Thursday, January 22, 2009

Playing Mantis

Back in 2004/05, just as Phish bid goodbye to touring and producing music (however temporary as they are touring again this summer), a group from Chicago, named Umphrey's McGee, started to get some positive notice in the jam band world. Some publications even proclaimed that they would be the next "Phish". While not exactly a fair summation, Umprhey's McGee has become one of my favorite bands to listen to and I haven't even had the chance to see them live yet, although I have heard plenty of live performances from online downloads. In my opinion, part of what makes them so good is that their studio albums are just as entertaining as their live performances. As much as I hate to admit this, you don't exactly wait with baited breath for a jam band's newest release as much as you do for the next time they roll into your town. Fortunately, Umphrey's McGee is an exception to this rule.

Umphrey's McGee's current release, Mantis, is probably the best jam band studio album I've listened to since Phish came out with Hoist back in 1994. Even more shocking is what makes this album so great is not the typical, "noodling" and infinite improved scales that is so prevalent with jam bands but the eclectic mixtures of music that they seem to blend together so well. I'm dead serious when I say that this 6 member band successfully blends similar sounds that are usually associated with Yes, Phish, Metallica, Bad Company, Steely Dan, 70's through mid-80's rock, early 80's synthesizer music, Rush, 70's Genesis, Radiohead, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Spyro Gyra, modern European dance and yes, even broadway show tunes.

Before Mantis was released in its entirety, they pre-released the song, Made to Measure. The song itself, a very catchy and upbeat tune was rather typical in many ways of the group's usual fare and it didn't really signal what else was going to be on the album. The song could easily have been on an earlier enjoyable album, Anchor Drops. Listening to the rest of the album then became quite the pleasant surprise. The best two songs in my opinion, the title track- Mantis and Cemetery Walk, happen to be the 2 longest songs on the album coming in at almost 12 and 8 minutes respectively. While I can hear you groaning- "Well, of course, a jam band has long drawn out songs- all they do is riff and improvise!" While that statement is mostly true, that isn't the case for the length of songs in this instance. Imagine songs like Golden Summers Medley from The Beatles or Paranoid Android by Radiohead, where they have several tempo, chord and melodic changes.

Case in point, Cemetery Walk starts with a sad minor chord piano tune (imagine Spinal Tap's Lick My Love Pump?) and then suddenly jumps into a late 70's rock synthesizer boosted upbeat tune that would be no stranger to an 80's movie montage. It eventually finds its way back into the piano music but this time it's joined by a gradual building of momentum of drum beats and guitars that makes it sound gothic and can give you some goosebumps. It ends in a screechy and static-y feedback before going to the next tune, Cemetery Walks II where you hear the piano tune continuing but this time it's joined by modern dance instrumentals. You could almost picture Mike Meyers in his Deiter costume proclaiming, "Now ist da time on Schprockets venn vee dance!!". As weird as all that sounds, what's weirder is how much it all really works.

The song Mantis also accomplishes has the same strange blending. Turn & Run, Spires and Red Tape are all also very good and unique songs as well. It also wouldn't surprise if any one of these songs doesn't become very popular in Umphrey's Mcgee's live performances. Although I can imagine at some points that they could extend certain solos or continue certain riffs. The album truly works better as whole than the sum of its parts. Which is a strange thing in these days of MP3 players and on demand downloads. Aside from the first track, this album has no real catchy pop tunes, so if you're the type that likes White Zinfandel and shies away from dry, full bodied, and complex red wine blends then I suggest that you don't give this album a try. But if you're bold and want to try something that really is something unique and interesting than I really recommend that you give this album a listen.


Lynn Klaus said...

Thank you for introducing it to me with Wide Load and now Cemetery Walk is awesome!

Brian said...

Wide Load? Dont you mean Triple Wide?