By Lani Conway
Arts Reporter

Across a desolate Santa Cruz forest a whirlwind of laughter and playful banter sweep through densely scattered trees and shatter the silence. Four figures play flashlight tag in the dark.

The game breaks out amid comedic mayhem. Such is the way of the Santa Cruz-based band, Mountain Animal Hospital, whose members do not let their laid-back attitude and good humor interfere with getting work done and releasing their first full-length CD, “Startled by Deer.”

A product of Loves in Heat Records, the album is the culmination of seven months of recording and years of frustration. Yet all their troubles have allowed them to create something which showcases their eclectic blend of progressive indie rock with splashes of electronic elements.

One might assume that members of Mountain Animal Hospital would be frantically and stressfully preparing for the album release show at Caffe Pergolesi this weekend. Instead they appear calm, cracking jokes, goofing around lightheartedly and rediscovering the joys of childhood games.

But this game has grown up.

Footage of the flashlight-tag game capturing the constant movement of players and the intermittent appearance of light beams, each specifically filtered with a different color, will be filmed and used by Kevin Johnson, an art student and friend of the band members. Johnson’s experimental image and light projection project will be presented simultaneously with the band’s performance.

Also featured will be the blending of Mountain Animal Hospital’s endless array of musical influences, which is what drummer Nick Overhauser says gives the group “a strong emotive force” and “a dreamy rock sound, but of course not in the sleepy sense.”

It is Mountain Animal Hospital’s inimitable essence and sound that caught the eye of many including Jennifer Pond, longtime friend and curator at the Hide Gallery.

“Mountain Animal Hospital represents a genre of music and art that harkens back to nostalgic rock, which they then reinterpret in a modern way,” Pond said. “They also have a little wildness to them.”

This reinterpretation evident in “Startled by Deer” is the result of a balanced collaborative effort. “What is great is that each one of us brings something to the table. We all have different influences and styles,” bassist Jeff Carroll said. “Each one of us then adds our own elements to the mix, which ultimately creates our sound. It just always seems to work for us.”

Mountain Animal Hospital’s collaboration with Johnson signifies what Pond calls a necessity in the face of cultural monotony.

“We need to bang music and art over most Americans who usually find themselves acting in a regimented way, such as the 9-to-5 workday,” Pond said. “Otherwise we will remain a homogenized and boring culture. Collaborations and shows such as this give us a taste of reality and life.”

It is here, among fallen branches, fortresses made out of wood, and individuals illuminated with flashes of colorful light, that Mountain Animal Hospital’s unique vision refreshingly clashes with Johnson’s artistic creativity. The group’s music rekindles the spirit and importance of working together, following dreams and having fun in the process.

_Catch Mountain Animal Hospital’s album release show this Saturday at Caffe Pergolesi, 418 Cedar St. The show is free for all ages and starts at 8 p.m. The musical group Sleepy Sun will also be featured. _