For many rock and metal fans, New Zealand remains a mysterious wilderness, devoid of any form of musical scene. Like a cherry tree blooming in a seemingly desolate land, Mice on Stilts prove that beauty can emerge from rather unexpected places, with their latest album Hope for a Mourning. Their particular brand of progressive rock, at times acoustic, jazz- and folk-influenced, evokes a sense of what it would sound like if later-era Gentle Giant were to play together with Bon Iver, fronted by Tom Smith (Editors). If this doesn’t automatically turn you off on their music (as it shouldn’t), you’re in for a treat.
“Khandallah”, the first song on the record, is named after a suburb of New Zealand’s capital city Wellington. Its name is supposed to translate as ‘Resting place of God’, a fact that fits the religious undertones of Hope for a Mourning really well. The song itself is carried by a sprawling piano line and Benjamin Morley’s expressive vocal delivery. “You are a river”, he proclaims several times throughout this tune, a leitmotif as nebulous yet variably interpretable as it gets. With their six man line-up including, among others, two violin players and a saxophonist, Mice on Stilts are able to build this song up into a tremendous, melodious epic.
Make no mistake, though. Hope for a Mourning is unlikely to become the soundtrack to your next barbecue with all your friends, or your summer romance. It is just much too pensive and melancholic of an œuvre to embody such moments. The warmth of its sound and the slow pace at which it unfurls itself lend themselves more to an approximate hour of solitary rumination of one’s own life and surroundings, perhaps accompanied by a drink or two, sitting in the shadow of an oak tree in the warm evening hours. A beautiful experience in and of itself, yes, just nothing to be shared immediately with another human being. Hope for a Mourning thrives when the listener is able to disengage from society for a moment to fully immerse him – or herself in the music.
Song titles can sometimes reveal more of the song they are set to than they conceal. “And We Saw His Needs Through the Casket” definitely falls under that category. An eerie appellation for the probably most haunting track to be found on Hope for a Mourning. ‘Three years to date, we let you send this nightmare to a bloody grave’ is one of the greatest lines I have ever witnessed, and comes across perfectly in the context of this song, with its piano-laden beginning, giving way to a polyphonic vocal display harmonizing excellently with the saxophone played in the background. It gets even more brooding and operatic with the addition of a choir into the Mice on Stilts universe in the middle portions of the track. This works especially well as a backdrop to Benjamin’s low, crooning voice. A nice counterpoint indeed. I can also sense a light country influence in the guitar work of the last two and a half minutes of the song, giving it a slightly more grounded touch amidst the choir sections.
As a consequence of the compositional and lyrical decisions made in the song writing process, Hope for a Mourning can be an absolutely unforgiving downer if you are not prepared for it. Dealing with loss, hopelessness and grief isn’t the easiest subject matter by default, and combined with the warm-yet-distant music displayed on here, it becomes even more heart-wrenching. Nevertheless, Hope for a Mourning is an album Mice on Stilts (as any self-respecting band, for that matter) should be unashamedly proud of. It’s achingly beautiful and amazingly constructed into a cohesive musical piece sure to leave the listener breathless from the very beginning on. There are some great thematic and musical self-references within the album’s own context (which are best experienced spoiler-free) that make this sometimes slow and hard to handle record even more enjoyable. Hope for a Mourning absolutely deserves all praise heaped upon it and then some. It’s just that good.
Notable Tracks: “Khandallah”; “Orca”; “And We Saw His Needs Through the Casket.”
FFO: Gentle Giant, Bon Iver, Steven Wilson.