Animals as Leaders - Weightless
Record label: Prosthetic Records
Release Date: November 11, 2011
Progressive metal is an interesting genre. Despite its deep roots in thrash and death metal, the long, epic, and monotone anthems of Dream Theater, and the both technically and thematically brutal Meshuggah, progressive metal seems to have been sedated these days. This new strain of metal is more accessible; it’s become all the rage for metal bands to implement jazz sophistication and ambient sensibility. This has unfortunately created yet another excessively derivative microcosm, shoving the real meaning of progressive aside. Despite whatever Animals as Leaders think of their music, they have become part of this phenomenon.
Or rather, I should say that Tosin Abasi has. The 2009 release of jazz-infused Animals As Leaders and the long anticipated 2010 release of Periphery helped cement low-tuned, palm-muted chords--djent--as the next influential wave. Because of its accessible nature, the then nameless genre attracted many novice fans that obscured the meaning of djent into a genre instead of a technique, which wouldn’t be nearly as problematic for progression in metal if the distinction between the two were made, and if the technique and genre of djent weren’t so often conflated with the progressive descriptor. Indeed, this minor semantic problem with major genre-changing potential has much to do with two men: Misha Mansoor and Tosin Abasi. Why? They were the sole songwriters for the aforementioned highly influential albums, with minor exception. But what will they do to discourage the problem? Although Misha gave his reaction in an article outlining what I just explained, we haven’t gotten any musical answers from either of them…until now. The greatly anticipated Animals As Leaders sophomore album, Weightless, is now here. But there is still another problem: Tosin Abasi can’t fix this by himself.
Because his stylistic tendencies naturally lean toward the above trend as proven by the debut, and also because solo work (especially the shredtastic kind) generally is inflicted with a subtly arrogant pretention created by fans reveling around the perceived genius of one man (something Tosin himself was likely apprehensive of when he first declined the offer to write Animals As Leaders), Tosin will need some help escaping the flytrap of a trend he unwittingly sowed that was further cultivated by his fans. Who better to enlist for that help than the supporting members of his own band, who immortalized his masterful songwriting in studio and on stage? This new incarnation of Animals as Leaders dons an entirely different personality and angle of approach, as all of Weightless’ twelve tracks were partially or entirely written by the other members. Not only that, like generals assembling to form battle plans, the band’s songwriting comes together as a disciplined, cohesive unit, both in tandem and harmonics. The result is deeply transformational, deeply progressive, in its most fundamental sense. With the context presented and how that context is dealt with explained, let’s explore the components of the teamwork that makes Weightless so effective in doing so.
The most obvious change between Weightless and the self-titled is that the finger-tapping and double-tapping have become much, much more reserved, which is more than likely a result of Reyes’ and Koperweis’ contributions to the songwriting and also that the group wanted to focus on an entirely new theme, with a newfound use of electronic melodic additions, as in the opening of “Odessa”, which compliment that theme. While it still can be found in each track, the crazy shredding is now a more transparent focal point, similar to the lead riffs in Saosin. In its place we have a prominent use of the low-tuned rhythm guitar and the modified bass attachment to Tosin’s guitar, crashing and smashing their way through the album like a sledgehammer to bedrock. As a result, the overall feel of Weightless thereby assumes a form more closely related to Cloudkicker or Meshuggah, as the jazz influences so commonly found on the self-titled album are dialed back along with the lead riffs. Animals As Leaders have decisively aligned their current path farther away from the djent spectrum this time around, but at the same time have laid the groundwork for evolving the currently narrow parameters of the sound. As opposed to the usual chuggy bass that contrasts the time signatures, instead we are presented with much more technically conscious low-tuned riffs that create a more sophisticated melodic atmosphere.
The second biggest change is in the percussion. The most obvious difference is that Weightless actually features real drum recordings rather than programming (very innovative stuff there) by Navene Koperweis, accredited to such esteemed acts as Animosity and Fleshwrought. With such a well-known and highly favored musical history, one would expect nothing but sheer genius from Koperweis in his contributions, and Weightless receives nothing less. The percussion is the main indicator of the subtle complexities between all the odd time signatures present on it. What’s even more interesting is that portions where one would expect a chug are instead replaced by a rapid bass drum sequence. This is also where the production starts to become an issue for me, as Koperweis’ stellar drum skills are often completely drowned out by the rhythm and bass sections, only becoming audible in place where lower-pitched strikes are used for emphasis. Perhaps it’s because Animals as Leaders used a go-to producer for major metal labels including Prosthetic and Sumerian, and that the labels expect fans to rally around albums with narcissistic show-offish technical guitar prowess, but either way this is a sticking point for Weightless.
Overall, Animals as Leaders have proven that they can rise above the trends that Tosin had a hand in creating, but have not done so perfectly. Unfortunately, the music doesn’t pair well with its own name, as it is greatly weighed down by production overemphasis on its heaviest aspects. We have yet to see what Periphery have coming down the pipeline to help dissolve the quicksand of trends and myths that engulf progressive metal, but if written as well or better than Weightless, they will join Animals as Leaders as being the pivotal change in pulling the genre out, just as they led the way into it.
interesting review, although I don't care at all about what other "djent"-associated bands do.
Something has been bugging me about the production - especially the drums - and you might have explained it. It comes down to the mix. I guess I had higher hopes for the way the real drums would sound. The drumming itself is mind boggling, as expected.
I'm still undecided, but I think I enjoy the first album more, especially because of the amount of delicate tracks/parts, which here are less frequent.
It's definitely more focused, with more electronica in its DNA.
Don't normally like to comment on people's reviews because they are subjective opinions.
That being said, I don't get what your whole perception of the djent scene has to do with this as an individual album. If fans got into it thinking it was a genre and not a technique what does that have to do with animals as leaders music?
It also seems like you don't care for the jazz infusion into progressive or technical metal but you don't state what the preferable alternative is. Although you don't either clarify an alternative or why this influence is negative you then continue the rest of your review speaking about it as a definitive weakness to both animals as leaders and technical metal as a whole.
" to help dissolve the quicksand of trends and myths that engulf progressive metal, but if written as well or better than Weightless, they will join Animals as Leaders as being the pivotal change in pulling the genre out, just as they led the way into it."
I guess sentences like this are just my problem with reviews as a whole and what the blogosphere or critic community turns music into.
If they led the way in this genre then since they are the originators is it really a negative to then eschew classical jazz influences? They aren't the copycats they are the leaders so ditching a style they helped innovate because they now have pretenders seems nonsensical.
More to the point though I hate how you seem to phrase the composition of music. I can almost guarantee that Animals as Leaders (and 99% of bands that write there own songs) don't sit down and say things like "ok last album was good but now we have copy cats lets make a decision right now that we are not going to write anything with x, y and z in it."
I am in no way the same league as a Tosin Abasi but as someone who has been playing guitar for a decade and has written with lots of bands I can tell you that's generally not how it works. You either through jamming with the band or off by your own writing try and come up with something that you think is rad. What defines the music you are happy enough with to record is not some pre-set list of rules you put in place for the album. It is instead built off your entire collection of musical influences, events in your life, playing abiliity, etc. Meaning it comes from your collective experience in life not from some sort of direct rules especially as they apply to trying to fit into a fractured and contentious genre like Metal.
Inspiration and creativity are organic which is why trying to dice up their end product into specific meanings and sub-contexts is frankly just annoying.