Review Summary: A "shred" album that had the potential to be groundbreaking...
With the popularity of overly technical bands on the rise, not to mention the sudden resurgence in the popularity of so called "shred" guitar, metal guitarists almost seem to be becoming parodies of themselves, much like the guitarists of "heavy metal" bands in the late 80's did. Thankfully, guitarists have yet to resort to acts of such overblown ridiculousness as the quadruple neck guitar (yes Michael Angel Batio that verbal missile was directed at you), but with all the mindless guitar shredding being crammed into otherwise decent albums nowadays, I can't help but think that such things are right around the proverbial corner. Thanks to overly technical wankery making a comeback, it seems like any band with a guitarist that can throw together some stale "metal" riffs with standard minor key arpeggios has a shot at landing a record deal, which is (surprisingly) only serving to over-saturate an already stagnating genre. However, as ridiculous and inane as shred has (once again) become, I sometimes find myself perusing the annals of YouTube at 2 in the morning, watching videos of people playing the same regurgitated riff ideas and samey solos, hoping to find at least one person attempting to do something slightly
different than the hordes of mindless drones equipped with Ibanez guitars and Line 6 combo amps.
It was in these searches that I eventually came across Tosin Abasi. Sure 7 and 8 string guitars are really nothing special, he's definitely not the first person to attempt to use multiple fingered tapping techniques, and he's definitely
not the first to combine metal with jazz sensibilities, but there was just something about his quirky melodicisms and interesting sense of textures and layering that drew me into his playing. So when I got wind that he was releasing a full length album through his new project, Animals as Leaders, I was fairly excited. Maybe, just maybe, this album would be the start of a turnaround for the genre, or at the very least maybe it would provide a glimmer of hope for the future, but sadly, the album continuously falls prey to nearly every cliched element of the instrumental shred album. Many of the genuinely interesting melodic ideas that are presented are ruined when they morph into overly long, overly indulgent, and rather boring speed fests, and most of the attempts at combining jazzy structures with heavy riffs end up becoming nothing more than awkward juxtapositions rather than a true blending of the two. To make matters worse, most of the speedier solos that end up being legitimately interesting get cut of way before any sort of ending point, let alone a climax, is reached.
However, that's not to say that the album is without it's high points. The first track, Tempting Time, actually contains a pretty good balance of interesting chord progressions, quirky melodies, and impossibly fast solo sections, which end just before they run themselves into the ground instead of dragging on with the same ideas for an extra two or three minutes. Also, even though this is, at it's heart, a progressive metal album, there are really very few moments of true heaviness, so when the heavy moments do pop up in the mix, it makes for an excellent contrast with the usual melodic motifs. For example, the middle section of the album goes for three entire songs without any true heavy moments to speak of, so when the Meshuggah-esque chugs found in the intro of CAFO invade the soundscape, it's almost impossible to not get drawn back into what's happening. Thankfully, CAFO is one of the few songs in the album that doesn't drive itself into the ground by endlessly repeating it's few interesting ideas, which is especially surprising since it's the album's longest song, coming in at just under 7 minutes. Finally, Song of Solomon is really the only song that succeeds at blending together the jaunty structures and interesting melodicisms of modern jazz with the heavier elements of progressive metal. The melodic ideas presented constantly shift from attention grabbing jazz scales to frantic metallic riffing, making it one of the few truly worthwhile songs on offer here.
The real problem with Animals as Leaders is simply how safe the album is. A quick glance at any of the albums more experimental moments shows that Tosin Abasi is easily capable of coming up some fantastically creative ideas, but for the bulk of the album he seems perfectly content to throw around the same overused ideas found on nearly every single shred album released to date. The only difference here is that these ideas are hidden behind a veil of layered keyboards, superfluous guitar harmonies, and, at times, glitchy drum sounds. Basically, the album has the ability to fool you into thinking that what you're hearing is new and refreshing, at least for a little while. Hopefully, Abasi will approach his next album without the "look what I can do" mentality, and really focus on making something truly unique, which is something that he's shown he's more than capable of.