New Jersey progressive brainiacs Thank You Scientist have been a name spoken of in the highest esteem around these parts since the release of their debut, full length album Maps of Non-Existent Places in 2012. That album was the sonic equivalent of the snakes in a can gag for the unsuspecting listener. Upon opening it up, you find yourself assaulted with an overwhelming abundance of sunny Coheed and Cambria-indebted melodies, cacophonous swirls of guitar riffs and horn hits, and maze-like song structures that cycle through every kind of danceable jazzy rock imaginable. It represented many of the best aspects and possibilities of prog rock as challenging and complex music that could still be catchy, accessible, and fun as hell to listen to.
Since then, the band have been hard at work building upon the successes of that album, touring with the aforementioned Coheed and Cambria and eventually being signed to Coheed vocalist Claudio Sanchez‘s nascent record label Evil Ink Records (who quickly put out a remixed and remastered version of Maps). It’s been 4 years since their last original release though, and anticipation had reached fever pitch for fans looking for more. Would their follow-up sound too similar or too different from Maps? Would the band push themselves and their sound to new places or seek to plant their flag firmly in the soil already tilled? Thankfully, and rather gleefully, we’re happy to report that that follow-up, entitled Stranger Heads Prevail, completely smashes through any fear of a sophomore slump by simply doing what they’ve always done, just better.
In just about every way, from composition, to arrangement, to production, and more, Stranger Heads Prevail is an improvement over what the band has done up to this point. This is clearly a result of Thank You Scientist taking a good, hard look at themselves and asking: “Who are we? Is our career so far an accident or do we have a vision and intention?” The band take this to a literal level in the questioning existential voice sample at the end of “Psychopomp,” which concludes with the statement “I am the architect.” Once that question is answered in the affirmative, the music follows suit. This aim is the defining force of Stranger Heads Prevail and, indeed, the band as a whole. Everywhere on the album you can see self-awareness and a fierce dedication to pushing the envelope. The first manifestation of this is the pragmatic power of the composition. The album contains massive amounts of layers, instruments and ideas: 80s-like synths swim within the verses of “Caverns” for example and vibraphones, saxophones, trumpets, strings, guitars and much more is replete throughout the album.
But nothing feels wasted or excessive. In the search for grandness, many progressive rock bands (and, indeed, bands from any genre) get lost in the need to endlessly complicate things. However, Thank You Scientist understand that every single part added must mean something in the grander scheme of the album or at least communicate with it. Take “Rube Goldberg Variations” for example, one of the most complex and jazz oriented tracks on the album. It is filled to the brim with swerving guitar passages, complex drum-bass interactions, straight-up 80’s dance funk, and other goodness that we’ve come to expect from Thank You Scientist. But it all meshes; parts die and fade away, only to repeat later on, with new and bright clothing. This creates not just groove, intellectual curiosity and musical fascination but also a sensation that you’re listening to something bigger than what it is. The use of clever, conversing composition instead of musical pomposity achieves all of this without sacrificing agility, honesty and verve. In short, without sacrificing fun.
Much like fellow alt-prog vanguards Coheed, as well as The Dear Hunter, Thank You Scientist write and construct their tracks with an incredibly keen ability to fit an incredible number of melodies, vocal hooks, riffs, and choruses that will stick with you long after they’re over and beg for you to return. “Mr. Invisible” is a perfect example of this, as the brilliant and groovy prog jazz fusion instrumentals in the beginning of the track eventually give way to one of the most earworm-y choruses in recent memory. A song about relationships with people who you would jump off a cliff for but somehow magically vanish whenever you need them most, vocalist Salvatore Marrano croons “When I say that you can count on me, it’s true. But it seems to me that I can’t count on you. What are you waiting for?”, and you’ll most assuredly want to shout right along with him. Every song on this album is very clearly meticulously constructed and has to balance their more cerebral musicality with their knack for memorable poppy melodies and choruses, and yet they manage to do so without seemingly breaking a sweat. Everything is in its right place and comes together naturally, creating the musical equivalent of a beautiful mechanical clock or machine whose complexity is belied by its polished exterior.
