It’s been over two years since I first met Mice on Stilts.
I was 17, and it was out at a local festival, a fundraiser for the local primary school, out in the vast expanses of Northland, New Zealand. Being a small local band, gigs that weren’t R18 were a rarity for Mice on Stilts in the beginning and this was probably going to be the only opportunity for me to see them live before I turned 18, about six months later. In December 2013 I had heard and reviewed An Ocean Held Me, their near-perfect debut EP, and upon striking up an internet friendship with frontman Ben Morley he insisted I come to see them at any cost. My friend and I got a lift out to the gig with their (now-former) pianist Brendan Zwaan, and the day was one of the most strangely surreal of my life. On that stage, in front of a few hundred people including dozens of children littered on the grass banks, Mice on Stilts played three songs I did not know at the time – “Khandallah”, “Orca” and the monolithic dirge “Funeral”. And cliche as this sounds, my life hasn’t really been the same since.
In the two years that have come since then, this band has become one of my favourites of all time, and its members some of my closest friends. They almost defined the year 2014 for me, as I saw them numerous times (illegally) by being snuck into venues. On my 18th birthday in late 2014, at a show I still call one of the best I have ever been to, they played “Tuatara Lawn” at my request, and even since then I have continued to love them more and more. To say I am now familiar with those three new songs they played that day, that finally find themselves on a recording in 2016, is an understatement. Seeing the same band live twenty, thirty times does something to your perception of a song, and that is no different with these tunes. I know them almost inside out, as well as more than half of this record, before it was even recorded. Hell, I’m even on this album, which still blows my mind. Hear the choirs on “Khandallah” and “And We Saw His Needs Through the Casket”? That’s me there, failing to sing the bass part. This album has almost become an intrinsic part of my being over the last two years, so being in the position to review it makes me feel strangely compromised, and it’s actually incredibly difficult to attempt to assess it in an objective fashion. Many of the thoughts I have on this are thoughts from being close to it for two years, which is a unique situation for me.
All of this also demonstrates just how long this album has been in the works. The band performed several tracks from this live at their release party for An Ocean Held Me back in 2013, so it’s evident that these aren’t all fresh pieces. Even since then – this album was recorded with an eight-piece lineup, and five members of that ensemble have now departed for various reasons, with three new ones taking their places. This album is being performed live and promoted by almost an entirely different lineup to the one that recorded it. My choir part was recorded back in November of 2014, and the album has been meticulously pieced together since then by their resident producer (who moonlights as a bassist in the band), Tim Burrows, for the past 18 months.
For those who haven’t heard An Ocean Held Me, Mice on Stilts sound like the product of piling half a dozen highly trained instrumentalists to arrange songs written by a man with an obsession with Radiohead, Kayo Dot and Swans, and a voice like that of a classic folk singer. Of course, as someone who knows the members, that pretty much sums up their group dynamic perfectly. Benjamin Morley is the heart and soul of the band, with his core vocal melodies shifting between strained and soulful and serene, perfectly complementing the stark dynamics of his backing. And there are some truly wonderful dynamics in there. Consisting of bass, guitar, piano, drums, saxophone, trumpet, viola, synthesiser and ambient noise, the Mice on Stilts collective perfectly balance Ben’s songwriting by contributing smooth and pastoral atmospheres at times, and jarring, chaotic, droning and near-metal themes at others. The diversity in timbres is both unique and exciting for a band which at its core is essentially soft-spoken indie rock. Links to Arcade Fire or The Dear Hunter are undeniable in the band’s arrangements, but there is an underlying theme of darkness, energy and chaos that one would generally never associate with those artists.Hope for a Mourning is not a massively different release from An Ocean Held Me stylistically, but it does manage to shed much of the restraints needed in an EP by taking these songs to the lengths they truly want to reach. “Tuatara Lawn” from the EP is a shoo-in for my favourite song of all time, and foreshadows the sort of dramatic building that is developed on Hope for a Mourning. In my honest opinion nothing here quite reaches the heights of that individual track, but taken as a whole this is equally as good if not better than the EP.
