Anabelle Porio ‘19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
In the jam band scene, there is none like Umphrey’s McGee. After originally forming in 1997 at the University of Notre Dame, these guys have evolved into powerhouses of fusion rock music. They have expanded their following, broadened their styles, and truly made a name for themselves within this genre. They are able to combine jam, jazz, metal, progressive rock, reggae, and new wave into a sound that is all their own. On November 11, 2016, Umphrey’s McGee released “ZONKEY,” their latest album.
This album is comprised of all mash-ups, each mash-up being a combination of the band’s influences. Although mash-ups sometimes seem like a cop-out move, this album does it differently. “ZONKEY” demonstrates how far-reaching their inspirations come from. In each mashup, you can hear the sounds of some popular songs by their favorite artists as well as the distinct tone that Umphrey’s McGee has developed over the years.
The album starts with a song called “National Loser Anthem,” which is a combination of “National Anthem” by Radiohead, “Loser” by Beck, and “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. Why would anyone think to combine these songs? Well, first off, Radiohead is a major influence of Umphrey’s ominous tracks. They also released a famous live cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” from their show at the Beacon Theatre in New York City in 2013. The twangy sound of Beck is a reminder of their most recent releases which were very alternative-sounding. Phil Collins was a great combination of their new wave influences, and adding a light-hearted tone towards the ending.
The second track on the album is a song called “Life During Exodus,” which is a combination of “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads, “Exodus” by Bob Marley, “City of Tiny Lites” by Frank Zappa, and “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago. The song starts with the pure reggae of Bob Marley and then gets more upbeat when the Talking Heads section arrives, demonstrating the art-pop influence the band has gotten from them. The song slowly builds to a more progressive-rock sound as the Frank Zappa section arrives, making their influence from his experimental progressive rock very clear. However, the band always goes back to the classics, as they include the horn-heavy rock legends Chicago to finish off the piece.
The third song on the album is called “Can’t Rock My Dream Face,” which combines “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson, “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, and “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd. If you’re looking for an R&B electronica vibe, this is the song you’ll enjoy the most. This song demonstrates the pop influence that Umphrey’s McGee has in some of their more melodic tunes. Although they are known for their instrumental expertise, some often forget how glorious the group’s vocal harmonies often sound, and you can hear this perfectly in the transition from Fleetwood Mac to The Weeknd.
Coming up fourth on this album is “Sad Clint Eastwood,” which is combination of “Sad But True” by Metallica and “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz. The song starts off with the hard intro of “Sad But True,” already grabbing the attention of metalheads everywhere. However, we see a distinct transition into “Clint Eastwood” as the pace slows but the beat stays in time with the slow, head-swaying Gorillaz classic. Although the song clearly explores the band’s metal talent, it also briefly dips into their reggae-pop influence.
The fifth song, and probably the most hilarious combination, is “Electric Avenue to Hell,” which is exactly as it sounds — a mash-up of “Electric Avenue” by Eddy Grant and “Highway to Hell,” as well as Umphrey’s original “The Triple Wide.” You have never realized how flawlessly these songs go together until you come across this track, which was the first released off of this album. The song features vocals by Jennifer Hartswick, who has been featured with other big-name jam bands such as Phish. After guitarist and vocalist Brendan Bayliss brings us back to the early ’80s with vocals of “Electric Avenue,” Hartswick brings the heat with a soulful, powerhouse rendition of “Highway to Hell.” This is by far the most fun and upbeat track on the album.
The next song on this album is every metalhead and alt-kid’s dream titled “Ace of Long Nights,” a combination of “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead and “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night” by Ween. The song starts with the yelling and unified heavy metal riffs of Metallica to get that fast-paced tone. Without any direct transition, you then start to hear the lines of Ween’s tune mixed in within the same progression. The guitar solo break with its metal influenced shredding is definitely the best part of this track. Although it shows the metal side very clearly, this song doesn’t dive into the band’s talent as much as other tunes on this track due to a very simple song structure that doesn’t leave much room for experimentation.
For all the new-wave fans, the seventh track on this album, called “Sweet Sunglasses,” combines “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics, “Sunglasses At Night” by Corey Hart, and “Electric Feel” by MGMT. The fact that most of these ’90s new wave songs sounded the same was a benefit for Umphrey’s McGee in creating this track. It takes you back to that pop electronica sound to make you get on your feet. Umphrey’s have rarely shown off their electronica influence in their latest music, so this track may come as a surprise to some recent fans, but this influence is very clear in the band’s live performances.
If you’re a fan of metal and rap rock, then the eighth song, titled “Strangletage,” which combines “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent and “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys, will be your new favorite from this album. Starting off with the clear imitation of the Beastie Boys’ renowned opening of “Sabotage,” the track quickly transitions into Ted Nugent’s opening of “Strangehold.” Since only two songs are blended in this track, it is able to go back and forth between the two songs very smoothly. The second half of the song is definitely the most diverse in style. The isolated bass riff makes an incredible groove that is backed by some fresh guitar riffs. This was definitely the most surprising song of the entire album.
For all the indie kids, the next track is titled “Come As Your Kids,” and it combines “Kids” by MGMT, “Come As You Are” by Nirvana, and “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” by Dead or Alive. Although combining grunge, indie pop, and ’80s pop might seem a bit out of the ordinary, this song will soon change your mind. Starting off with that classic MGMT riff, you already become nostalgic. It leads right into the first verse of the hit Nirvana track and blends together smoothly. However, later in the track, you suddenly hear those monotone vocals reminiscent of Dead or Alive’s class dance club track. This is arguably the album’s most dynamic song.
The tenth song on this album is another incredibly strange combination called “Frankie Zombie,” that is a mash-up of “Thunder Kiss ’65” by White Zombie, “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and “Have a Cigar” by Pink Floyd. After a very ominous opening, we get a hard-rock rendition of “Relax” — something very different. Following this, we get a clear nod to White Zombie’s track. After some head-banging back and forth between these two tracks, we hear the iconic riff of “Have a Cigar” slowly enter into the fray before we hear the opening vocals. This song demonstrates a wide range of influence for Umphrey’s McGee from metal, new wave, and, of course, the experimental rock legends of Pink Floyd.
The lovers of rap rock of the early ’90s will get their face melted by “Bulls On The Bus,” which beautifully combines “Bulls on Parade” by Rage Against the Machine and “Mark On the Bus” by the Beastie Boys. Any diehard fan of this type of music will listen to this track and immediately wonder why no one has thought to combine these two before. It’s full of angst, hard rock guitar, and delightfully dirty vocals. One of the biggest influences for Umphrey’s McGee comes from this era of music, and they often cover tracks and use riffs from these artists in their live shows.
Finally, the absolute end of this mash-up record is “Bittersweet Haj,” which combines “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve and Umphrey’s original “Hajimemashite.” The song has the calmest opening of any track off this record, which includes the orchestral riff of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and transitions slowly into the opening lyrics from “Hajimemashite.” This track is sweet and melodic, separating it from the rest of “ZONKEY.” It also has the greatest build-up of any other track on this record. The climax of this song hits us with powerful vocals as well as a blues rock-influenced guitar solo. This was an incredibly strong ending to this album and reminds the listeners that although the band has many influence, they themselves are also a source of inspiration for growth as they continue making music.
“ZONKEY” brilliantly crafts together many notable artists that influence Umphrey’s McGee’s musical sound. Not many artists could make an entire album of mash-ups and have it not sound arbitrary and campy. They are able to demonstrate their evolution of musical talent showing where they came from and where they are now. They honor these timeless tracks while highlighting the dynamic, multi-talented sound of their own.