American road trips have long inspired writers, from Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck and Tom Wolfe, to Hunter S. Thompson, Robert M. Pirsig and Bill Bryson. Fewer are the extended works, similarly inspired, written by musicians. Some things, it seems, may be easier put into words. Umbra's West
is inspired by founding member Chris Guilfoyle
's 2017 road trip, as evidenced through the song titles, through North America's Western states to Canada. It marks Umbra's full debut, but can be seen as a logical stepping stone from the band's eponymous debut
That EP announced Guilfoyle's penchant for complex interweaving threads, melodic and rhythmic, with the guitarist playing tag with the twin horns of tenor saxophonist Sam Comerford
and soprano/altoist Chris Engel
. Then as now, the rhtyhm section of bassist Barry Donohue
and drummer Matthew Jacobson
rounds out a quartet where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Like his father, renowned bassist/composer Ronan Guilfoyle
, Chris Guilfoyle writes for the individuals, delighting in the juxtapositions between knotty lines and handsome melodies, contrasting simultaneous tempos, soft plateaus and soaring peaks.
All these elements color "L.A.." Swirling, fuzzy electronics and serene dual saxophones entwine on the intro before a gnawing guitar riff kick-starts the rhythm section. Staccato motifs circle like a stuck needle on vinyl, an impasse resolved when Engel cuts loose on soprano over a visceral bass and drums groove. Guilfoyle's entry coincides with a pulling back on the quintet's reins, the guitarist's lyricism contrasting with Engel's fire. The quintet unites in a punchy unison sprint to the line. It's a punchy calling card and would make a great live opening number.
The harmonic finesse of "San Francisco"'s motif, underpinned by Jacobson's feathery brush work, soon gives way to more urgent rhythms and bright, call-and-response between alto and tenor saxophones that frame Comerford's tenor flight. An unaccompanied drum feature concludes that chapter and bleeds into "Intro to Portland"an atmospheric electro-acoustic vignette. It's Jacobson's emerging groove that announces "Portland," inviting a sparkling solo from Guilfoyle, who then dovetails with the arrival of the closely harnessed saxophones. Comerford's' mazy tenor solo is the centerpiece of a mellow number that winds its way elegantly and without fanfare, to its conclusion.
Without pause, Guilfoyle's ruminative solo spot on "Intro to Seattle" follows on like an unfinished thought. The reverie is broken by the rocky guitar and driving beat of "Seattle"an appropriate homage to the city of grunge; here, the soaring saxophones are at their most melodic and uplifting. A change of gear ushers in staccato horn phrasing, with Guilfoyle and Donohue picking up the knotty pattern when Engel stretches out on alto. In a stirring finale, Guilfoyle rocks out in brief but incendiary fashion over bouyant saxophones. The episodic "Vancouver" toggles between tightly-woven melodic-rhythmic lines and overlapping free-form flights. A hypnotic guitar-and-bass ostinato flares briefly before Jacobson's cymbal, as soft as sea breeze, put a full stop on the narrative.
Emotionally engaging and technically impressive, Guilfoyle's Umbra makes a significant statement with West
. Hopefully, this vibrant yet lyrical outing will launch Umbra to the wider touring its talents most definitely merit.