Music / Reviews

Review: Animals as Leaders, SWX

By robin askew, Monday Aug 5, 2019

Given Animals as Leaders’ potential crossover appeal to members of the beard-stroking community, it’s pleasing to find them giving no quarter by bringing along three support acts drawn from the heaviest end of the modern underground metal spectrum on this – how time flies! – tenth anniversary tour.

Early birds who pitch up at 6:30pm get to enjoy the most eclectic of this trio: Long Island’s Cryptodira, who deserve kudos both for their musical ambition and for being named after an ancient suborder of turtles and tortoises.

They offer a different spin on progressive death metal, chucking in two flavours of harsh vocals, plus clean vocals and plenty of that familiar alt-metal loud-quiet thing. Sometimes you wish the restless quartet would settle on a sub-genre and groove with it for more than a couple of minutes. But they save the best till last, with the impressive In Hell As On Earth playing to all their strengths.

“We’re Palm Reader from, er, two hours up the road. So we haven’t made as much effort as the other bands, but – hey! – we’re here.” Despite the decidedly non-metal name, this lot trade in proper-job “Bang your fuckin’ heads!” hardcore, with occasional hints of old-skool thrash and speed metal.

As their set progresses, however, the atmospherics beneath the bonnet of bluster slowly begin to surface in songs like Coalesce. And it’s always a joy to see a vocalist in the great Tom Araya tradition of being a ball of raging fury while performing but polite and softly spoken between songs.

New York’s Car Bomb are, as the saying goes, “the shit”. There’s no getting away from that Meshuggah influence on their precision ferocity. Like the Swedish djentleman’s polyrhythmic assault, it’s driven from behind by Elliot Hoffman, who’s seated at a suitably gargantuan drum kit. OK, so he isn’t Tomas Haake, but he’s not far off. Greg Kubacki is also a master of what Uncle Frank called ‘stunt guitar’, wringing all kinds of impossible sounds from his instrument.

Their controlled, super-tight aggression prompts a huge circle pit, which threatens to swallow poor ‘ol Big Jeff, who’s doing his multi-tasking sketching’n’headbanging thing down the front. This swiftly comes to the attention of vocalist Michael Dafferner, who gives the local gigging hero a shout-out: “There’s a guy sketching down here. That’s incredible. We’ve never had that before!”

There’s a wry comment beneath an Animals as Leaders video on youTube: “This song inspired me . . . to give up the guitar.” Those peculiar people who dislike prog/tech-metal/whatever should reflect on how much bad music they’ve been spared from those of us who quickly realised that even if we’d started playing at the age of five we’d never be as good a drummer as Neil Peart, bassist as Billy Sheehan, keyboard player as Rick Wakeman or guitarist as Tosin Abasi.

Abasi’s place in the firmament was cemented when he joined Steve Vai’s Generation Axe project alongside the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt and Zakk Wylde. But unlike, say, Malmsteen, whose sidemen give the impression of subordinates, their role being to shrink unobtrusively from the master’s spotlight, Abasi’s instrumental trio feels like a real band. All eyes may be on his jaw-dropping, seemingly effortless playing – does this guy ever break sweat? – but Javier Reyes and Matt Garstka have equally vital roles in this unusual configuration of two eight-string guitarists and a drummer.

Although prog-metal is the primary flavour here, all three musicians refuse to be boxed in by genre constraints, bringing on board jazz-fusion and even a light smattering of hip-hop and Latin influences. Reyes and Gartska also lock into a heavy funk groove on occasion, making this the most danceable of tech-heavy music.

This being a tenth anniversary tour, Animals as Leaders play a crowd-pleasing, career-spanning set that frequently dips back to 2009 for the likes of Wave of Babies and CAFO alongside newer stuff from current release The Madness of Many. The thread that runs through it all is a strong melodic sensibility beneath the technical accomplishment, like the missing link between The Dillinger Escape Plan and Joe Satriani.

Abasi himself is a man of relatively few words and little in the way of guitar hero posturing or showmanship. He nods, headbangs, occasionally smiles in acknowledgement of our enthusiasm and – just once or twice – punches the air. But the packed audience are happy to take up the slack, especially as encore Physical Education shares with Rush’s YYZ the quality of being an instrumental whose melody line is impossible not to sing along to.

Abasi leaves us looking forward to “another decade of picking, eight strings and climate change”. Amen to that. Well, maybe not that last one…

All photos by Mike Evans

Read more: Metal & Prog Picks: August 2019

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