Animals as Leaders will never be my favourite band because they take that djenty approach where every instrument becomes a percussion instrument and I'm just not a fan of that. If I want to focus on percussion, I'll listen to Hossam Ramzy's Egyptian rhythms or a gamelan orchestra or even John Cage's compositions for prepared piano. You may be asking at this moment why I'm reviewing the new Animals as Leaders album, their fifth thus far and first in six years, if I'm just going to hate it. Well, I may not be a fan of that particular approach but this band are wildly inventive and do a lot more than just the djenty thing. How much so I just found out.
Case in point: the opener, Conflict Cartography. Sure, there's a rhythmic element to both the bass and the guitar but this one goes everywhere. It reminded me of a far more traditional progressive metal band, or at least their offshoot, Liquid Tension Experiment. It's wild and it's complex but it's also melodic and ambitious. While it drops into a djenty section halfway, it also develops beyond it relatively quickly into more of the playful intricacy that it began with. It's easily my favourite song here and it feels as fresh on a third time through as it did on the first.
On the other hand, Monomyth, which follows it, simply doesn't want to depart so far from rhythm based everything, and most of the song is grounded in that percussive approach. There are synth melodies and guitar soloing over the top of it, but not as much or as notably as on the opener. The thinking is much more limited and the song suffers for that, at least in my opinion, in ways that I'd say don't apply to Red Miso, which is acutely rhythmic but in a fascinating way, making it feel like a success but Monomyth a failure. Sure, Loudwire listed it, in its single form, in a top twenty metal songs of 2021 chart, but that shows how far adrift I am from mainstream American tastes.
And, as with so much, it comes down to a matter of taste, though more so here than on the recent Meshuggah album, I would think. Sure, Animals as Leaders are incredibly talented musicians and they're doing incredibly intricate work, so the question boils down to whether we enjoy what they do or not. Meshuggah are also incredibly talented musicians but they didn't seem to be trying on that album, which made it monotonous to my ears. Taste allows for a lot, but it seems to me that people who dig what they do would prefer other Meshuggah albums over that one. But hey, what do I know? I'm not much of a fan there either.
Of course, that leaves everything else on this album in between those two polar extremes, which I can't say I'm too shocked to discover. The question I had coming in was always going to be primarily about where the balance would be and the answer is that it's a lot closer to the opener than what comes next, meaning that I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. Then again, I've only really experienced Animals as Leaders through odd tracks on YouTube, rather than complete albums. I'd be lying if I wasn't surprised by some of what I heard here.
For instance, there's a large amount of keyboard work here that I didn't expect, presumably from Misha Mansoor, who isn't an official band member but who produced this album, played bass and arranged the synth work. He's a djent pioneer himself, best known for founding Periphery. Plenty of songs here, especially during the middle of the album, felt like seventies jazz fusion because of that, merely with occasional more contemporary bass overdubs, rather like what Frank Zappa did on Rubber Shirt, taking an old guitar solo and having a new bass part played over it.
Gestaltzerfall is where that approach largely comes in, sounding somewhere between Colosseum II and Herbie Hancock. Asahi is a swirling piece of atmosphere, its noodling guitars over keyboard swells serving as an interlude where one doesn't seem to be needed. That's because the next song is The Problem of Other Minds, more jazz fusion but with the repetitive bass overlay that annoyed me by distracting me with banal simplicity away from all the admirable complexity going on in the background, which I felt ought to be the foreground. Micro Aggressions is more 21st century but in a similar vein, with the keyboards often leading the way and sections sounding like they were sped up artificially, returning us to Liquid Tension Experiment territory.
It's telling that I enjoyed this rather a lot, especially given that I'm not a hardcore fan of the band. It means that it's accessible to outsiders, even for music so progressive and often experimental. It doesn't feel remotely mainstream, not least because they're an entirely instrumental band, but I can't fail to acknowledge how important and influential they've become. This is jazz as much as it's metal and very possibly more so. There's funk here too and I'm also well aware that most of what I hear as bass is really an eight-string guitar. The bottom line is that they sound like themselves and comparisons aren't easy to conjure up. After all, Parrhesia means "freedom of speech" and that's something they're definitely exploring musically. I should listen to them more.