Mantis – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Umphrey’s McGee released their new CD Mantis about two months ago, but that was just the beginning of the phenomenon. The band is rewarding its die-hard fans with an unprecedented wealth of bonus material, from the mammoth treasure chest that was unlocked by a successful pre-order campaign, to the monthly gems made available via the Mantis Push website, which can only be accessed with the CD in your computer’s disc drive. As if that wasn’t enough, the band’s blog The Floor is constantly updated with backstage videos, late-night demo recordings and streaming audio, sometimes from that night’s show. I’ll try to keep track of it all here and in future comments to this post.

gal_174_649_e_fullPre-Order Bonus Material

Nearly 70 files of audio and video downloads were made available just after the album dropped. Two box sets could be compiled from the material included here. One (let’s call it The Complete Mantis Sessions) documents the genesis of Mantis, from early demos and unfinished tracks to remixes and the entire CD Release Party set from the Vic Theatre. Like the second disc of 2007’s The Bottom Half, the behind-the-scenes tracks offer a fascinating look at the creative process, even if some of them won’t get a lot of play on my Ipod. The other box set is a mid-career rarities set featuring demos and seldom-heard live material. Umphrey’s McGee makes almost every concert available for purchase, but they managed to hold back a few treats, including holiday benefit concerts, a legendary Taper’s Appreciation Night at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall and an appearance with Bela Fleck on 2006’s Acoustic Planet tour.  

Push Content

February’s download gave us another live rarity from Brendan and Jake’s 2008 Acoustic Christmas concert, the seldom-played Never Cease to Amaze, plus the live debut of Prophecy Now in the middle of an epic Bridgeless in Madison, WI. On St. Patrick’s day, we toasted with the Shank Hall 40s Theme and some guest sit-ins from Bela Fleck, Jeff Coffin and Adrian Belew. And once again proving anyone can join in the fun, they released the Umphrey’s McNES version of 1348, a truly unique fan interpretation of the closing track from Mantis.   

I am hoping the band plans to offer more live versions of the Mantis material, perhaps even a complete live version of the album by the end of the year. Think about this – for the price of one CD, Umphrey’s McGee has already given me a great album plus two box sets and they will continue to deliver hours of free music throughout 2009. Is there a better value for your entertainment dollar than that?

UM (hearts) Sounds Good!

Just a quick note to thank everybody who stopped by to read last week’s post, featuring my review of the new Umphrey’s McGee CD release Mantis. Up until then, Sounds Good had been viewed by a handful of friends and family, garnering less than 50 total hits. Now, a week after the Mantis post went up, the hit count is over 1200! Special thanks and admiration goes to Jeremy Welsh at – at some point between the CD release party and perhaps the most important release day in the band’s history, he saw fit to put a link to my review on the home page.

That really sums up what this band is about. Rather than hanging their hopes for the new CD on the machines of a music industry that is struggling with its own obsolescence, they recognize that their fans will drive this release far more effectively. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that feedback from folks like me or the fine contributors at Hidden Track is featured right alongside reviews from the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly.

The music industry would be wise to pay attention to the Mantis phenomenon. UM’s innovative pre-order campaign turned eager fans into an effective marketing team, and the band has rewarded those fans with hours of bonus material, which I will review once I have had a chance to digest it all.

Umphrey's McGee bathed in blue by new lighting designer Jeff Waful
Umphrey's McGee bathed in blue by new lighting designer Jeff Waful

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.


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.