- Theatrical Vocal Approach
New Jersey-based proggers The Tea Club first caught my attention with the release of Quickly Quickly Quickly, album that featured what was, in my opinion, one of the best compositions of the year in the entire prog scene: “Firebears.” The frantic playing and smart composition really fascinated me, and while the young band certainly showed room for growth and maturity, how far they had gotten at that point was already astonishing and most certainly promised more. Enter 2015 and the release of Grappling. Quite honestly, this record caught me a bit off guard at first. While it is recognizeably The Tea Club, the band has taken huge strides in their ability to produce dense and complex composition. So much so that it became very evident that this album would take many listens in order to really get it. When I did, the result was a very satisfying record.
“The Magnet” ends up being a great choice for an opener on Grappling. Full on contrapuntal synth and guitar lines lead to a catchy vocal line that quickly makes me say, “wait… is this Peter Gabriel singing?” I don’t want to be the one who judges bands in relation to most typical (or stereotypical) bands in the genre, but I just wanted to get this out of the way: McGowen can channel some serious Gabriel (but an upgraded version imho), and fully exploits it for loads of thrilling theatricality on the record. Well, now that I have comparisons out of the way, back to the song. “The Magnet” is, quite simply, a killer track. The vocal lines are memorable and fun while juxtoposing perfectly with the densely arranged lines of the band. The instrumental section really delivers and shows a band that is committed to balance between instruments in a world of composition where everyone is really having a lot of fun. Moving basslines, wild drums, and dueling synths/guitars all have a place here leading up to the final iteration of the chorus which slows down for a grandiose closure.
The next tracks up, “Remember Where You Are” and “Dr. Abraham,” two moving pieces that make the human element the center of attention. “Remember Where You Are” brings a powerful sense of mystery to the table with ambient synths and pounding bass that widens into a very chill, keyboard driven verse. I think it’s this song where we really recognize the impact of the presence of the newly found McGeddon on keyboards, bringing a deeper focus on making sure there is no part of the sonic-canvas left untouched as it fills with more and more organ and synth lines. The real treat though is the over the top theatricality in the Hammond drenched middle section of the track just prior to the instrumental interlude. This theatrical flavor continues on, and is perfected, on the next track, “Dr Abraham.” The musings of a man in an asylum becomes the perfect setting for deranged thoughts and interpretive vocals, and The Tea Club hits the nail right on the head with this one. The lyrics are incredible as the band explores the chaotic corners of the human mind while masterfully creating a mood that is both delicate and uneasy through dark melodies, subtle and complex rhythms, and doomy, heavy riffs augmented by huge drum fills. “Dr. Abraham” is not a piece to be trifled with; it represents one The Tea Club’s absolute achievements in creating a gripping piece of music that is all too human.
The next two pieces offer a well-thought-out change of pace. After the crushing dynamics of “Dr. Abraham,” “Fox in a Hole” comes as a bit of a emotional relaxation period with the intertwining lines of violin, guitar, and keys. Dreamy, quirky, and catchy, “Fox in a Hole” takes us on a pretty straightforward ride structurally, but can’t help but drop us off in the end with a bit of an avant-garde section before. “Wasp in a Wig,” on the other hand, presents everything from optimistic to melancholy and even triumphant on the musical end while tackling a lyrical concept of abandon. Starting off with some calm rock that breaks into piano at about a minute, the music is almost suddenly reduced to a lonely bass line and light percussion. From hear we move toward a somber vocal line as pensive and uncertain keyboard lines increase the intensity which climaxes with the powerful line: “but good will works go unnoticed and darkness will find.” Suddenly, there is an eruption of uplifting melody, representing a huge shift in mood, as well a nearly repentant turn in character monologue which moves us towards a brief instrumental section full of deranged riffing. An eventual follow up of the main refrain prior to a gentle instrumental outro made uncertain through staggering percussion and loads of atmosphere makes for quite a nice way to end a well thought out piece full of meaningful contradictions on all fronts.
Although Grappling doesn’t offer any epics of gargantuan proportions like its predecessor, that doesn’t mean that the album doesn’t go out with a bang. The album closer, “The White Book” gives us the full gamut of prog, opening with a steady, but emotive vocal line that alternates with synth choirs before slowly building with the addition of a cool Hammond line and a subtle change to double time on the high hat before an eruption of sound as the full band finally turns it up with soaring melodies. This leads the listener into another vocal section that is full on power under the steady pounding of kick drum before a sudden, but beautiful break when a massive fill leads to a sudden dynamic change and a light, nostalgic, vocal is flanked by guitar and keyboard melodies over minimal percussion. A decrescendo leads into a few brief moments of ambiance that swells into an uplifting cloud of sound, hailing in a dreamy/psychedelic feast that grows into a powerful train of sound forging ahead under soaring vocals before returning to the familiar synth choirs of the opening with a twist; sick drumbeats and acoustic guitars make for a powerful closing.
Would I recommend The Tea Club’s latest to my buddies? You betcha. Grappling is a sincere album showcasing well thought out composition and lyrics that deserves the time and attentive listening that prog fans know how to offer.