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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Umphrey's McGee

Mantis

Review by Scott Montgomery

This, the sixth studio release from the Chicago-based sextet, serves up nearly an hour of new compositions.  The songwriting is quite good.  The arrangement and group dynamics are excellent.  The production is also superb, allowing impressive vocal harmonies and sonic textures to come through, sweetening the mix into a rich and highly satisfying album.  While live, there is at times a greater tendency to sound more akin to the extended, textured jams of groups like The String Cheese Incident and Phish, here they bring in strong dynamic contrasts and tighter, pithier songs that emphasize composition over improvisation.  I will admit to having been rather unfamiliar with the band prior to receiving Mantis to review.  I kept it so, with the intention of forcing myself to approach this album with totally fresh ears and neither predisposition nor expectations.  I will also admit to having been somewhat uninspired by the veritable thicket of newer jam bands that have been popping up (and, as an old-school Deadhead, even Phish still is “newish” in my book).  While it seems that many fine bands have emerged, I had not yet been floored by either a particularly new sound or by superb songwriting.  Well, with Mantis, Umphrey’s McGee has given me both pause and cause to reconsider this assessment.  There is a lot to recommend here – surprisingly fresh sound, interesting compositions well-executed and produced with a polish that fashions a rich sonic palette without sucking the vital energy out of the performance.  While some truly inspired guitar flights appear, Mantis is not much about jamming or noodling, but rather about exquisite precision of dynamic, complex composition. This is a fine release by a top-notch band that absolutely deserves its increasing success.  If anything, Mantis demonstrates that Umphrey’s McGee warrant even greater popularity and accolades.  Having worked backward through their catalog, I notice a tremendous maturation in their sound.  With Mantis, Umphrey’s McGee has truly arrived as a top-shelf band.  

 

Mantis has a somewhat “proggier” feel than the band’s earlier albums, such as the more pop-inflected Safety in Numbers.  This is best demonstrated in the lengthy title track which clocks in just shy of the twelve-minute mark, after rollicking through an impressive series of twists and turns.  But, Mantis is not prog rock in the classic symphonic sense of Yes’ Close To The Edge.  Rather, Umphrey’s McGee utilizes a “modern” sound that blends more pithy songwriting and straight-forward jam-rock coloration with the tight dynamics and changes more commonly associated with modern progressive crossovers.  If proginess can be discerned, it is in the stunning contrasts of razor-sharp intensity with atmospheric passages, and the deft juxtaposition of numerous genres.  It is in this compositional complexity that Mantis can at times reveal a slight redolence of the 70s incarnation of the mighty Crim.  While not completely novel or innovative, Umphrey’s McGee does bring a refreshing sound that is rich, dynamic, complex and vibrant.  It is a huge step forward for this band that seems to be forging a delectable new hybrid that might be termed progressive jam.  Interestingly, Mantis is neither purely progressive nor jammy, but a tight-weave of ambitious songwriting executed with precision and aplomb.  Sure it rocks, but it also thinks.  This is intelligent popular music, the likes of which have become all-too-rare outside the now underground realms of progressive rock.

 

Mantis adheres as a unified work – one that takes the listener on a bit of a sonic voyage rife with twists, turns, stops, starts, and pleasant surprises.  Similarly, it is a bit inconsistent.  While it is consistently well-played and well-produced, it peaks in the middle – with the 30-minute main course from “Prelude” through “Turn & Run.”  There is brilliance – quite a lot of it – but it is not uniformly sustained.  (That said, a half-hour of musical brilliance is more than most bands ever fashion!).  It is both familiar and new – very effective in being both catchy and daring.  In all its eclectic musical omnivorousness, shifts of time, tone, and mood, Mantis offers something for everyone, or so it seems.  It is not an album that can (or should) be pigeon-holed within strict taxonomies such as jam rock, prog rock.  Maybe it should remind us of how we used to describe great releases – simply as “damn good albums.”  Bravo Umphrey’s McGee in a most satisfying release!  Mantis leaves one very much looking forward to the next installment of the band’s ongoing development.  Additional material can be downloaded, in an interesting plan involving nine layers of material release, that were metered out in response to sales numbers of pre-orders.  This material – additional tracks, demos, making-of video footage – substantially augments Mantis, turning it into something more than its near sixty-minute scope of release.  As if the album itself were not good enough to warrant placement on the “Buy This One Now” list, the additional material ensures that it is an indispensably good release. 


This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Made To Measure

Fusing Beatle-esque hints with 70s pop, this opening number is pleasing, but not overwhelmingly distinctive.  The album thus begins on a nice, but remarkably mainstream note.  The production, composition and performance are, however, of a very high grade, and the song is not vapid, but is certainly not one of the strong points of the album.  It is perhaps a good opener, in its accessibility, but as a musical appetizer it does not fully hint at the substantial and delicious main course that follows.

