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TRACK LIST: 1. Werewolves 6.09 2. Cool Smack 6.00 3. Big Al 6.11 4. Castle Builder 4.38 5. Purple Chukz 4.45 6. The Clincher 6.27 7. Will O' the Wisp 5.32 8. The Moon 4.41 9. Ice Clock 5.08 LINEUP: Patrick McGowan – vocals; guitar, bass Dan McGowan – vocals; guitar Kyle Minnick – drums
Prolusion. Formed in 2003 by brothers Patrick and Dan McGowan, THE TEA CLUB were originally a four-piece. However, their debut album, “General Winter’s Secret Museum”, was recorded as a trio. Bassist Becky Osenenko (a long-time friend of the band) only joined the band after the recording of the album was complete.
Analysis. In spite of numerous attempts to do so, 'modern' prog is not easy to define. Though many bands and artists around seem to have as their main purpose to imitate (though in a very proficient way) the 'classic' acts of the Seventies, as good as that vintage sound may be, calling them ‘progressive' is really a stretch. Those acts are in many ways like those artists who choose to reproduce well-known paintings, rather than create something original: though you cannot fault the technique, the actual content leaves a lot to be desired. Conversely, being genuinely progressive does not necessarily equal sounding inaccessible to all but an elite of hardcore listeners. In my personal view, the truly exciting 'modern' prog acts are those which manage to combine mainstream sensibilities with a genuine desire to present something that spells out 'individual' rather than 'derivative'. Even to a casual listener, "General Winter's Secret Museum" comes across as a veritable feast of technical proficiency, interesting vocals and lyrics, and quirky, finely detailed artwork (an almost indispensable component of any self-respecting prog effort). Not unlike Rush, the three members of the band manage to produce an impressive volume of music that is complex, yet accessible enough to those listeners who object to the often ‘in-your-face’ approach of so many modern prog bands. And then, in spite of the myth that sees punk and prog as polar opposites, modern prog owes quite a lot to punk and new wave – as does the bastard child of both, that nebulous 'indie/alternative' galaxy which so often seems to overlap with prog. All this can be heard on "General Winter's Secret Museum", though The Tea Club’s treatment of those influences is definitely more understated than what can be heard in the output of other bands. Indeed, though the band’s music brims with energy and drive, it eschews the outright aggression of those bands with a direct punk/hardcore derivation, first of all The Mars Volta. In spite of the very young age of the three members, their music sounds remarkably accomplished and mature and the compositional level is consistently high. Brothers Patrick and Dan McGowan share vocal duties and they do such a great job of it that I would go so far as to say that the vocals are one of the strongest points of the album. While avoiding the overly grating or plaintive quality that spoils so many modern prog albums, the brothers also seem to have taken a leaf out of the book of the likes of early Yes or Pink Floyd in terms of achieving successful vocal harmonies. Like the best power trios, The Tea Club manages to reach a fine balance on the instrumental side of things. The deft, elegant bass lines (partly written by the band's original bassist, Jim Berger), can at times bring to mind Rush’s mighty Geddy Lee, meshing perfectly with the drums to form a powerhouse rhythm section. Drummer Kyle Minnick's crisp, powerful style comes through right from the initial strains of Werewolves, the album's opening track, a sweepingly dramatic piece of music, at times bordering on metal. On the other hand, the guitars, much in the style of the aforementioned Rush, or even King Crimson, create textures and soundscapes without overwhelming the other instruments. The songs offer an impressive, at times nearly perfect blend of accessibility and progressiveness. Overall, "General Winter's Secret Museum" is such a cohesive effort that it is somewhat difficult to mention any standout tracks. There are two songs, however, which I find particularly memorable. After a rather low-key start, Big Al abruptly turns into an intricate slice of instrumental brilliance, featuring some positively stunning bass work, while the driving, aggressive The Clincher, with echoes of King Crimson and The Mars Volta, could point the way to interesting further developments in the band's sound. As I already stated at the beginning of my review, the album's artwork also deserves mention, as the visual aspect has always been an essential component of prog through the years. Behind the deceptively simple cover (depicting what looks like red-hued sunset clouds), the drawings of the CD booklet (courtesy of the McGowan brothers themselves) have an intriguing, slightly sinister quality – a very stylish package, reflecting the quality of the music inside.
Conclusion. The Tea Club’s debut was undoubtedly one of the biggest surprises of 2008, and dedicated prog fans should grasp at any chance to listen to “General Winter’s Secret Museum” – unless they are seriously unable to look beyond the classics and their numerous imitators and consider anything released after 1989 a complete waste of time. Hopefully, the band will continue to grow and progress without losing any of the warmth and freshness of their approach to music.
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