Posted by: Mike Lambe | January 19, 2009

The Arrival of the Prophet

While January 20, 2009 promises to be a memorable day in American history, the date will also mark the release of a remarkable album that will help to secure a place in music history for Umphrey’s McGee. Mantis (greek for Prophet) is a compositional wonder and a production masterpiece from a band that has learned to leave their legendary stage prowess under the lights and embrace all of the possibilities of the studio. The eight songs contained in these ten tracks represent more musical ideas than many bands have in an entire career.

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Mantis was recorded without having been roadtested, although some riffs were born out of onstage improvisations and later woven into the fabric of this dense collection of tunes. Over the last few weeks, the band has released a few singles and radio edits to their fans to build a buzz for the album. Adding to the anticipation has been a groundbreaking marketing scheme, with thousands of pre-orders unlocking access to hours of bonus downloads from the band’s extensive archive of live performances, studio outtakes, demo sketches and out-of-print fan favorites.  Mantis will continue to unlock new material for fans throughout 2009, giving listeners a reason to own the album instead of acquiring it illegally.

 Umphrey’s McGee has been winning the hearts of progressive rock fans for years with adventurous compositions that evoke comparisons to King Crimson, Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd. On Mantis, that courtship continues on several tracks, including the funky crunch of 1348 and the majestic Spires. The epic 12-minute title track, together with its 30-second Preamble, stands out as the centerpiece of the album and one of the most complex and beautiful pieces in the UM repertoire, seamlessly bridging the gap between the forms and influences of the Seventies and the futuristic sound that Umphrey’s has been honing on stage the last ten years. Mantis, the song, is at once a departure and an arrival.

This compositional standard should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Umphrey’s McGee. The really surprising achievement within Mantis, the album, is the ambitious production, allowing the guys to pay further homage to the likes of XTC, Steely Dan and Alan Parsons. The album-opening Made to Measure scintillates like a Paul McCartney showtune, while the aforementioned Spires gives way to a mesmerizing coda awash with lush strings and vocal harmonies that could easily have been sccoped up from the editing room floor of the Pet Sounds sessions. Primary beneficiaries of this treatment are Joel Cummins’s keyboards, which have never sounded so commanding, and Brendan Bayliss’s vocal work, which shines like a prophetic beacon above the darkly layered soundscape.

But don’t let all of this praise suggest that the album is inaccesibly esoteric. UM has earned a reputation for rocking with both litheness and precision, and they bring this to bear on mid-album tracks Cemetary Walk and Turn & Run. Jake Cinninger’s incendiary guitar work on these tracks, as well as the title opus, serves to cement his legacy as perhaps the last real Guitar Hero.

The album is not without its indulgences. Cemetary Walk II is a remix that incorporates a dancehall sound that is becoming an increasingly prevalent element of the live show, while Prophecy Now is an ethereal tone poem exploring a simple atonal melody. Red Tape may be the most poppy tune on Mantis – if the rest of the album elicits thoughts of Close to the Edge and Fragile, this is clearly the 90125 moment. These tracks may not hold up on their own as well as the others, but they lend balance to the overall complexity of the project.

Fans who have been as lucky as I have to hear the album early are already salivating over the live possibilities of these songs. Umphrey’s McGee must be commended for the restraint they have exhibited in withholding these gems for so long. The reward for that patience, for them and for us, is a pristine listening experience that will be cherished in its studio form regardless of how the songs evolve onstage. From the first listen it is clear that Mantis is unlike any album by a band that has ever worn the “jamband” label. Beyond that rather modest accolade, surely many more await.

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Responses

  1. myclam, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve been into Umphrey’s for just over two years, and they never cease to amaze me. I love and appreciate music from many different realms and eras, and I’ve never heard or been apart of an album and its release like mantis. Umphrey’s is truly great and indeed are a band of the people.

  2. First of all this review is completely one-sided and has just about the exact opposite views that I have, and many true Umphrey’s fans (the ones that want the old, more unique, umphrey’s back) have.

