Math rock legends mouse on the keys, hailing from Japan, are back with a new album after many fantastic previous releases. They have consistently proven themselves to be an outstanding and important addition to the genre of post/math rock, and it was very exciting to hear of their return with fresh new material to present to the scene. Does this new release, tres, live up to their consistency of high quality output? Let’s find out, shall we?
Opener “Clarity” starts off with a windy ambience, paired with a mellow, cycling synth riff and intricate-yet-simple drum groove. The band uses an interesting strategy here in that they play in an 11/8 groove, but switch up the subdivisions each measure (6+5, 5+6, repeat) to maximize the fluidity of the odd time signature. “Clarity” then ventures on with an addition of a melancholic synthesizer solo that drifts throughout its remaining runtime, almost giving off a sense of isolation or loneliness in its timbre and melodic momentum. The phrasing is stretched out and very sustained initially, then progressively adds complexity until it leads into a section harmonized by a choir to add a sort of heavenly aspect to the sound. It was a rather surprising listen, as I was largely expecting to hear the signature mouse on the keys sound: high-energy piano riffs, high-velocity gospel chops, and crazy time subdivisions. So it came as a very pleasant surprise to get a sense of how mouse on the keys would showcase their ability to positively evolve their sound.
Another pleasant surprise was the vocal feature from the wonderful Dominique Fils-Aimé! She’s featured on two tracks on the album, “Stars Down” and “Pulse”. “Stars Down” is filled with polarizing moods on the high and low registers of the music. The low end consists of the piano playing the root note, while the high register twinkles with a cascading four-note pattern at the high end of the piano to add an innocent ‘prettiness’ to the track. These two contrasting moods come together to create a similar, but ultimately different melancholic vibe to that found in “Clarity”. As all this is happening, Fils-Aimé beautifully adds simple yet highly impactful melodies throughout the song as the piano wonderfully accompanies her with neo-soul-esque chords. By this point in the album, I really appreciated how musically mature mouse on the keys have become. They have grasped the importance of structural and tasteful songwriting rather than technicality to create some of their best material.
However, they don’t deviate from their crazy math rock tendencies completely! The track “Time” blasts off with a rush of notes in 5/8, which consists of looped phrases of piano riffs, eventually leading into a brief solo section for the piano to show off the jazz chops that the band possesses. Following this section, the song also briefly features a drum fill section to showcase the technical abilities drummer Akira Kawasaki has been holding back until this point in the album. Afterwards, the song then takes a more melodic route, setting up for a guest solo by Mario Camarena from the amazing band Chon. The solo is clean and precise, and adds a very joyous mood with the classic bubbly clean tone that Camarena uses; it would have been nice to see him featured more throughout the album! Although this particular track is quite short, it sure packs a punch.
Closing track “Shapeless Man” is quite the listen, given that it utilizes many electronic atmospheres to create a gray and foggy mood, also using some noise elements to add to the creepy vibe. Jordan Dreyer of La Dispute is featured here, narrating/speaking over the instrumental track. His voice is drenched in ambience to make the listener feel as if they were in a large dome with a man speaking over ambient music while harsh noises can be heard outside. The song then goes fully instrumental, holding a steady drum groove over more compilations of noise and ambience, and closing out with a sustained low hum of the keyboard.
Trading Math for Music
I have always loved mouse on the keys. Some songs in their previous releases were a little hard to grasp, though, as I would get overwhelmed by the dizzying note runs and time changes. This album presents quite a giant leap forward from their other releases in that they took a risk to level down on the abrasive mathy style that they are masters of, and to slow down and experiment with their sound, taking chances and seeing where it takes them. For me, this is their best release by far, and their evolution in sound is very respectable and deserving of much more recognition. They traded the math for the music, and in the end, music wins.
Notable Tracks: “Stars Down”; “Time”; “Clarity”
FFO: Toe, Chon, Covet