It happens to everyone at least once in their life. It’s hands-down one of the worst experiences a person can go through, and it almost makes you question your faith in humanity. That’s right: it’s that rare moment in time when your favorite band releases a terrible album.
Sadly, that time has now come for me and Umphrey’s McGee.
Mantis shows these Chicago-based jam-jockeys moving from song-oriented compositions to full-blown prog-rock territory, and though this step seems logical on paper, the execution is completely marred. Back in 2002, the band dipped their toes into the mainstream with the decently distributed and indifferently received Local Band Does OK, a good but not especially noteworthy post-Phish jam-rock album that showed a sprawling ambition which was lacking only in focus and pacing. After unleashing several albums on the fledgling Sci-Fidelity label—each disc improving upon the last—the band reached a creative peak with 2007’s The Bottom Half, an “odds and sods” disc of material culled from the recording sessions for 2006’s Safety in Numbers that somehow managed to outstrip its parent disc in terms of sheer quality. Though Umphrey’s had become famous for their onstage jam sessions (or “Jimmy Stewarts” as they’re known amongst the hardcore), their creative energy transferred to the studio with remarkable ease. The bonus disc on The Bottom Half showed the guys at one point doing a straight-up disco version of the song “Red Room” at the drop of a hat, totally spontaneously and completely in unison with each other. A stopgap live release only confirmed what everyone had already known: Umphrey’s McGee were arguably the best jam band to be working today.
Much has been made of the fact that when it came to recording Mantis, the band didn’t go about their usual routine of road-testing songs in development and adjusting them as they saw fit. Instead, they holed themselves up in a studio and pounded away at the prog-leaning Mantis for weeks and weeks, doing their best to keep the new music under wraps until its formal CD release. For those who feared that this new recoding procedure would lead the group towards total musical introversion: well, it happened. Never before has Umphrey’s resorted to using a 36-second “Preamble” to launch into a song, much less following that interlude with something as horribly disjointed as the nearly 12-minute title track. During “Mantis”, the group tries everything, from rolling guitar crescendos to crashing string sections to wild Guitar Hero-worthy six-string freakouts. There’s truly something for everyone this time out—but therein lies the problem. None of the songs on Mantis are built upon a solid melodic base: they just drift off into the ether without accomplishing anything. Though Mantis is filled with clever little moments, the flashes of genius are lost in the haphazard, pastiche-like framework of the album. Perfect for those with attention deficit disorder; annoying for everyone else.
Mantis opens with the showtune-worthy “Made to Measure”, a solid if somewhat unremarkable romp that actually slyly references the band’s fantastic Bottom Half/Safety in Numbers track “Intentions Clear” in Brendan Bayliss’ lyrics, while the rest of the band tries to stay afloat amidst the woodwind and string sections the swarm around the track. “Turn & Run”, meanwhile, starts off like classic Umphrey’s: a simple acoustic riff is soon decked out with a fantastic keyboard melody and Bayliss’ everyman vocal emoting. Then, around the two-minute mark, the band are suddenly overcome with the compulsion to go all Emerson, Lake & Palmer on us and send their keyboards out into the atmosphere, while trying to create the most abstract sounds they can on their guitars, before turning to a glockenspiel for inspiration. (If it sounds like a mess, that’s because it is.) None of it ties together as a cohesive unit, but the fact that “Turn & Run” returns to its initial melody makes it a welcome exception from the rest of the album (even if the fact that it devolves into a pointless guitar-noodling experiment somewhat dampens its effect).
Most of Mantis continues in this vein, coming off as one long studio jam session instead of being built around actual songs, which explains why tracks like “Red Tape” and the moody “Cemetery Walk” have none of the staying power of earlier highlights like “Words” , “Higgins”, “In the Kitchen”, or even “White Man’s Moccasins”. Only once does the band’s humor and heightened sense of melody shine through, and that’s on Mantis’ most disposable track: the goofy “Cemetery Walk II”, in which the group take a keyboard riff from the first “Cemetery Walk” and turn it into a full-fledged dance number, showing that the electronic experiments they tried on earlier songs like “Atmosfarag” were most certainly not in vain.
I don’t doubt that tracks like the rock-oriented “1348” and the twisting “Spires” will sound great in a live setting, but on record, they’re dry, cumbersome, and lacking any of the immediacy that makes Umphrey’s other albums such a joy to listen to. By taking themselves so damn seriously, the group have lost sight of what made them special in the first place. Mantis is—without question—their first outright terrible album. Yet perhaps Umphrey’s were due: you can’t have as good a streak as they’ve had without succumbing to mediocrity at least once. If this is their misstep, so be it. Hopefully it just clears the way for the band’s return to form in the future. After all, once you become an Umphreak, there’s no going back.
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// Notes from the Road
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