Satan’s Hollow, Manchester
Saturday, 22nd February 2020
I have a confession, it is less than a year since I discovered the energetic jazzy prog stylings of Thank You Scientist (TYS) (they’ve been around since 2009). Now since my musical taste has a bias more towards progressive metal acts such as Dream Theater, Mastodon and Tool, rather than the traditional progressive rock of Marillion, Gentle Giant or Caravan, I think anyone familiar with tonight’s headline act will agree that the fast-paced, musically-saturated fusion of genre’s that Thank You Scientist produce is right in my musical sweet spot, despite lacking in ‘heavy metal’ appeal.
Naturally, when I heard that the band’s UK/Europe tour would mean a gig in Manchester, I leapt at the opportunity to see them in the flesh. Add in support acts Lost In Lavender Town (LILT) and Exploring Birdsong and there’s the promise of beloved music as well as the opportunity to broaden my listening horizons. It was also my first opportunity to go to a show at Satan’s Hollow, in itself a unique venue, at least to me.
Before sharing my impression of the acts, I want to share my experience of the venue, for those that haven’t had the opportunity to go to Satan’s Hollow: it is no concert hall.
I believe tonight’s penultimate show on the seven-gig stretch of the UK leg of their tour was TYS’s first foray into the North West’s largest city. The size of the venue likely indicates a smaller following than they would expect elsewhere, but it’s a following that can only grow, based on the quality of performance delivered on the night.
As the venue’s name suggests, the interior aims to evoke the lair of His Eternal Darkness with cave-like stonework covering the venue and other small touches that keep with the theme. Small touches like blood-red support beams with agonised faces protruding from them. Small touches like a giant, red Satan welcoming you into the venue.
The fantastic thing about Satan’s Hollow as a venue, besides the Prince of Darkness’ loving arms enveloping one and all, is for sure the ground-level circular stage in the centre of the venue.
As a venue that holds a few hundred souls, this setting allows for a huge amount of crowd interaction, and this was showcased at tonight’s well-attended show. With privileged position right in front of front-man Salvatore Marrano, I enjoyed having the artists at eye level to me, and it seemed that the performers enjoyed the change from being elevated on a stage. It didn’t take long for Sal to make an admiring comment acknowledging the venue’s layout.
However, as with many smaller venue, gigs and audiophiles never seem to mix, with venues always preferring their speakers pushed to limits, at the sacrifice of bandwidth. Sadly, the night’s great casualty was the opening act with three overdriven guitars all vying for that mid-range. More on that…
Lost In Lavender Town
The show was opened by Stoke-on-Trent based progressive metal six-piece Lost In Lavender Town. Though I was unfamiliar with the instrumental band, it was quickly apparent that they boast technical skill to spare and wore their John Petrucci inspirations proudly, with at least one signature Petrucci Music Man on stage.
From the opening track (which I regrettably didn’t arrive in time for) to the closing track Gigi, LILT showcased their complex, tight, high-energy drumming while a trio of guitars delivered an onslaught of riffage, although they suffered from sub-par sound, which hid what would have been a technical bass performance, but which I won’t blame them for.
However it was regrettable, the fact that I could see fast-paced tapping solos, followed by impressive sweeping arpeggios from the three axe-men, but sadly all I heard was muffled noise.
Nonetheless, LILT provided excellent stage presence and delivered an on-point performance full of confidence, despite sound issues spoiling a well-delivered and professional show in a fun venue. Fortunately, the acts that followed had no such issues.
From first impressions, it’s apparent that LILT belong to a group of heavier progressive music acts that see vocals as distracting from their virtuoso-proficient playing (see: Scale The Summit, Animals As Leaders and Plini), and I’d be inclined to agree.
Rob – Bass
Jard – Drums
Jono – Keys
Bowe – Guitar
Muni – Guitar
Rowan – Guitar
Exploring Birdsong next took to the stage and their elegant piano and bass-driven pop sound provided the perfect contrast to the technical heavy metal that had preceded them. Haunting songwriting blended with melodic vocals, with additional harmonies provided by two backing singers took the performance to another level.
What was apparent was how Exploring Birdsong are influenced by more traditional progressive rock acts, and delivered a tight performance that let their intelligent, emotionally driven music shine through. A smaller line-up made up of a core trio of vocals, drums, bass and two keys, with keyboard duties shared. Exploring Birdsong lack a guitarist has absolutely no impact on the quality of music they were able to deliver. A testament to the band’s prog rock influences, I understand vocalist Lyndsey recently lent her talents to the upcoming (in May 2020) Caligula’s Horse release for a cover of a Peter Gabriel’s Don’t Give Up.
While their whole set, though cut short due to vocalist Lynsey’s illness, was praiseworthy, special mention needs to go out to bassist/keyboardist Johnny Knight who played an expert showcased of dexterous fingerwork, while not being flashy and boasting a tone that was on point and able to cut through the mix effortlessly.
Lynsey Ward – Vocals, Keyboards
Matt Harrison – Drums
Jonny Knight – Bass, Keyboards
Thank You Scientist
I had filled myself up with anticipation as TYS were setting up to begin. Slowly the centre circle filled with instruments, beginning with the drum set that was being shared by the three bands for the evening, then guitars, as one expects, including a fretless guitar which Monda utilises on occasion in tracks such as the title track of their latest album, Terraformer.
