When the term progressive is attached to a piece of music, the results are usually less than stellar, as the term usually denotes pretension, overindulgence and a lack of songwriting quality.
Fortunately, Animals as Leaders managed to capture all of the enjoyable otherworldly qualities of progressive music while avoiding the trappings of excess on their latest record “The Joy of Motion.”
Animals as Leaders are an instrumental progressive metal band. Founded as the solo project of modern guitar legend Tosin Abasi, the project later expanded into a full band with guitarist Javier Reyes and a rotating cast of drummers.
When the band was Abasi’s solo project, he released a superb self-titled debut. It was an ambitious project that combined jazz, metal and electronic music into a wonderful display of extreme technical ability and songwriting. Unfortunately, the second release, “Weightless,” released as a full band, took itself too seriously and ended up overly mechanical and uninteresting.
The band recently released its third album, “The Joy of Motion,” and the album sees the band recapturing what made their debut so exciting. For this release, drummer Matt Garstka joins Abasi and Reyes and is able to hold his own amid his bandmates’ guitar acrobatics. This is also the first Animals as Leaders album to feature bass guitar, played by album engineer Adam “Nolly” Getgood.
The songs on this album have everything that made me love Animals as Leaders when I first heard their debut. The band manages to balance their heavy, groove-oriented metal with their wide range of other influences while giving everything space to breathe with atmospheric passages to ease the tension. All these influences and dynamics allow for a very cinematic experience that feels complete despite the album’s lack of vocals.
Most importantly the band keeps things engaging and fun, despite the technicality and complexity of their songs.
Album opener “Ka$cade” is a fantastic opener that showcases all of the best aspects of the band’s sound. The song features a melodic introduction that immediately jumps into the band’s signature brand of technical yet groovy riffing, then segues into jazzy interludes and unrelenting breakdowns. The jazz-fusion inspired “Another Year” is another highlight and is probably the most unabashedly happy song that the band has ever written.
Lead single “Tooth and Claw” is also a highlight with dense guitar harmonies and guitar leads that sound like they would be at home on a videogame soundtrack. Meanwhile, the track “Para Mexer” is a deconstruction of the band’s own sound, a track with distinctive metal tropes done completely with acoustic classical guitars.
Throughout the album Abasi and Reyes guitar lines are beautiful and melodic. Their frequent guitar leads are impactful and tasteful, while never overstaying their welcome. Getgood’s bass playing adds a nice thickness to the band’s already thick eight string guitars, while Garstka’s drumming is punchy and strong.
“The Joy of Motion” sees the band changing their formula in a way that adds a sense of freshness to their standard sound. Guitar tones are more varied, dynamics are explored and the band adds more melody than ever before. This is easily the catchiest record from Animals as Leaders, with at least one part on every song that will burrow inside your head for days.
Another improvement on this record is the production. The production is warmer and clearer than any of the band’s past releases, which helps in trying to decipher the band’s dense soundscapes.
If there’s one thing that I find fault with in this record it is that some of the electronics and synthesizers seem a bit out of place or unnecessary, but this is a small complaint for an album of this scope.
With the “The Joy of Motion,” Animals as Leaders have retained their original sound while also making their songs more lively and catchy. For those unfamiliar with the band or their style of music, this album would be a fine starting point into Animal as Leaders material as well as the genre of progressive music in general.