Umphrey’s delivers stellar jam tracks on Mantis

Umphrey’s McGee makes angry hippie music. Not that they sound like Grateful Dead with a harder edge or anything (although that kind of sound is definitely in their repertoire), but they literally craft music that appeals to malevolent stoners.

My first Bonnaroo festival was in 2006. After pulling up the car in the 250-acre field that serves as the camping area, the first thing that happened to my group was being accosted by a couple dudes demanding to know what bands we had come to see. “Mainly Radiohead,” my friend said. One of the guys gets a look on his face and says something along the lines of, “Oh really? Us real Bonnarrooers came to see Les Claypool, Umphrey’s McGee, Phil Lesh….”

When we returned that night, the camp was trashed–upturned tents, stuff scattered and trampled on (not stolen though, because Bonnarooers never steal). So after that, I forever associated Umphrey’s McGee with unruly concertgoers, and I deliberately went out of my way to avoid seeing Umphrey’s McGee play. After all, how could the only non-cool guys that I’ve ever met at Bonnaroo have good music taste?

That decision definitely ended up being my loss. Umphrey’s McGee plays an eclectic mix of prog-rock and jam music that constantly changes song structure, yet still somehow turns out great jam sessions.

Mantis is a studio album that is produced like a live album. This is especially cool because Umphrey’s McGee sounds better live as a rule. Usually, a good litmus test to determine a band’s quality is whether or not their live performances sound better than their produced studio albums, since there is a lot that can be done inside the studio to make bad musicians sound good and good musicians sound godly.

Of course, any jam band that doesn’t sound better live is pretty much a failure of a jam band in the first place. At concerts, the groove always seems tighter, the instrumentalists have more time to improvise, and the incredibly loud sounds coming from the amp always improve the experience.

Perhaps attributing to that live-sounding quality, the bass on Mantis is turned way up relative to similar albums. The bass has an unfortunate habit of getting lost in the background in a lot of rock music since it just doesn’t assert itself the way guitars, drums and keyboards do, so it’s much appreciated that bassist Ryan Stasik is given time to show his instrumental chops.

Umphrey’s McGee wears its influences on its sleeve. Sounds from The Police and Rush can be heard both in the vocals and drumming, and the guitar work is more restrained but still every bit the quality of virtuosos of recent decades. However, longtime fans will notice that Mantis is more contained and coherent than the band’s previous works. That may not mean much to new listeners when they see 12-minute-long songs. Still, the new direction keeps the separate tracks sounding very distinct, something that can be an easy trap for jam bands to fall into.

The guitar tones in this album are impressively distinct, as well. The range of sounds covered includes warm and creepy tones in “Cemetery Walk,” jazzy and bluesy ones in “Mantis” and even metal ones in the case of “Spires.” Just as the band gives listeners a lot within the album, they also give a lot outside it. There are actually nine tiers of bonus content available on Umphrey’s McGee’s website that ranges from extra songs to alternate solos, demos and videos.

With a band willing to give so much to its fans, it’s easy to see how a loyal fanbase can grow very quickly. It even becomes understandable how a couple of guys could be so loyal that they’d feel the need to trash the campsite of a group of non-fans. But at the end of the day, that shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying the high-quality of music.

This album is recommended, and any chance to see the band live is doubly recommended.