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Music Review: Umphrey’s McGee – Mantis

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It’s finally here, folks. Well, besides the Obama Administration, that is. Regardless of your politics, if you’re a fan of Umphrey’s McGee, you know that your day has arrived.

Mantis, the first UM album conceived entirely in the studio, hits the streets today. Simply the best improv rock band in the country today and with a fast-growing devoted following, Umphrey’s heightened the anticipation of this album even further with a sly, innovative marketing ploy. Since I already covered that topic back in November, however, we can now — finally — talk about the music. So let’s get started.

More than two years in the making, Mantis doesn’t represent a marked departure from the Umphrey’s McGee carefully balanced mix of melodicism, musicianship and meaningful material. The distinction instead lies in the narrower focus of that material.

While The Bottom Half, for instance, can go from reggae to country to extended jams in the blink of an eye, Mantis sticks squarely with UM’s rock side from beginning to end. The only real variation you’ll find here are the length of the songs; four seven-minute plus extended forms, a couple of medium length tracks and four tracks cut down to radio or interlude size.

The unpredictability and humor that shines through on those road composed albums are a big part of what makes those records fun to listen to. That’s all but gone on this one. What you get in its place are songs that are smoother and usually more fully realized. What you still get are UM’s predilection for smart, layered songs and some simply fantastic group playing. It amounts to a trade off that some UM fans will like and some might not, but that shouldn’t distract from the larger point: Mantis is a quality product.

The early release single “Made To Measure” is the obvious choice for radio play as it’s also the most succinct. Maybe too much so, as it clocks out at just over three minutes. Contained within its 200 seconds, though, are delicate threads of catchy pop markers like a small string section, clarinets, smooth harmonies, and staggered but logical chord progressions. “Made To Measure” could be mistaken for a late-period XTC/Andy Partridge concoction.

The epic, twelve-minute “Mantis” wasn’t composed on the stage, but this multi-part rock symphony sounds like it could have been more than the other tracks. Sweeping and serious-minded, and replete with string charts, there’s very little musical ground in prog-rock left not tread upon.

“Cemetery Walk” is the high point of the set. Soaring choruses, shifting moods and terrific group interplay earns it the distinction of being the centerpiece song even more so than the title cut. Most of all, it’s got a wonderfully urgent melody that stays in the brain long after listen, while not sacrificing any substance. The conclusion takes on a Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” approach to ending a song, building up to an climax intensified by synth-generated white noise until it’s abruptly cut off.Photobucket

“Turn & Run” builds on an acoustic guitar riff, further powered by drummer Kris Meyers’ and bassist Ryan Stasik’s tight syncopation behind dead-on guitar. It also boasts a blistering guitar solo, presumably by Brendan Bayliss, that burns on for two minutes all the way to the fade-out.

“Spires” presents prog in a heavy metal wrapper until it morphs into some pleasant space rock à la Pink Floyd. “Prophecy Now” is a dreamy, psychedelic incantation that flirts with Middle-Eastern influences.

The last two tracks, “Red Tape” and “1348,” don’t have the ambitions of most of the prior songs, but suffer only in comparison. The former benefits from the dual guitar attack of Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, while the latter demonstrates the group’s ability to fold funk into a dense, hard rocking song.

Given all the time and effort that went into it, Mantis might be UM’s proudest achievement. And they should they be proud, but not because it was incubated in a studio and took so long to make. When it’s all said and done, Mantis‘s biggest achievement might be that when you take away Umphrey’s McGee’s greatest strengths of spontaneity and informal composing, you’re still left with some good-to-great music.

photo: Kevin Browning

About Pico

  • d

    This guy has clearly no idea what he is talking about. Brendan Bayless and Jake Cinninger are the guitar players, Joel is the keyboards friend. And the blistering guitar solo was obviously Jake, not Brendan.

  • UM Fan

    Agreed. Brendan is solid, but Jake definitely shredded that guitar. This guy should have at least read the booklet to know who plays what instrument. Either way it is a fantastic album.

  • OD

    this sounds like a bad homework assignment. Amazing album. I was extrememly impressed with every aspect of the music. Cannot wait to here all of these live.

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    What are you guys talking about? Pico specifically mentions Bayliss and Cinninger on guitar, and never even mentions keyboards. You’re giving him an awful lot of flak for a VERY positive review. Jam-band fans.

    And what “booklet” should Pico have read? There’s no booklet, just a paper sleeve for the CD with some very skimpy details on it. As to that aspect, I’m a bit disappointed – a cardboard case with not much in the way of artwork, a thin sleeve with one side containing some notes, and that’s it. I’m looking forward to what’s available on the site, however. I guess that all goes live on the 23rd, from the email I got the other day.

