OHMphrey is a quintet featuring half of Chicago rockers Umphrey’s McGee – keyboardist Joel Cummins, guitarist Jake Cinninger, and drummer Kris Meyers – along with Chris Poland (Megadeth, OHM) and Robertini Pagliari (OHM). Their eponymous debut album, out on Magna Carta, is a fiery, expansive instrumental opus that will please a wide range of listeners.
Gearheads and musicians will love the album for its technical complexity and performance perfection, jam-seekers will dig the many open-ended compositions, and fusion devotees will find plenty of styles and solos to discuss. Full of impressive individual performances and amazing group interplay, OHMphrey brings the band’s many tastes to the table, including hard electric fusion, menacing metal, and soaring improvisation.
Opening track “Someone Said You Were Dead” combines a jittery guitar figure with synthesized waves of guitar, bruising drums, and frantic bass work. It’s all contained within a structure that is alternately uplifting and menacing, as progressive note frenzies surround a hopeful hook. “The Girl From Chi-Town” is nearly the opposite, as the band lounges on a bluesy, stoic groove full of evocative melodies and wistful solos.
It’s impossible to single out the contributions of each band member on a per-song basis, as all five of them add invaluable ideas. Listeners who are familiar with both of the contributing bands will instantly recognize the personalities and signature sounds of the players. While the band does create some wholly original music, the album still tugs knowingly at the ears of those who know the musicians’ prior work.
“Denny’s By the Jail,” in particular, has the chugging feel of a typical Umphrey’s jam. It will be a familiar sound to their fans, who are used to following the band back and forth across the line between pure improvisation and premeditated chaos. The alternately fierce and atmospheric guitars scurry along a schizophrenic beat that is unmistakably Myers, and I’d bet most Umphrey’s fans could name that drummer in less than 30 seconds.
Cinninger revels in the chance to indulge his prog-metal leanings, which have markedly changed the Umphrey’s sound but are finally allowed to run completely wild here. Cummins sounds as if he’s riding the same creative wave that inspired his solo album, Common Sense, and his highly mechanized synth work and poignant piano are right at home among the album’s dynamic shifts.
Pagliari unleashes a jazzy rollercoaster of notes during “Ice Cream,” then propels the band through a brief, seemingly spontaneous bit of fusion that fades out far too quickly. The subsequent “Lake Shore Drive” fails to achieve liftoff and isn’t nearly as appealing, but it stretches out for over 8 minutes. “Ice Cream” melted in three and a half. Anyone who has spent time in Chicago knows that Lake Shore Drive isn’t as good as ice cream.
“Not Afraid of the Dark,” like “Ice Cream,” seems to be just one segment of a much larger creation. The band is in full flight when the track fades in, and Poland joins Cummins and Cinninger in dirtying up a pulsating bass and drum groove. The result sounds like Headhunters, Mahavishnu, Rush, and King Crimson rolled into one foreboding fusion-rock whole.
“Shrooms ‘n Cheese” is a loose piece of intimate improvisation that brings the listener 15 minutes in the mind of the musicians. Pagliari and Cinninger zing ideas off one another while Meyers does a routinely admirable job of keeping time through the constant changes, Cummins lends melodic depth in all the right places, and Poland contributes another piercing, tuneful solo. At the song’s halfway point, they’ve already explored a half dozen loosely-bound interpretations of funk, jazz, and rock, collectively unearthing an entirely new sound that they steer to a cinematic climax.
“What’s the Word, Thunderbird” brings the album to a close with indescribable barroom fusion. Highlighted by Cummins’ guilty-pleasure synths and an unrestrained jamming style, the track is even less structured than “Shrooms ‘n Cheese.” Together, the two tracks stand in stark contrast to the tightly wound tunes that dominate the album’s first half.
OHMphrey gives it their all on this release, alternately putting each other through the musical wringer and letting each other stretch out. The album is a revealing glimpse into the multiple personalities of each of these insanely talented musicians.
Rating: 8.0 out of 10