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Mice On Stilts - I Am Proud of You CD (album) cover


Mice On Stilts


Crossover Prog

4.11 | 50 ratings

From, the ultimate progressive rock music website

4 stars In a New Releases discussion over at frequented music forum, a member made mention of the band's March 2023 release I Am Proud Of You, and described their music as "Chamber Progressive".

"Chamber Progressive". Now that was a descriptor that captured my attention.

There are few styles more pleasing to my particularly particular ear than the fusion of classical and rock elements. I mean, sure I'm a dyed-in-the-wool ELO fan, but if you start me talking about late era Beatles, The Left Banke, Moody Blues, Procol Harum, or hell anything related to Baroque Pop, be sure to plan an exit strategy.

Anyway, the fusion of classical and rock in progressive music is nothing new, but the "chamber" descriptor evoked images of string quartets, clockwork baroque precision, and the warmth and pleasure of sweeping melodic orchestrations stripped down to their most immediate impact.

Accordingly, one could characterize Mice On Stilts' music via their complex, multi-layered arrangements, weaving in stylistic elements such as folk, rock, and classical. Prog sensibilities make themselves apparent through intricate composition, dynamic use of time and tempo, and the use of diverse instrumentation. With the usual guitars, bass, synths, and drums, you'll hear woodwinds, cellos, violins, and piano. And God knows what else.

The unifying thematic content for I Am Proud Of You is a prevailing sense of loss, desperation, and struggle. Band founder, lead vocalist, and lyricist Ben Morley incorporated themes of addiction, incarceration, and isolation throughout the album, alongside existential reflections on relationships, abandonment, and identity.

As such, I Am Proud Of You is a somber and sobering meditation on both the immediate stinging rawness and prolonged dull ache of human desperation. And yet it is presented with lush, ornate beauty alongside tender simplicity and immediacy, resulting in a commanding and emotionally resonant work. Through Morley's haunting vocals and deeply poetic lyrics, the lush orchestral arrangements, crisp production values, and a tone that undulates between pastoral and progressive, I Am Proud Of You delivers a rich musical soundscape through a reflexive journey of redemption.

Almost instantly, the album's production and engineering command attention. This is a beautiful sounding album, creating a vast soundscape of crisp vocals and warm acoustic openness. The mix never feels loud, busy, or cluttered; this is no "wall of sound". The production gives each musical element distinct space to breathe, resulting in a wonderfully dynamic presentation that is both dramatic and ornate, yet also fresh and immediate. It's less of a production as it is a performance.

The album goes to the well with a deep sense of introspection and reflection, using imagery of New Zealand's natural landscape to convey emotional content. The towering kauri trees in "Through The Kauri", vast mountain ranges of "Ranges In The West", and devouring oceans in "The Wreck of The Wahine" generate feelings of chaos, destruction, scale, and timelessness, juxtaposing the struggles of the individual against the eternity of the human condition.

Using such transcendental imagery contrasts pain and sorrow against timeless beauty and wonder beyond our existential scope, underscored by the integration of orchestral elements with traditional rock, folk, and prog structures. The fingerpicking acoustic guitar intro to "Edge of the Garden" brings to mind a pastoral warmth, whereas the introduction of strings and piano both reinforce that notion whilst also generating dramatic conflict. By the time the song evolves into a full band piece, the emotional struggle is not just real, it feels epic.

"Wreck of the Mahine" takes root in the real-life sinking of the island ferry Wahine in 1968, in which 53 passengers were killed on the reef. The atmospheric introduction builds into a driving rhythm section, mirroring the intensity of the lyrics. With "Devotion Decline", slow and deliberate melancholic melodies give shape to haunting interfamilial struggles. This continues with "Grey Diving Bell", deliberate and haunting with comparatively sparse instrumentation and mournful vocals over a hypnotic, meditative guitar and piano. This builds towards a more cinematic ending without betraying its soulful immediacy.

Speaking of soulful, there's a slinky jazz vibe to "When Will We See The Day. Its steady tempo, seductive saxophone line, and driving drum work evoke dark, candle-lit bars, the clinks of glasses and subdued mindless background conversations. Amid all that, the music delivers soul and poignancy via its utilization of religious iconography (doves, crosses, oceans) in an eternal search for hope.

Similar to many tracks on this album, "National Radio" starts simple and builds into layers of instrumentation and harmonies. Mid-song the track pulls itself back with a swirling string instrumental interlude, before erupting into a Floyd like crescendo for its final act. This is an album standout, exemplifying the ethos for this record in its purest form.

Fingerpicked guitar returns in the introduction to "Ranges In The West", a track that seems to be equally about abandonment from both perspectives (the one who leaves, the one left behind). This is a solid track but it's right around here that you really start feeling the album's length. On its own the track is fine and worthwhile, but as an album track it flirts with repetition without adding meaningful development.

Jasmine Balmer takes co-lead vocal credit on "Through The Kauri", a wonderful take on the dynamic of delusory codependence, or maybe the breakdown of any everyday relationship. The beauty in this number is in what both singers bring to the table together, adding perspective, nuance, and mutual assurance of dread. What is more confining than heading back into the prison of a relationship gone sour.? A tasty guitar solo wails with ominous urgency, and the track ends with a tangible musical sense of drowning.

"Jigsaw Legs" features some exquisite double bass playing, sounding so natural and organic between unresolved 9th and assuring major chords on the guitar and a buzzing mist of strings blowing through. It's a curious musical tableau upon which to construct a haunting tale of addiction and its ensuing emotional fragmentation, but an engaging one.

"Anxiety Baby" opens with the closest this record has come to a straight rock bluesy feel. A deconstruction of anxiety, unbelonging, and self-loathing, it terrifies with how it does so much with comparatively little compositional movement. Delievered in abundance are the usual layers of strings, haunting vocals, and other production elements we've come to expect from this record. Yet in essence, the song stays in the realm of that single opening bluesy chord. Less is more, even with more, and "Anxiety Baby" demonstrates that with all its exuberant unified discordance.

A pleasing melodic piano line opens the album closer, "To Somewhere Else". The song features only six lines, with lyrics that are as direct as they are irresolute:

Where to? Just somewhere else All I know, I want to forget This world was never enough But the time drifts on

Look ahead, how far do you see? Now look up at the sky above

I view this as a hopeful message, one of affirmation and acceptance. Or perhaps deliverance. Others might take it to a more tragic conclusion. Either way, its a simple but effective closing track to the album, delivering the album's journey to a measure of dramatic closure.

I Am Proud Of You is a fascinating record: lush, beautiful, exquisitely produced, and emotionally brutal. It uses rich orchestrations alongside traditional rock, folk, prog, even indie elements to create something wholly unique and transporting. At about an hour in length it might tend to sag just a bit towards the middle, but any feelings of drag are quickly dissipated by Mice On Stilts' musical confidence and compelling delivery. I Am Proud Of You, as mentioned before, is a performance, not a production. It commands attention through both compositional excellence and empathetic immediacy. Delve into rough seas with this journey well worth taking.

Hokeyboy | 4/5 |


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