Listening to Mantis (CD – MP3) is like watching a longtime friend suddenly peel back his skin to reveal circuitry and wiring underneath. The friend is showing traces of the human emotion you’ve come to expect, but also morphing into something more machine than man, like Darth Vader. On Mantis, it seems that Umphrey’s McGee’s emotional pendulum swung firmly in a direction much different than their previous albums. Where their back catalog is laced with knowing humor, epic atmospherics and unbridled emotions, Mantis is decidedly rigid, a humming mass of metal and wires that buzzes along with few discernible peaks and valleys.
It’s Umphrey’s, alright – the mind-bending musical mathematics and puzzling lyrics are intact – but some of the touchstones of their style are processed into oblivion. Brendan Bayliss’ voice, one of the most recognizable and expressive in rock, sounds like its been digitally sandpapered, and it comes across as robotic and sterile. Kris Meyers’ mellifluous, inventive drumming scarcely reaches its normal heights, and it’s mostly utilitarian here. Guitarist Jake Cinninger, who favors a tight, technical style, sounds right at home for the most part, as do the industrial-strength basslines of Ryan Stasik and the androidal keys of Joel Cummins. But somehow, even their contributions are blended into an icy concoction of steely sounds that lack depth and heart.
That said, Mantis still manages to be an addictive, tuneful album that finds the band firmly focused on their future. Even two years of production and polishing can’t buff out all of the potential and prowess – “Made to Measure” accurately captures the catchy, current Umphrey’s sound that has been steadily forming for the past decade, the title track mixes enough soaring instrumental work and thought-provoking multi-sectional prog-rock to evoke some of the band’s normally inspiring spirit, and the compositional and conceptual perspective of songs like “Cemetery Walk” and “1348” are impressive and admirable. However I can’t help wanting for a bigger dose of the organically grown, endearing style and hearty hooks that have defined them thus far. Chalk this one up to studio-album syndrome – enjoyable, but nowhere near the explosive creativity and boundless energy they are capable of.