If the previous 58 posts have mainly been about looking back, and – perhaps – the last one might look forward at least a little, then I think this one should look around.
This album came out in 2016, like the last two, but I came to it a little later; it’s only been stuck in my head for a couple of years. In fact, now I think about it, it’s one of my pandemic albums. Stuck behind this desk for the majority of time while the whole world got sick, I did break up the endless hours of staring at screens by trying out some new music, as well as listening to a lot of old music, which is probably where the idea for this whole thing came from, to be honest.
If I take March of 2020 as a pause in life, I might ask myself “where am I now?” If you’ve been following the autobiographical parts of this journey (and I don’t blame you if you’ve just been skipping to the bits where I talk about the music each week), then you’ll have noticed that I (and we, for a large part of the story) have been something of a wanderer. I started the story in Aberdeen, but that was already the third house I’d lived in, as I first heard (and heard of) the Beatles when we lived in Essex, in a place we all fondly called Upminster, but which was in fact Cranham.
From Aberdeen, I lived in Edinburgh, then various bits of Inverness, Perth, Tring, Watford, Edlesborough, Prince George, and now – am I saying finally? – Victoria.
I think we’re settled here. I’m pretty sure we’ll move house again at some point, but I doubt we’ll move far. The career I thought I’d abandoned in my early forties has returned, and while I keep trying out the word ‘retirement’, I don’t think it suits me just yet. As I nudge against 60, I find myself planning what the next few qualifications I’d like to get might be; I actually like being the old-timer in the room, but I also like being the old-timer who says things like “I don’t know, but I’m going to teach myself how”
Some things have come full circle: I’ve mentioned several times already that I buy and listen to vinyl albums (and the odd single) almost as much as I did during my fevered teenage years, when there was nothing else to distract me, and I spent whole days just watching the black plastic revolve around the spindle while I tried to figure out exactly what the words were.
Some things just passed: I couldn’t tell you the last time I listened to a cassette (musicassette: did I do that one?), and I haven’t borrowed music from a library in probably 25 years. I also haven’t bought a CD in over a decade, although they have not passed entirely out of my life: my father recently died, and I retrieved a selection of his CD collection and have spent many happy hours converting them to digital files while I consider what to do with the physical objects, which I don’t think I ever bonded with the way I did with albums or books.
There’s probably an essay there somewhere about how the CD was a triumph og function over form, and how the form is just no appealing enough, although maybe I’m just a generation too old to get nostalgic about jewel cases and tiny inserts you can’t quite read.
And, of course, a great many things have arrived, and show no sign of passing into history just yet. Had I started this exercise when, let’s say, Trilogy came out and first caused me to obsess over an album, I’d have had to borrow my mother’s elderly manual typewriter to put my thoughts down – I doubt I’d have handwritten it; one of the few drawbacks of being left-handed is that my childhood handwriting was generally smudged and hard to read, even for me.
I’ll pause to let you consider that all this time, I’ve been left-handed, and you didn’t notice…
Today, of course, I’m sitting at my well-appointed, if rather over-large, desk with all the electronic wizardry money can buy at my disposal. I could, if I wanted, break off from doing this on my PC and pick up again on my expensive Macbook in another room, or even another location entirely. If the urge took me, and I don’t know why it would, I could even do this on my phone.
When the time comes to listen to this week’s album of choice, I can do so in splendid isolation, listening through noise-cancelling headphones to a crystal-clear digital copy, a vinyl original or reissue as appropriate (well, not this week), or to a copy supplied by a streaming service. I don’t have to share my music with anyone if I don’t want to –
Let me rephrase that. I don’t have to share my music with anyone if they don’t want me to, and I can hear all the subtleties and nuances of a track exactly as the band, the producer or the recording engineer intended.
I can listen anywhere, react anywhere, and post these essays from anywhere, but I don’t, and this is what I mean by “where am I now?”
