I was lucky enough to attend a show at Bar Le Ritz on June 7th where both Bent Knee AND Thank You Scientist were playing. It’s an “intimate” little venue of the sort I’d usually associate with local and relatively unknown bands, fitting maybe 100 people max. While this seemed… small… for the talent of the groups playing, I can’t complain because personally this meant that as early birds, we were pretty much right at the stage! So, music, right in our faces! Looking at the awesome gear! Loudness and exuberant crowd dancing! Occasional awkward eye contact!
It was everything we wanted. Bent Knee is always amazing live (we saw them with Haken/Leprous too 😄😄😄) so that was great! And Thank You Scientist? Wow. Exactly the kind of group you hope to get at every show: expert musicians and true entertainers. They played to blow minds, and succeeded. Additionally, they joked and spoke to the audience like good friends come to visit. There was (almost) witty banter and laughter. They even gave two encore songs when the very uh, passionate, audience wouldn’t give up. Montreal fans REALLY love their music.
What’s that got to do with the album..?
The best part was really cool – they played several songs from their new album, which had only singles released at the time. And they were amazing, so it was a great way to get us all EVEN MORE excited for June 14th, the album’s “official” debut date. A part of me cries because we could have bought the album at the show! But we don’t have a CD player. ☹️ So we had to pass on that and indulge in our much-neglected band-shirt collection. Life, right?
Friday the album finally dropped to streaming services and of course, I finished my last class and had my sweet sweet headphones on before the class files finished downloading. It was worth the wait for me and if you haven’t listened yet, you’re in for a real treat. This is NO small album and the amount of work and creativity that went into it shines through. And I’m not the only one who thinks so! Terraformer is knocking down rave reviews like a bowling superstar on late-night TV, but with WAY more class.
I’ve got amnesia, Thank You Scientist..?
Thank You Scientist makes pretty damn good music, a tasty fusion of rock/jazz/ska/metal. They often show up with some of the “big” bands of the prog scene when it comes to tours and do a decent amount of headlining themselves. The band went through a few line-up changes since Stranger Heads Prevail, their 2016 album. Right from their website:
In addition to Tom Monda and vocalist Salvatore Marrano, the bandʼs lineup has gradually evolved to include violinist Ben Karas, bassist Cody McCorry, drummer Joe Fadem, trumpeter Joe Gullace and saxophonist Sam Greenfield. Thank You Scientist has spent the past several years touring internationally, both as headliners and as direct support for acts such as Coheed and Cambria, Periphery, Haken, Protest the Hero, the Devin Townsend Project, and Tim Allen.” Luckily, from what we saw and the new album, these changes really work. Plus, they all have a great sense of humor along with musicianship.
So heads up, while Terraformer has it’s heavy moments, this is not primarily metal. Metal influences maybe, but rock is a far better genre fit for most of the non-jazz/ska bits. There are a LOT of jazz bits and the brass sections come out really strong in this album. And lets be honest, it’s hard to have real brass instruments without them stealing the spotlight. The trumpet/sax combo means everyone else pretty much needs their volumes set to 11 and even then, those saturated tones… Bliss for brass lovers at least. So if you hate jazz or brass instruments, this won’t be your thing. Otherwise, wooo! And this isn’t saying the a balancing wasn’t done right or the brass is too loud, they’re just prominent instruments that can easily steal focus.
Now, Terraformer is a huge album. This puppy will take you a solid hour-twenty-four-minutes-twelve-seconds to listen to. It’s also musically dense, meaning every song has many individual sections with a lot of stuff going on. So you’ll really want a decent sound-system (or headphones, I use these) and some time to fully immerse yourself. The songs range in style from Radiohead-like electronic bits to full on swing to headbanging to… Japanese-shamisen jams? Yep! The shamisen jam at their show wasn’t just for the lulz, but alluded to a song on the album! Clever boys!
And the songs..?
For me, the whole album really flowed together, but a few songs really stood out as favorites.
“FXMLDR”s overt sci-fi lyrics just made me smile, and the rock-to-ska-to-jazz-and-back with lovely muted guitar tones giving way to acoustic happiness certainly helped. I also found Salvatore’s voice fits this song really well. This may be the most “pop”-y song on the album, even though it’s not pop at all; everything on this album is a bit complicated for pop. It is simply very catchy and fun. Prog is often very serious, so I love how much fun these guys cram into their albums.
“Birdwatching” was also great, in a different way. It’s short – ONLY three minutes forty-one seconds. But it has this eerie, ambient, Radiohead-esque vibe that I can’t help but dig. Thom circa Kid A/Moon Shaped Pool would approve, and it provided a really good musical break from the faster pace of previous songs.
“Chromology” is probably my co-favorite song, with it’s weird and spry synth-keyboard progression driving another bout of simple musical happiness, gently supported and backed by the brass, guitar and drums. It’s purely instrumentals, so those who are not a fan of high-register male singers could listen here for a taste of what they’re missing. I can say that my two-year-old daughter dances to this with a wild joy and much twirling around, so the groovy beats aren’t all in my head.
“New Moon” is where that shamisen goodness comes in, though the track feels in many ways like part of something bigger at only two minutes – and indeed it segues seamlessly into the next song. It’s so calm, lovely and grand, like an orchestral piece for a great film. While it’s no where near the length or complexity of the other pieces, it’s simplicity and brevity add elegance.
“Terraformer” is the last song on the album, and its a bit heavier with the bass and drums giving some shape and massive sound, though only here and there. The Japanese scale from “New Moon” peeks in and the overall tone remains somewhat on the lighter side, but those bass lines and drum kicks are super-satisfying. It’s a really solid song, and it feels a bit simpler than the jazzed-up pieces, making it a great wind-down for your now-tired brain. Because at this point, your ears may need a cool-down.
What didn’t work well?
I get the feeling this album is going to be a classic for many years as it’s set a high bar for composition, playing, and mixing. The only “issues” here for me were ones of taste, so if your tastes are different from mine, your mileage may vary. While I enjoy good jazz (especially swing and other, more lively varieties), it’s not my primary musical taste. So the amount of jazz and the complexity of said-jazz was actually pretty fatiguing to really pay attention to. I prefer my jazz live, honestly.
There’s also the vocal style, an often-polarizing issue in many prog circles. I DO enjoy a high, clean vocal style (Leprous’ Einar Solberg) but I’m not big on 100% high and clean (again, Einar and Ross Jennings, awww yea). Salvatore is 100% high/clean. With such a long album, I was a bit done with it by the last song. This is a shame as Salvatore has an impressive ability to be on-key and puts a lot of passion into his singing, but he lacks a little in range on the lower end for my tastes. It can also distract from the complex instrumentals.
Terraformer jumps through music hoops like a mad Cirque du Soleil performer: with vigor, passion, finesse and more fun and wit than you might imagine. Overall, this is a great (perhaps even defining) album, but it doesn’t quite hit MY specific style enough to knock anyone off my usual playlist. I DO know where I’ll be going for my next jazz-craving, and I will see these guys live anytime. They are absolutely amazing and obviously brilliant people with a lot of ideas to share. I’d give this a listen at least once as it might be exactly what your life is missing.