Animals As Leaders @ Irving Plaza

MANHATTAN, NY—Oluwatosin Ayoyinka Olumide Abasi, better known as Tosin Abasi, is a 31-year-old self-taught guitarist from Washington, D.C. He was the guitarist for the metal band PSI, based out of Silver Spring, Maryland, then in 2002 joined the politically-minded technical metalcore band Reflux, which released an album, Illusion Of Democracy, in 2004.

Just as Reflux was about to split, Abasi was offered a recording contract as a solo artist. At first, he refused, calling it “egotistical and unnecessary,” as he felt uncomfortable with his skill level. Frustrated that he was unable to reach his peak at guitar playing, he took a year off to study jazz and classical guitar at the Atlanta Institute of Music. Upon completing his course, he desired to explore the technical facilitation of guitar playing. He recorded the long-delayed “solo” project, which he entitled Animals As Leaders, the name loosely being derived from Daniel Quinn’s 1992 anthropocentric novel entitled Ishmael. Abasi related to the author’s view of the world from an animal’s perspective, in which the author used a telepathic gorilla to critique human culture. He coined the name of the band as a reminder that “we are all essentially animals.”

Abasi founded an instrumental progressive metal band to take the name Animals As Leaders in 2009. Abasi also formed T.R.A.M., a quartet that performs music that Abasi determines does not fit Animals As Leaders. Abasi has recorded three albums with Animals As Leaders: the self-titled “solo” debut in 2009; Weightless in 2011; and the newest, The Joy Of Motion, which will be released on March 25. Animals As Leaders currently features Abasi along with guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Matt Garstka.

Ibanez revealed Abasi’s signature guitar, the TAM 100, at NAMM 2013, the annual convention sponsored by the National Association of Music Merchants. This guitar is based upon the Ibanez RG2228 model, which Abasi had been using for some years, and contains his signature DiMarzio Ionizer pickups.

The audience at Irving Plaza on March 2 was treated to an unusual experience. First of all, it is uncommon for this rock stage to feature an instrumental band. It appeared that most of the audience was comprised of heavy metal fans, but the genre-defying music was not standard headbanging music. The compositions were guitar-driven progressive instrumentals, much like the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1970s, but far heavier, with jazz fusion, electronic and ambient flourishes. Circle pits would have been inappropriate when marveling at the musical intricacies was more in order, but an occasional crowd surfer made his way to the front.

Secondly, two of the three musicians on stage played eight-string guitars for most of the performance. The eight-string guitars allowed for extended resources on the fret boards, as Abasi in particular utilized multiple techniques such as hybrid picking, sweeping, taping and slapping. Abasi’s fierce riffs and fleet-fingered solos sharpened the edge of the band’s progressive metalcore as the band opened the set with a new composition, “Tooth And Claw.” The audience received other new songs well, including “Lippincott” and “Physical Education,” as well as the more familiar closing numbers, “To Lead You To An Overwhelming Question” and “CAFO.”

The live setting allowed Animals As Leaders’ spontaneous innovations to be fluid and flashy, meticulous and melodic, technical and tasteful. This concert firmly placed Animals As Leaders as a trailblazing pioneer of modern heavy music.