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.
“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