Friday, October 22, 2010

Album Review: Umphrey's McGee - Mantis

Umphrey's McGee: Mantis
[SCI Fidelity 2009]


Before Mantis, we didn't see Umphrey's McGee as one of those jam bands. They weren't the kind to launch into overly meandering prog rock journeys or have a 30 second "Preamble" track. From their onstage jam sessions ("Jimmy Stewarts") to the compact radio-ready songs of Anchor Drops and Safety in Numbers, UM has stayed user-friendly; everyone's Rock with a capital R. For all it’s familiar elements, however, Mantis trades the warm and accessible for unfocused rambling that flies by in a messy blur.

The lead up to Mantis quickly revealed that the album would be a game changer for the band. Rather than road testing new songs, like they had done their whole career, UM was mostly hush hush on new material, instead crafting them in the secrecy of the studio. It was an inward-looking recording process that is not inherently misguided, but is surely risky considering the band's preeminence as a live, crowd-pleasing group (you know, a jam band).

Mantis is still recognizable as UM, but only in a piecemeal form. Trademark UM melodies and propulsive rhythms dot the landscape, but they are soon absorbed into aimless experimental riffing and spacey detours. "Turn & Run" is Umphrey’s McGee in true form until around the two-minute mark, when spacey synths transplant the steady groove into alternate dimensions for the next 5 and a half disjointed minutes. In fact, "disjointed" appropriately describes much of Mantis, from the bloated 12 minute title track to the forgettable meandering of "Spires". I’m sure the frequent tempo shifts looked great on paper (I would think so too), but in practice, they more often leave listeners lost and confused.

Even the album's several bite-sized tunes can't register the energy and excitement of previous records. Its flat chorus renders "Made to Measure", the first song and single, utterly forgettable and "Prophecy Now" is a dull mood piece. Closers "Red Tape" and "1348" simply pack in the prog-inclined exercises of the longer tracks into tighter quarters. Could it be that the most enjoyable track is the tight, bass-driven dance beat of "Cemetery Walk II"? Well, "Cemetery Walk" is the only long-runner here that doesn't collapse under its own weight, but altogether, Mantis delivers few of the really memorable, hook-adorned tunes that proliferated Safety in Numbers ("Nemo") and Anchor Drops ("Anchor Drops", "In the Kitchen").

Had this prog rock experiment worked out better for UM, Mantis could have its long-runners, but smoother transitions, more patient tempo shifts, and more cohesive song structures would have to be part of the equation. When the songs aren't submerged in obtuse prog foolery, Mantis at least shows that Umphrey's McGee can still be catchy and fun as hell. But listening to the band's latest outing, as the minutes pass by, I shouldn’t be asking myself: "What song am I listening to again?"

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