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Few characters in music seem as dated as the heavy-metal virtuoso. The term unintentionally conjures images of cocky, '80s shredders with flying-V guitars, spandex and blown-out hair. Thankfully, the young band Animals As Leaders not only embrace the term, but they also buck the stereotypes. Since forming in 2007 as the solo project of Tosin Abasi, formerly of metalcore outfit Reflux, the Los Angeles-based, Washington, D.C.-bred band have dazzled the progressive metal world with a fusion of prog rock, neo-jazz and electronic music.
Abasi has been praised as one of the best guitarists, most notably with two appearances on the cover of Guitar World, but it was his 2009 collaboration with guitarist Javier Reyes that placed Animals As Leaders among the most talked-about bands in the metal world. They are currently touring behind their third record, The Joy of Motion, which adds a little funk and Latin-influenced guitar, among other elements, to the band's trademark shredding. The positive response and audience familiarity with the material, despite it being released only in March, is reaffirming, says Reyes, but it doesn't surprise them.
"I think the new material translates a lot better than the older material," Reyes explains. "The fact that people know the songs already is great."
Over the years, Animals As Leaders have toured with the likes of the Deftones, Underoath, Meshuggah and the Dillinger Escape Plan. And they have been praised by both Steve Vai, one of the first renowned guitar virtuosos, who called them "the future of creative, heavy virtuoso guitar playing," and John Petrucci of Dream Theater.
While the band were in the midst of preparing The Joy of Motion, drummer Navene Koperweis left in 2012. The remaining twosome then enlisted Matt Garstka, but Abasi and Reyes wrote and recorded the way they have in the past: starting with a guitar riff or even a sequence of them that can be layered before heading into the studio, with some riffs coming from Abasi's time with Reflux.
"Everything was written the way it was done before, when everything was programmed beforehand," Reyes says. "Then we had Matt go in and put his takes to the parts that were there. I think doing that made it sound more cohesive. We don't really jam out together because some of the songs are so technically driven that jamming them out is nearly impossible."
Being able to meld the old ideas with new concepts reflects their confidence and comfort with one another and has led to what Reyes considers to be the band's best work to date; he claims he hasn't seen a bad review. The album reaching No. 23 on the Billboard 200 chart after its first week only reinforced Reyes' confidence that they're here to stay.
"It went beyond our own expectations for this album," he says with a sense of bewilderment. "So far, the album sales are greater than what the entire first album did. When we first found out, we really didn't know what charting meant. I don't want to say we were overwhelmed, but we were kind of in shock. But I didn't drink a whole bottle of whiskey or anything like that."
With Animals As Leaders continuing their rise to the top of prog metal, they've found there are perks that come with their growing exposure: signature guitars, magazine covers and an arena-ready live show that includes movies featuring abstract imagery synched up to their live set.
"It's pretty gratifying and a wish come true in many ways, and it keeps happening over and over," Reyes says. "Almost every year has felt like we're only beginning to get going, but now, there's a level of growth that's happening, and somehow, we keep getting bigger, and it's awesome."