Friday, November 11, 2011

Animals As Leaders - "Weightless"

The great thing about metal as a genre is that it's one of the few left wherein such a high percentage of its population has obtained virtuoso or near-virtuoso levels of musical proficiency. When was the last time you heard of a "classically-trained" rap artist? Or a "virtuoso" country music star? Some may exist, but they're not par for the course. Because of their very nature, most subgenres within heavy metal have a built-in "height-requirement" must but *this* tall to play "Raining Blood" must be *this* much of a perfectionist to learn "Master of Puppets."...etc.

But even amongst this veritable smorgasbord of skill and technicial proficiency, one band stands out. To paraphrase Gandalf here in description: "A demon of the ancient world. This (band) is beyond any of you...(MOSH)!"

I'm talking, of course, about Animals As Leaders. The trio is widely known as one of the most - if not THE most - musically skilled band in the technical/progressive metal breed. And as an instrumental band, their appeal manages to cross the boundaries of heavy metal to reach those listeners who "Don't like screaming music." Their full-length self-titled debut set them apart. What's to be said of their follow-up album, Weightless?


Much like my As I Lay Dying review, I feel the first major perk about this CD is...NEW ANIMALS AS LEADERS. I was still enjoying discovering new layers of genius from their self-titled debut, so it's certainly not like I was going through withdrawals. But it was exciting news all the same when they announced this album and for a quick summary (spoiler alert): it doesn't disappoint. At all.

It's hard to imagine that lead guitarist Tosin Abasi could get any better after listening through their debut. But Weightless makes it clear he's not done polishing a level of proficiency that borders on super human. And before it sounds like I'm being hyperbolic, go look up any video of him playing live...his fingers literally become a blur. And his bandmates, guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Navene Koperweis, are only a fraction of a step behind him in their own proficiency.

But attainment of virtuoso status alone isn't enough to make the music worth listening to. As a comparison, Joe Satriani is an amazing guitarist with comparable musical skill. But what Satriani often does is simply play random strings of notes and tunes purely to showcase his prowess. So while the skill displayed is phenomenal, it's often implemented without regard to the structure of the song. That's what separates Animals As Leaders from musicians like Satriani; regardless of the flurry of notes or lightning speed of time and chord change, there's always an inherent logic to the music they play. Weightless is no exception.

Already exploring genre fringes, Weightless pushes the band even slightly further into new musical territory. There are some vague hints at deathcore in the album's title track and "An Infinite Regression." "Earth Departure" opens with some powerful tapping/slapping effects, launching forward into a frenetic display of musical ferocity. The album's single, "Isolated Incidents" is a fantastic example of how much territory the band can explore with one song. Starting out with a lonely little melody, the song gradually builds on itself, growing stronger and stronger, while never fully reaching a true crescendo. It slowly finds its way back to the original guitar melody, making it feel like a perfectly symmetrical journey.

It's hard to truly convey the album in words. Most instrumental music has a distinct visual component; when listening I'm always put in mind of this person, or that vignette. Their debut album had that quality for me, but there's something about Weightless that escapes any kind of visual ascription. Maybe it's just because the music is so nuanced and layered my brain has yet to fully digest this album. But it's also likely due to the fact that the band's increased musical prowess has catapulted them beyond the usual rules of instrumental experience.


The presence of electronic effects is a bit more prominent on this album. It's perhaps a little nit-picky for me to point that out as a shortcoming, but personally I enjoyed the somewhat organic overall feel of their self-titled album. It's certainly not intensely distracting - Weightless isn't exclusively defined by an electronic sound. But there are definitely a lot more glitches and tweets sprinkled into the mix this go 'round.

Weightless is also ever-so slightly shorter than their first. There are no 6-minute-plus tracks on this CD, though one or two stray beyond 5 minutes. It's not the worst that could be said, but it makes for a slightly less epic experience overall.


Despite it's minor flaws, Weightless has been well worth the buy. Tosin's MAD skills as a virtuoso metal-head are as impressive as they've ever been, and not a single track on this album feels forced or gimmicky.

I miss the more organic approach that characterized their first album, but the larger presence of electronic elements doesn't weigh down (pun intended) this CD in the slightest. It was hard for me to imagine that these three musical masters could get any better, but they managed to pull it off and the result is immensely satisfying. If you enjoyed their self-titled debut, you owe it to yourself and to this band to buy Weightless.

