Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Animals As Leaders: Prog-Metal with a Human Heart

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: September 9th, 2014

I have always been a little leery of the label ‘progressive’. When applied to a politician or public figure, say, who sports the term like a boy-scout badge but whose politics is really no more radical than Joe the Plummer’s, I can easily enough change the channel. No secret here that “progressive” is a designation not to be taken all that seriously; it’s usually just a synonym for status quo with some spice.

Likewise, the notion of progress in music has been debased so thoroughly as to become a meaningless appellation of genre (progressive rock, progressive metal, progressive prog-rock, and so on). These sub-genres are used to refer generally to any type of music made within an established and recognizable form – like rock-&-roll or heavy metal – but have the added flare of disorienting time signatures, odd and elaborate arrangements, dizzying speed and butt-clenching dissonance, among some other strange characteristics.

Now, my problem with so-called progressive music is not with any one of its technical aspects listed above; I firmly believe one could just as well make an interesting and successful rock song in 4/4 as in 5/4. My reservation is that more often than not progressive music seems a tacit rejection of the musical achievements of the past; it’s obsession with moving forward is such that anything that came before is treated not as a tool but as refuse. The ahistorical attitude espoused by such music creates, I think, an almost impassable emotional gulf between the music and its listener. Usually, when I listen to music termed ‘progressive’, I feel as though I’m looking at a Chimera through five inches of bulletproof glass at the Bronx Zoo.

For someone with such firmly rooted preconceptions about progressiveness of all shape and color, it came as somewhat of a shock when I listened to Animals as Leaders’ latest, The “Joy of Motion,” and was genuinely moved by it. When the idea of writing a review of this album had been proposed to me, I was, in a word, trepidatious. The anxiety of trying to discuss a band known primarily for its virtuosic use of 8-string guitars (the group consists, currently, of two guitarists and a drummer, no bassist) lay not so much in any type of contempt for the music as a fear that I’d be at such a remove from the music that I’d have nothing to say.

What moved me about “The Joy of Motion” is how it’s at once a very determined step forward and a sincere celebration of everything that came before it. Listening to the record, you get the very definite sense that Animals as Leaders are not only trying to embed the entire history of music within their songs but also anticipate the course music will take in the next 5, 10, or 20 years. Because there are no lyrics on The Joy of Motion, and no story is being told in the traditional sense, the songs function almost as characters, each with his or her own richly developed personality. Every song has its moments of calm and mania, of melancholy and ecstasy, of skull-crushing violence and gentleness. By each song’s end, you can almost make out the form of the character being described by every note and drum beat. “The Joy of Motion” leaves you feeling like you just finished a novel in just under an hour, and for that hour lived intensely in the world of the characters Animals as Leaders so precisely, so elegantly limned for you.

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