Review Summary: Another masterclass in modern progressive music
If there’s one thing that drew me to 2016’s 'Stranger Heads Prevail', it was the clever layering of all the different instruments to create a progressive jazz-rock album to really dive into. It was a complex cacophony that was catchy enough to just fall into the ‘easy listening’ category (for prog standards that is), but had an almost overwhelming amount of meat on its bones that would demand your full attention if you wanted to dissect it all.
Their big selling point hinges on the band's lineup, consisting of your standard quartet of drums, bass, guitars and vocals, complemented by a violist, saxophonist and trumpeter. Take a second to think of all the musical directions a lineup like that could go. Now add to that an almost limitless proficiency and virtuosity of each instrument. Finally, replace the egotripping “I’m the best player here so I want the spotlight 24/7” for actual quality songwriting and you get a sense for the potential a band like Thank You Scientist has. A potential they almost fully delivered in 'Stranger Heads Prevail', and yes, again delivers on 'Terraformer'.
In the three years since then, the seven-piece from New Jersey haven’t exactly been resting on their laurels. On the contrary, 'Terraformer' is the result of a band with too many ideas to know what to do with. Thirteen songs (ten statements, an intro and two musical pallet cleansers) spread out over a whopping 84 minutes is a lot to digest. Too much to digest for me all at once, as I found out during my first listen. I had to take a couple of minutes halfway through to get myself refreshed and keep focus, for boy is there a lot of meat on 'Terraformer'. I’d say even more so than or their previous two records.
The song lengths have increased, with the result that most of the songs on 'Terraformer' feel less immediate and focused. They take their time building on the ideas and showcasing more different styles and atmospheres in each song. The opening piece FXMLDR
(apparently pronounced as Foxmolder, whatever that may mean) is a great example of this. In nearly eight minutes, Thank You Scientist flow almost seamlessly from one musical pattern into the next, using clever harmonies and an incredible saxophone solo all to their greatest effect. A catchy earworm of a chorus gives some immediate cohesion to the piece. Knowing Thank You Scientist though, there will be a lot more that ties all the chaos and different musical lines together, because the song never derails or loses itself in needless over-prog’ing if you will.
There are no obvious weaker tracks on 'Terraformer' (quite a feat on its own I have to say), and it will be an album where everyone will have a different ‘favorite song’. Whether it's the darker, moodier Anchor
(my personal favorite at this moment), the more cohesive and streamlined Swarm
, or the grandiosity of Son of a Serpent
, prog and jazz fans alike are sure to find their own little itch to scratch on 'Terraformer'.
In 84 minutes though, there are bound to be a couple of head scratching decisions. The lengthy guitar solo in Everyday Ghosts
misses its mark due to a unnecessary length and a very questionable guitar sound. The ten minute instrumental Chromology
could’ve also used some fat-trimming, which is the same problem Rube Goldberg Variations
had on 'Stranger Heads Prevail'. These however, are minor discrepancies in an otherwise masterclass of modern progressive music.
All in all, this might be too chaotic or seemingly directionless for some. However, figuring out all the little subtleties, like a bassline taking over the guitar line from a second before, is what makes 'Terraformer' such a fun, rewarding and fulfilling listen. It just has more to give beneath the surface and more to discover than your average prog-rock album, and it makes 'Terraformer' a serious ‘album of the year’ contender, just like its predecessor was three years ago.