The Madness of Many is Animals as Leaders Unleashed
Animals as Leaders have always been a band I’ve liked the idea of more than the actual thing — sort of like Meshuggah, whose new album did wonders to make me a believer. Something about Animals’ compositional and performance sensibilities have never done it for me. Individual moments will stand out, but I’d be hard pressed to recognize an Animals song based on a single riff.
As a musician and listener, I’ve always subscribed to more of a Frank Zappa school of thought (or in metal, the Colin Marston/Ben Weinman/Brent Hinds school): against the excessively rehearsed, pristinely executed showmanship of virtuoso musicians. Not because of the tired argument that “bends = emotion” or whatever, but more in line with what Frank talked about in terms of the “punching a clock” that happens with excessively muscle-memorized music.
We all know how talented the guys in Animals as Leaders are. Absurdly talented. Tosin Abasi is probably, on some “objective” level, one of the top ten guitarists of all time. His musical ideas are so creative, so colorful, and so unique relative to everything else going on in their general sphere of guitar-based music, that he just puts everyone to shame. He’s truly the heir to players like Allan Holdsworth, Tony MacAlpine, John McLaughlin, and Ron Jarzombek — the brainy bunch of slinky-toned guitar virtuosos. Matt Garstka is a perfect complement: tight, supportive, dextrous. Javier Reyes is probably the most purely talented second guitarist of all time; he’s an 80’s Hetfield to Tosin’s Hammett.
So, with their fourth album, where are Animals as Leaders at? Surprisingly, they seem to be going further inward. Matt Garstka has said that The Madness of Many is the band’s most natural-sounding album, and he’s spot-on. As note-y and layered as most moments on the album are, the album feels like it has more in common with a small-ensemble Thelonius Monk recording than it does a Periphery album. So often, virtuoso musicians continue down individual paths of musical acrobatics — it’s cool to hear Animals playing together first, and individually second.
One result of this finely-honed togetherness is The Madness of Many‘s emphasis on melody. The ringing chords early in “The Glass Bridge,” the folk-esque acoustics of “The Brain Dance,” and the neo-classical album-closer “Apeirophobia” are among the band’s finest moments. “Private Visions of the World” could be an outtake from Nobou Uematsu’s Final Fantasy X soundtrack. Animals are thinking less about the internal logic of individual riffs, and more about how they make sense within the broader musical, melodic context. Kinda like Periphery on Select Difficulty, they’re getting better at placing their heavier/technical riffs in more dramatic compositional moments.
This album also shows Animals further mastering the groovy minimalism they’ve been working so hard on over the years. The breakdown at 3:20 of “Arithmophobia,” devoid of distortion other than a slightly gritty guitar solo, is one of the band’s heaviest moments, Zep-style. Makes total sense to me that this song was first written on drums, its’ guitar parts composed from the inside-out. Ditto for the clean break at the one-minute-mark of “Ectogenesis.” There’s actually space in those parts – something the band are so good at but rarely indulge in.
Although I remain firmly in the Dysrhythmia camp, there’s a lot to enjoy and admire about The Madness of Many. I love how Animals made this album themselves and sans-producer, that their only guiding principle this go-round was to embrace their own idiosyncrasies, and how each member contributed equally to the creative process. For better and for worse, this album feels like the first pure expression that’s coming directly from Animals’ collective mind as a band. Even if they never break out of this prison of their own obsessions, they are one of the finest, most interesting units in modern music.