I am now in an incredibly fortunate place – all those things I mention up there are the product of a privileged and comfortable lifestyle, however much I like to moan about the bills. What I like to think I’ve learned from my sixty years of getting to this point is that while it’s possible to consume and produce on the go; to never take a pause to reflect and simply keep moving forward, I don’t think it’s healthy or even helpful.
I don’t mean that “everything was better when I was a kid; we made our own entertainment, and the only thing which might distract you from the album you were listening to was the text on the sleeve” – I delight in (almost) all the things technology has brought us; it’s just that, if this exercise has taught me anything, or reinforced anything for me, it’s that there is value in slowing down, stopping to listen; stopping to read, and stepping back from time to time from the ubiquitous black mirrors which we peer into all day, hoping to see ourselves reflected in some meaningful way.
Which is to say that where I am now is a place where I am able to put on an album – an old favourite or something brand new – close my eyes and listen. Perhaps not in the same way I used to; I’d suggest that the sound is better, the seat is more comfortable, and there’s less banging on the walls; but I’d say that the 11-year-old me who heard Trilogy all those years ago would recognise the way I listen to music now, and I like to think he’d approve of me returning to the act of actively seeking out new things.
I first heard of Thank You Scientist (I know; you were wondering which of the phrases up there was the band name) because I have accepted that the music I enjoy above all other forms of 20th century rock music is the much-maligned genre known as Progressive Rock. I have, perhaps, come to this realisation later in life than I should have, but I do take pride in the fact that it doesn’t in any way preclude me from liking all kinds of other things.
Because I’m interested in Prog, I seek out like-minded souls on the internet to see what I can learn from them, and a name which kept coming up in those discussions was Thank You Scientist. In deciding to see what the fuss was about, I felt in fairly safe hands; over the last few years, I’ve been steered towards a number of bands, some on this list, others – like The Mars Volta, Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Anathema, The Pineapple Thief, and Slowdive (OK, one of these bands is not like the others) – which might easily have been on this list but for the fact I had to make a cut somewhere.
Here’s how I dip a toe into new music these days, since I don’t have to go to my local record store (of which there are many) and buy something in the hope it will be good; I fire up Spotify (other streaming services are available), and I look at which tracks are the most popular.
Now, there’s a trick to this, which you might not know about, so here’s your fun fact for the day: in trying to find the most popular tracks for an artist on Spotify, ignore any which are the first track of an album or compilation. A significant proportion of those listens will be by people who started to listen, then realised they didn’t like it.
When looking for popular albums, however, you are generally on safer ground – the ones marked ‘popular albums’ generally will reflect listener taste, although this can also be skewed by re-releases and remixes – currently, the most popular Beatles album appears to be the recent soundtrack to the rooftop performances from the ‘Get Back’ project.
Anyway, Thank You Scientist – I sought a couple of tracks, liked what I heard, and bought myself a digital copy of the Stranger Heads Prevail album. I think the Trilogy-obsessed version of me would have enjoyed it; there are certainly some elements he’d be familiar with, but there’s also a lot going on which he wouldn’t yet recognise. Let’s see what the nearly-but-not-quite 60 year old version of that kid sees in it…
It begins, as all good Prog albums perhaps should with a prologue: A Faint Applause leans heavily on the vocal harmonies and instrumentation of mid-seventies Queen, with some ELO-style strings for good measure. I can see me at eleven thinking this is going to be exactly his kind of album
Only to be brought up short by The Somnambulist, all trumpet, treated vocals and seemingly random time signatures. The voice eventually breaks out into its normal register, and more traditionally ‘rock’ instruments take over, but the song itself continues to unsettle; at times it seems to be reacting to Metallica’s Enter Sandman, at others, it’s teasing us with snappy chorus-like segments with trumpets providing a fanfare. The middle section allows for some rhythm section exercises, but just as yo’re settling to enjoy the funky bass and jazz drums, it takes flight again, gleefully letting us know that ‘the world you know is gone’ before coming to a stop rather like a steam train reaching the end of the line
And if that wasn’t strange enough, Caverns erupts like a 21st century Frank Zappa extravaganza, hurtling through about six different musical styles before the vocal enters, sounding spookily like the Frost* album from last week – maybe this was the sound of 2016?
