Formed out of the ashes of Reflux about a decade ago, American trio Animals as Leaders pretty much dominates the instrumental progressive metal scene. Led by the truly impressive and innovative Tosin Abasi (guitar) and completed by the equally skilled Javier Reyes (guitar) and Matt Garstka (drums), the band’s previous three LPs—2009’s Animals as Leaders, 2011’s Weightless, and 2014’s The Joy of Motion—revealed a justly distinctive, refined, and imaginative sense of artistry and musicianship, allowing Animals as Leaders to stand alongside many of the genre’s most beloved acts. On their fourth studio work, The Madness of Many¸ the group surpasses expectations once again by providing a ceaselessly vibrant, varied, and virtuosic collection that’s remarkably intricate but accessible. In fact, it may even appeal to listeners who typically disregard the intense subgenre, which is really saying something.
Reflecting on the record, Abasi comments: “This album feels like total synergy between the three of us . . . [n]one of this music would have turned out the same way without the equal inclusion of all of our musical ideas and that feel special. We're beyond thrilled with the result." Furthermore, Garstka adds, “although conceptually dense, it is the most natural sounding Animals As Leaders album yet,” and Reyes senses that it’s their “most collaborative effort so far” (in part because they produced themselves, too). In a nutshell, The Madness of Many continues to demonstrate how well the band can coat elements of jazz, world music, and electronic (among other styles) on top if its progressive metal foundation while also striking richer and a more alluring emotional and melodic core than in the past. It’s a fascinating journey from start to finish.
The Middle Eastern tinge that opens “Arithmophobia” hypnotizes effortlessly, introducing a distinguishing timbre as soon as the record starts. From there, pounding percussion and crushing riffs explode over it, sucking listeners in as emotive lead guitar croons and fiery electronic tones punctuate the aural atmosphere. Halfway in, smooth bass lines take over and interact seamlessly with cleaner guitar counterpoints and a soulful solo, sparking a bit of tranquility before the madness picks up again when the opening section is retooled at the end. It’s a masterful composition that does a great job not only of kicking off the full-length, but also of showcasing what makes Animals as Leaders so special.
There’s a slightly more rigid and computerized flavor to both “Ectogenesis” and “Cognitive Contortions,” so they’re less charming than their predecessor yet still immensely sophisticated and likable. (The latter track, in particular, contains some wonderfully dynamic and multilayered guitarwork.) Afterward, “Inner Assassins” stands out must due to the treatments of guest electronic music darling Travis Stewart (also known as Machinedrum), who provides programmed frenzy beneath the threesome’s instrumental battles, as well as the concluding section, during which affective guitar strums and lines meld for a peaceful calm after the storm. Its juxtaposition with the previous insanity illustrates one of the most admirable instances on the record of Animals as Leaders shifting gears dramatically to add more dimensions to their sound.
Thankfully, each of the remaining tracks maintains the excellence by adding unique touches to the established formula (so they feel both singular and cohesive in regards to the rest of the sequence). For instance, “Backpfeifengesicht” piles on spurts incredibly tricky percussion and riffs, as well as touches of EDM and multitracked melodies (whose different registers collide into colorful outcries). Next, “Transcentience” is filled with moments of jazzy mellowness, while “The Glass Bridge” soars because of its catchy chord progressions and interwoven patterns. Penultimate entry “The Brain Dance,” while still frantic at times, is a mostly cosmic marvel of acoustic guitar wizardry and serene ethers, making it the most atypical yet rewarding track here, while closer “Apeirophobia” is solely an acoustic guitar composition (think: Yes’ “The Clap” or Genesis’ “Horizons”). It’s a solemn and tasteful way to end that proves how capable the band is at crafting humbler pieces.
The Madness of Many is an exceptional album. Not only is it Animals as Leaders’ finest outing yet, but it stands as a benchmark in the field of instrumental progressive metal. Sure, the standard genre tropes are there—and they’re top-notch—but what continues to make Animals as Leaders stand out is how diversified their palette is. Not only do they include softer moments when necessary, but they often venture into vastly different stylistic spaces altogether, so you never really know where they’re going next. Such tendencies have always made their music matchless, and they do it better than ever here.