Mice On Stilts
An Ocean Held Me
4th July 2014 – AAA Records
01. Syd’s Socks
02. Binocular Bath
03. A Moss Ocean
04. Vulnerable Vader
05. Tuatara Lawn
Sometimes, you find a band that is exactly what you’re looking for without realising it. Mice On Stilts are one such group. Formed in 2012, the New Zealand octet play a doomy, folky form of jazz prog rock. They formed in 2012 and released An Ocean Held Me, their debut release, late in 2013.
An Ocean Held Me is a short release, clocking in at thirty three minutes over five tracks, but there is a lot to listen to here. Each song offers an entirely different listening experience as well as being parts of a greater whole; they flow into each other with a simple grace, leaving no gaps in which the listener might stop and collect themselves. There is a lot to process.
For the most part it is a folky, ambient jazz sort of sound, with some peaceful vocals, but the whole record carries a hidden malevolence to it – in some sparse instances, such as in the song “Vulnerable Vader”, the music turns dark and raw with squealing saxophones, heavy distorted guitars, and booming syncopated drumming.
By the gods, the instrumental playing is nothing short of brilliant. The guitar is generally not the centre of attention, but when it gets a moment, the listener is not left wanting – but the true stars of the show are the horns, the piano, and the drumming, along with how all the parts manage to fit together into a cohesive whole. “Tuatara Lawn” might be one of the most intriguing tracks of the year, and “Binocular Bath” is not far behind. The solo sections, where the instruments trade off and flow in and out of each other, are wonderfully constructed. The vocals are graceful, moving along with grace, and often quavering with barely concealed emotion.
The production and mixing is really beautiful. There are enough elements that it would be easy to have something become lost in the mix, but the depth and clarity is truly something worth listening to An Ocean Held Me for alone. The drum sound is fairly delicate, the cymbals have a gentle ebb and flow to them in the quieter moments, and the snare feels loose and chilled out. The saxophone and trumpets add a fantastic extra dimension on top of the rhythm, and the piano has a lovely smooth sound, like the best kind of peanut butter one could possibly get. Closing tune, “Tuatara Lawn” is the perfect microcosm of this album – a twelve minute long epic that sways gently back and forth through cool headed progressive jazz rock and improvised solo sections that perhaps borrow a bit from free jazz.
An Ocean Held Me is an intriguing listen. It almost seems relaxing, but it lashes out with darker, more foreboding and unsettling passages at times. The arrangements are truly haunting, with piano, aching vocals, and saxophone carrying a lot of the weight. The songs have a loose, jam-oriented feeling, though the musicianship is seriously well thought out, and extremely tight. The best comparison might be King Crimson mixed with Steven Wilson, but that still feels inadequate to describe the sound Mice On Stilts have created here. There is a lot to digest in An Ocean Held Me, requiring many listens to fully appreciate. It definitely makes a mark as one of the better progressive rock albums of the year.
Best songs: “A Moss Ocean” “Binocular Bath” “Tuatara Lawn”