Love Letter — Animals as Leaders’ Weightless

For all the ubiquity it enjoys today, our current, ‘mainstream’ iteration of progressive metal was hardly all that visible before the turn of the last decade outside of a few relatively tight internet circles. The community around it remained constrained to a few forums, as current ringleaders such as Misha Mansoor and Acle Kahney quietly uploaded bedroom recordings to relatively small audiences.

We’ve all seen the story play out over the past half decade or so. Periphery, arguably the frontrunners of the pack, continue to announce tour after tour, getting respectable amounts of coverage in publications such as Rolling Stone. The band were also notable for their candid social media presence, with Mansoor interacting directly with scores of fans on the daily.

In the midst of all this, however, Tosin Abasi and his solo project Animals as Leaders cut a mysterious figure. Where Mansoor was open about his writing and recording process, letting fans in on the tiniest details behind Periphery’s earlier material, here came a bafflingly complex debut album featuring techniques that sent bedroom guitarists scrambling. How does he do that? How can a guitar even make those noises? How can anyone play that fast?

It’s 2017: Animals as Leaders are huge now, and they deserve to be. The trio has four stellar albums and countless successful tours under their collective belts, and Abasi is possibly the closest thing progressive metal has to a household name. YouTube is littered with guitarists trying to mimic his work and now-ubiquitous techniques: the ‘thumping’, the sweeping, the economy picked arpeggiation. And there’s nothing wrong with that, mind you — it’s a testament to Abasi’s innovation that he can lay claim to inspiring an entire generation of young guitarists with just four albums.

Yet of said four albums, 2011’s Weightless has somehow become the runt of the litter, seemingly counted as their least impressive release. It admittedly faces some stiff competition, but in my experience has been referred to as a comparatively low point in the band’s discography far more than it deserves to be. On the surface, I have to say I can see why this might be the case: Weightless is the one album without those excellent acoustic guitar heroics, for starters, and is seen as somewhat homogeneous when compared to the adventurous spirit that both the debut and The Joy of Motion, its successor and perhaps the band’s breakthrough album, seemed to carry.

But I argue that Weightless is consistent, without falling into dull uniformity; ambitious, without losing focus and finding itself in too many places at once; remarkably cohesive, especially given that it marked the band’s first outing as a trio and not Abasi’s solo project; and, finally, pretty damn catchy all the while. Is it even possible to get to the main motif of “Somnarium” and not have it stuck in your head?

(It’s technically the only album of theirs with a lyric, too! Consider the part in the lovely and even haunting closer “David” where a voice says, well, “David?”)

What elevates the album above all this, however is that Weightless arguably marked the peak of Animals as Leaders’ mystery. Take opener “An Infinite Regression”, for instance — once the apex of Abasi’s bass-inspired thumping technique, before “The Woven Web” and “Ectogenesis” rolled around on subsequent albums. Before it was near-common knowledge, I recall countless arguments about how he achieved that sound. “Calm down, he’s just tapping harmonics,” proudly claimed one Facebook commenter; “No, you idiot, it’s clearly him picking low notes with a heavy delay effect.” (Both turned out to be completely wrong, of course.) When the first accurate fan guitar cover materialized on YouTube, correctly using the mysterious thumping technique, the comments were littered with something similar. “You’re clearly faking this! I can hear a delay effect for one fifths of a second around 0:47!”

That’s not even mentioning “Earth Departure”, whose roaring thump-driven intro sounded utterly alien and unlike anything else out there in the progressive metal realm; nor the impeccable clean outro of “New Eden”, which featured a completely baffling arpeggio shape much to the chagrin of many of a fan trying to learn the song (it was later discovered that the song used a different tuning, with the lowest strings dropped to C# and A). On top of that, the album significantly ramped up the band’s usage of electronic effects, due perhaps in part to drummer Navene Koperweis (who went on to release electronic-infused music under the NaveneK moniker before his tenure in Entheos).

But outside of Abasi’s completely alien techniques, Weightless stands on a solid and even straightforward formula that centres on rhythm guitarist Javier Reyes’ low end riffing. Reyes remains the one constant through much of Weightless‘ runtime, never deviating from the same melodic range and tone for very long at all, but in a way that allows the other two musicians to build increasingly complex structures around his playing rather than remaining bogged down by it. Weightless is the one Animals as Leaders album to feature this, with subsequent albums seeing Reyes take on more diverse roles, but it arguably grounds it in a sort of consistency that only makes for a more cohesive end result. It therefore finds itself striking the perfect balance between all the elements making up the band’s sound at the time (last year’s The Madness of Many has seen them branch into some significantly new territory, admittedly) while achieving a level of evenness that makes for a solid listen all the way through.

Do I see why people don’t love Weightless? Perhaps. Do I think they’re still wrong for it? Absolutely. Despite how fantastic the band’s other three albums are, Weightless remains my personal favourite for both the reasons outlined above, as well as the sheer level of mystique it’s so heavily infused with — even if the latter reason could be considered just another way of saying ‘you had to be there, man’.

But what can I say? You had to be there. Now if only they’d start playing “Cylindrical Sea” live again.

Caffeine, tech death, and molecular biology.