Review by Xephyr for Animals as Leaders - Animals as Leaders (2009) Review by Xephyr for Animals as Leaders - Animals as Leaders (2009)

Xephyr Xephyr / March 30, 2019 / 0

The "Soulless" Genre

When does an album become simple noodling? How many notes per second does the guitarist or bassist have to play before it becomes wankery? How many time signature changes and syncopated rhythms must a song have before it becomes soulless? When highly technical performers release a convoluted, technical album, it must only be because they want everyone who listens to bow down to their immense, obvious virtuosic prowess as they rub it in our simpleton faces. Truly, no one who is skilled at their instrument creates music that they find cool and interesting to listen to in ways that they’re able to because they’re incredibly skilled; that’d be absolutely absurd.

As someone who’s enjoyed listening to technical, instrumental Progressive Metal ever since I got into the Metal genre on the whole, the general disdain for acts like Animals as Leaders in certain corners of the music world can be perplexing. The obvious disclaimer here is that of course all music is subjective and I’ll never say that anyone is wrong for feeling any sort of way, but the blanket observations about instrumental, math-y progressive metal have worn on me a bit too hard. I make it no secret that I have a soft spot for music like this, even though I’ll almost never give a record like Animals as Leaders unwavering, glowing praise, save for an anomaly like Cloudkicker’s Solitude from 2020. Hell, over the past few months of checking out some releases from the newest math-y instrumental sensation Plini I can almost see what people mean when they say this genre can be “soulless”. I really don’t think that holds true for Animals As Leaders’ debut, though.

This record is basically a solo project for guitarist Tosin Abasi, with Misha Mansoor of Periphery only supplying drums and electronics for what Abasi had written. The guy is obviously extremely skilled, which is where most of the wow-factor comes from in instrumental records like this, but Animals as Leaders has always been one of the more compelling guitar centric albums to come after the age of the 1980’s shredders for me. I’ve always felt like this album shows any other modern shred album how its done with its great mix of progressive scale melodies, ripping solos, and Djent-y chugs. It can be unfocused at times, especially during the shorter interlude tracks like “Tessitura”, “Point to Point” and “Modern Meat”, but the rest of this debut falls into the positive side of unfocused for me. While Abasi doesn’t exactly write tunes that have obvious progressions and payoffs, the grooves and fleeting melodies that make up Animals as Leaders are still creative and fresh sounding. Even though “Behaving Badly”, “CAFO”, and “Song of Solomon” are the common highlights of Abasi’s acute playing, the rest of the tracks are nothing to scoff at. “Tempting Time” is an energetic introduction to the album, “Soraya” showcases some enticing bass lines, “On Impulse” and “The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing” mellows things out for a much-needed change of pace, and “Inamorata’s” hefty middle section and soloing is just as impressive as the aforementioned, more notable tracks.

Animals as Leaders is far from a perfect album, nor is it a staggering revolution in progressive instrumental metal. The drum production is extremely sketchy throughout, especially when it comes to the ear-splitting snare at times, and the electronics could definitely be a bit more inspired at times. But all that said, it remains one of the more exciting modern shred-fests that helped to catapult this style of djent fused, jazzy progressive metal into the limelight during the beginning of the 2010’s. For just a moment, Animals as Leaders helped make nerdy, technical musings cool again to a pretty wide audience, and other groups like Intervals, Polyphia, and now Plini are riding that wave to varying amounts of success. To see all of these bands be sometimes dismissed as self-indulgent noodling sessions is absolutely disheartening as a progressive metal fan, though. These types of albums have so many excellent riffs and ideas that are categorized as sterile and soulless because, seemingly, the guitarist decided to play a few more notes out of the scale than the rest of the same chugs that metal has been using for decades. I love the experimentation and I’m always excited to see what crazy riffs and grooves people come up with, even though the songwriting of players like Abasi is admittedly historically lackluster. The point of highly technical records like Animals as Leaders is the same as any other album, and while it may not invoke some kind of divine emotion within my very being, immediately bending the opposite way and claiming it’s devoid of all life is something that I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand. I still get a ton of enjoyment out of albums like this and Animals as Leaders’ debut shows they have more than enough edge and character to be more than a showoff at a school talent show.

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