Review Summary: The unexpected masterpiece, in a year full of great music.
Tosin Abasi came out of nowhere. In a year in which such bands as Dream Theater, Converge, Between the Buried and Me, Nile, The Red Chord, Alice In Chains and more big names were releasing new albums, everyone expected the album of the year to be rightfully among any of them. But it didn't happen. Neither of those albums where as imaginative, cohesive, compelling, hypnotizing and captivating as Animals as Leaders' debut album. Who is, then, Tosin Abasi?
To many, he's a shredder. You know, the guy who can pretty much do anything with a guitar, so he releases an album which showcases his ability for over an hour or so. Well, maybe Abasi is a shredder. It doesn't matter, because in the end he can actually write great music. He borrows some ideas from Meshuggah for certain, and others say there's a heavy Cynic influence on there. Yes, but that's not saying much. This album goes beyond their influences and manages to create something very unique, if not completely original. From the very start of the album, you know you're onto something here. You know that feeling, it's unmistakable. But then, it's the first song: you could be easily wrong. But no. It's gets actually better. Then you wonder if the album can hold your attention like this for the next few songs, not to say the entire album. But it does. It's incredible. It's hard to pinpoint just one or a few songs, because the entire album is pretty amazing. I'm afraid talking about a few songs could take something from the others. When you think you have a favorite, then you change your mind. If this is not the signal of a great album, I don't know what is.
It must be said the album is instrumental. Abasi pretty much plays everything you hear, with the exception of programmed drums and some electronic effects, provided by collaborator Misha Mansoor. It's labeled as progressive, experimental music, with some hints of electronica. Does it matter? Probably not. This is no Tool, no Dream Theater, no Cynic, but neither is Joe Satriani nor Steve Vai. The albums is esentially guitar-based, but is far from just a "shredding" album. It's closer to a progressive act with a great musical sensibility, than to a virtuoso material. Certainly, the performaces can be jaw-dropping, but it's always in the context of the musical piece. It never feels that it's about the technicality of the performance. Abasi himself said he didn't wanted it to be your typical virtuoso album. I myself don't like the idea nor the term, and if someone told me this was a virtuoso album, I couldn't be less interested. Reading some reviews, I hoped a great piece of music, and I got a whole lot more. This is intense stuff. Not only because it can be heavy, but because it's moving music. Floating above heavy guitar riffs and syncopated drumming, there are these beautiful melodies calling at you, guiding you through the music. The contrast is more than interesting,it can leave you speechless. You are compelled to listen to it, it grabs you.
Certainly, the album is dense. It takes time to appreciate and digest. There are not, after all, easy or obvious hooks, so you have to listen, to find them, to be patient. It's multilayered, so you'll be finding things you didn't hear the first few times, and it only will make for a more fulfilling experience. It's hard to think this guy comes from a metal band, kind of unkown (called Reflux), and that he's that young. When I first heard his name, I thought about some obscure, mysterious virtuoso from Europe or Asia, trying to unleash a masterpiece to a wider audience. Instead, you have this easy-going guy, with a stunning musical sensibiliy and incredible musical chops, who is rapidly becoming an inspiration to a lot of young musicians, and gives us, music listeners, high hopes for the future.
Animals as Leaders is a superb album, that opens the door for greater things to come. Yes, you know this guy will get better, and that his songwriting skills will develop. Fortunately, the album is not overhyped. It sort of remains underground. It's not mentioned yet in any "best of the year" list, and it's for the best. We don't need another superstar. Meanwhile, he's playing guitar in the band Born of Osiris, taking a break from this incredible work. Lucky them.
We're in November. I feel safe to say this is the album of the year.