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Published: 2009/01/20
by Fady Khalil

Mantis – Umphrey’s McGee

Sci Fidelity

Chicago's Umphrey’s McGee returns with its hyper-erratic brand of jam-phoria on Mantis, their eighth album. But it burns a slightly different shade of orange. Restraint wrangles histrionics, subtlety usurps insanity, precision is thy name, and all within an abbreviated 54-minute shot to the sonic gnad-sack.

Keyboardist Joel Cummins’ channels Richard Wright in a kaleidoscopic rainfall through “Cemetery Walk,” his power coming not in the number, but choice of notes. UM’s control of song dynamics proves tactical in nature when the frolicking acoustic guitars in “Turn & Run” are suddenly swept away by a violent tempest of electrified soul squalls courtesy of Jake Cinninger. The rhythm section of Kris Myers and Ryan Stasik rise to meet Cinninger’s aggression in “1348,” their respective drum, bass brutality responding to his provocation with a premeditated ease, the result of UM entering its second decade of practiced song craft.

Then there’s “Mantis.” The album's title track is also its magnum opus, and the only song to top the 10 minute mark. It's Umphrey’s at their greatest. With a schizophrenic personality, chilling piano violently attacks to euphoric guitar, adding astonishingly effective triplets. They are fanned by Brendan Bayliss’ mantras, climbing to infinity.

But, to six men known for a sophomoric disregard of limits and boundaries, this album represents a matured perspective. It’s pliable, more inclusive of traditional conventions: an album deliberately refined to be less alien to ears not attuned to their sound. In “Spires,” standard song fair is fused to a prog-jam backbone, as compositions of riff-heavy lunacy give way to verses of a frequent narrative, love and life. As Bayliss croons mid-chorus, “What’s done is done, the truth for everyone,” his voice lends color to the sound of the building energy, civilizing the looming instrumental detonation. “Red Tape” and “Made to Measure” behave like past rocker “Nemo,” with concise but complete substance, albeit less flashy. Exit points for wild jamming abound, but the overall vibe of these numbers proves more serious.

To a fanbase rooted in jam-lust, constantly pressing for ever greater improvisation, creating an album that cuts out the fat could potentially cut out the fun, but UM strikes a balance that will find approval from all angles. After three years in the making, with nary a note of Mantis performed live, the band’s signature progressive themes, sharp angles, and enthralling builds all remain, but emotions have been tempered with foresight, blind lust with wise restraint. Umphrey’s McGee has again been redefined, this album a chronicle of the transformation. Like the insect of its namesake, Mantis is indeed, a rare find.

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