Umphrey’s McGee is the best prog-rock band playing right now. Yes, that’s right … prog-rock. Despite its ascent to greatness through the ears of the jam band nation, and its propensity for enveloping improvisational explorations, Mantis, the Chicago sextet’s sixth studio album, is evidence that Umphrey’s McGee is more Rush than Phish. This is certainly no surprise to the band’s ever-expanding fanbase, but for those less dedicated or uninformed, Mantis shows that the jam band label was just plain wrong.
Despite this diagnosis, it is easy to see why the jam band denizens have embraced Umphrey’s. Built upon the refined six-string interplay of Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, Mantis emerges as a cohesive, flowing song-set, strong in structure, and dotted with stylistic and genre-bending excursions. But it is the ever-lasting spine of metallic riffing that defines Mantis; palm mutes, trills, and explosive fretwork frame each composition. This would be enough to make the album great; however, multi-segmented compositions (“Mantis”), cascading refrains (“Spires), smooth electronica (“Cemetery Walk II”), and other sonic accouterments further its inventiveness.
The progressive nature of Umphrey’s isn’t limited to the sound on Mantis,but also in its delivery. The band promised a flurry of bonus content with a catch: the more pre-orders of the album, the more bonus material is “unlocked.” Adding to its mystique, the band has kept a lid on the songs, allowing the album’s release to introduce nine of the 10 tracks to the world.
Critically speaking, Mantis shines. It is fresh, fluid, and classic. At times, the studio polish seems excessive, yet it makes sense in the context of the album’s scale; the fleet-fingered flights, dark dives, and spacey harmonies meld together with organic ease. Mantis is a culmination of a buzz that has surrounded this band since its inception in 1997. From jam band princes to prog-rock kings, Umphrey’s McGee has arrived.
Mantis is out now January 20 on SCI Fidelity Records.