    A very good album, nonetheless. I would have preferred to get more of the wildly eclectic nature of The Bottom Half, but I guess this falls more in line with their other stuff. I like the variety of tBH, this is a bit more safe territory for them across the whole album.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    An error had to be corrected Tom (although in Pico’s defense, he was probably toasting to W’s exit last night…at least if he’s anything like me…)

    -Glen

  • http://somethingelsemusic.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Yup, I indeed got some names mixed up, and my thanks to the UM fans who gently pointed that out to me.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Tom, it’s interesting that you like the nature of “Bottom Half” better because that’s not an album proper. Similar to Dylan’s Bootleg series, it is a collection of songs that didn’t make the cut for “Safety in Numbers” plus other bits and pieces.

    I have just stared listening, but that first track has elements that remind me of 1966 a la Revolver/Pet Sounds, particularly the strings and the sound on the chorus. It will be interesting to find out if, more likely how, these songs will change when played live.

    Now where is the studio version of “Wizard Burial Ground”!

  • http://somethingelsemusic.blogspot.com/ Pico

    I get what Tom is talking about, as The Bottom Half has really grown on me over time. At this point I like it even better than Safety In Numbers that it’s supposed to be the stepchild of. The songs are surprisingly well-formed for being “odd and ends” and all the stylistic change-ups make it fun to listen to because they tackle each style so well. Mantis, of course, has it’s own set of virtues.

    “Wizard Burial Ground” could very well be one of those unlocked tracks that comes with a pre-order CD, but unfortunately, my review CD isn’t one of those versions.

  • UM Fan

    Just to clear up any confusion, the additional content won’t be access through the CD itself. It will be in the “My Stash” section of umlive.net by the end of the week if you preordered.

    If Wizard Burial Ground is released as a bonus it will be a live cut, not a studio one. I believe all the levels that were unlocked already show what will be released.

  • http://somethingelsemusic.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Per the press release: “PUSH requires no software installation or serial number; by simply putting the Mantis CD in your CD-ROM drive, the disc will act as a “key” to an Umphreys.com miscro-site where fans get access to exclusive 2009 content as it becomes available.”

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    Pico nailed it – these guys are incredibly talented and it seems whatever they attempt, they do it with gusto, and they cover a lot of ground on The Bottom Half. That’s not to say that their other stuff is bad, it’s just that it’s a little more one-sided than I’d like to hear them be, and a little more one-dimensional than it seems they really are in concert, at least. TBH seems more like a natural representation of the band than anything else they’ve released where their other releases are very manicured. That said, I really like Mantis a lot. I’ll be curious to see how I feel about it come this time next year when I’m contemplating my year-end list like I’m doing right now for 2008.

  • UM Fan

    Pico, a lot of the content accessed through the CD are pictures and things, not so much audio tracks. The audio tracks come from preordering the album.

  • http://somethingelsemusic.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Here’s what the press release says past “as soon as it becomes available”:

    “- such as recent live versions of songs from Mantis, rehearsals and impromptu ‘blues jams’and more. Considering Umphrey’s musical creativity and smart sense of humor, 2009′s bonus material is sure to offer plenty of surprises.”

    I would interpret that as including audio tracks.

    However, the PUSH technology applies to “Part II,” content, not the pre-order tracks, or Part I.

    If I were a betting man, I’d say you’re right that they won’t have a studio version of any song available, much less “Wizard Burial Ground.” But they don’t appear to rule out anything, either.

  • UM Fan

    I apologize for my oversight then. Unfortunately, I believe you’re correct in that we won’t see studio tracks, apart from an outtake here or there. Oh well. I think part of it is that they wanted this to be an album created entirely in the studio, start to finish. WBG would be outside of that goal. Maybe it wouldn’t have fit with the flow of everything.

    Time to digress…I really am enjoying this album and am on the 5th or 6th run through. Really great stuff here and I might consider this better than Anchor Drops (what I previously considered to be their best studio effot). That said, I need to let it “marinate” a bit more as I might just be letting the emotions of new, great material cloud my overall opinions of previous work. Does anyone else agree? I see a lot of you like TBH, which isn’t bad, but it was just leftovers and tunes that were already known to UM fans. That’s not to say it was bad, but there was a rushed/unfinished feeling to that album.

    I am definitely all over the map here…

  • http://somethingelsemusic.blogspot.com/ Pico

    The pre-order and PUSH stuff is ingenious, but it’s hard to remember all the aspects of them. I wrote an article detailing this almost two months ago and still forgot some aspects of it. Oh well. Regarding the music…

    I’ve had a week to listen to Mantis and am still discovering new things about it on each listen. If I wrote this review a week later, it would probably read a lot differently. There’s a lot of harmonic complexity in it that you don’t find in rock bands anymore and it takes time for it to sink in. But as it does, you appreciate Mantis even more.

