On their previous 5 studio efforts, Chicago genre-benders Umphrey’s McGee have struggled with a self-defeating blurry line between producing serious artistic visions, and yielding to their terribly misplaced “jamband” label by surrounding beautifully opaque diamonds with shiny, glossy, brainless lumps of coal. At times merely touching the surface of their prog-rock aptitude, the past Umphrey’s songwriting emphasis has alternated between tight, albeit brief stabs at virtuosity and subtle layering, and the lesser half: overly simplified acoustic ballads, quirky takes on “fun” ideas, and, without even showing any shame, a Huey Lewis knockoff on 2007’s Safety in Numbers. In short, the band found ways of betraying it’s otherwise brilliant sense of mood and theme, while producing for the track itself, and perhaps not the disc as a whole.
Luckily for fans and former wincers, UM’s newest effort, Mantis, is a giant step in many different good directions for a band that at times can be one of the best things contemporary prog-rock offers.
First and foremost, the band takes the entire song cycle very seriously, in the sense that their frat boy sense of humor and their obvious need to experiment with pop structure is toned down noticeably. From the very start of the opening “Made to Measure,” a jaunty thematic prelude to the numerous 7 to 11 minute tracks found later, the band is dealing with some dark issues, going so far as to “carve their own headstones” and take not one, but two “Cemetery Walks.” While never specifically naming their fears and confusion, vocalists Brendan Bayliss and Joel Cummings (who takes a significant step up in his role as secondary singer and songwriter) keep their lyrics streamlined, simple, and with just enough solemnity to match the music’s layered approach. “Prophecy Now” repeats similar lines over and over but allows the melody to become the glue between subtly growing piano leads, bone dry rhythm tracks, and surprisingly free and loose string parts. Because past albums represented Umphrey’s improvisational soul by simply reproducing live favorites with more guitar compression, a track like this is all the more impressive, as the vocals give context for the song’s internal build-up, and the changing acid jazz-metal accents from the always entertaining and versatile drumming of Kris Myers. While the more subdued sections of Mantis are not as immediately catchy as some of the band’s previous songs and efforts, they end up being more rewarding on repeated listens, due to their depth and design, as opposed to the band forcing it down the throat of the listener’s ear.
Beyond their maturing sense of vocals, the band has finally given it’s songs some room to breath in the studio setting. The title track, not including it’s peaceful and tiny xylophone-based “Preamble,” weighs in at nearly a dozen minutes, and spans the pallet from thunderous tom-drum driven overture
to triumphant chorus refrain to jazz piano rave ups reminiscent of Bowie more so than Yes or Rush. The longer supposition allows for UM’s very solid studio wizardry to have a deeper impact; it ceases to act as a peak of a track, and more as a transitional element. “Mantis” dives from a cloudy mix of sonic grumbling into a brief silence, before lifting itself off the ground with a beautiful slow Bayliss-penned bridge section, followed by an ending that never tries to be too dramatic. “Cemetery Gates” is content spreading a minimum of progressions over it’s seven minute span, and then brings back the chorus for another dancier reprise; once accused by many of having the most acute attention deficit disorder in rock, Umphrey’s relaxes their instincts and backs up their decreased riffage with wisely placed alien melodies and subtler takes on their trademark dual guitar leads.
Perhaps the combination is, at this point, too relaxed for lead guitarist Jake Cinninger, whose usual virtuosic playing and writing seems at times forced and out of place on Mantis. “Turn and Run” roams along the floor with a dirty bass/keyboard rumble, gleefully sharpening the pub-rock underbelly with shards of thrash, but runs into an elongated solo that barks too loud at first and never fully satisfies. “Spires” goes so far as to replace the normal guitar buildup with a full band (plus string section) cyclone of noise that ends up being more effective.
While it’s new hybrid of prog and complex Steely Dan-like verse structures isn’t perfected on the album, perhaps Mantis exists as a great step ahead for a band still searching for new sounds and ways to express their musical brilliance. Indeed, it’s the closing fury of “1348” which best showcases the potential of Umphrey’s, sandwiching a complex hook-filled stanza between ragged brutal thumping instrumental sections reminiscent of King Crimson. Every note is purposeful, the rhythms work like toned muscles and tendons, and the layered counter-picking of guitars sounds like a electric spider web, while the vocal section does it’s job and leaves town, simultaneously acting as epilogue and prelude. Hopefully the next act is as graceful a progression as Mantis.
6 out of 10 stars: For a band that might put out 20 or so more albums, this one will be looked at as a turning point in the right direction.