The Tea Club – Grappling

The Tea Club - Grappling

The Tea Club‘s Quickly Quickly Quickly was probably the finest progressive rock album released in 2012, and I made no effort to hide my enthusiasm for it. In my eyes, they merged the modern with the traditional par perfection on that album. They did for me what most others couldn’t; that is, prove that traditional 70s prog could be harnessed to suit a cutting-edge sound. More exciting that was possibly the fact that The Tea Club showed earnest potential to be one of the few from the progressive rock underground who could possibly earn serious attention from beyond the close-knit prog scene that’s mustered together as the years have gone by. Like the best parts of The Mars Volta and The Dear Hunter were paired up with the pastoral warmth of Genesis and cerebral overload of Gentle Giant, there was plenty of reason to feel excited for this band, even if (no, especially if) a listener had spent most of their lives listening to the style already.

So yeah. With Quickly Quickly Quickly, I thought relatively widespread attention might be on the trajectory for The Tea Club. I no longer think that about the band come Grappling. This has nothing at all to do with the false assumption The Tea Club are somehow less deserving of accolades than before. Nor will I say that Grappling is a completely new ballgame for the band I’ve called the best working band in US prog rock. No. For what it’s worth, Grappling is an intense continuation of the band’s sound. They have never sounded this dense and harrowing. If it was even somehow possible (apparently it is) the musicianship on Grapplingmakes the frantic instrumentation on Q3‘s “Firebears” almost sound soothing by comparison. It should be stated before anything else that The Tea Club have unleashed another masterpiece here, and it doesn’t even fall short when compared to the modern classic that preceded it.

Yet The Tea Club have still distanced themselves from widespread success on this one, now probably moreso than ever. They’ve moved towards ever-increasingly complex and vintage territory, most likely to the glee of self-proclaimed proggers and the chagrin of everyone else. It’s an interesting thing, really; I would usually peg a retrogressive 1970s revival as being inherently tame compared to something new, but The Tea Club have managed to sound more challenging than ever as their sound becomes more vintage. The result of which is an intensely multi-layered album that doesn’t give itself up easily to a listener. Grappling is another amazing album from these guys, and even if it has more of its foot in the traditional than I’ve heard from them before, it is most certainly fresh new ground the band is exploring here.

Comparisons with the old guard only do so little in the case of modern reviews, but I would like to say how much I felt reminded of Gentle Giant throughout listening to GrapplingThe Tea Club are easily more emotionally in touch here than Gentle Giant ever were, but I imagine a similar creative process of trying to build up each arrangement to the absolute brim. Compare that to Q3 or even Rabbit, where the prog rock fireworks were moderated by a subtle pop tendency. I wouldn’t say The Tea Club‘s fundamental songwriting approach is much different than its been on past records, but as composers and arrangers, it’s another game entirely. Even on the most pastoral and pop-oriented track “The Fox in the Hole”, The Tea Club are continuously trying to test the boundaries of how much density they can get away with.

The overwhelming complexity isn’t a good or bad thing on its own but it does largely define the experience of Grappling, especially when it’s set up in comparison with the band’s past work. I will say that I am glad I’ve given the album as much time and patience as I have. Some technically-inclined music reveals itself immediately, but there is little instant gratification here. Even if you’re a prog veteran, be unsurprised if the first few listens leave you cold. On the first listen, I certainly knew I was listening to something great, but wasn’t feeling it the same way the first spin of Q3 left me on my ass. Sure enough, repeated listens start bringing sense to Grappling. “The Fox in the Hole” and “The Magnet” probably stand out as personal favourites, if only for the fact they remind me most of Q3. Amid the constant pyrotechnics, it’s an added accomplishment that each of the six labyrinths here has a character of their own. “Dr. Abraham”, for instance, is hectic and angular. “The Magnet” has a quirky optimism, whereas “The White Book” sounds desolate by comparison.

Do I really endorse the increasingly complex, proggy direction The Tea Club are going down? Even loving Grappling as much as I do, I’m not sure I have an answer to that. Suffice to say, it offers its own experience that is distinct– though not separate– from their past achievements, with all the pros and cons that come with an artist’s evolution. At the end of the day, I think it’s just inspiring to hear a band play to the absolute limits of their abilities. And considering I can think of few in progressive music today that play together as well as The Tea Club, that is saying a lot.

Tracklist:

1. The Magnet (6:07)
2. Remember Where You Were (7:43)
3. Dr. Abraham (8:11)
4. The Fox in the Hole (4:45)
6. Wasp in a Wig (6:16)
7. The White Book (9:57)

Line-up:

* Patrick McGowan – vocals, guitar
* Dan McGowan – vocals, guitar
* Jamie Wolff – bass, violin, cello
* Reinhardt McGeddon  - keyboards
* Tony Davis – drums

Links:

http://digital.theteaclub.net

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