“Funeral” is the obvious discussion point of much of this excess, and is truly one of the most harrowing pieces I have heard. I remember this being performed to absolute perfection when Mice on Stilts opened for Yes at the Aotea Centre. You can just imagine the hilarity at Ben introducing it as “a prog rock song” to an audience of aging prog fanatics before moving into an 11-minute monolith of folk, darkness and Swans-ian repetition. The progression from soft-spoken folk to chaotic smashing is something I immediately linked to a song like “Get All You Deserve” by Steven Wilson, but Funeral is much more than that. It’s immersing, it’s gargantuan, and even though at first Ben’s Mark Kozelek-esque vocal wanderings seem a bit vague at the start, the more you listen to it the more every part makes perfect sense, and the explosion in its final minutes has my vote for one of the most otherworldly live experiences on this planet.
This heavy emotional palette is one that occupies a lot of this record, particularly in the second half, but there is a lighter, folkier side to it that many will find enjoyable even without needing to have an emotional episode. “Khandallah”, as Ben liked to introduce it at each performance, is “a happy song about happy things”. His decision to open the album with it is fascinating and not necessarily one I am completely convinced of because it almost sets the wrong tone for the record, but the sweet smoothness of the uplifting chorus is definitely a fantastic piece of work regardless of where it sits. It’s here when Ben shows his talent for pop melodies and being an indie singer, and the rest of the band show their skills at adorning a song with colourful arrangements. None of the parts bar the chords and vocals are written by Ben, with all of the horn and string players floating their parts on and around his core until it sounds complete.
The first three songs on the album carry this same folk tinge, before the album takes a stylistic deviation with “And We Saw His Needs…”. “Orca” is essentially a merger of those folk tendencies with some classic progressive rock structuring. It’s become a bit of a favourite of mine in recent times (pretty much ever since they stopped playing it live actually), but the combination of the smooth poppy melody, the unusual structuring and the explosive finale is something that encapsulates the Mice on Stilts sound wonderfully. The way the song takes a complete deviation after the first chorus to a different segment and eventually a full-on ambient section before returning for the second chorus is a truly inspired piece of songwriting.
But as nice as the first half of the record is, the second half is when the band truly show their talent. When this album was demoed, the only song I wasn’t convinced of was “And We Saw His Needs Through the Casket”, but the fully recorded version has totally changed my mind. It acts as a bridge to the album’s second half, ending with a two-minute choral section that creates a gorgeously ominous mood that leads into “YHWH” brilliantly. YHWH itself is a fascinating song, and I actually told the band I thought it should open the record, but Ben said he “didn’t want to scare people”. It’s a beast of a track, a mathy, angular dirge of sludge riffs and impossibly tight drum grooves. It’s really a testament to the band’s diversity that they can shove a song this heavy into their music without ever feeling like it’s shoehorned or out of place.
I also must give a brief mention to pianist Brendan Zwaan, since I haven’t really talked about him much. He was not with the band for An Ocean Held Me, and has since departed the band with the birth of his son, but his fingerprints are all over Hope for a Mourning. Co-writing in several of the songs, including all of the choral segments, he adds a beautiful classical touch to the ensemble, which mostly consists of jazz musicians. He is also responsible for the absolutely harrowing ending to the album, with the instrumental closing minutes of “Monarch”. Coming after Funeral the song finishes the album in the darkest of places, with Zwaan, accompanied by Sam Hennessy on viola and Joseph Jujnovich’s vocal wanderings, pulls out a piece of Moonlight-esque beauty to close of the record.
Honestly, I don’t have any proper complaints about this record that aren’t ones brought about by me having heard these songs a billion times. The only nitpick I can pull out is that I feel many of these songs are much better live than in studio, and the recording doesn’t quite capture the full power of a song like “Orca” or “Funeral”. The recording is far from poor, but Tim Burrows has opted for a smoother and quite dream pop-sounding production this time around, which works really well in the softer songs, but can leave the heavier ones wanting a bit more punch.
Compositionally though, there’s barely a mis-step here. The group perfectly decorate Morley’s indie rock croon with sections of jazz, classical, rock, drone, ambient, or The Seer-era Swans smashing when necessary, whilst never losing that melodic and soulful song-base. Hope for a Mourning is a gorgeous and heartfelt piece of music, that perfectly takes in dozens of influences without ever feeling cluttered. A long time coming, but worth it in every way.