Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review: Umphrey's McGee - "Mantis"

Published on February 12, 2009 in The Red & Black


Let me state it as loudly and clearly as I can: Umphrey's McGee is NOT a jam band.

Even though the Chicago quartet's live performances are filled with double-digit songs and extensive improvisation, its music is too advanced and chameleonic to truly be pigeonholed as "jam," bearing a closer resemblance to progressive rock.

Its new album "Mantis" departs from previous studio efforts. This time around, the songs actually originated in the studio, in contrast to the band's usual practice of testing new material on tour.

The result is Umphrey's least "jammy" record yet, focusing on colossal, elaborately orchestrated epics that find the group shifting gears more times in a single song than most bands can manage in the span of an entire record.

The two-part "Cemetery Walk" boasts a slick, gliding groove and the catchiest chorus of the record, while "Spires" channels the clear-eyed Southern rock of My Morning Jacket and resolves it into a mellifluous string-laden coda.

The 11+ minute title track is the album's nucleus. A wildly diverse, multi-movement odyssey, "Mantis" touches on everything from irregularly metered prog-metal riffs to blistering guitar solos equal parts Eddie Van Halen and David Gilmour, hazy psychedelia and arms-outstretched instrumental climaxes.

But Umphrey's McGee tempers its grandiose ambitions with a handful of concise, polished numbers.

Of these, "1348" and "Prophecy Now" are the most successful. The former melds Les Claypool funk-bass with manic, pseudo-Rush vigor, while the latter plays like a reticent TV on the Radio song.

"Made to Measure" struts along to menacing soft-shoe, which makes for a perplexing album leadoff. But the ensuing choir of dreamy, ethereal guitars leaves a disarming impression.

The only shortcoming on "Mantis" is the lyrical content. Frontman Brendan Bayliss is a proficient guitarist, but most of his lyrics are hackneyed and predictable, running the serious risk of alienating potential new listeners.

Carrying Umphrey's McGee further into the progressive realm, "Mantis" teems with musical ideas and diverse styles that should easily please any fan of dynamic rock music.

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