By: Brian Heisler
A new President; a new Umphrey's McGee album. That's the way the band would like to have you consider it anyway. And just as the Presidential inauguration is heavily anticipated, Mantis (released January 20 on SCI Fidelity) seems to be the most anticipated Umphrey's McGee album to date. The band's innovative approach to launching the album with pre-sales that encouraged loyal fans to coerce friends to buy the album via pre-sale in order to "unlock" tiers of bonus content online, which indeed pushed several thousand pre-sales. Much like the Presidency, the music that follows on Mantis represents change, boasting fresh, new sounds, never before played in public.
The string work of Christopher Hoffman and Nathan Swanson is immediately apparent on the first track and single, "Made to Measure." This new attribute to the Umphrey's sound continues throughout the album, working as a bridge in connecting a more serious, often-dark tone to traditional rock and lyric-driven anthems. The title track follows the usual Umphrey's structure on a journey through pain and triumph, ranging from dark, heavy twang to the bright, crisp vocals of Brendan Bayliss and ringing guitar of Jake Cinninger.
"Red Tape" and "1348" round out the album in similar signature fashion, boasting an enjoyable, Huey Lewis-like chorus bordered by thrashing rock (ever since the release of Safety In Numbers, we seem to be looking for Huey to rise from the wings somewhere). Umphrey's McGee invented the style of jumping over blatant walls of bright melody and heavy darkness in the same song – an unconventional move, but somehow Umphrey's makes it work time and time again.
Not that Umph's has ever been known for writing poppy, catchy tunes, but Mantis is crafted from different building blocks than previous releases. For better or for worse, the melodic sing-alongs are largely absent from this album, or are at least not as powerfully notable. Where past UM albums may have been the soundtrack of a party, Mantis is altogether different. What may be the band's most musical effort yet may not rank high among fan favorites in the end, but it goes a long way to represent the concentrated musicianship and craftsmanship that has generally been more apparent in the live setting than in the studio.
Joel Cummins' keys combine with the strings to enrich a heavy rock sound, Kris Myers' drums have grown to become a center point for the sound rather than its support, and the combination of Cinninger's guitar and Bayliss' voice continues to rip through each tune - the unmistakable, forged fingerprint of the band. From the business plan to the arrangements to the old fashion LP-style record sleeve, Mantis is, above all, art from some of the most well-respected and formidable artists on the scene today.
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