If this is your first endeavor into Animals As Leaders’ corner of the progressive metal world, you may feel overwhelmed. Track one is called ‘Arithmophobia’, which is the fear of math or numbers, and nothing could be a more accurate descriptor for what new listeners will feel when confronted with the rhythmic complexity on display with Animals As Leaders’ fourth album, ‘The Madness of Many’.
Led by 8-string guitar messiah Tosin Abasi with the exceptional Javier Reyes on second guitar and human metronome Matt Garstka on drums, the band have consistently produced some of the most mind-bending and technically astounding instrumental music you could hope to find. Rooted in avant-garde jazz, fed through the heavy metal machine, and bounced through an ever-shifting variety of alternate time signatures, AAL constructed a sound that set itself apart from conventional 21st century metal oversaturated by breakdowns and cookie-cutter sweeping. Their sound is heavy yet subtle, steeped in layers of contemplative riffing with an airtight rhythmic seal.
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The band have come a long way from their humble roots; the self-titled first record was a self-produced solo studio project by Tosin Abasi. And while their third release, 2014’s outstanding ‘The Joy of Motion’, was produced by genre mainstay Misha Mansoor of Periphery, this latest release was helmed by the band members alone. By coming together to handle the record front-to-back by themselves, the band sought to unify their sound and develop their capabilities as a trio. Develop them, they did.
In the past, Animals As Leaders painted their music with a variety of colors. The earliest release maintained a steadfast grasp on that je ne sais quoi element known as heaviness, comfortable enough for headbangers with a loose grasp of music theory. It does still remain on tracks like ‘Transentience’, and more so on ‘Arithmophobia’ which, following an ominous sitar intro, launches into what is likely the heaviest moment on the record. While ‘The Joy of Motion’ was loaded to the hilt with catchy hooks, some listeners may notice a distinct lack of such things here. Though, they’re still there, only they’ve grown up. ‘The Brain Dance’ is led by a gorgeous and ambient acoustic hook that plucks through an atmospheric background of polyrhythm. ‘Private Visions of the World’ also retains a unique harmonic value that more casual listeners can appreciate, and culminates by bashing the listener over the head with a low-string-only breakdown.
Despite this, a good deal of the record can feel impenetrable at first. Multiple start-to-finish listens are absolutely required, if only just to figure out how to tap your foot along to the shapeshifting time signatures. ‘Cognitive Contortions’ is an exercise in truly calculated rhythmic cohesion from the band that would leave anyone attempting to headbang with a knot tied in their neck. While often relentless in this respect, ‘The Madness of Many’ is not all ones and zeros at a thousand miles per hour. We also see a more stripped-down version, choosing at times to elevate harmony in one place and rhythm in another. ‘Apeirophobia’, a.k.a. the fear of eternity, is an acoustic-only excursion into pure classical instrumentation that concludes the album with grace, and ‘Ectogenesis’ takes a break from speed to study a thumping low-end barrage offset by sharp peripheral sweeps. ‘Backpfeifengesicht’ puts a little bit of everything on display, from Abasi’s thousand-foot-tall leads to lightspeed slap to ethereal, textured deconstructions. Sidenote: in case you’re wondering, Google Translate says that this means “whisper face” in German.
While tracks like ‘The Glass Bridge’ may leave the listener exhausted and craving a little structure over persistent riffing, the record should feel like a learning experience. It’s dense, it’s complicated, and it’s technical nearly to a fault. That may scare some people away. But the band chose to immerse this record in clinical intensity rather than volumetric intensity. It would’ve been a lateral move to limit themselves to infectious hooks as well, however instantly satisfying it may be to the listener. Though it may not be their most enduring, or endearing, effort, ‘The Madness of Many’ is a master class in rhythm that simultaneously tugs at the boundaries of harmonic expression. Animals As Leaders continue to prove that they’ve earned their anointment as the current kings of progressive metal.