CD Review of Mantis by Umphrey’s McGee
Umphrey’s McGee: Mantis
Recommended if you like
Phish, Yes, Iron Maiden
SCI Fidelity
Umphrey’s McGee: Mantis

Reviewed by Greg M. Schwartz

he Chicago jam-rock phenoms take a new tack on Mantis, delivering a platter full of brand-new songs yet to be road-tested. It’s usually the other way around for jam bands, which might explain why most such albums fail to match concert sales. But Mantis offers a collection of relatively concise tunes – excepting the 12-minute title track – that give the album a classic ‘70s vibe with a modern rock flair.

Opener "Made to Measure" comes out strong, with a Beatlesque vibe giving way to some jazzier flavor to set up the epic title track, a prog-rock masterpiece that blends guitar virtuosity with the classic influences of Led Zeppelin, Rush, Deep Purple, and others.

"We believe there’s something here worth dying for," the band declares. It clearly applies to the music and it gets at why hard-touring jam bands inspire such devoted core followings, the type that can earn a band a living, even if they never cross over to mainstream appeal. The "Mantis" breakdown uses a Metallica-ish transition to delve into a majestic Floyd-ian bridge for ultimate psychedelia, which then builds back up with progressive guitars into a grand climax.

"There’s no way we could have written a song like ‘Mantis’ in the course of a week," says keyboardist Joel Cummins of how the band worked on arrangements over extended periods. Cummins is a dynamic force throughout the record. He lays down superbly complementary piano and synth parts in "Cemetary Walk II."

The album was built over a three-year period, a relatively concise timeframe for a collection of songs featuring such tight compositions, in comparison to, say, Axl Rose’s Chinese Democracy. If only Axl had UM to work with. Mantis finds the band broadening its appeal with increasingly accessible flavors and diverse songwriting.

Guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss form one of the tightest six-string duos on the planet, and Bayliss’s lyrics and vocals are becoming increasingly accessible and melodic. Few bands can throw down Thin Lizzy-like twin guitars, like these guys do on "Spires," while also emitting Steve Vai-type sonic flavors. The duo compellingly blends its old school influences with new-school flavor.

Bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer Kris Meyers, and percussionist Andy Farag hold down a rhythm section that seems to flow effortlessly from jazzier flavors to full rock assaults. "Turn and Run" builds from the former into a molten jam recalling Santana’s "Open Invitation."

"Red Tape" finds the band at its catchiest, with melodic riffage that sounds descended from some of Eddie Van Halen’s vintage work on tunes like "5150." "1348" closes the album out with one of the soaring and tightly rocking numbers that is the band’s trademark.

Cleverly released on President Obama’s Inauguration Day, the album would seem to herald a bolder era for the band as well. Mantis, the Greek word for prophet, demonstrates an evolution showing that the band may just now be growing into its prime.

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