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, a young band like Animals as Leaders has shown they can embrace the term and 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 trio has dazzled the progressive metal world. Their fusion of prog rock, neo-jazz and dabbling in electronic music has made Animals as Leaders one of the most dynamic and trailblazing bands in the genre.
While Abasi found his footing with the project's self-titled debut, his collaboration with guitarist Javier Reyes, who joined the project in 2009, turned into one of the most talked about bands in the metal world. Abasi has been praised as one of the best guitarists, most notably with two appearances on the cover of Guitar World.
Currently touring behind their third record, The Joy of Motion, Reyes says the band has been encouraged by the audience's reaction. The record combines the band's trademark shredding with elements ranging from funk to even Latin-influenced guitars. The positive response and audience familiarity with the material despite it being released only in March is reaffirming, but it doesn't surprise the trio.
"I think the new material translates a lot better than the older material," Reyes explains before a show in New Orleans. "The fact that people know the songs already, it's great." Their peers have taken notice of them as well. Over the years, Animals as Leaders have toured with the likes of the Deftones, Underoath, Meshuggah and The Dillinger Escape Plan. Additionally, the band has 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.
When the band was in the midst of preparing for the writing of would become The Joy of Motion, they had to deal with changes in the lineup. After Navene Koperweis left in 2012, Abasi and Reyes enlisted drummer Matt Garstka to complete the trio. Even with Garstka's inclusion, Abasi and Reyes wrote and recorded the way they have in the past, which starts with a guitar riff or even a sequence of guitar riffs that can be layered before they head into the studio, with some coming from as far back as Abasi's time with Reflux.
"Everything was written the way it was done before when everything was programmed beforehand," the guitarist elaborates. "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 the trio's confidence and comfort with each other and has led to what Reyes considers to be the band's best work to date and he claims he hasn't seen a bad review. Seeing the album reach No. 23 the Billboard 200 charts after its first week only reinforced Reyes' confidence that the band is 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, there a number of perks that have come with their growing exposure. Between the signature guitars, magazine covers and an arena-ready live show that includes movies featuring abstract imagery synched up to their live set, Reyes acknowledges that the increased attention paid to the trio's ascension is something they only dreamed of when first forming.
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"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."
Animals as Leaders perform with Conquering Dystopia and Chon at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St. (909) 865-3802, www.theglasshouse.us, Sat. June 21, 7 p.m., $16-$18. All ages. For more info, visit www.facebook.com/animalsasleaders.