    The Bottom Half didn’t feel all that rushed to me. I’d say “Intentions Clear” even sounds a little more polished there than it does on SIN. There’s undeniably an unfinished feel to much of it, but to me, that’s part of the charm. This is precisely the kind of record that I would slam most bands for doing, but UM is one of the few who can pull it off, IMO.

  • de gallo

    Nice review Pico, although I am suprised that you dismissed 1348 so quickly. I feel that it is one of the best tracks on the album.

    I like the album a whole lot. Great tone on Jake’s guitar at the end of the title track, which as a whole is phenomenal. CW 1 and 2, Turn and Run, Spires, and 1348 are all great as well.

    I hope M2M isn’t the first single as I don’t feel it represents UM very well. Turn and Run or Red Tape would both do the band better justice as a radio song.

    I too am disapointed in the packaging. I can accept a cardboard case because plastic is horrible, but not having a nice shiny book with art and pictures (i don’t even need the lyrics) is a bummer.

    Great effort UM! See you on the road.

  • aviv

    the guitar solo at the end of turn and run is most definitely by Jake.

  • MSU

    I put on my custom molded in-the-ear headphones, caught a buzz, and listened to this album loud and proud. By the end of the title track, i was blown away. UM never ceases to impress me in regards to their ability to swing your moods so much within one song, and mantis certainly accomplishes that. Then cemetary walk… wow. The outro to that track is so intense, to be honest, i was on the brink of losing it, it was so badass. And then booya, dance party cemetary walk II. I could easily picture an UM crowd getting funky and breaking it down to that track for ages if the band will push the limits on it, its like the triple wide’s happier electro-rootsier nephew. That song will be SICK live, i just hope they let it breathe and then take it over the top. The rest of the album is just as killer, with awesome shredding which will also be awesome to hear live cuts of. Pretty stoked to catch these guys this weekend in CO. I hate formal reviews, you make the cd sound just.. ok. If you love Umphs, you will love this CD. If you don’t know much about umphs, they’re unbelievable. Get this CD. Its huge, plain and simple. Turn it up, scare your neighbors, tell your friends, and most importantly, support them when they come near you.

  • Kurt From Hell

    I kinda like the CD cover. It was clearly an intentional throwback to the old gatefold vinyl album cover, used on many progressive albums, such as Trilogy by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

  • CompWiz4u

    UM really outdid themselves on this CD. I have been waiting for them to finally produce a consistent, slick package of music with solid vocals. This is it.

    They show Beatlesque influences on Made to Measure, incredibly well done Beach Boys-like harmonies on Spires & lots of Pink Floyd sounding melodies throughout the songs. Everything fits beautifully.

    Their hard work and dedication to the music finally paid off.

  • avidUMfan

    Personally, I am very impressed with Mantis. There is so much going on in each track, and they bring it all together beautifully. Cemetery Walk I & II absolutely blew me away the first time (and 2nd and 3rd and so on) listening to the album.

    I too love The Bottom Half (liked it better than SIN), but it is very different. I think its gives us listeners a peek at how diverse these guys are, crossing over into many genre’s wonderfully. But it didn’t have the cohesiveness of an album. I find it to be more a collection of songs, like a UM mixtape or something.

    Mantis is more similar to Anchor Drops in that it is more or less straight prog rock. All the tracks really seem to fit together, yet each offers something a bit different the prior track.

    Mantis is UM best studio release since Anchor Drops (no doubt about it), and may even be better…the jury’s still our on that one though.

    Made to Measure is no doubt the first single, there are playing on the radio here in Chicago, and have been for a few weeks. While its a different vibe for UM, I think its a good intro for people that may be less familiar with UM music.

  • Alex

    Well i’m as dissapointed as i’ll ever be with mantis. I’ve been reading some of the comments, and I can tell who knows something about music and who doesn’t based on whether or not they like mantis or not. You can tell because this new mainstream crowd has come in and are completely 1-dimensional with their ideas. They act as if mantis is a masterpiece that will be an instant “classic”. That makes me laugh, especially because they say they don’t like the old stuff as much. I can’t stand mainstream listeners, your all just fueling Umphrey’s to continue to produce mainstream albums and, frankly, if they continue on this path, the real umphrey’s will cease to exist. And what your left with is just your average everyday mainstream band. It’s happening to moe. two, and it’s a huge blow in the jamband world, but none of the mainstream listeners have any idea at all.

    Here is a REAL review for any of you real umphrey’s fans.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Alex, you appear to have no idea how to support your point of view. You claim the band is going too mainstream and then you link to an article where the reviewer says the band is going too progressive rock. Bit of a disconnect. I get that it doesn’t work for you and are entitled, but I wonder if you really get the band and are a fan, if you are so quick to dismiss them trying different ideas.

  • Mark

    I finally just purchased Mantis last week. I tell ya, I haven’t been able to stop listening to it…and I’ve tried! Such a rich and substantial album. A true pleasure to listen to track to track!