Release Date: Jun 10, 2014
Record label: MRI
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Neo-Prog, Prog-Rock, Jam Bands
Often categorized as any combination of “improvisational progressive rock jam band”, Indiana sextet Umphrey’s McGee is known for its distinctive blend of accessible atmosphere, complex arrangements, and tongue-in-cheek vibe. In other words, their carefree, colorful attitudes offer an unexpected juxtaposition to their musical chops. On their eighth effort, Similar Skin, they once again manage a pristine balance between intricacy, eccentricity, and straightforwardness; however, the songwriting itself isn’t especially memorable, so the experience is mostly forgettable once the record is done.
The press release for Umphrey’s McGee’s eighth studio album calls them a “genre-defying sextet,” which is about as accurate a way to portray the veteran band as any. This journeyman ensemble shifts gears from complex King Crimson and Rush styled prog to dumbed down Kiss and Bachman-Turner overdrive hard rock, meaty Led Zeppelin crunch and upbeat singalong pop with blues, jazz and indie threads, often combined within the same song. That covers a lot of ground and the group’s top-notch instrumental prowess guarantees the final product is always listenable and professionally performed.
Umphrey's McGee are a veteran act steeped in prog musicianship, metal power and genre-jumping inventiveness that thinks in terms of album-length statements – in other words, a novelty act in 2014. All those elements are in play on their eighth LP, which is full of knotty Rush/King Crimson/Police-style textures and Eighties hard-rock thrust. They even try some tuneful jam-pop with the Phish-meets-Hall-and-Oates of "No Diablo." "There's no need to overthink this through," Brendan Bayliss sings on "Educated Guess," a slipstream sprawl of classical strings, drum-clinic rhythmic precision and hydra-headed guitar insanity.
I’ve been listening to an unhealthy amount of Umphrey’s McGee lately. That in of itself isn’t particularly interesting or difficult; they’re generous with what they make available on Spotify and given their branded status as a “jamband,” are required to have upwards of 2,000 shows available for free download and/or streaming in the Live Music Archive. And on paper, they contain all the hallmarks of said classification—namely a rigorous touring schedule with a propensity for twenty-five minute songs; a seemingly bottomless bag of cover tunes to go with their equally bottomless bag of originals; and in Brendan Bayliss, a frontman who despite being highly charismatic sings because he’s required to, not because he actually can.
One of Umphrey’s McGee’s greatest strengths lies in the fact that they seem to defy characterization… and in many cases, expectations as well. Although the initial inclination might be to label them a jam band – a term that’s always been somewhat ambiguous as well – a closer listen to their shifting dynamics makes that classification seem somewhat tenuous. With Similar Skin, their eighth album – and first since 2011 – the group takes dramatic liberties with their forward-leaning approach, venturing into hard rock territory with an assured heavy metal rumble.