Enough really cannot be said as well about the performances across the board throughout this album. From the massive guitar solos from Tom Monda on tracks like “Caverns” and “Blue Automatic” to the epic features for saxophonist Ellis Jasenovic on “Mr. Invisible,” trumpeter Andrew Digrius on “More Input Needed,” and violinist Ben Karas on “The Amateur Arsonist’s Handbook,” there is more than enough technical chops on display to satiate the most hungry prog fan. “Rube Goldberg Variations,” like “Suspicious Waveforms” off of Maps, is the sole fully instrumental track on the album, and also like “Suspicious Waveforms,” it’s a true showcase of the entire band (minus Marrano) as they deftly dip in and out of the multitude of styles mentioned that would be challenging for even the tightest jazz ensemble. Is it a tad excessive? Sure, but if you’re bothered by such things you are clearly listening to the wrong band. Thank You Scientist are about as maximalist in composition as it gets, pushing themselves to be bigger and do more with what they have. But where many bands would turn this into bloat and wank for the sake of wank, Thank You Scientist keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.
Much of that is thanks to the area they’ve probably improved the most in from Maps, which is arrangement and how they deploy their trio of auxiliary instruments – sax, trumpet, and violin. If there was an area to criticize in their previous work, it’s that they were too often written in unison with the guitar, which can be a very effective sound but when done in excess ends up feeling like a waste of the potential each instrument provides (something we went into at great length into our look at the saxophone’s use in metal). On Stranger Heads Prevail, however, all three are really given their own identity and places to shine beyond solos. The delicate horn-laden opening to “A Wolf In Cheap Clothing” is a perfect setup for what’s to come, and they continue provide the perfect amount of tension and counterpoint to Marrano’s melodies and Monda’s riffs. “Need More Input” represents a smoother side to the band seen at a couple of points on Maps but never so effectively, and much of that is thanks to the integral support from the sax/trumpet duo, as well as violin, especially when it shifts into a classically “exotic” Im7-bIIM7 progression about 2/3 of the way through. And the intro to “Psychopomp” could easily be mistaken for a Jaga Jazzist track with its staccato and frenetic horn and string lines. This is the true hallmark of a band continuing to grow as songwriters and one that elevates their unconventional instrumentation from a novelty to integral to their being.
Lastly, and much to the credit of Evil Ink Records and all involved in the orchestration of this album, the production is the ark on which all this promise is delivered home. Such a wide variety of instruments, such a range of vocal timbres and distorted tones, requires mastery at the production level. Here, Thank You Scientist easily bring that to the table. Everything is crystal clear and yet still possessive of its own personality and sound, something which if often lost in the desire for separation and crispness. One need look no further than the bass tone for an example. It is constantly there, in the background as a bass instrument should be but somehow also in the front with the rest of the arrangement. Its voice is robust yet smooth, present yet wholly supportive, never once taking over places where it doesn’t belong. It lends the album, through the incredible mix and mastering job performed on it, an inescapable cohesion.
And that’s where we’d like to end this review: cohesion. Every force in musical theory, every principle in how the modern listener consumes his music, was bent against Stranger Heads Prevail. The pitfalls were countless, traps laid at every corner. This album could have easily been bloated, messy, unclear, directionless, lost in the towering, monumental presence of their previous release and the understandable need to compete with it. Instead, it is a magnificent and self confident iteration on what’s come before it, a cohesive unit made up of phenomenal and unique musicians. Via tight composition, self-awareness, restraint, and masterful production, Stranger Heads Prevail takes the disparate tastes that are Thank You Scientist and makes of them a melange. Roll it across your tongue; give it time to linger in your ear. Parse and separate the different tastes as you listen but feel how they blend into a heady, intoxicating, full bodied taste on your tongue and then drink deep of the jazzy, pop, metal, progressive elixir which Thank You Scientist have brewed for us.