Deep Music Criticism #9 – The Tea Club – Simon Magus

The Tea Club are a young Philadelphia-based progressive rock band that I interviewed in 2010 for my podcast site I’ve kept their 2 albums in slow rotation on my iphone ever since.

These guys have dutifully adopted (just as all the music marketing geniuses advise) a stylistic “brand” and elevator pitch description of their sound: “Pastoral post-rock blending into proper prog“. I’m guilty of this too – Ben Sommer’s “Edgy, political prog rock” was concocted by a cold, calculating focus group, not by any music journalist or fan group. But their description is as apt as any I could come up with.

My favorite song of theirs is the epic “Simon Magus” from their latest album. Its a truly powerful song for several reasons.

Epic Singing

Co-lead singer Dan McGowan’s is a more agile, sophisticated and powerful Thom Yorke. In fact, Yorke is a plain old whiney-ass, tinny treble singer compared to Dan. His arcing melismas fit the tortured, epic subject of this song perfectly. Pat McGowan – Dan’s brother and co-lead singer & guitarist – sings the second half of the song. He is good but less epic, and they admitted as much in my interview with them.

Epic Subject

The song’s namesake – Simon Magus – is indeed quite an epic topic to bite off for a young band of earnest post-punks. Apparently the brothers McGowan are observant Christians, doing bible study every day, etc. This song just proves that Christian music really knows no stylistic boundary, since these days it comes in pretty much any popular format from country, to pop, to metal, to really heavy metal. The Tea Club is the first Christian prog band I know of.

After discussing with the band the lyrical approach they took with this song, I became intrigued by this Simon Magus guy. He apparently was an early Christian leader and eventual heretic who was probably as genuine a saint as Paul or Peter, but who simply bet on the wrong side of the theological debate within the early church. He only appears in the official bible as an antagonist to Peter, his only other claim to fame being that the sin of Simony (paying for position & influence in the church) is named after him.

The song quotes the texts of both Peter and Simon in the song, and uses musical devices to underscore their spiritual battle. For instance, the first half is all buildup, then sturm und drang with Pat wailing rapturously in the voice of Simon about some crazy nonsensical space talk. It sure sounds like sorcery, another sin that Simon was accused of.

Epic Harmony

The harmonic progression for the minute-long intro and buildup is all modal, no chromatic notes, borrowed chords – nothing. It also hangs around those typically “epic” minor key chords: i-VI. Though its a great and exhilarating start, the spinal shivers don’t really come until Pat enters to sing the first verse. The two-guitar contrapuntal interplay (each separated in the stereo mix hard-left and hard-right) coupled with a major tonic (I not i) and a strongly moving bass (i.e. leaping up/down 4ths and 5ths to new chords) – all the while as Pat wails above it – is just an awesome listening experience.

I must confess that the first 4 minutes of the song are so epic that I rarely make it to the back half, with Dan’s quiter vocal treatment and piano accompaniment. Its an expert transition but just not…epic.

Musicianship is also first-rate. Drummer Kyle Minnick especially brings both an advanced technique but more importantly unexpected and varied accompaniment. He could have easily kept the song moving with a simple 3-on-the-floor (its a 3/4 meter) pattern, but he moves all around the kit, bridging short patterns played on expected drum combinations with fills that, amazingly, crescendo and diminuendo in the space of 1 or 2 seconds. He has the touch of a master jazz drummer.

By all that is right this should be just as big a progressive rock hit as Tom Sawyer or Starship Troopers. Share this band with friends, they need more fans.