Modern progressive rock is often times a balancing act between past and present. Often times, the question is: Can you reproduce the magic of the late ’60s-early ’70s progressive rock music without sounding too derivative, or maybe better put, can you be both progressive, without being retrogressive? The Tea Club, hailing from New Jersey, manages to strike the perfect balance between the innovation and artistry and unpredictability of bands like Genesis and Yes and King Crimson, and the modern sounds of bands like The Dear Hunter and The Mars Volta.
Grappling begins with the song ‘The Magnet’, an unabashedly progressive song with dashes of folk and an extremely catchy chorus. You immediately notice a couple of things with this track: First, there is a lot going on. The keys and guitars weave in and out of a complex and busy melody- almost like a New Orleans brass band. Secondly, as soon as the vocal line kicks in, it’s hard not to notice the strength of the vocals. Patrick McGowan’s vocals have the almost sylvan, folk-ish characteristics of Ian Anderson in this track. The chorus features the tight harmonies that are one of the bands’ greatest strengths, and the dual melodies have that tonal match that is rarely achieved by people who aren’t siblings.
‘Remember Where You Were’ is one of the best representations of how to achieve the balance between progressive rock past and future. The song starts off with subdued instrumentation and evocative, pastoral lyrics, evocative of Genesis or early King Crimson. The song evolves into a highly polyphonous war of instruments, all capped by the McGowan brothers’ epic vocal stylings, which range from sweet to ferocious as they both croon and shout pitched screams (“seismic battle cries!”).
On ‘Dr. Abraham’, The Tea Club take on a more sinister, wild tone. While the song shares some consistent characteristics of the other tracks ( such as the instrumental busyness of ‘The Magnet’) the ominous and wicked lyrics and discordant melodies are reminiscent of some of the darker prog-rock acts of the seventies: a Red-era Crimson, Van Der Graff generator type vibe, but with more of a mischievous tone than an evil one. ‘Fox in a Hole’ is a pleasant jaunt, though slightly meandering in parts (likely intentionally so), with lovely interweaving harmonies throughout.
If I were to play a song for a friend that encapsulates The Tea Club’s ethos, ‘Wasp in a Wig’ would be the one. The song starts out with a contemplative guitar and troubadour-like lyrics that are halted by a slower instrumental section. When I listen to music, I listen for brilliant moments that take me by surprise. At around 2:06, the piano and drums have a rhythmic exercise where they start with a stilted rhythm that speeds up incrementally, until the piano and snare both explode into rhythmic madness and a completely unrestrained and epic midsection. As a progressive rock fan and a musician, I live for these types of moments that just sort of hit you by surprise. But it happens AGAIN as the track nears a close: the McGowan brothers launch into a madrigal like vocal line a la Gentle Giant, only to let the song end in a mellow haze. The final song on the album, ‘The White Book’, could have been a lost Gabriel-era Genesis track. But don’t let that make you think it is derivative- it still has The Tea Club’s unique stamp of oddity that makes it gorgeous and theatrical and eccentric.
Needless to say, Grappling is an album that infuriates me- mainly because I heard it for the first time months after it was released, and I was angry that I had gone several months without hearing it. In a way, The Tea Club manage to create completely new and original sounds, using the template of the progressive greats that came before them. Each of their albums are unique and brilliant, but with Grappling, The Tea Club has set the bar high for their future output, and I am very excited to hear what comes next.