Review Summary: Thank You Scientist play off the strengths of their debut to create another massively entertaining and technically astounding release.
The opening track off of Stranger Heads Prevail
sounds like it would be better suited to a Broadway production than an album by a rising rock act, but the unpredictability is part of the charm that makes New Jersey’s Thank You Scientist so endearing. Their music is so diverse, and incorporates so many different influences that pieces like these are not only expected, but cherished. One of their songs could be spastic math rock that builds up to an arena ready chorus, where elsewhere it can sound like the music of John Coltrane coming in by way of Dream Theater, and while their specific brand of song craft doesn’t necessarily appeal to certain portions of music listeners, their sound has turned them into a well-respected group for all those who feel otherwise. This can be partially attributed to bizarre talent that the group incorporates. While the band at its center is your typical four man setup, their ranks also include violin and saxophone players, a horn/synth man, and numerous of session musicians when needed. This combination allows for the core of the group to create the foundational sounds and rhythms while the rest of the band provides the extra flare that helps distinguish them from their peers.
This sound was first put on display in 2011 with the release of Thank You Scientist’s debut EP, The Perils of Time Travel
. While that release lacked the flare and precision of their later work, it still showcased an important step for the group and at least hinted at what they would later become. That product would finally be shown in 2012, with the release of their first full length record, Maps of Non-Existent Places
. A perfect blend of spectacle and musicianship, Maps
had a unique charm and capitalized on all the band’s strengths to make it one of the most impressive releases of that year. But putting out a great record doesn’t necessarily ensure lasting success, so the band had the forethought to put out their second record quickly, which brings us to the present day with the release of their latest album Stranger Heads Prevail
is a refinement on everything that made Maps
work. First, the genre bending is better executed this time around which gives the different musical passages far greater variations in sound. Whereas the previous record mainly featured jazz instruments over rock style song structures, Stranger Heads
does a lot to balance the scale. The opening instrumental pieces, once loud and bombastic, now recall jazz greats of the 60s and 70s with great veneration. “Mr. Invisible” immediately evokes the spirit of Herbie Hancock during his early 70s transitional period. The intro piece is a timely update on his sound, only with horns at the forefront instead of keyboards. “A Wolf In Cheap Clothing” leads in with a more somber passage reminiscent of Miles Davis at the peak of his abilities. In addition, for those with a taste for instrumentals there is the nine minute “Rube Goldberg Variations.” This epic, brilliantly crafted, Weather Report on steroids sounding piece drags the listener kicking and screaming through each new passage and contains solos on the trumpet, saxophone, violin, and guitar in that order. Seldom are any group’s talents better exposed than on a song like this.
But for all of the new ideas, Thank You Scientist haven’t lost a bit of their edge. After that opening show tune like song, (because again, why not?), “The Somnambulist” comes roaring in right from the onset with a crashing rhythm section that drives the track towards a tremendous climax that is sure to sound great in a live setting. “Caverns” starts with a frantic intro that expertly highlights the band’s more progressive tendencies. It also serves to show the unique structure of these songs. While the band still follows a verse-chorus-verse platform, they take their own time going about it and each section of a song can contain a number of different segments before reaching its end. The bridges in the second half of each piece are frequently presented as a frantic blend of instrumental wizardry and fiercely delivered lyrics which, when combined, can create dizzying muscial moments that are sure to impress.
If there is any criticism that someone might try to level at this release, it is that it does sound an awful lot like the first record. With the exception of greater jazz influence, many of the songs here do share some of the same qualities as the ones on Maps
. It is true that familiarity can be a pitfall for a lot of talented groups, especially if their staple sound ends up growing weaker with repetition, but that being said, Thank You Scientist can largely be excused for this simply because of how strong their staple sound is. Maps
was an uncommon case of a band arriving on the scene with a fully formed identity that is bombastic and technically comprehensive enough that actually figuring out where to go from that point can be difficult. In the minds of some fans, drastic change might even be downright unwelcome. Having such a rock solid first release has served to undue countless great bands over the years simply because they don’t know how to follow it up, so if Thank You Scientist want to take their time, bask in the acclaim, and take a more graceful approach towards their advancement, that isn’t always a bad thing.
“Psychopomp” serves as a great example of why this sound works. It is a song where every member of the band gets an opportunity to shine. The horns open the track with a sort of Middle Eastern flare complimented by a blistering guitar lead played by Tom Monda while the drum and base lay down a primitive rhythm that waits for the chorus to get more intricate. Extra praise goes to vocalist Salvatore Marrano for having the talent to consistently succeed despite the myriad of sounds around him. Whereas many prog vocalists suffer from getting drowned out by the other layers of sound that they have to work with, Marrano always stands confidently at the forefront whenever he takes the mic, and even “Psychopomp”’s soaring, over the top climax can’t manage to derail him. Stranger Heads
ends with the united voices of “The Amateur Arsonist's Handbook” joined in a sing along outro before “Epilogue” softly croons about all the songs the band has left to write, and we should surely hope that they aren’t just making that up.
Thank You Scientist can be extremely difficult to categorize. Their sound could be linked to post-hardcore, jazz, metal, math rock, prog, funk, and countless other labels, but whatever they are, their music is hugely creative, relentlessly unique, and massively enjoyable. Yet for all the technical bravado their songs are, at heart, thrilling anthems that are actually capable of pleasing those who are willing to take the chance to hear them. Thank You Scientist may still be in the first chapter of their career, but one can expect that masterful achievements like these will increase their renown among listeners of a wide variety of genres. Here’s hoping their King Crimson meets Circa Survive madness continues to stay intact for many more records to come.
Best Tracks: “Caverns,” “Blue Automatic,” “Psychopomp”
Worst Tracks: “Epilogue… And the Clever Depart”