Preamble

A short music box piece, plays like a gentle lullaby.  This sets up a great contrast with the opening barrage of the epic “Mantis”.  Coming off the rather traditional-sounding “Made To Measure,” this little preamble both contrasts interestingly, setting up the more varied and dynamic ride that marks much of the rest of the album, and particularly so with the ensuing title cut.

Mantis

Opening with a tumbling barrage, the epic title song crashes in with a Crimsonesque stomp, dropping to a short piano figure and then resuming with a second burst of Sturm-und-Drang, before moving into a straight-ahead heavy clip with the guitar laying out an opening melodic line with a quasi-metalesque bite.  All of this in the first minute!  A brief guitar interlude leads to a build up into the first vocal section.  Perhaps it is reading too much into the song, but with the opening line stating that “we believe there’s something here worth dying for,” this song seems to offer testimony of the band’s commitment to their music and its ongoing perfection – a statement of self-aware artistry perhaps.  Certainly in terms of scope and vision, “Mantis” shows the band pushing their horizons to great effect.  This one carries more into the realm of modern prog, recalling perhaps some of Spock’s Beard’s less overtly symphonic forays.  There are plenty of dramatic turns, stops, time-signature changes and varying keys, fashioning an ever-shifting but oddly cohesive composition.  It is a demanding song that carries the listener along for a tremendous roller-coaster ride.  This one will doubtless be a favorite among the more progressive-minded listeners.  Certainly it is among the high-points of an excellent album.

At about the halfway mark, after a more heavy and frenetic series of segments, the band drops into a nice, gentle amble overlaid with some sweet guitar and keyboard coloration.  This pensive groove carries into the next vocal passage, which has a gentle, brooding quality that oddly reminds me of REM.  This association is immediately countermanded by the entry of a full-bore, staccato instrumental passage before soaring back into a majestic, almost symphonic vocal return.  A string section joins in, adding lovely symphonic texture, before the song turns to a two minute coda highlighted by a nice, big guitar solo.  “Mantis” is composed in multi-segment, suite-form, with an ongoing series of compositional units, rather than the typical verse-chorus alternation.  In this, the song leans more definitively toward modern prog rock and its continuance of this suite-like compositional structure.

Cemetery Walk

 A pleasant piano figure is joined by the band in gentle mode, with sweet, almost Gilmour-esque slide guitar that seems to echo “Breathe.”  Just under a minute in, the band punches in with a bold staccato riff that caries the verses.  Nice harmonies and tasty sustained fuzz guitar lift the chorus, which flirts with a Beatle-esque feeling that can also be heard on some of their earlier albums like Safety In Numbers.  Concurrently, it has some redolence of some of Transatlantic’s more accessible moments, again bringing in the proggy sound.  Sandwiching a fine guitar solo over the verse structure, the refraining of the catchy chorus really makes this song striking.  Dropping into a 7/4 piano vamp that could have been conjured by Carol King (or should we make that Carol King Crimson?), the song then builds back into another catchy melodic riff that carries it through much of its remaining half.   The overlay of this new vocal line, with the melodic sustained fuzz guitar pattern of the first chorus, both drives this piece onward while simultaneously turning back on itself with a fugal touch - clever, polished songwriting!  After a fast flourish, the band drops down with some sweet slide guitar before turning over to a soft piano figure that is built upon with the return of the slide guitar and rhythm section.  This slowly builds as an extended coda that is stunningly dramatic in its subtlety.  Its relentless, subtly shifting cycle and sudden cut-off brings to mind The Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” coda.

But, lest this catchy quality seem to suggest a simple pop tune, think again.  There are plenty of quick turns and dynamics to render this a ride that is far-too-complex for the aural pablum that passes for radio hits.  It is a pity that such deliciously melodic, subtly complex, sophisticated songwriting does not make it on the radio more often.  Fusing elements of late Beatles and Pink Floyd into a tasteful and distinct sound, Umphrey’s McGee really conjure a winning sound here that should be accessed and appreciated by a wide audience while satisfying more discerning musical palettes.  This is one of numerous high points of an excellent album.

