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Mice On Stilts - An Ocean Held Me CD (album) cover


Mice On Stilts


Crossover Prog

4.04 | 86 ratings

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5 stars Mice on Stilts are a band who I have been following for a good while, albeit rather passively. I found the band through their vocalist, guitarist, and ringleader, Ben Morley, who I was aware of for his work with Look to Windward. Windward was a rare project in the barren wasteland that is New Zealand music, an interesting avant-garde progressive metal project, with excellent production and some very diverse influences. Although the Look To Windward project appears to be a one-off album, aside from a single track released earlier this year by other half Andrew McCully, Ben has been very busy since the release of Fortunes Haze in 2010.

Eager for more of his music, and also trying to keep in the centre of the Auckland music scene (for when I finish my damn album/the rest of my band stops being lazy), I found Ben on facebook, and we began a loose Internet friendship. We connected on our shared fandom of Steven Wilson, and more recently, Kayo Dot, and despite this EP being as far from avant-garde metal as you can imagine, the influence from Toby Driver's laid back and slow-paced form of rock music evident in Blue Lambency Downward and Coyote is definitely here, especially in the use of the saxophone, trumpet and viola. Ben commented to me that he enjoyed the way Kayo Dot's music was recorded in free time, giving each musician time and freedom to play their parts as felt, not as explicitly determined by meter. And the various solos and lines that horn player Aaron Longville and violist Sam Hennessy run over the main song-base seem to drift over and waver, like a breeze floating in its own little pattern above all the sounds.

This all adds to a distinct mood that runs throughout An Ocean Held Me, one that is evident not only in Kayo Dot's quieter times, but even the aforementioned Steven Wilson comes to mind, particularly The Sky Moves Sideways and Insurgentes, which both have slow-paced and brooding tracks, that feel like a long walk on a hot summer day, the sun is beating down and you can barely keep your eyes open. There is a haze that floats across this entire EP, like the haze that keeps your eyes shut on a hot day, the haze of tremolo-picked guitars and strings, and the distant warbling of the Rhodes organ. I normally am a huge critic of the 'classic' sound of progressive rock that comes hand in hand with the Hammond and the Rhodes and the mellotron, but the tinny vibrato on the organ simply adds to the glorious atmosphere.

The vocals here, done mostly by Ben, are rather different from the ones I am used to hearing from him on Fortunes Haze, seem to fit the atmosphere and mood of the music perfectly. In terms of style, I think they remind me most of Brett Kull from Echolyn, particularly the dated and tired sound (in a good way) he brought on the band's fantastic self-titled album from last year. A track like "Sleeping In Lampblack" wouldn't feel too out of place on An Ocean Held Me, although it is missing the occasional bursts of viola and sax that are here.

I must also give a special nod to producer Tim Burrows here as well, since this is very well produced. With its professional artwork and quaint digipak, as well as the lush production and smooth recordings, you'd imagine An Ocean Held Me to be from a respected and Pitchfork- approved artist, not a debut EP from an underground band. The production really improves the music by a lot, bringing depth to the atmosphere of organ and strings, as well as heightening great moments, like the explosion at the end of "Vulnerable Vader", and the near-shoegaze part in the first half of "Tuatara Lawn". Too many times, I have received debut EPs and albums for review that just fall so short in terms of cohesion of sound, and I can't help but drop the rating based on weak recording, but this flows so gracefully, and although it seems ridiculous to say that there are up to 8 instruments playing at any one time, but if you listen intently, they are all there, and they are all playing their own parts.

But above everything, what impresses me the most about An Ocean Held Me, and Ben as a bandleader, is the sheer ambition of the whole project. Some people may find it a bit pretentious to describe yourself as "cinematic doom folk", and it's not entirely accurate (doom? where?), but the fact that this is a nearly continuous 34-minute piece from a 7-piece band that includes a violist, saxophonist, and a member solely responsible for "vocal effects" (whatever that means), means that this aims big and it hits big. Ben hasn't gone "oh, let's just record these songs lo-fi like a quaint indie band and pretend we're Neutral Milk Hotel", he's instead gone as over-the-top as possible, bringing obvious influence from progressive rock and avant-folk, yet keeping the psychedelic indie folk basis, and not losing it in a mess of trying to be too big.

It's hard to describe An Ocean Held Me without using words like "dreary" and "tired", and yet trying to say that in a good way. This EP fits a particular mood, a particular atmosphere, and nails it so hard. The tiredness of the music is somehow refreshing and beautiful in its lethargy, and all is given up in a drastic moment of tension that is the final movement of "Vulnerable Vader". If I'm to find one nitpick with this EP (and it truly is the only one), I secretly wish they went a bit bigger with that explosion, in true Kayo Dot grandeur. It also reminds me a lot of the explosions that Steven Wilson put on his first two solo records, the noisy finish to "Abandoner" or "Get All You Deserve" definitely come in, and the horn parts not only reminding of Kayo Dot, but the spiraling avant-jazz influenced parts that Theo Travis blew into the climax of "Remainder the Black Dog" from Grace for Drowning.

Performances here are all nearly perfect, Ben has given each instrumentalist good parts in themselves, but they all have breathing room to pursue their own parts and personalities. The drumming, although it is absent during a great deal of the EP, deserves good mention, somehow bringing intricacy to the slower rhythms, scattering some nice triplets and rolls throughout. The moments of piano here are also fantastic, but that of course is down to the fact that piano is my favourite instrument, and a second of it immediately gets me praising.

I've got to admit, I'm surprised I like this so much. I purchased this sort of as a respect and courtesy purchase, because I want to support Ben (and I know how much a 7-piece band can cost), as well as the local music industry, but this is easily the best local album to come out this year, or even the last few years once I think about it. I'm proud to say that these guys come from Auckland, since I really can't think of a specific band or artists that does what they do. Sure, it sounds a bit like Kayo Dot, except it doesn't, because this is a folk album and Kayo Dot have nothing to do with folk. This is a unique release from a unique group of musicians that I hope will continue to expand out of the local scene, to bring this music to the world.


Edit (March 2014): I have sorely under reviewed this record. An undeniably fantastic piece of music this is, and I feel I just rushed to review it a bit faster, before I truly realised this. I will hopefully update the text here sometime, but for now I'm raising the rating to 5 stars.

Gallifrey | 5/5 |


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