Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips chats with Sam Vallen, guitarist and songwriter with Brisbane’s alt-prog rock band Caligula’s Horse about their fabulous new album ‘Bloom’.
Brisbane based alt-prog rock band Caligula’s Horse have achieved more goals in their four short years than many other bands could claim over an entire career. They’ve released three impressive albums, the newest ‘Bloom’, just landed on October 16. They’ve nabbed some impressive supports for international bands here, toured Europe and built up a strong following there, have obtained American management and seem to be heading for worldwide acceptance juggernaut-style. The sonic quality and songwriting skill displayed on the new album can only strengthen the band’s resolve. In terms of a sense of belief and direction, these guys know exactly what they want and have a fair idea on how to get there.
“As individual members, we have all had projects before that stayed on a local level and hadn’t really developed beyond that. With this band, as soon we started we were set on the idea that we were going to take it as far as we possibly could go,” explains guitarist and founding member Sam Vallen of the band’s drive. “We all devote ourselves to it significantly, probably more than people would imagine. It was within a year we were doing interstate tours and big supports. We have always had a very linear progression in mind. You never take a step backwards. If we did take a step backwards it would be something where we would all have to work out why. Luckily it never really happened we were always able to make small steps forward and those all amount to something over the course of four years to something which is looking pretty good so far.”
While Bloom has all the power and finesse of the best progressive hard rock albums, it also features a strong melodic presence. It’s also a brighter aural experience with more clarity in the mix than their last effort. Those are just a couple of reasons why this band could leap the usual restrictive prog-rock hurdles and find themselves attracting a much wider audience.
“The last album was a concept album with this fictional quite dark narrative,” says Sam. “With this album, we wanted to do the opposite. We didn’t want it to be a concept album but we did want the themes in general to be positive as a general statement. With that in mind, a lot of the songs have correlations to natural things, to growth, to positivity and I know it sounds a bit glib to say but to love as well.”
Wedged between the album’s title track opener ‘Bloom, at three minutes, fifteen seconds and the closer ‘Underground’ at two minutes, fifty one seconds are some epic tracks of over six, seven and nine minutes. I wondered what the determining factors were in deciding which tracks got the extension treatment.
“Good question,” says Sam pausing to think. “I always wonder that myself when we are first sketching things out. I suppose once you have the basis of a song, once a canvas is blank, you can extend it or fit it into a certain structure. We are usually quite pragmatic about the way we approach those things. I don’t intentionally write long music. I know a lot of prog-rock bands have that as a badge of honour. When it comes to longer songs, it is more that we feel that the content of the song can be developed. It can receive more exposition until it tells the full story or gets the full theme across. In the case of Dragonfly, which is the longest song on the album, we had all these really interesting lydian harmonic concepts which were really dark and dissonant. We tried to get everything into a shorter song, which is the end section that you hear now. It just didn’t carry across so we ended up building the same concept across a long song in three or four parts as it exists, in such a way that all of the facets of that mood could be explored. Whereas on the other hand you have a song like Firelight, which is basically a verse, chorus structure. So to answer your question, you really don’t know until you start playing with how far you can take the ideas but it usually becomes apparent quite quickly how far you can take them.”
Sam’s ability to deconstruct songs and explore their parts as much as building tracks from the ground up, is aided by the fact that he has a PhD in music. He’s been a student of the guitar since he can remember, with the appeal being the sense of difficulty and the opportunities for development on the instrument. His guitar heroes are the musician’s musicians such as Larry Carlton, Wes Montgomery and Tal Farlow to name a few. Rather than turning him into a clinical, emotionless player, Sam believes his music study has made him a more well-rounded guitarist who can offer the band a great deal of artistic expression.
“I think the most obvious benefit it offers is the fact that I am able to tap into things you wouldn’t otherwise,” he explains. “It’s real easy to find interesting consonant chord progressions and stuff like that. A lot of those are quite logical and can come from just jamming and playing but there are a lot of higher order harmonic concepts that you really have to study for to make them sound normal to you. The more you learn about those, the more you are able to play in such a way that they have the appeal that someone who hasn’t spent so long listening to angular strange music could assimilate and understand. The greatest benefit is that it lets us experiment to a greater degree than someone who maybe doesn’t have as much grounding and theory. That’s not to say I am some kind of purist when it comes to the theory. A lot of the music I love probably didn’t have that much preconception behind it. The point is that it does work for me.”
With a band featuring such adept musicians, it’s no surprise that a Caligula’s Horse song is not only painstakingly constructed but also features such depth and soul. Despite their virtuosic capabilities, importantly they still subscribe to the age old rule that it all comes down to the song. “It’s interesting,” Sam says. “We get put in the category of a lot of technical metal bands but we have an approach which is really different. In general the songwriting is done between myself and Jim Grey, who is our singer. We usually try to sketch everything out on an acoustic guitar with a single vocal line. The idea being that if you have got something substantial that works with minimum of arrangement, then once you start arranging it, you can only make it better. If you are listening to a really complicated set of riffs and whatever else, it doesn’t necessarily have that substance below it. I don’t want to get myself into the bad books with people but I really can’t get behind what i call the guitar pro writing method, where it’s about writing out something and learning it later and then putting lyrics to it, creating something to be technical in its own right. We try to create something which works at a really fundamental level and then arrange it into something that has the energy and technicality and all the other elements that enhance its appeal rather than define its appeal.”
Apart from being a talented guitarist and accomplished composer, Sam Vallen also produced and engineered the album. In the spirit of growth that the band applies to everything they do, Vallen also took a new approach with the album’s mix, bringing the drums to the fore with the result of propelling the songs. And why wouldn’t you with a drummer of the calibre of Geoff Irish?
“We spent a bit of time experimenting with the drums,” says Sam. “If you listen to our previous album, the drums are more at what you would call a regular level, not quite as pushed. One of the concepts behind this album was that as well as being more bright and colourful, it would also be more austere, each element would be more clear. I took a bit of influence from Metallica’s Black album for example and broke down a lot of the layered instrumentation that we normally use to create something that was a lot more clear. You could only hear the elements you needed to hear. There isn’t a huge amount of wall of sound layering. So with that in mind, I made the drums a little bit louder since they are the propelling element in the song. You can still hear the riffs and things, it’s just that as soon as you start losing the drums you can fall into that wall of sound vibe.”
In general, Vallen’s guitar kit consists of a MusicMan JP7, seven string electric featuring DiMarzio Crunch Lab pickup in the bridge and LiquiFire in the neck, which he plugs into a Fractal Axe-FX system. “My Axe-FX runs into a Mesa Boogie Simul-Class 2:90 power amp and that goes into a Mesa Boogie cab,” Sam tells me. “In terms of pedals, all I run is a Shure GLX-D wireless and a little Peak 2005 Midi controller, which is incredible. It can run phantom power and whatever else. The Axe-FX is one of those things where it can be a controversial piece of gear but in terms of live playing, it’s faultless. I can run it around the country and rely on it having the same guitar sound everywhere. In the studio we get a bit more creative and use a lot of different gear but live I just can’t fault the Axe-FX.”
Caligula’s Horse are wrapping up their Australian tour before heading overseas for an extensive run of European dates. They’ll also be looking to begin an American assault in 2016.
“The grand plan is to push it as far as we possible can,” says Sam. “We’ll tour where we have fan bases, and keep releasing albums and hope they get received better and better, take the concepts we have behind our writing, the harmonic concepts and everything else to the greatest creative degree we can. It’s simplistic but that’s it.”
Bloom is out now.