Umphrey’s McGee is an odd and yet evident band when you think about it. Odd because they mix so many different influences that you would think the end results would not, could not work. Evident because they manage to make music that is eminently non-commercial and at the same time eminently catchy. To a certain extent, they break the jam rock mold by playing a music that is much more built and layered than what most jam bands do. At the same time they know and love improvisation, and they’re extremely talented musicians one and all.
Of course, Jam Bands can only be really experienced live, and the fans would suggest that the next best thing is a live recording. While this is true in many ways, I also find that you enjoy the lives all the more when you know the original studios versions and while I haven’t seen Umphrey’s McGee live yet and Mantis is too recent for live versions of these songs to be available other than through bootlegs, I do think that songs as intricate as those on Mantis require familiarity to be really enjoyed in the looser context of a concert.
Anyway, Mantis is a gem. With the exception of the very beatles-y opener Made to Measure which I find a little too pop sounding, the rest is a mix of intricately written pieces that oscillate between moments of dreamy darkness and intensely furious passages. Case in point, Turn & Run which starts with a quiet acoustic guitar strumming and ends up in an eruption of heavy soloing that many metal fans would instantly adopt. The title track Mantis reminds us that Umphrey’s McGee are jam rockers who always had a soft spot for prog. Cemetary Walk is a gloriously dark song with intense and cool lyrics.
Is this rock? Yes, in many ways. Is it pop? Not in the strictest definition, but it’s very pop sounding at times. Is it jammy? As much as a studio recording can be, I guess. Is it good? HELL YES!