Album Reviews

Animals as Leaders – The Joy of Motion

Animals as Leaders is a band that is hard to categorize. Their experimental and innovative approach to music definitely puts them in the progressive realm, but they also incorporate other elements that include them in other styles that include djent and jazz fusion to make them truly a unique trio in today’s music scene. Originally from the Washington, DC area, the currently LA-based band consists of Tosin Abasi, on lead 7- and 8-string guitars, his cohort in the multi-stringdom Javier Reyes, also on 7- and 8-string guitars, and drummer Matt Garstka, who has one heck of a talent to keep up with these other two and the polyrhythmic paces they put him through.

The Joy of Motion is Animals as Leaders’ 3rd studio album, a follow up to their self-titled debut and their sophomore album Weightless. The familiar sound of AAL is definitely present in The Joy of Motion, but there is still a sense of progressing and moving forward to expand their repertoire. This is an album that longtime fans will enjoy, as it embodies the style and sound that is unmistakably Animals as Leaders, but there are other aspects of the album that new fans might enjoy and be brought into the AAL fold because of this divergence from using their usual formula of using djent style underneath a flurry of shredding 16th notes. Nearly all the songs on this album run about 4 ½ minutes in length, but just because they are not 25-minute epic songs does not mean that the listener is shortchanged in any way. Animals as Leaders is well known for their quality rather than their quantity, though that might be debatable if you compare the number of notes included vs. minutes elapsed.

The first song on the album, Ka$cade, is a hard-hitting opener that is reminiscent of their previous track Song of Solomon from Weightless, to give you an idea of the style for those familiar with that song. It starts off with some clean guitar chords and then into a frenetic frenzy of notes and polyrhythms. It is a plethora of notes punctuated by the unusual chords Tosin is often known for, in addition to the deep power chords of the low 7th and 8th strings and soaring solos. It shifts between slower, melodic passages with catchy riffs and the flurry of fast, almost dissonant arpeggiated sections.

Lippincott, the second track of the album, is slower in pace and focuses more on syncopation for the bulk of the song, especially as it layers underneath more straightforwardly-timed solos. The frequent use of the low range of the guitars is also prominent in this song, but it also does not ignore the more ethereal upper ranges for certain sustained solo sections. Overall, this song is much more melody-driven rather than just causing the awe-inspiring response from the sheer number of notes that can be crammed into a song, and the syncopated rhythms give it a simple complexity.

The third track, Air Chrysalis, starts off with flange pedaled-chords and it is a generally slower, more lounge-driven song. Though its unusual chords give it a unique flavor, the mellowness of the song is easily universal for listening. It has a jazz fusion incorporated into the style of this generally easy-going tune, which gives it a slightly different feel than some other AAL songs. Though the chords are a little different that one might be used to hearing and there is some deeper heaviness introduced toward the end, it is pleasant to hear and would be a good song to be an introduction to the group. It ends with an ethereal, fading outro.

The fourth song, Another Year, picks up briskly from where Air Chrysalis leaves off with a cool, clean, jazzy intro. This song is about as jazz metal as one can get, but it gets you tapping your foot along with it. Though jazz theory has been incorporated into AAL’s style all along, this song is about as outright jazz as I’ve ever heard, and shows their comfort with the genre and willingness to incorporate it into their repertoire as a band typically considered progressive instrumental metal. This is a song I could hear as background music at a modern and hip restaurant. Little percussive moments keep the song interesting and fresh, and the solid beat keeps moving throughout the song with an appealing melody line throughout, and the synths also add to the smooth jazzy feel to the song.

Physical Education, the fifth track, easily pulls you back into the more staccato syncopations that AAL is known for…so have no fear, they are not starting to turn into a jazz lounge band. The bouncy background keeps you going, with a beat worthy of a good workout, and with catchy lines to go along with the unusual rhythms and time signatures. The countermelody solo that starts a little more than a third into the song is a little gem in the song, and somewhat unexpected in this more abruptly-rhythmic piece.

The sixth song, Tooth and Claw, is very much quintessential Animals as Leaders in its sound. It’s very rhythmically-driven, with precise stroking, accented with melodic solos interspersed in between the marcato rhythms. However, about half-way through the song, the style changes with some longer passages and lovely melody lines before it segues back again into the original syncopations that eventually end the song cleanly and abruptly.

Crescent, the seventh tune, starts with a synth-led intro while the guitars follow soon after with the fast paced rhythms well-known to AAL listeners that both carry the song and undergird the more melodic solo lines as they are introduced. The song slows at the middle with the sci-fi synths and the gliding arpeggios of the guitars with the chorus echoes to match. Before long, however, the song builds back into a strong re-entry of power chords and djent-like staccatos accented with lightweight and lightning fast percussion programming while driven forward by the traditional kit beats. It ends with the synths again that are like a marimba music box of sorts, while a solo clean arpeggiated guitar entry segues directly into the eighth song, The Future that Awaited Me. A pleasant and time-signature-challenged melody comes forth on a clean guitar sounds that waltzingly pushes it along. This song is a bit slower, melodic, and gives the listener a nice reprieve from the more aggressive track just previous.

In Para Mexer, the ninth track, the acoustic/classical guitar features prominently in a flamenco-jazz style song that is very energetic and catchy while having a fun vibe throughout. The change of style on this song shows the versatility of these musicians and gives the album variety so that every song doesn’t just sound like a copy of its predecessor.

The tenth song, The Woven Web, starts off with some ethereal keys, but then starts right into the arpeggiated guitar entry’s recurrent riff of 16th notes mixed with some melodic lines. About a minute and a half into the song, a crazily effective slap bass (low strings on the 8-string guitar) begins for an abrupt but amazing change, which then morphs into a lightly played synth/guitar chord section. Some heavy and deep guitar chords re-enter while more melodic soloing continues and changes with time signature changes in landscape until it fades out with the synths again.

Mind = Spun, the eleventh track, starts with a strange organ-like synth with clicks as each interesting chord changes. This interesting song highlights the complexity that Animals as Leaders is known for, with a flurry of note activity with punctuated rhythms to keep it on course. This song also features their djent-style more than some of the others with a lot of staccato and syncopated rhythms, and at other times the guitars sound siren-like. Some sections are slow and more melodic and drawn-out as a complete opposite from their previous dissonant and choppy passages. It ends with the same odd organ-like synth and guitars in their equally odd rhythms.

The last and twelfth song, Nephele, starts by showing off the low range of the guitars. Again, the repertoire of these musicians is shown as about 1/3 into the song, the style completely shifts to softer yet very propelling clean guitar solo section that lasts for around a minute before the rhythm guitar chords re-enter with a pleasant guitar line. The style similar to the beginning with punctuated low-end chords returns afterwards and continues in various forms until it fades out to the end in a fairly classic AAL tune.

Tosin, Javier, and Matt have done it again, and they continue to outdo themselves with each album they create. They are open to experimentation and don’t necessarily write themselves into a box. Their sound is trademark Animals as Leaders, but they still leave room for surprise and are not afraid to try new styles, approaches, techniques, or sounds. Their technicality and musicality shine through in both regards. This striving toward excellence while remaining open to a variety of possibilities is sure to bring them an even wider audience. Instrumental progressive metal may be a niche market, but Animals as Leaders has certainly cornered it and brought it up several notches for serious consideration in the genre. Being instrumental only can also be an advantage for situations in which vocals could be distracting or too invasive, or just for the listener to be immersed in the joy of the music. The Joy of Motion is an album not to be missed, not only by Animals as Leaders followers, but also by newcomers to the fold.

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