Oh, and if the general skittering about between styles wasn’t discombobulating enough, it turns out to be a disturbingly frank tale of a couple contemplating an abortion, although there’s a horror-movie element to it; I don’t think for a minute that any of this should be taken at face value. There’s a breakdown which sounds as if someone’s retuned a radio, then some almost djent-like metal guitars and some ferocious drumming before a more traditional guitar solo tries to anchor us back into the real world, although I’m not convinced it does anything more than point up the otherworldliness of everytihg going on. It’s a giant cacophony of a song; one which prompts me to both want to know more and o leave it entirely shrouded in mystery.
Thankfully, Mr. Invisible kicks off with some jazz-funk stylings which that 11 year old kid would have recognised. It sounds at once like a sweet love song with brass underscoring the general mood of jollity and fun; it swings along, although it also feels like a song which could also be performed in a much darker style, and as the refrain confirms the suspicion that all is not what it seems, the distorted guitars poke their heads out to say “we’ve been here all along; you didn’t think this was some sunny ‘moon in June’ thing, did you?”
However much the darker truth tries to assert itself, however, you can’t keep the bounce and swing out of this song; it floats through some distinctly 1980s arrangements, and there’s a swinging saxophone solo where a guitar might have been. Every now and then the ghost of Frank Zappa waves at us from behind the layers of instrumentation, while the vocal carries a soaring melody line over a collapse into heavy metal, which only allows the brass to wheeze at us, defeated, in the final bar.
A Wolf in Cheap Clothing is more sparse, and offers a bit of breather at first – there are some cunning drum patterns, and a vocal line which seems to be building to something, but is in no hurry to get there.
When we do reach the chorus, it’s tempting to invoke all kinds of other bands and musicians, but here’s the thing – the band they sound like is Thank You Scientist. There are a million influences in here, including, I assume, dozens I don’t recognise, but if by this point anything sounds familiar, it’s because this is the fifth track on the album, and the soundscape has really started to assert itself. There are sections which relate to each other in inscrutable ways; a familiar mechanism now, where the important vocal lines are backed by trumpet before the guitar elements underscore the fact that the song appears to be being played in two different time signatures at once.
I like pop music, but you can’t pick it apart like this for the most part, and that to me is where the real fun exists.
There’s a sense in Blue Automatic that the instrumentation is pulling on the leash; trying to break out into open chaos, and it’s barely held together by sheer force of will, or sheer force of songwriting. This is entirely deliberate, of course, as the lyric seems to be describing a panic attack from the inside looking out. It’s jittery, nervous and stutters around a melodic centre without ever quite settling on it; there are thrilling instrumental solos before – and I may be reading too much into this – the anti-anxiety meds take over for a brief period of calm.
It doesn’t last, however – there’s a genuine sense of paranoia in this song, and it doesn’t take long for the panic to come back before the song skids to an uncertain close.
Can I just point out here that all these songs end? It’s one of those tings I like most in a well-constructed song, that the composer has taken the time to figure out how to bring it to a natural close, as the way a song ends can say so much about what’s going on with it. I’m not a fan of fadeouts, and don’t get me started on the rare song which fades in…
Anyway, back on planet Scientist, here are some of the open reverberating basslines we last heard on Hejira, and – wait; I wasn’t going to do that, was I?
