For Fans Of: Animals As Leaders

For Fans Of is a column that takes one very well-known and popular band that our writers and readers are fans of, and then our staff write about a small group of lesser-known bands that do similar things and who we think you all might like as well and give a listen to. Check out past entries here.

Animals as Leaders are arguably one of the most important bands in the “technical progressive” metal genre, having gone to extreme lengths to prove that the genre has a right to exist and a maturity to preserve itself. Their writing has always attempted to push the boundaries of their own definitions, yielding experimentation and growth with a side-dish of a lot of fun in the forms of interesting approaches and a form of irreverence towards theirs own sound. The band, and especially its “front man”, Tosin Abasi, have also garnered a small cult of personality, feeding off or perhaps contributing to the technical guitar player personality trope. However, Animals as Leaders often subvert that trope, throwing in elements into the mix which usually can’t be found on these types of releases or live shows. Anything from jazz through metal goes, with influences grabbed from far away places.

It is also without doubt when we say that they have spawned a whole genre that lives alongside them, some of them even predating their own birth. The list below is for listeners who are looking for technicality, jazz and a tinge of that misused onomatopoeia, “djent”. The bands below can vary wildly, and perhaps a few of them even fall outside the definition of metal, but they all have those things in common: an emphasis on high playing skills, a devotion to intricate, wide-reaching composition and a sense of fun and vivacity that makes their music a bit rude, a bit brazen and wide eyed. Head on below the jump and make sure to turn your speakers up. You don’t want to miss any of those leads.

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Technicality is something I have a complex relationship with: on the one hand, I appreciate a good player and can definitely stand in awe of epic performances. On the other hand, it’s too often and excuse for being lazy, replacing composition and ideas with sheer technical might. I’ve always loved Animals as Leaders, as one thing doesn’t come instead of the other. They’re able to fuse both interesting ideas and jazzy, progressive, complex composition into one. That’s exactly what Wide Eyes do as well, albeit with a slightly heavier tinge. If you’ve ever listened to Animals as Leaders and just wished there was a little more chug, this is the band for you.

Samsara is chock full of interesting leads but also of intense riffs backed by well produced chugs, creating a cohesive whole that is hard to resist. “Atman” is a great example, opening with a short open-note riff before introducing its catchy lead. From there on, it’s a back and forth with the heavier guitars and intricate lead parts exchanging roles of center and backing roles. The entire album plays on this structure, creating a progressive soundscape, often featuring ambient outros, connecting tracks and even electronics, that speak immediately to any fan of skillful guitar playing and well-performed, interesting musical concepts. The album after this one, Terraforming, is also worth your time as it takes the whole package to eleven, with an over the top concept and execution.
 

Eden Kupermintz

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Everything about T.R.A.M.’s announcement seemed dichotomous; how could musicians with separate backgrounds in djent, Latin-tinged prog rock and crossover thrash come together to put out a coherent jazz album? Tosin and Javier flashing their AAL cred certainly helped the super group garner pre-debut buzz, and despite the initial head-scratching, Lingua Franca turned out to be an exceptional debut that has kept fans impatiently waiting for a potential follow-up. T.R.A.M.’s cohesion makes all of the above genre tags arbitrary, as the progressive jazz fusion exhibited on Lingua Franca plays out more like a seasoned quartet rather than a side project.

All of this stems from the star-studded lineup which earned T.R.A.M. its super group status. Eric Moore may primarily lay down d-beats in Suicidal Tendencies, but his complex techniques make for a percussive performance that puts skeptics to shame. Tosin & Javier’s phenomenal style both adds vertebrae to Moore’s rhythmic backbone and command attention by fully fleshing out the jazzier tendencies of AAL’s music. Rounding out the equation is a woodwind performance provided by Adrián Terrazas-González, whose stellar playing – as heard on some of The Mars Volta’s best albums – elevates the group’s compositions into pure jazz bliss. All of this flows seamlessly between smooth, gorgeous soundscapes and cacophonous free jazz that somehow balances avant-garde tendencies with Tosin & Javier’s neatly-comported take on prog metal.

I have no doubt that T.R.A.M. will appeal to fans of AAL, not because both bands share two members, but because there lies a common appreciation of the expressive, limitless language of the guitar and how to best compliment what their eight strings have to say with relevant and vibrant surrounding discourse.

 

Scott Murphy

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One of the perils to which bands in the progressive music genre – and the instrumental progressive music genre, especially – often fall victim is stagnation. There’s a fine line between establishing a theme or set of themes that are periodically reprised for impact, and repeating an idea to death. The appeal of a band often hangs in the balance. Just as Animals As Leaders boast a sound that is in constant motion, so too does Canadian progressive metal-core act Pomegranate Tiger, as exemplified by their debut album, Entities.

Dynamic and stylistically diverse, Entities is an album that rarely fixates on a single idea before moving onto the next. This sense of movement, while indisputably testimony to the writing capabilities of head honcho Martin Andres, is as much out of necessity as it is out of ambition. Clocking in at a whopping hour and seven minutes long, it would be all too easy for Entities to collapse into a yawn fest of monotonous noodling that drags on endlessly and without direction. However, that’s exactly what Entities doesn’t do – rather, it treats each track as an opportunity to convey a mood. Ranging from somber and graceful – see the eerily beautiful piano track “Drifting” – to full-on shred-mode, as in “Sign of Ruin”, Entities is an album that defies confinement at every turn, and is a must-listen for those seeking the diversity and movement for which Animals As Leaders is renowned.

