I’m normally not a big fan of progressive metal – I find it… well, to put it simply, soulless. There’s skill there, for sure, amazing, overwhelming skill, but usually I feel it’s in the detriment of melody and expression. However, there are a few exceptions and Animals As Leaders is one of them. Their first album, self-titled, came out in 2009 and constituted a great surprise even for the mastermind of the project, guitarist Tosin Abasi. Not only is this guy the mastermind, he’s also basically the only performer on this album. He plays an eight string guitar (like a normal guitar, but with two added bass strings, for extra low end) and he has such mind boggling skill that he sounds like (at least) two people playing at once. And the drums on the album are programmed. So, basically, this is a one man show. I was blown away.
Coming back to the issue which bothers me in most prog-metal outfits, I think one of the main problems there is the fact that there are usually so many people involved in a prog-metal band. They have a very rich sound, incorporating musicians of extreme proficiency, from drummers, to guitarists, to bass players, keyboard players and vocalists, and all of them need time and space to show off their skill and range. What you get is long, convoluted, complex songs which function more as a demonstration than anything else. I rarely feel any sort of emotional buildup in this music – whatever growth there is in these songs is mathematical, development according to algorithm. Although I can enjoy, to an extent limited severely by my lacking knowledge of musical theory, this music on an intellectual level, I rarely resonate. And this is where Animals As Leaders come in. For some reason, although they loosely transcend the “progressive metal” label and step into “math rock“, I can find an energy and a form of expression in these… constructs (songs just doesn’t seem to cover it) which I am hard pressed to encounter in other such outfits. This music is pure, absolutely cold and sharp as a blade, especially since there are no vocals to crowd anything up with usually sub-par lyrics which have nothing to do with the notes.
People such as Fredrik Thordendal from Messugah have managed to make me feel as if they speak through their instruments before, on occasion, but rarely with such consistency and precision as Tosin Abasi. This man is a force of nature when it comes to playing the guitar. But beyond that, he seems superhuman when it comes to counting beats. The complexity and fluidity he builds his songs on are just staggering, and if you’ve ever gotten a thrill by watching the endless, green, data flow image in The Matrix, this music will definitely expand on that. Listening to this album I feel like time is as easy to bend as a piece of wire. I was extremely lucky to discover Animals As Leaders as I had started running, more and more, on a progressive regimen. I can’t begin to describe the surge of energy a song like CAFO could inject into my veins as I was running. It made me feel as if I was running towards a cliff, every step taking me closer to a state of exhaustion so severe I would have to stop, and yet with every furious but completely controlled note, that edge would move further away, with every beat, my heart would catch up to my legs, with every explosion of sound, my lungs would expand even further, ever calmer, ever obedient. It’s hard to relate to such music on an emotional level unless you involve some sort of mechanical process in the bonding. And running as I did while listening to this album over and over accomplished just that. The struggle to defeat one’s own feeling of comfort, one’s own muscles, the developing ability to control one’s body, all of these efforts function under the same basic principles as listening to this, at least to my ears. I see Animals As Leaders as a sort of self-feeding wave of energy ready to crash over the listener, a self-slicing sword of unrelenting, unstoppable power, ready to spin around itself and around the listener’s mind and turn one into a dynamo.
The album itself isn’t very coherent as a whole. Each of the songs are amazing, but they don’t seem to overlap in any significant way, which is, however, understandable, given Tosin Abasi himself considered it more of an experiment, an exercise, and didn’t expect it to have such an immediate and overpowering resonance in the ranks of music lovers. But it’s this honesty, this direct and unassuming approach to the music which gave it its strength and its core reason for working the way it does. The much anticipated Animals As Leaders followup (upon which Tosin acquired the help of a second guitarist and a real-life drummer) sadly falls flat from my perspective. The music sounds sought after, crafted, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except it fails to capture the same scintillating energy as before. But that’s just my opinion, and I’m not here to compare. All I can do is express my great admiration and awe at the imagination and creative flow demonstrated on Animals As Leaders and hope you too will feel moved by this rare demonstration of dizzying prowess grafted on solid emotion, or at least capable of catalyzing it.