Cemetery Walk II

Immediately following the abrupt ending of “Cemetery”, the 7/4 Carol King-esque piano vamp returns, leading into a strong dance beat overlaid with melodious keyboard swirls, making the piece sound surprisingly like a euro-dance number.  It could almost be passed off as a dance re-mix of parts of “Cemetery,” complete with requisite reduction of the entire sound to the pulsing beat before sliding off into a drone fade.  This one sounds a little out-of-step with much of the rest of the album, but is an interesting addition in that it furthers the eclecticism of Mantis.  Yet, however disjointedly so, this works as an interesting compliment to the exquisite “Cemetery,” making it all-the-more dynamic and contrasting.  Given the linking of these two pieces into a two-part suite, we might consider “Cemetary Walk” as the other expansively aspiring track, coming in close to the ten-minute mark.  Despite its thematic cohesion with its predecessor, “Cemetery Walk II” also serves very nicely as an interlude between two of the album’s strongest (and longer) pieces.

Turn & Run

The song begins with a brief intro on acoustic guitar, before kicking in with a tight, jumpy groove and nice melodic guitar-play.  The vocals join in, bringing it into the realm of catchy rock songs.  But, the catchy songwriting and crisp production aside, this is not a simple pop-song, for it carries the listener on some interesting sonic by-ways as it turns and runs - dynamically blazing into a harder-edged instrumental passage and then dropping down into an atmospheric respite before building back into an instrumental revisit of the main melody line from which the verse again emerges.  Harmony vocals add layers of texture and counterpart to the chorus.  Again the band drops down into an understated groove, from which a nice, meaty guitar solo emerges and dominates the final two minutes, utilizing a sharp, fuzzed tone and a healthy bite that flies tastily above the bold, steady groove provided by the rest of the band.  After hearing this number for the first time, I immediately hit replay, as I was knocked out by this coda in particular.  These final two minutes are among the highlights of the album.  As it fades off, I am left wondering how glorious it must be to catch this one live, as I can easily imagine this mighty instrumental passage as a jumping point for some incendiary extended jamming.

Spires

A big opening tears in with a stomp before settling into the heavy staccato phrasing of the opening vocal passage.  The guitar leans toward the aggressive phrasing of some prog metal.  The heavy punch of this one will doubtless please those listeners who want a more metal feel, but I find it to be rather disappointing and uninspired in the wake of the majestic closing of “Turn & Run.”  But, Umphrey’s McGee seem hell-bent on confounding any complacency in the listener, for the remarkably retro keyboards that buoyantly tinkle over the next vocal passage belie a much more eclectic sonic palette than suggested by the song’s initial crunch.  Building up, dropping off, twisting and turning, we are taken on a ride across varied, but strikingly heavy, landscapes punctuated by jagged metal guitar that periodically turns to more atmospheric textural playing.  At the five minute mark, everything drops to a gentle, sparse guitar interlude before the band eases its way into a lovely, extended coda embellished with orchestral strings and spacious vocal harmonies.  Like numerous other songs on the album, “Spires” reveals how deftly Umphrey’s McGee has perfected the art of the coda.  As the song fades off into its delicate a cappella finale, I have completely forgotten my lack of enthusiasm for the song’s opening heaviness.  After experiencing the dramatic variance of the entire composition, and the way it moves from heavy to beautiful, I find myself appreciating the totality of the piece in its compositional sophistication.

Prophesy Now

This short song is among the less remarkable on the album.  Though pleasant enough, it does not really go anywhere.  Rather, it seems to want to dreamily drift along, except the overbearing drumming precludes any sense of ease.  The parts do not tightly adhere, and there is not enough variance to really dig into.  After the previous string of effective, longer pieces, this one feels like a let-down.

Red Tape

After an interesting, manic, ascending intro, this quickly falls into a remarkably mainstream-sounding groove that could have been played in an 80s stadium rock show.  That said, it would be more 80s Yes than Foreigner, for there are enough time-signature changes to satisfy one’s desire for something a little more substantial than arena rock fluff.  Again, the keyboard patches give a dated, retrospective feel – varying between early 80s and late 70s sounds.  It is a jumpy, catchy tune, to-be-sure – one that would sit rather well in many an album.  However, coming on the heels of the monstrous middle-section of Mantis, this one again feels a bit underwhelming.

1348

Leaning more toward heavy rock with big riffs and a straight-ahead rock 4/4, “1348” closes the album on a pretty heavy note (appropriately given the potential Black Death allusion if the song’s title is to be read as a date).  Bringing the album full-circle to shorter, more straight-forward song structure, the final number resolves the more accessible note begun with “Made To Measure”, but now with a bigger punch to round things out.  These more straight-ahead rockers are quite good, but reveal that the real meat of Mantis lies within the middle of the album.  It is almost as though the listener is drawn in by the more simple song, only to be taken on a more dynamic, circuitous, and ultimately both satisfying and challenging central block of extended songs – notably “Prelude” through “Spires” – before being brought back to more familiar, if aggressive, material clustered at the end of the album. 

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