Go on a cruise, form a band. Yes, it can happen to you, it can happen to me. And it happened to UMÆ. The annual progressive rock cruise Cruise to the Edge attracts a couple thousand passengers each year, and inevitably many of them are musicians. Some of them, very fine musicians. Part of the Cruise features a passenger-led Late Night Live experience where cruisers play progressive rock classics together, sometimes with as much or more passion than the marquee bands booked on the ship. It was there that the seeds for UMÆ‘sexistence were planted, as two guitarists, vocalists and songwriters – Guðjón Sveinsson (from Iceland) and Anthony Cliplef (from Brandon, Manitoba) – teamed up with drummer Samy-George Salib (from Toronto). In 2017 they began dreaming of their own artistic creations together, perhaps inspired by all of the creativity around them, and by the end of 2018 their debut album Lost in the View has come into focus.
As the songwriting between Sveinsson and Cliplef took shape, they began to feel that additional guests could add the needed color and character to best realize their vision. Thus, although the core band is a trio, there are no less than 17 support musicians, some of them being very well known in their own right. From the perspective of a music Cruise, where many musicians regularly guest on each other’s projects or live sets, this is nothing unusual. So in a way, UMÆ are emblematic of the environment from which they were born.
Lost in the View is a thematic album, focusing on the power of memories in the past and how we deal with them in the present. The album’s main character(s) are focused incessantly on their past…either with longing/nostalgia, or trying to run away from their memories and start over. Overall, this doesn’t make for a very uplifting album lyrically, so fans of more forlorn lyrics (e.g. Katatonia, Opeth) will find much to indulge in here.
After a brief instrumental opening called “Recrudescence” (meaning to recur, or break out again) we are treated to two full-out rockers, “Turn Back Time” and “Echo”. The former clocks in at over 8 minutes and is a wonderful blend of crunching riffs and expressive vocals from guest lead singer John Wesley. While Cliplef and Sveinsson offer plenty of their own solid lead vocals throughout the album, Wesley was likely tapped because of the yearning and desolation conveyed in his voice, which matches the subject material. George’s skilled attack on the drum kit raises the bar immediately, matched by his counterpart on bass, Connor Green from the band Haken. Although Green is a guest on the album, he plays on the vast majority of the tracks, as does guest keyboardist Magnús Jóhann Ragnarsson who fills out the background of this song on organ. Vocal interludes from Hulda Kristín Kolbrúnardóttir and song author Cliplef make for a rich, layered experience during this, one of the most complete and satisfying songs on Lost in the View. “Echo” continues the driving force of the album, with opening distorted guitar harmonics leaving room for George’s creative drum fills. A more compact song, which again features Wesley on lead vocals, we also have a special guest for the guitar solo in Eric Gillette (Neal Morse Band, Shattered Fortress). Gillette’s playing is so fluid and breathtaking – conjuring images of another Eric: Eric Johnson – that were Cliplef and Sveinsson not such skilled guitarists themselves, we could wish Gillette had more presence than this one fleeting moment.
After two strong tracks, the band has solidified its “sound”. But all of that is about to change. Despite its title, “Onerous” has a light-hearted, swinging feel to it with wonderfully busy bass playing from Green and more jazzy guitar chords. However, it’s the lead vocals from Kolbrúnardóttir which really turns the album on its head. Her expressive voice is a ringer for that of Courtney Swain of up and coming indie band Bent Knee. The change in direction is abrupt and may make the listener need to check their player to see if this is still UMÆ on the playlist. And the band has much more in store: after just one and a half minutes, we shift directions yet again for an unaccompanied arpeggiated harp solo. Yes, a harp solo…for over two minutes. This is followed by a spacious, orchestrated vocal section sung by Sveinsson, which also features a well-executed acoustic guitar backdrop. Follow-up song “By Myself” only accentuates the spaciousness and diversity further. This expansive track alternates between intensity-driven ensemble playing, and sparse instrumentation. The final section brings back an engaging band performance with passionate vocals. This 10-minute journey, along with “Onerous” before it, has completely reinvented the album’s initial approach. The constant changing of idioms may better convey the confusion that the main character feels, but it risks confusing the listener, too.