There was a little thrill of seeing a trumpet and saxophone placed in their respective home; exciting to see but a core part of the TYS sound. Then came a few hints of songs that might be played: an Electronic Wind Instrument that saxophonist Sam Greenfield has been known to utilise to bring additional flavour to his sound – is this a hint at the 10-minute instrumental behemoth Chromology? Only time would tell. Finally, as the last of the sound checks were ongoing, a theremin is brought on stage for Tom Ronda (bass) to make use of, most likely to open up with Wrinkle – an atmospheric piece that mostly serves as an introduction. It also showcases the amount of musical knowledge that is about to be showcased tonight across the line-up.
TYS began their set with the opening track of the latest album, Wrinkle, a short instrumental featuring the theremin for atmosphere. As 2019’s Terraformer begins with Wrinkle flowing seamlessly into FXMLDR, the band transition from the atmospheric intro piece to the X-Files inspired single from the album. The piece is as much of a short single as an act like TYS will put out and their performance of the track immediately invites high energy from the crowd, who join in gladly.
From there it was an opportunity to revisit older tracks from 2014’s Maps Of Non-Existent Places, specifically Blood On The Radio with its Middle Eastern-inspired brass section opening, a catchy vocal refrain that got the crowd chanting with Marrano. This was followed by the fan-favourite, Mr. Invisible from Stranger Heads Prevail and then Blue Automatic off the same release.
Five perfectly rendered tracks in and the band was warmed up for Chromology, a 10-minute Zappa-esque convoluted instrumental of copious time signature changes, strange chord progressions and solo battles between Joe Gullace on trumpet and Sam Greenfield on sax, before Tom Monda and Ben Karas would let their guitar and violin do the talking respectively. The track begins with Greenfield making complex jazz-inspired ascending and descending arpeggios on his EWI, before the rest of the band continue the song’s aural adventure.
This athletic endurance test of track allowed Marrano to rest his vocal cords.
For the entire set, Marrano delivered his tenor vocals as perfectly as could be expected, and the soaring notes he hits in each song highlight what is a physically demanding performance. In a humanising moment, Marrano made no secret that the demands of the tour were having an impact on him, apologising for needing to drink whisky as it was all he could do to ensure he was getting enough sleep between shows. I think such frankness is a testament to the amount of work professional musicians put in to please fans, and only increased the esteem that I hold touring artists in.
By now we were approaching the end of what would be a 10-song set list. Anchor and Terraformer respectively rounded off the show, both with a tight performance of all members.
As an encore TYS performed their most recent single, a cover of Eddie Murphy’s 1985 classic (?) Party All The Time to end the gig on a frenzied note, with members running all around the stage bringing more energy to an already frenzied track. The crowd responded in kind.
Finally, a fantastic show ended with a surprise – there was still time for one last song, My Famed Disappearing Act ensuring that attendees left having been assaulted with a rotation of Tom Monda’s fantastic guitar work – which boasted Monda’s trademark tapping as its intro, Marrano’s expert vocal work, Ben Kara’s sublime violin and Joe Gullace and Sam Greenfield’s brass section, all supported by frenzied yet confident and tight drum work of Joe Fadem and the basslines of Cody McCorry. With a refrain along the lines of:
It sure was fun, the times we all had”
It was a fitting way to end the show before the audience dispersed into a rainy Manchester night.
One standout note about TYS; the method of their songwriting allows each instrument its own chance to shine, meaning that there was no competing for acoustic bandwidth in tonight’s setting, despite the band being a seven-piece
Thank You Scientist deserve credit for delivering a performance that had minimal sound quality issues due to the band composing their music to allow each instrument to showcase itself without causing any sonic overload in smaller venues, while it certainly can’t hurt that each instrument specialises in a different section of the acoustic spectrum.
Throughout their performance, Salvatore kept the crowd engaged with flowing banter – that offered fantastic Mancunian banter in return. He made the most of the stage set up to jump over the fence and run into the crowd, and even managed to wish one member of the crowd a happy birthday. I even managed to get Sal to give me a high-five at the end! Crowd interaction like what was on show tonight is not something that an audience can avail from in larger venues, and on a personal note it was inspiring to see and showed a very human side of the band, even as we were in the depths of the Devil’s realm. In my experience, it’s a rare sight to see a band work so hard to give everyone a great time. Playing progressive music is demanding work at the best of times, and artists can struggle to hide that they’re hard at work when performing such challenging music.
But I think there is another way to do it, and it could involve playing convoluted covers of Eddie Murphy singles!
03. Blood on the Radio
04. Mr. Invisible
05. Blue Automatic
07. Anchor (Written on setlist as “Shitballs”)
09. Party All the Time (Eddie Murphy cover)
10. My Famed Disappearing Act
Salvatore Marrano – Vocals
Tom Monda – Electric Guitar, Fretless Guitar
Ben Karas – Electric Violin
Cody McCorry – Bass, Theremin
Joe Fadem – Drums
Sam Greenfield – Saxophone, Electric Wind Instrument
Joe Gullace – Trumpet
Images courtesy of Manchester Rocks and Anthony Firmin.
Pana Markides is a long-time fan of progressive rock music through the ages. When not listening to Thick As A Brick for the umpteenth time, he is the editor of The Hard Baroquer, a music blog for home musicians.