It’s a bit early to assess the impact of the djent scene on metal overall, given that its rapid boom and bust occurred so recently, but preliminary findings are that it produced and popularized some definite keepers. One of the foremost are poised to release their third album. Tosin Abasi’s inventive instrumental ensemble took metal by an impressively subdued and nuanced storm with their eponymous début, carving out a canyon for current sweethearts like Exivious to wash into. For all of their stylistic idiosyncrasies, Animals as Leaders gets billed as a jazz-influenced prog-metal band, but I like to think of them more as a jazz group caught in an unlikely love affair with Meshuggah. Whatever you call them, and what you call them is likely to be overwhelmingly positive, you should be expecting something great out of The Joy of Motion.
The first few seconds assure you that you’re right. “Ka$cade” overcomes its silly name, prefacing a comfortably syncopated groove with a beautiful intro and rolling through enough twists and turns to impress the Mandelbrot set. Through it all is a melodic sensibility that seemed somewhat subdued on Weightless, which favored oddness and noodling over the unbridled power seen here and on Animals as Leaders. “Air Chrysalis” is much more laid back and pretty, flaunting technical grooves and sanguine melodies simultaneously. It’s the sort of track that one rapidly associates with springtime; optimistic, bright, but not overbearing. There’s a sort of delicacy to it that’s entrancing, a characteristic that many of its cohort share with it. “Another Year” compliments it with bubbly melodies and electronics, the last of a quartet of melodic milestones.
The middle of the album sees some of Animals as Leaders’ best material ever, and that’s not an exaggeration. “Physical Education” builds off of a lively funk groove and an addicting staccato lead, rearing up for a hefty solo section followed by a characteristic layering of little guitar licks, ending with a reprise to the opening riff. Describing each track in depth would be tedious, yet each has such a broad palette and is so unique that focusing on any tracks above others proves difficult. Tracks without some moment of excellence, some wisp of perfection, are few and far between; the band refuses to repeat themselves, yet restrains experimentation enough to never let go of the listener. Just when “Crescent” seems to hearken back so strongly to Animals as Leaders, out come the clicking electronic blips from Odessa.
Assuring you that Abasi and Reyes are still pushing out great performances would be insulting to your intelligence. While not as consistently bombastic as previous albums, this is not a trivial release in terms of technicality. In order to emphasize this, Misha Mansoor has yet again pulled off an excellent production job, leaving in enough crunch and distortion to keep things heavy while keeping every note clear. Electronics, courtesy of Navene Koperweis, are more diverse, prevalent and better integrated than ever before, adding counter-melodies and interwoven lines that fit so tightly into the fabric of the music that you barely even notice them as an alien element.
The Joy of Motion sits in between past releases, in a comfortable hammock strung up not just between metal and jazz, but between technicality and songwriting, joy and anxiety, exuberance and restraint. Animals as Leaders have truly outdone themselves, writing brilliant tracks, performing exceptionally, and pulling together the right team to polish off this vivid inflorescence. The Joy of Motion lives up to its name, more dynamic and lifelike than anything 2014 has had to offer, extending a smiling challenge for other musicians to catch it as it flies off into the sun, laughing in self-induced ecstasy.