Ah, expectations! What a terrible and unavoidable burden. Expectations color pretty much everything we do; whether we like it or not, our brains are wired into creating an image of a thing before we perceive it and then measuring the actuality of that thing against it (do you hear that? As if millions of philosophers suddenly cried out in terror). With music, these expectations can doubly as potent, as they have the potential to completely reshape our enjoyment of it. Did it meet my expectations? Did it meet it too much? Did it subvert my expectations? Did it subvert them properly? All of these, and much more, come into play when listening to new music. Therefore, the lie of objective reviews is just, a lie. Music is an art form and, while it certainly contains objective parameters, is inherently something experienced between the artist and the listener, and shaped by both sides of that equation.
This is even more powerful with music you love, a new album or track from an artist that’s engraved on your soul. Seeing as Thank You Scientist is one of my all time favorite bands, a band downright important to my well-being and mental health, there is absolutely no way I could have produced an “objective” review, even if I wanted to. The fact of the matter is, I know every piece of Maps of Non-existent Places and Stranger Heads Prevail by heart. The first forms the blueprint of what has become to be the staple of Thank You Scientist; even though it is preceded by one release, it’s where their work with Evil Ink Records began and where many, including myself, were introduced to their sound. Stranger Heads Prevail which followed it is is also a blueprint, a blueprint for how Thank You Scientist deviate from, tweak, and augment their own sound. It’s a different beast than Maps, less youthful and raw and thus more incisive and accurate.
So, where to Terraformer? Or, more precisely, will Thank You Scientist stick to the “blueprint of deviation” which Stranger presented? Will they go back to their earlier sound? One thing is for sure: the band has proved that we can’t anticipate them and that expectations are doomed to be ignored, Where then will this band, arguably at the peak of their career, with live shows, music videos, singles, and shenanigans enjoying wide popularity, go next? The answer, in the form of Terraformer, appears to be “pretty much everywhere at once”. Terraformer clocks in at just under an hour and a half. During its run-time, it includes more “classic” Thank You Scientist sounds but also a weird, dark, electronic break a la Venetian Snares, far more cheesy violin segments, one slightly disturbing vocal sample, and oodles and oodles of synths, brass, guitar riffs, solos, high pitched vocals, and everything else we’ve come to expect from the band.
At is core, Terraformer is very much a successor to Stranger Heads Prevail. Tracks like “Fxmldr”, “Life of Vermin”, and “Anchor” continue the bigger, smoother, more classically progressive rock influenced sound featured on their previous album. The vocals have always been one of the main threads which run through Thank You Scientist’s career, often stealing the show as far as size and volume go. On Terraformer, this has been preserved much like on previous releases. Big choruses (like the tear-jerking, power-infused, instantly relatable one on “Everyday Ghosts”), emotive screams, and an overall powerful delivery grace the vocals on Terraformer as well, lending it that unmistakable Thank You Scientist feel. Elsewhere, other fan favorites make their return. The brass instrument section is large and dominant, often playing in unison with the bass but also, naturally, unafraid to diverge on its own tangents and ideas (watch out for the saxophone solo on “Fxmdlr”). The guitars are springy and robust, channeling the same kind of exuberance that the album’s cover art sports.
In all of these regards, “Fxmldr” might be the quintessential track; fans of the band’s sound will gravitate immediately towards the second track’s big hooks and familiar fanfare, easily sweeping the listener of their feet with their verve and impact. Combine this with the regular empowering lyrics that have always accompanied the band’s work (“Surface radiates / Burning everything / We never were alone / Forever knowing this / To be true”) and the vocals through which they are delivered, and you’re all set. But as you continue further down the album, you suddenly find yourself with “Birdwatching”, a shorter track which signals the album’s first departure from solid ground and into a darker, more twisted sound for the band. The track immediately opens with lonesome synths, perhaps echoing a satellite beeping to itself in the emptiness of space. Suddenly, subdued vocals (probably the softest we’ve heard on a Thank You Scientist track) are introduced, alongside calmer brass instruments, bass, and drums while the strings sing morose above it all.
However, the real departure begins around 2:45 when the vocals fall away, the drums invert themselves into clipped, chopped up samples, sound like something out of a Clipping. track. The instruments continue in haunted forms, playing motley and macabre versions of their earlier notes. “Everyday Ghosts” beings with plucked string instruments which play into these sounds but quickly transition it back to the sounds we’ve grown to expect (there’s that word again) from the band. And therein lies the main criticism which we might levy at the album: many of the experimentations and departures on the album (like the subdued “Shatner’s Lament” or the cheesy “New Moon”) don’t really “connect” with the rest of the album. Because they are just moments of brief experimentation, they are quickly lost, swallowed in the overwhelmingly Thank You Scientist-esque sound of the other tracks. Nothing of their darkness (in the case of “Birdwatching”) or their introspection (in the case of “Shatner’s Lament”) or their fantastical trappings (in the case of “New Moon”) are present elsewhere on the album, a fact which leaves them as novelties and nothing much more.
There’s honestly so much more music on this album that, if we attempted to describe it, we could easily write a few more thousand words. But that’s unnecessary and the beauty about running your own blog is that you don’t have to do anything. You’re not my real dad, etc. Therefore, we can start wrapping up this already too long review by saying that Terraformer is a worthy addition to the Thank You Scientist discography but perhaps “just” that: worthy. It recreates the beloved Thank You Scientist, in some cases even meeting the power of the adored, canonical, and by-now personal tracks from previous releases. But where it tries to explore a new direction for the band, it only succeeds in perhaps charting out possible new paths, gesturing vaguely at “over there” and quickly sketching a brief description of what a different Thank You Scientist might sound like. None of these new ideas are explored fully and make the album excessively long and, at times, awkwardly paced. Perhaps their release as an EP, alongside a few other such ideas, would have been more elegant. As it stands, they leave Terraformer often diluted and a bit confused.
But hey, who says you have to focus on those preliminary explorations? If you’d prefer to just bask in more massively satisfying vocal hooks, big guitar riffs, progressive shenanigans, and all the goddamn brass instruments your heart desires, then there is still no band that scratches those itches like Thank You Scientist. Despite its shortcomings, Terraformer is still a romp and a half, delivering the kind of bright, emotional, technical, and overwhelming prog that Thank You Scientist are known for. “Chromology”, with its technical experimentation and glitter, the moving choruses of “Anchor”, the relatable outcry for self-expression and worth of “Everyday Ghosts”, and so much more make this album yet another powerful exploration of Thank You Scientist’s exceptional and unique sound.
Terraformer was released on June 14th via Evil Ink Records. You can head on over to the Bandcamp page above to grab it!