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Animals As Leaders' Show at the Aztec Dazzled With Cutting-Edge Instrumental Prowess 

click to enlarge Animals As Leaders dazzles the Aztec audience with feats of instrumental technique. - MIKE MCMAHAN
  • Mike McMahan
  • Animals As Leaders dazzles the Aztec audience with feats of instrumental technique.
The instrumental rock trio Animals As Leaders kicked off its 10th-anniversary tour at the Aztec Theater Wednesday, bringing a signature mix of catchy riffs and alternate time signature grooves. Combined with the undercard, the evening provided an engaging sampler of boundary-pushing modern rock.

The show kicked off promptly with Buke and Gase, a surprising choice for a progressive metal bill. The Brooklyn-based duo relied on their compositions, almost chamber-like in their formality, to engage the audience. The music carried an emotional distance, perhaps highlighted by the moody lighting, which also obscured the act’s non-traditional instrumentation — a “gase,” for example, is a homemade mix of guitar and bass. The music provided a bed for Arone Dyer’s soaring vocals, at times reminiscent of Kate Bush.

The Contortionist, prog-metallers straight out of Indianapolis, took the stage next. While the band delivered a powerful show, to be fair, the house music beforehand was an easy act to follow. After two run-throughs of AC/DC’s “Back In Black” and Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is,” the crowd seemed ready to hear anything else.

A six-piece with two guitars, keys, bass, drums and vocals, the Contortionist delivered a set enhanced by strong pacing. The performance opened with material leaning toward traditional progressive rock, at times reminiscent of Marillion. This was particularly true of vocalist Mike Lessard, who sang with the same sense of passion and drama as Steve Hogarth of the British prog legends. That sense of spectacle also carried through in the band’s writing style, which revealed itself to be more similar to openers Buke and Gase than might be obvious on a casual listen. The Contortionist’s songs felt like layered compositions carefully constructed from the ground up, as opposed to riffs strung together.

The writing style mirrored the pacing of the set, which like many of the band’s songs, gradually built in intensity. The second half gradually revealed a strong Meshuggah/djent influence. Though Lessard’s harsh vocals were nowhere near as strong as his cleans, the intensity and grandeur of the band carried through. In the end, the Contortionist proved to the biggest surprise on the evening’s bill. Its studio work often has the ambition but not the impact of its live performance.

And then it was time for Animals As Leaders. Composed of guitarists Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes as well as Matt Garstka on drums, AAL is a perfect example of the increasing complexity of instrumental guitar rock. For a trio, the Washington D.C.-based act makes one hell of a racket.

While pioneers of the style such as Joe Satriani or Steve Vai relied on blistering solos played over straightforward grooves and chord changes, outfits like AAL rely on interactions between the players to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. While the lack of improvisation rules out a truly “jazzy” approach, the complex interactions owe more to fusion than they do to the Satrianis of the world.

It goes without saying that most professional bands at this level are tight. But “tight” may be an inadequate descriptor of AAL, who seemed bonded at the quantum level. The band brought a mix of flashy techniques and tight songwriting that powered them through a crowd-pleasing 90 minutes. That is, assuming the crowd’s shouts of “fuckin’ a!” and “fuckin’ shit!” and “we fuckin’ love you!” can be believed.

In keeping with the evening’s theme, AAL’s songs truly felt like compositions. Both Abasi and Reyes are percussive players, using taps, pull offs and a wide range of effects to create a textured set that felt modern and — despite the lack of keyboards — at times pulsed with a synth-like burble.

Some naysayers could say that AAL is all math and no soul, and there is an argument to be made. The jagged compositions can be difficult, and the lack of lyrics removes the most obvious way to bond with an audience. However, Abasi and Reyes proved to be musical to the core. Their interlocking sound allowed them to create melodic and memorable riffs. Their approach puts them firmly in the camp of bands like Primus, whom AAL sonically resembled at times. As Abasi played bass lines on guitar with help from a pitch shifter, the ensuing grooves could very well have come from the mind of Les Claypool.

Garstka also deserves a lot of credit for those grooves. Though AAL’s style feels fast, watching the drummer revealed that to be deceptive. He played at a relatively slow tempo while Abasi and Reyes flitted around at light speed. They may have been the show up front, but Garstka held it together in a way that made him the unsung hero.

The technique-heavy description does show the band’s one weakness and a limit to its style. The variations of its approach were stretched to the absolute breaking point by the end of the 90-minute performance — not that most of the crowd seemed to share this complaint. Abasi and Reyes have shown themselves as capable of breaking out of the basic AAL sound — see side projects like Mestis and TRAM — but didn’t during Wednesday’s set. What’s more, they spent most of the show staring at the necks of their guitar, punctuated by Reyes’s occasional dancing of jigs and throwing of devil horns.

At the risk of overstating the obvious, AAL is a niche band. Many of their fans are likely Future Guitar Teachers of America. But that’s not necessarily bad. If guitar rock is going to survive the age of EDM and hip-hop, there must be people slavishly devoted to instrumental technique. After all, how else will we inevitably see a nine-year-old effortlessly killing these insanely difficult songs on YouTube?

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