Tea Club The Grappling Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothGrappling succeeds Quickly, Quickly, Quickly as another refined work in The Tea Club’s expanding library.

Artist: The Tea Club
Label: independent
Time: 6 Tracks / 44:00 minutes

If you resurrected Poe and Lovecraft, gave them guitars and synthesizers and called them a band, then set them loose on the world, you probably still wouldn’t get a cast of characters as unique, twisted, and fantastical as Dr. Abraham, Simon Magus, The Eternal German Infant, and Big Al.  New Jersey gem The Tea Club, on the other hand, continue to do just that.  They return once again to the progressive/post-rock arena with their fourth studio album, Grappling, the followup to 2012’s Quickly, Quickly, Quickly.  Released just yesterday, this album retains all the haunting elements that have defined the act since their debut: dark but beautiful melodies that soar above a colorful medley of interlocking orchestrations, fantastic lyrics, and complex rhythmic elements.

Another defining element of The Tea Club – unfortunate or otherwise – is that they are one of those bands with an ever-changing lineup.  The brothers McGowan represent the only remaining founding members, and are now joined by Jamie Wolff (who joined up after Quickly, Quickly, Quickly), new drummer Dan Monda, and keyboardist Joe Dorsey.  For the recording of Grappling, while the lineup was in flux, session drummer Tony Davis filled in on the kit, and Reinhardt McGeddon – who also performed on the band’s previous release – once again added additional keyboards.  Perhaps due in part to these personnel changes, Grappling features a more prominent synth presence than have previous Tea Club releases – a change that perhaps began with McGeddon’s work on Quickly, Quickly, Quickly and carried over.  This is not quite a departure from an earlier style per se, but an enhancement of a tool the band didn’t fully utilize: where their keys work in the past was largely peripheral or textural (even on Rabbit, which featured keys wizard Tom Brislin), Grappling is another step away from guitar-based compositions towards more rounded instrumentation.

Thematically, the album is a disjointed dramatis personae – a loose cast of characters whose macabre stories border the fringes of reality.  The series begins with “The Magnet”: gorgeous, prototypical Tea Club material that still manages to feel like new territory.  Frenetic yet harmonic guitar work kicks the track immediately into high gear, a sound that is at once reminiscent of early General Winter’s material as well as derivative of something Mars Volta or Minus the Bear: calculated, melodic chaos with a ragged edge.  Significant keys and synth both keep feet planted solidly in the album’s foreground.  After the intensity of Magnet,” “Remember Where You Were’s” ethereal, keys-based opening seems to float and lilt and meander – even as the rich McGowan (x2) vocal work ascends above the mix.  This track’s instrumentation is primarily synth, organ, and other miscellaneous keyboard patches sitting atop drums and accompanied by loose guitar parts – until the 5:15-minute mark, that is, when some nicely orchestrated harmonic synth-and-guitar work occurs, undergirded by Davis’ heavy-footed double bass.

“Dr. Abraham” is the darkest overall track on the album.  Actually, it’s one of the darkest tunes The Tea Club have yet produced, which is saying something.  “Abraham” achieves this status thanks in part to its ominous instrumentation – growling guitars, tenuous strings, quirky glockenspiel-esque synth parts, rumbling bass that moves as a brooding undercurrent beneath the mix – and also to the desperate, pleading lyrics of a presumed madman presenting signs of “demonopathy” and held in the “bleached walls” of an asylum.  Dan McGowan’s dynamic vocal performance channels Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), particularly on the half-whispered segments.  Just before the 5:00-minute mark, the song takes a brief repose in a tenuous instrumental segment, building by measure into the final explosive refrain.

“The Fox in a Hole” kicks of with Wolff’s rustic fiddle and some twangy guitar, a stark contrast to the grinding darkness of the previous track.  The tune’s gentle and autumnal 6/8 sway initially feels pastoral, but moves into quirkier, almost carnival-esque orchestration, prior to its halfway point.  Grappling’s second to last track, “A Wasp in a Wig,” was previously released on a live EP way back in 2011.  As far as structure is concerned, not much has changed, though the instrumentation and vocal work on the album version is much more dense.  The EP rendition had the feel of a not-quite-finished demo; Grappling delivers a fully-fledged (fully-wigged) “Wasp.”  The breakdown at 1:10-minutes does some especially neat things with keys, vocals, and guitars, culminating with a dissonant, chromatic climax and a bold synth solo.  The remainder of the strong instrumental segment is a complete facelift of the original tune, featuring more rhythmic complexity and nuanced instrumentation.

Grappling’s most dynamic composition is its final song, “The White Book.”  Clocking in just under 10:00 minutes, this is the album’s longest piece, partly due to some complex instrumental sections and also to lots of intentional, atmospheric space.  The first 2:00 minutes are a tedious build into a powerful theme that unfortunately does not recur anywhere else in the song.  The second “chapter” of the Book offers a high-intensity refrain, then returns to the lilting orchestration of its opening minutes.  The lattermost section, kicking into gear at the 6:35-minute mark, is where the song gets truly interesting, but none of the ideas introduced here connect back to its initial melodies.  The lush acoustic guitar work which takes the song to its conclusion represents quality musicianship and provides a different texture, but doesn’t give me the strong conclusion I expected.  Ultimately, “The White Book” is my only complaint about this otherwise stellar album: the song is several excellent but unrelated musical ideas, stitched together without anything to unify them.  I really, really like everything it does, but still feel as though the composition is an underdeveloped epic with unfulfilled potential.

Despite what that opinion might suggest, I think this album is superb.  It has quality writing with thoughtful musicianship throughout, and is supremely entertaining.  Together with Quickly, Quickly, Quickly, this lattermost pair of thought-provoking Tea Club releases has resonated with me a good deal.  Like its forerunner, Grappling demonstrates the band’s maturing songwriting ability as well as their defined musical persona, and I’d rank it somewhere in my top ten of the year.

Justin Carlton