Some albums are good enough to justify a download. Others are worth picking out a few tracks of importance on iTunes or Zune or what have you. And a select few have earned the right to be physically purchased at your local Best Buy, WalMart, Barnes and Noble, etc.

is one of those albums.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

As I Lay Dying - "Decas"

It's been ten years. Ten years since The Fellowship of the Ring released in theaters, kicking off the greatest cinematic trilogy of all time. (screw you Wikipedia! Citation NOT needed!) Ten years since Halo forever changed the landscape of video gaming and catapulted the Xbox into the forefront of adolescent preoccupation. Ten years...since As I Lay Dying officially began their journey as band - practically inventing metalcore and then keeping the bar set almost unattainably high. And to commemorate those ten face-melting years, As I Lay Dying released "Decas" - a retrospective/compilation/cover/remix/EP/full-length CD.


As a huge As I Lay Dying fan, the first pro I feel I have to mention is...NEW AS I LAY DYING. The wait from "An Ocean Between Us" (2007) to "The Powerless Rise" (2010) was almost too long, so to only have to wait a little over a year for new tunes from America's #1 metalcore band was merciful news. But "Decas" isn't exactly a "new" CD. The album features 3 brand new tracks, one re-recorded medley, 4 remixes, and 4 covers. It's a grab bag, no doubt about it. But fortunately it's a good one overall.

The 3 new tracks in question kick off the album with "Paralyzed." The song is about as As I Lay Dying as any you've heard, showcasing the band's already spit-polished musicianship and fine-tuned mixing and mastering skills. It's not anything you haven't heard before, and as much can be said of the next two tracks - "From Shapeless to Breakable" and "Moving Forward." If you like As I Lay Dying, you'll like these songs. If you're completely new to metalcore, these songs are as good as any to give you an idea of what to expect from the genre.

The covers on this album are the tracks that really shine though. As I Lay Dying brings their signature ferocity to Slayer's "War Ensemble" and the less serious "Coffee Mug," originally by Descendents. No holds barred, just shred-tastic thrash and sledgehammer-to-the-face hardcore, respectively. Sandwiched between those two gems is a little Priest. Judas Priest, to be exact. They certainly aren't the first to cover "Electric Eye" (or to thankfully tag on its intro, "The Hellion") but they do it justice and frankly, As I Lay Dying covering Judas Priest is about as METAL as things come.


The remixes. Just about any gripe or shortcoming this album can be accused of is thanks to those damn remixes. As I Lay Dying isn't a band that really *needs* to be remixed anyway, and making metalcore songs into dubstep abominations is about as bad as any remix of any kind can get. Their only saving grace is that they don't take up the majority of the CD. And to give credit where credit is due, Kelly "Carnage" Cairns remix of "Confined" actually does the song justice, mainly by leaving it largely intact and just changing up some of the instrumentalization. And to avoid sounding like a total cynic, Big Chocolate's (who you hopefully recognize from either Disfiguring the Goddess or Commissioner or both) remix of Elegy is pretty good, too. It's a remix, so there's only so much "good" to go around for it. But if you like Commissioner's sound and have always wanted to hear what that formula would sound like applied to As I Lay Dying's music, "Decas" has your golden ticket.


"Decas" can best be described as somewhere between a retrospective album, a best-of CD, and a compilation project. New songs, old songs, red songs, blue songs; if you like As I Lay Dying then you should definitely pick this one up because they're a band worth supporting.

If you only want to snag a few songs from this CD via iTunes or what have you, I'd recommend the new tracks and the covers. And their "Beneath the Encasing Ashes" re-recording medley, of course. Personally, one of the biggest drawbacks to their debut album was the low production value, so hearing a few of the great moments from that album rolled into one and mixed professionally was a real treat. But the remixes really aren't anything to write home about...unless your favorite things in life involve good music being run through a "wub wub" machine and coming out full of glitches and tweets.

It's not a new full-length album, but for my money it's worth having a little memento of As I Lay Dying's ten years as a band. And word has it this album's release is kicking off their "Decade of Destruction" tour with iwrestledabearonce, The Ghost Inside, Of Mice and Men, and Sylosis. So I'll take the good with the bad.