“Running Away” returns us to the familiar voice of Wesley and a more straight-ahead song, driven by Green’s bass playing and staccato clean guitar, and ornamented with layered vocal support which culminates in a beautiful acapella vocal arrangement. We continue in the same vein with “Hold On”, which continues to feature Green prominently in the mix, with strong vocals from Kolbrúnardóttir and Cliplef. The second half of the song once again changes direction and features a lone acoustic guitar repeating an impressive but repetitive series of runs. These kinds of vignettes (and the short instrumental “Joyless” which precedes it) suggest that the band is equally dedicated to artistic originality as to cohesive, traditional songwriting.
The heaviest track on the album, “Losing Grip”, has a special guest keyboardist in Adam Holzman (Steven Wilson, Miles Davis). However, it is mostly the crunching guitars and busy drum kit playing of George which dominate here. The vocals are well delivered (even though Wesley and Kolbrúnardóttir are not in attendance for this one), and the band seem well suited to offer more heavy hitting tracks like this one on their next album.
After a brief forlorn song in “Shame”, following track “Drift” offers one of the best progressions on the album during its finale. This intensity is what prog-rock is made of, and the band capitalizes on this realization by bringing in Jamison Smeltz for a charged sax solo that hits in all of the right places, with Green and George going to town underneath. The only drawback of this piece is that its closing section could/should have continued for several more minutes. It’s the kind of progression that deserves to be drawn out much further and could have impressively closed the album. Instead, final track “Let Go” chooses to end the concept album by fading out on a strummed guitar and flute line. This closing song is a mixed bag, featuring some wonderful guitar soloing, and even a hint of optimism in the lyrics, but ultimately finding uncertainty in the direction our character – or the band – will go.
The overall sound of the album is generally professional and well mixed, but some of the production and effects choices are uneven, particularly in the more acoustic moments. Still, for such a wide palette of sounds, the group achieves a clean, cohesive mix considering this impressive debut is from a young band. There is much that is offered in Lost in the View. However, what is not established is a real group identity. The trio has decided to serve the material by going with whatever direction/guest they felt was called for. While that is commendable from an artistic standpoint, whether or not it holds together from its listener’s standpoint will depend on the subjective opinion of its audience. The changes in instrumentation and arrangement in several of the tracks break the flow of the album, and at times border on minimalism. Again, that can be a welcome invention (or not) depending on the listener’s preferences. In addition, the slew of guest artists is enjoyable, but further distances the band from really defining who UMÆ is. By featuring Wesley on the first two vocal tracks, for example, we have been set up to identify with the tone of his voice and thus feel a little lost to lose him for the bulk of the rest of the album. The diversity that the band brings forth is both an asset and a liability at the same time, especially considering this is a debut album of a new group. Accordingly, it may be more accurate to consider UMÆ a “project” or “ensemble” rather than a “band” at this point, and in that context they have succeeded with a very progressive album in the true sense of the word. There is no lack of skill or creativity coming forth here, and so it will be interesting to see how they harness their muse in subsequent projects.
Released By: Independent
Release Date: December 18th, 2018
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Anthony Cliplef / Guitar, vocals
- Guðjón Sveinsson / Vocals, guitar
- Samy-George Salib / Drums
“Lost In The View” track-list:
- Turn Back Time
- By Myself
- Running Away
- Hold On
- Losing Grip
- Let Go
Newcomers UMÆ offer a diverse palette of sounds, moods and textures, including a large cast of guest musicians to realize their vision. This truly progressive approach holds enough familiar touchstones to be accessible to a wide audience, but doesn’t shy away from traveling in unexpected directions