When guitarist Tosin Abasi first burst onto the metal scene in 2009 with the self-titled debut from his group Animals as Leaders, he was the primary creative force behind the instrumental project. While he had outside assistance from Periphery guitarist Misha Mansoor on drum programming and production, the record turned ears thanks to Abasi’s vision of blending Meshuggah-style, polyrhythmic metal riffs with technicality that aped shred greats like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Seven years later, Abasi has shared magazine covers and stages alongside his aforementioned guitar heroes and is considered a contemporary leader in today’s instrumental rock guitar scene.
The newest record from Animals as Leaders, The Madness of Many, was released last month. Abasi says that the newest record is the most cohesive statement that the current lineup — rounded out by second guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Matt Garstka — has ever composed as a full band from start to finish.
After the grueling touring cycle of the group’s previous record, 2014’s The Joy of Motion, “My headspace was kind of weird,” says Abasi, speaking by phone before a performance in Houston. “We all wanted to go into our own cocoons and gestate for a little bit. I started playing improvisational guitar a lot and different types of guitar music. I wasn’t concerned with writing metal. I almost thought of doing a solo album.”
During a 2014 interview with L.A. Weekly , Reyes said that “sometimes we come up with stuff we have to put to the side because it's too ... 'not Animals.'" But the definition of music that is too “not Animals” is getting narrower with every record. On The Joy of Motion and the record before that, 2011’s Weightless, Animals as Leaders began interweaving elements of jazz and electronic music into their already expansive musical blueprint.
The trio’s latest effort sees those elements so seamlessly blended that one could argue that The Madness of Many is the least metal record the group has done. But the result also sounds like the most fully formed realization of the vision Abasi has had from day one, thanks in part to the increased collaboration within the band.
“There was some uncertainty when we started getting together to write again,” Abasi says. “But we noticed this new exciting dynamic had emerged and we started producing this music pretty effortlessly. I think the space we gave ourselves was integral to us having a fresher perspective, and the result is a really balanced representation of all three members.”
The band made a conscious decision to display their wide-open new songwriting dynamic to listeners from the get-go, with the album’s opening salvo “Arithmophobia.” Middle Eastern guitar passages set the mood for a trippy vibe throughout the record, before dizzying drums from Gartska come storming in to lay the groundwork for Abasi and Reyes to dazzle with the most ethereal guitar work they’ve done throughout their career.
“That song was initially written entirely by our drummer as a multi-minute drum extravaganza,” says Abasi. “We decided on that as the starting point for the new album, and I inputted harmony, which I had never done before. And every song after that, there were these collaborative surprises.”
While the band’s musical proficiency is immediately evident on record, the heavy metal minefield is littered with the bodies of bands that are not capable of fully replicating their sound in a live setting. Animals as Leaders has always somehow pulled off the dexterity of their challenging compositions live, while sacrificing none of the thickness of their sound. Abasi is especially proud of how The Madness of Many comes off in concert, mostly due to his belief that the band’s latest record captures their “live” sound the best of anything he's done so far.
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“We’ve always just done everything we want to create in the studio and figure out how to play live later,” Abasi says. “But we’re comparing show playbacks to the new album, and the new album sounds more like us live than any other album has. It translates 1:1 from the studio to the stage.” The group is recording every show on their current headlining tour for a potential live album in the new year.
At this stage of their burgeoning career, Animals as Leaders are doing an excellent job of pushing the boundaries of their sound to where it’s almost bursting at the seams. But Abasi hints at a desire to explore what can be done to push the sound even further, perhaps with outside help.
“I don’t want to say too much. But as a three-piece we’re basically a rhythm section, so we exist in a manner that is open for collaboration with outside musicians. We’ve thought about presenting ourselves as a band working with musicians we really like, and creating something new and exciting for both ourselves and those musicians. We want to explore the possibilities of ‘Animals as Leaders plus X.'”
Animals as Leaders perform at the Mayan on Thursday, Dec. 15.