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It's a time-honored tale.

A young kid falls in love with rock 'n' roll, soon learns that chicks dig a guy who can play guitar, signs a major record deal and rides off into the sunset in a stretch limo with a babe on each arm.

But there's another story, one that gets far less ink.

A kid falls beneath the music's sway, sees it early on as a valid form of artistic expression, finds some like-minded musicians to work with and sets about creating a body of work that will stand the test of time.

The babes, the bright lights, the assorted other trappings -- they're fine. But they're not the point now, because they never were. It was always about the music first.

"We don't have to be doing this anymore, we don't have to make another album," says the Tea Party's Jeff Martin, on the phone from Toronto, where he and his boyhood friends Stuart Chatwood and Jeff Burrows are rehearsing for a U.S. tour that brings them Saturday to the Dome Theater in Niagara Falls.

"So why do it if you don't have a valid artistic statement to make? For fame and glory and all of that? It's about art for us," Martin says. "The perks are nice, but what keeps this band moving ahead is the idea that each record we make is stronger than the one that preceded it."

If this sounds at all pretentious to you, then you probably haven't spent much time with the Tea Party canon. Since emerging nearly 15 years back, the trio has been pushing the envelope in the modern rock arena. It has refused to be bound by fashions of the moment and opting instead to form a timeless hybrid of various seminal influences -- from the assimilation of psychedelia and blues-based hard rock, to the incorporation of Eastern-centered melodic motifs, to the development of a careening amalgamation of electronica and heavy rock.

Bearing out Martin's words is the fact that the band's latest, "Seven Circles," is clearly its finest work. Like all great art, it manages to transcend and include -- busting through the barriers erected by its own previous incarnations, and yet building upon where it has been.

"Our intention was to distill it all, everything we've been until now, onto one record," says Martin, and "Seven Circles" backs this notion up. There are elements of all of the above idiomatic leanings throughout the album's 11 tracks, but there is a cohesiveness and a mastery of song form in evidence, and it acts as the thematic glue holding the record together.

It's big, bold, dramatic, colorful and cinematic.

Part of the Tea Party's significance is not the manner in which it has embraced the zeitgeist but, rather, the way it has managed to fly in the face of it, in the process forging one of its own. Consider: When the band released its debut, "Splendor Solis," in 1993, grunge was the rage of the day. This album arrived like an uninvited guest at the flannel-and-Doc Martens party, its broad themes, deep hues, grandiloquent presentation and ample display of virtuosity a far cry from the angst of the day.

"Edges of Twilight" dropped in '95, just as rap metal -- an unholy alliance tainting both forms and celebrating neither -- was taking over. But this album was of a different time, at once earlier and in the future. Hearing it, one recalled the first time one heard "The Wanton Song" or "Within You and Without You," or even "Ruby Tuesday."

The genre-busting continued with the ambitious "Transmission," a gloriously successful attempt to marry the Tea Party ethic with electronic rhythms and grooves. It sounded like a bacchanal at the end of the world, and left the majority of the band's peers to eat its dust.

If you were a musician hearing this, you were hooked by the intricacies of the arrangements, Martin's interesting guitar tunings and subtle chord voicings, the unrepentant thunder and dynamic mastery of the rhythm section. Finally, you were hearing something that made you want to pick up your guitar and figure it out, to dig deeper. If you were a layman listener, you were thankful for something of substance, glad to gaze upon a painting rendered in tones other than the dull grays and tired browns of the day.

All of which ties back to Martin's conception of "rock music as art." He and his compatriots are not the first to suggest this. They are, in fact, part of a tradition. An incarnation of that side of the art versus commerce equation that tends to leave something behind when it's gone. Which isn't to say that the band's music is inaccessible. In fact, it's pretty easy to like, pretty direct despite its sophistication.

Martin is itching to get back to rehearsal, and he laughs when I ask him how the interpersonal relationships within the band have altered over time.

"We find that we're smiling a lot more often now than ever before," he says. "It's like a brotherhood, really. And the reason for that is the fact that we each have an extremely clear contribution to make to the Tea Party. We each have immense respect for what the other brings. And we know we've got more to do together."


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