult period of life when I was spinning Bloom on repeat nearly every day, and I developed an intense emotional bond with the album. The track Turntail became my personal anthem to just make it through the day, and I began to wonder when this cool prog band I found would finally tour the states – and now, it was finally time.

First up however, was Earthside. I don’t know as much as I’d like to know about them, if I’m honest. I know they had that big hit with Daniel Tompkins several years back, but I know woefully little other than that. A shame, because they were damn good in concert! I came in about halfway through their set, and walked through the door just in time for guitarist Jamie Van Dyck to break a string. All the same, he played on like an absolute pro, transcribing his parts on surrounding strings to get through the song and change over to a backup while the rest of the band played the absolute snot out of their instruments. I made a mental note to check out more of their back catalogue soon and gain a proper appreciation. And maybe this is a sign that you should too.

Caligula’s Horse took the stage nearly by surprise. After a short soundcheck, we all suddenly realized that the lights had gone down, the front lights came on, and an intro track began playing. The hum of the crowd gradually increased to a cheer, then to a low roar as the band emerged and launched into the start of The World Breathes With Me. The buildup of the intro passage, leading into the eventual crushing main riffs and leads of the song created a wonderful sense of tension before vocalist Jim Grey launched into his first verse. The pace was set, and the crowd was loving it–evident by the collective “I breathe!” from all of us along with Jim in the final chorus section.

Golem was up next, featuring crushing intro riffs allowed the crowd to get into the rhythm, bang their heads, and build up that tension again to let it loose during interaction moments with lines like “Now sing… WRECK!” as well as the titular, booming line of “Golem!” A solid opening block with no stumbles so far, and an extremely cathartic moment for the crowd to let loose and sing along, headbang, or just generally vibe with the grooves.

And then, Bloom & Marigold were up. The driving sense of rising power, pitch, and momentum near the end of Bloom flirts with coming completely off the rails at times, and by the time it does crash down into the brutal riffing of Marigold the tension of the previous track is transformed into machine-gun guitar riffs and bombastic cannon-shots of bass drum blasts. Then off for a brief respite with The Tempest. The audience was able to take a step back and watch what the band seemingly does best – that is, weaving an incredibly tight sound with poetic lyricism and dizzying changes to tempo with a push-pull momentum that characterizes so many of the band’s tracks.

Jim Grey

Vocalist Jim Grey was in prime form this evening. A respectable and talented vocalist with a good range and pleasing tone, I was curious to see how his live sound would match up. To my surprise, the albums don’t fully do his vocals justice which says something given the quality of the album production for the band. There’s a surprising amount of life and vibrance to his voice live, and he nails all of the notes from the album in all the right spots, while putting that extra “oomph” into passages exactly where needed.

And the charisma! My god, Jim has some of the best stage banter I’ve heard in years, arguably the most charismatic frontman I’ve seen since Devin Townsend. Between-song interactions took the form of witty chats back and forth with the crowd, a series of “fourth wall breaking” comments about having to double check his setlist or emotionally manipulate the audience, casual discussion of his father’s sperm, and the continued expression of immense gratitude for the fans and the band for bringing this all together.

A rare highlight of the night was Dark Hair Down. This was a new track for me, as I’m not extensively familiar with the band’s back catalogue. Jim introduced this track by telling the story of a fan at one of the early U.S. shows had brought the band a hand-written postcard from the band sent out with their earlier albums when they were still relatively unknown. This interaction prompted a change in setlist, leading to the inclusion of this track.

Guitarist Sam Vallen was slinging a blindingly-bright and spangly red Aristedes. For his part, however, he nearly shredded the neck off of the instrument playing rhythm and lead throughout the set, barely breaking a sweat in the process.

The rhythm section of Dale Prinsee on bass and Josh Griffin on drums ensured that the night’s festivities were remarkably tight and well-timed, providing the thundering beats of Marigold and the important foundation beneath every shifting time signature of the set. Dale’s stage presence was understated, though his superb playing and gorgeous Dingwall 5 string more than spoke for themselves. Josh… well he was working his ass off, to be honest. It can’t be easy to keep a band like Caligula’s Horse reliably in-time, but he pulled it off with laser-guided accuracy on track after track.

Dream the Dead was another highlight for me, from the guitar work alone. Sam cooked an entire fridge’s worth of riffs, flutters and small textured passages throughout the track. Each massive, emotive bend hit exactly every nerve as intended. For his part, Jim laid down some gorgeous ethereal vocal textures during the longer instrumental passages, reminding me just how angelic the guy’s voice is at times.

We began the evening with a pair of tracks from the new album, why not end the main set with two as well? The Stormchaser was up, and hearing this one live helped to make it click for me. The way the chorus melody almost swings from note to note was particularly evident in a live setting, and it gradually won me over as a new favourite track.

And of course, the night finished with Graves. This song was full of that endorphin-soaked, punch-drunk vibe that tends to come with every encore set after a fulfilling show- but this time it was stretched over a full fifteen minutes. With every shout of “Hands! Shape! Stone!” there was a growing feeling of catharsis amongst the audience of a shared sense of just being there in that moment and sharing in it with everyone else – for better or worse. I haven’t felt that sensation in years, and it’s a truly special emotion to be savoured. Much like the subject matter of Charcoal Grace, the past four years have given us a lot to reflect on and emotions to express, exorcise, and release.

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