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.