Ah, there’s no point pretending that all music isn’t connected in some way. Need More Input is a song which sounds 2010s, but owes that fact to the way it pulls sounds from throughout the history of popular music from the post-war period. This one is an ‘android comes to life’ song, although it’s hard to hear the mechanical in much of this; the music on this album (and the others I’ve listened to) is intensely human, even when trying to invoke the artificial. I think I can imagine what android music might sound like (I’m getting Gary Numan), but I can’t imagine the effortless shifting between styles, influences (it goes all middle-eastern for a moment in the bridge), and especially the way the song skips between tempos, time signatures and – I think; it’s hard to keep up – key signatures. It’s frenetic and head-spinning, this track.
This whole album, really.
A sign that I’m likely to enjoy a track is that very rare occasion when I laugh out loud at the title. Rube Goldberg Variations is the kind of joke aimed squarely at my sense of humour, and I don’t think it would have mattered what it sounded like, I’d have been predisposed to like it. It turns out to be a delightfully unhinged instrumental, initially anchored on a string section which pulls it back into line each time a ‘variation’ has had its turn, but which gradually cuts loose and just does its own thing. There’s no Bach piano line here, but there’s the full flow of a band exploring their abilities, and whether it’s a jazz trumpet over a bossa nova backline, or saxophone fronting some unexpected drum and bass, or a Stephane Grappelli-like solo violin, or fuzz guitar, or a deliberate invocation of the soundtrack to a mid-seventies cop show, there’s never a dull moment. It’s nearly nine minutes long, but had it gone on all afternoon, you’d have had no complaints from me, such is the wit and invention on show here.
There’s a whole genre of music called Psychopomp, or of there isn’t, there should be. Whether it exists or not, it probably doesn’t sound like this, because this sounds like Thank You Scientist, and I have no idea how you’d make a genre out of all the colliding parts of this. I can’t even decide what it’s about (Frankenstein’s monster? Charon? Given recent events, Paddington?) but, as with all of these songs, it doesn’t matter – the joy is in the experience, and – oh, look, I’m hearing Wishbone Ash in the twinned guitars now. I really love this music, but I’m glad I had all the experience of all the other music before I came to try to unpick this. Equally, I’m happy not to unpick, just to let it wash over me while I look on, mildly baffled.
And if I celebrated all the other endings on this album, I reserved an entire paragraph for this one, as the spoken word outro, played as if it was a spirit voice from the ancient past, delivered to us via an elderly vinyl recording, reverses all the theories I’ve been working on, and removes the ‘mildly’ from my previous paragraph. Brilliant.
Penultimate track The Amateur Arsonist’s Handbook prompts me to try to imagine it as a straight rock song; there are solid verses, interesting pre-choruses, and a gloriously melodic chorus, and I think you could just about build a four-minute single out of it – I can even just about imagine it in an acapella version.
But why would you? What raises this and all the others above the ordinary are the extras – the crazed yet controlled drum fills; the electric violin solo; the hints of trumpet provoking the singer to break out of his safe range and reach for something altogether more epic; the return of the brass line at the end, and the acceleration to the crash ending.
Take a deep breath, because here comes the epilogue. Just as we began with close harmony and familiar sounds, we go out with … and the Clever Depart to give us time to calm down, return to normality so we can safely interact with the rest of the world. It, naturally echoes the Prologue, and even suggests an answer to the question posed at the beginning
If this album, or this band needs an epigram, it’s contained in this whimsical endnote:
“Too many notes for normal folk to understand.”
Their words, not mine.
My kind of band.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Considering how much I love this one, it may surprise you to know that I haven’t dug deeply into the others. Partly, I keep hoping to turn them up on vinyl somewhere (I do dislike not having a physical object to look at and hold); partly, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this album, and there’s only so much room in my brain. I’ll be going for Terraformer next, though.
Compilations to consider?
I know I keep saying this, but how could you compile this? No is the answer.
Not yet, but there are a couple of YouTube videos which suggest that a Thank You Scientist live show would be every bit as spectacular as you might imagine.
Not yet. Unless you want to try to unpick all those influences I can hear, and go back and try to find where all this came from. Frank Zappa would be a place to start if you wanted to do that…