-Elizabeth Wood

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To be perfectly honest, this write-up is long overdue. This debut full-length from London-based guitarist/producer James Cook (otherwise known as Miroist) came out last year as a great addition to the leagues of bedroom instrumental metal projects, and we had every intention of doing a full review of it, but then it just managed to slip through the cracks, as these things do sometimes. So consider this our way of attempting to correct that some. Though one could make a case that Miroist hews a bit closer to the more atmospheric side of instrumental “djent”-y metal projects like Cloudkicker, there’s still plenty of flash and interesting technicality and compositional work going on here that should attract and appeal to many fans of AAL’s more cerebral side. This is particularly true of tracks like “29%,” “The closing of your eye,” and “Are we leaden yet?,” which blend low-end machine gun chugging with the type of deliciously proggy riffs that form the backbone of much of the group’s (and Tosin’s) work. CURVE is much more singular in its sound than AAL, which tends to bounce between different styles and flavors pretty frequently, but for those who enjoy the heavier side of the group’s sound, Miroist is a great branching-off point to dive further into.
 

-Nick Cusworth

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The Isosceles Project – Bridges

Like an unexplored open ocean, instrumental music seems to have an allure that tempts many young and dreamy musicians into its treacherous waters. The perceived freedom of playing without vocals soon becomes daunting as the instruments must bear the load on their shoulders. At this juncture, many bands make the decision of adding vocals and lyrics to provide a semblance of structure to their work. There are bands that pass this test and flourish in this freedom from words. In times like these, many minds would wander to the enticing tunes of Animals As Leaders but allow me to present The Isosceles Project.

The Isosceles Project is a Canadian trio with a heavy progressive metal vibe that even hints at thrash influences in some parts. The chaps from Toronto made their debut in 2012 with Bridges, a three track effort that slowly grows into a remarkably entertaining listen over a span of thirty eight minutes. The album comes with a lot of technical details since it is the clever interplay between the guitar, bass and drums that steers the music forward. Cleverly, the band finds a balance as each member utilizes his space wisely to put his own mark on the album without losing track of time and weighing things down with an excessive play time.
 

-Aly Hassab El Naby

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One of the many things that this column does is force us, as a collective of music critics, to identify what really makes a band what they are. It’s up to us to separate, absorb, and define each element of a group’s music, and then rearrange that equation to find recommendations. It’s a challenging task, but it’s one that we all have grown to really love and appreciate.

Once I’ve dissected a band in this manner, I love to try to think of some oddball recommendations, something out of left field that I know will be a little bit weird to consider. Which brings me to my weird recommendation for a fan of Animals As Leaders: Irish math rock band TTNG (formerly This Town Needs Guns).

A cursory listen might not properly reveal how these two bands are linked stylistically. One is a djenty, jazzy progressive metal group, and the other is a soft, sleepy math rock band, perfect for rainy Sundays and night driving. Digging deeper, though, the similarities start to reveal themselves. Both bands use off-kilter, jazz-based time signatures and progressions, both involve guitar riffs that are technically demanding in ways outside of conventional playing (Tosin’s use of finger thumping and other jazz techniques, and Tim Collis’ almost-exclusively tapped guitar work), and (icing on the cake) both are heavily instrument focused, and with both groups, there’s quite a large amount of syncopation between guitar parts that forms the core of their music. Will it interest every fan of AAL? No, but if those are the elements of their music you appreciate, it’s certainly not a bad idea to venture into this decidedly softer territory and take TTNG for a spin. I doubt you’ll regret it.
 

-Simon Handmaker

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For all the somewhat disparate influences that Tosin and co. bring into Animals as Leaders’ music, absolutely key to the trio’s sound is their jazz influence. There is something particularly delightful about the wildly complex chord progressions their music tends to be built on, and yet Tosin manages to bring out the best in every progression through his impossibly inventive lead playing. Yet another aspect of their music, and one that’s not really given as much attention, is the backing synths — whether they’re electronically tinged or synthesized choir arrangements, said synths often bring an extra airiness and gentle colour to what is otherwise fairly complicated songwriting.

Exivious push said airiness to its limit, but they also make sure to bring a healthy helping of jazz. Their credentials are impressive; lead guitarist Tymon Kruidenier was famously featured on the legendary Cynic’s landmark record Traced in Air, while bassist Robin Zielhorst also toured with the band around that time. Yet even a cursory glance at sophomore record Liminal betrays how little of his incredible guitar skills he was able to truly display on Traced in Air — his free flowing solos, impeccable in their phrasing, paint landscapes over the atmospheres the rest of the band put together. While Liminal is not necessarily as eclectic as a given Animals as Leaders record, those who are in it for the lead guitar work and complex musicianship will find lots to love in Exivious’ music.
 

-Ahmed Hasan

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