    This is a real review –

    http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/69865-umphreys-mcgee-mantis/

    Anyways, I and many other’s have come to the conclusion, quite immediatly, that Mantis is Umphrey’s first outright terrible album. Wow I can’t even describe how horrible it is to see such a great band go mainstream just like that. Mantis is similar to other albums, except that its stipped of nearly all complications and intricicies and is left with, well, garbage mainstream.
    Don’t get me wrong, i think kris is an amazing drummer, and i think jake is a fantastic guitarist, but if one didn’t know that, and if they listened to this album only, they would come to the conclusion that the band is so average that it’s nothing worth listening to.
    They failed to evolve their songs around their talents. When kris play’s drums, he doesn’t get even close to the musical ability that he reached in other albums.
    And jake… come on man. I thought this guy had a good outlook into the bands future up untill this point. He is an amazing guitarist but doesn’t show it nearly at all. You only see small glimses of his real talent.

    A very, very sad thing to see.

    -R.I.P. UMPHREY’S MCGEE-

  3. I’ve read the PopMatters review and will concede that it is, in fact, a real review (no more or less so than mine.) It’s useless to argue about opinions, so I’ll just say that if the author thinks The Bottom Half is their best CD and CWII is the only good thing on Mantis, then he and I appreciate completely different aspects of this band’s music.

    It’s too bad that you and Evan Sawdey are not enjoying the new CD, but I can’t help but think you may be letting your expectations get in the way of truly hearing what is there. There are so many musical ideas happening in each song that I can’t imagine anyone referring to this effort as “average,” “mainstream” and “stipped of nearly all complications and intricicies.” [sic]

    I also have to say that I haven’t encountered many of these true fans you speak of, the ones who want Umphrey’s to keep dipping into the same old well. Most of the many true Umphrey’s fans that I have met embrace their ever-changing nature and see Mantis as the inevitable next step in their evolution, as foreshadowed by songs like Higgins, Wizard Burial Ground, Search 4 and even the Bottom Half.

    I can only hope you and Evan haven’t given up on Mantis completely. I’ve heard from a lot of people who hated it or didn’t get it at first, but really came around after a few more listens. An album as dense as this doesn’t click right away for everybody, but that doesn’t make it terrible.

  4. What I fear is that mantis will continue to enter full blown progressive-rock territory and will leave their hints of jazz and jam behind for a sound that is ubiquitous in today’s music.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are some aspects of the album that I do appreciate, but as I find myself searching for what all of you (you as in people who have accepted mantis) have found, It’s too hard to find for me.

    It’s like mantis is ok, but not great, it could of been a lot better. And when I contrast mantis with older albums, mantis just isn’t worth listening to.

    I respect bands who are able to change their sound and enter new territory, but how long will they stay there? And will they ever go back?
    Is this new territory the right one to follow?

  5. I guess we just fundamentally disagree.

    But I will ask you, how would you compare mantis to past albums (not including the bottom half)?

    Do you really think it’s a step in the right direction?

    I feel nothing but immediate satisfaction listening to past albums. But with mantis, as you said, it may take a few listens. But I interpret that as lowering my standards. This may just be because I don’t like the album (as a whole) in the first place.

    But, regardless of our disagreement, time will tell what will happen with Umphrey’s and it’s still exciting to see what they put together because they really are great musicians.

    And excuse my first reply, I know I sounded like a narrow-minded dumbass.

  6. Not to worry, I hope I wasn’t too harsh in response. Over time I think we have both softened our positions. As much as I still love Mantis, the novelty has worn off a little and I would be happy if their next album is a step back from that extreme.

    I find it hard to compare albums, as I think they are each so different. Anchor Drops and Mantis are my favorite albums. The others feel less like albums, more like mixes of songs I like and songs I sometimes skip. I rarely listen to Local Band Does OK or Safety In Numbers from start to finish. The same goes for The Bottom Half.

    I’d say Anchor Drops is the best Umphrey’s McGee album, as it is the one that best represents their sound. Mantis, on the other hand, is their best album when compared with all other music. Does that make sense?

    You know, when I put it that way, it makes me think that maybe they were trying so hard to make an epic album that they just forgot to be themselves and let things happen naturally. Looking at it that way, I can totally understand how a longtime listener could feel alienated by the effort.

    So we’ll continue to disagree, but through this discussion, I’m gaining a better understanding of why we disagree. That’s all well and good, but much more important to me now is that it’s been nearly 8 months since they last came to Portland and we still have no return date in sight!

    I know, I know – I need to Get in the Van!

  7. […] but I really did not pay much attention to what was new in 2009, unless it was on Sirius Jam On. Mantis came out in January and nothing I heard for the rest of the year even came close, but I’m […]


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