[5 August 2014]
Often categorized as any combination of “improvisational progressive rock jam band”, Indiana sextet Umphrey’s McGee is known for its distinctive blend of accessible atmosphere, complex arrangements, and tongue-in-cheek vibe. In other words, their carefree, colorful attitudes offer an unexpected juxtaposition to their musical chops. On their eighth effort, Similar Skin, they once again manage a pristine balance between intricacy, eccentricity, and straightforwardness; however, the songwriting itself isn’t especially memorable, so the experience is mostly forgettable once the record is done.
As you can guess, the group draws from a very wide array of influences, including “the melodicism” of U2 and The Beatles, the “symphonic prog” of Gentle Giant, Yes, and Genesis, and the “heavy metal thunder” of Led Zeppelin, Metallica, and Soundgarden. Of the album, singer/guitarist Brendan Bayliss says, “We’re definitely not associated with a three-minute verse-chorus-verse song structure…[so] going into the studio, the challenge was to be as concise as possible, to trim all the fat we could.” In addition, he says that the songs were inspired by very personal themes, including fatherhood, mortality, social unity, sleepwalking, storytelling, and the questionable existence of God. They certainly do a nice job keeping everything succinct while also experimenting with and elaborating on structures when appropriate.
Melodically, album starter “The Linear” is a strong point. It fades in slowly to incorporate a funky bass line, shimmering, muted guitar riffs, and straightforward percussion into its spacey atmosphere. The vocals are smooth and catchy too. Naturally, the music intensifies as it goes, resulting in some killer guitar solos amidst the calmer verse/chorus dynamic. There’s also a touch of piano here and there, which is nice. All in all, it’s a great way to start off.
“Cut the Cable” sees the band melting a bit of progressive metal into its poppy air, with trickier rhythms throughout, while “Hourglass” is uplifting and lush, with a sing-a-long quality that recalls Echolyn (although it’s simpler). “No Diablo”, oddly enough, evokes The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” in its lighthearted nature. The title track, in comparison, is more solemn and harsh, with a slightly antagonistic coating permeating underneath the inviting feel. Above all else, these tracks demonstrate how good Umphrey’s McGee is knowing exactly how much flair to add to their rock music foundation. It makes the tracks very invigorating.
Later on, “Little Gift” feels more gravely and arid, suggesting elements of Queens of the Stone Age, The Foo Fights, and, surprisingly, Mastodon (especially in the chorus). It’s a hard rock gem for sure, and it provides a nice contrast to the proggier nature of the next song, “Educated Guess”, which includes some interesting vocal counterpoints and harmonies, as well as the token start/stop rhythm that’s synonymous with the genre. It’s a bit psychedelic too.
Much talk has been made about the closing track, “Bridgeless”, and for good reason, as it’s easily the most ambitious, lengthy, and multifaceted effort here. It recalls some of Dream Theater’s earlier material at times, as each member gets to showcase their virtuosic side a bit during the various instrumental moments that come between the proper song itself. The concluding dual guitar panic is especially well placed, as it gives the ensuing frenzy just enough extra coolness.
Overall, Similar Skin is a very solid record, and it definitely suggests a particular mesh of influences that make Umphrey’s McGee stand out. As I said, the songwriting doesn’t really shine significantly, though; it’s not bad by any means, but none of it stays with you long enough to make an impact. Like many other albums, this one is very pleasant and impressive as it goes, but it doesn’t linger much once it’s finished. Still, there’s a certain level of optimism inherent in this music, so, like the two Audio Guide to Happiness albums by Jolly, Similar Skin will surely lift your spirits, and that alone is worth the price of admission.