Animals as Leaders founder Tosin Abasi plays his 8-string Ibanez TAM10 at the South By So What? festival on March 16, 2014. Photo by Maclyn Bean.

For a band that’s generally placed under the prog umbrella, Animals as Leaders has extraordinary popular appeal. On the trio’s recent tour, the audience was far more diverse than the ubiquitous living-in-mom’s-basement, Dungeons & Dragons set. It can seem like there are more females at one Animals concert than Rush, the godfathers of prog, have managed to draw over their four-decade career.

“We’re not necessarily just a progressive metal band,” explains bandleader Tosin Abasi. “If you try to put Animals as Leaders into a certain box, there are some songs that don’t fit into that box.”

Elements of electronica, dance, and ambient music have always imbued Animals as Leaders’ sound, crossbreeding with metal and djent. The band’s new release, The Joy of Motion, pushes stylistic boundaries to the breaking point with distinct jazz and Latin flavors. But even in this schizophrenic sonic landscape, the group’s sound always returns to Abasi’s advanced harmonic language and superhuman guitar virtuosity, which can test anyone’s physical limits. As proof, a classical cellist who performed a YouTube rendition of AAL’s “CAFO” admits to having sped up the fast parts digitally. If a classical virtuoso can’t keep up, well, good luck, fellow pickers!

Animals began as Abasi’s solo project. He enlisted Periphery’s Misha Mansoor to produce some guitar demos and the result, Animals as Leaders (2009), made Abasi an overnight guitar hero. Co-guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Navene Koperweis fleshed out the lineup for the next release, Weightless. On The Joy of Motion,Matt Garstka takes over drum duties from Koperweis. Garstka, a Berklee student and longtime Animals’ fan, got the call from Abasi out of the blue after a recommendation from Berklee alum Ivan Chopick. Yes, kiddos, prog-rock dreams do come true.

“The endgame is just lyrical playing.” —Tosin Abasi

The Joy of Motion features a large cast of characters.
Tosin Abasi: It’s probably the most inclusive of outside band members. We worked with Misha, Adam “Nolly” Getgood, and Diego Farias, so it was sort of a triple-produced, collaborative thing. Navene did all of the electronic production. It’s also the first album to have fully acoustic drums with a fully human drum performance. We’ve always programmed drums before.

Javier Reyes: On the first album, Tosin and Misha were just putting these songs together, and there wasn’t necessarily an overall goal or an overall sound they were going for. Since then the band has evolved. The Joy of Motion is more representative of who we are as players.

Javier, you contributed a few songs to The Joy of Motion. Reyes: Correct. Some of the stuff I write can fit in the realm of what Animals as Leaders is, and sometimes it’s outside of that. I’m okay with coming into the picture saying, “This is useful, this is not useful,” as well as just going along with what’s already present.

Your composition “Para Mexer” has a strong Latin influence. Is there a stylistic line that you guys have to beware of crossing before alienating your core audience?
Reyes: The more we do Animals as Leaders, the more we blur that line. The way I write is sometimes Latin-based, and for some reason, the style of this album allowed it to fit in more so than it would have fit into previous albums. Overall, I think what people appreciate about us is that we’re using all of these influences from outside genres in the context of metal. We’re trying to just write for ourselves, in a way.

Javier Reyes rocking out with his signature Carvin prototype during the South By So What? festival on March 16, 2014. The in-progress model shown here has an ash body and flame-maple top, and he also has another prototype with walnut in the body and neck. Photo by Maclyn Bean.

Abasi: It’s funny that you mentioned that, because this album was the first where we disregarded a lot of those rules. There’s some Latin-y stuff and some jazzy stuff, and our fans really seem to respond to it, so it’s cool that they’re open to our musical identity being flexible. We just try to make music that represents our interests and our aestethics. We try not to worry about that other stuff too much.

In the interlude on “Ka$cade,” at around 1:41, the first chord sounds like the opening chord to Allan Holdsworth’s “Three Sheets to the Wind.”
Abasi: Yeah, it’s a Holdsworth voicing for sure. He’s an example of someone who has such a distinct voice that you can’t come anywhere close to what he’s doing without being really obvious about who you’re taking it from. Sometimes I like to channel people directly. He kind of arpeggiates that chord, though I play it all at once.

The interlude in “Nephele” also has a lot of colorful dissonance, but it sounds like it’s coming from a different place than the Holdsworth school.
Abasi: That’s Javier’s composition. He’s not as much of a Holdsworth guy. He’s coming more from a Spanish classical thing, guys like Yamandu Costa and [Agustín] Barrios. He has this teacher, Julio “Koko” Sosa, who has a lyrical, folkloric approach to guitar. He’s like a mix between Joe Pass and Paco de Lucía. Javier kind of internalized this guy’s style because he was basically apprenticing with him for many years. When Javier writes, you really hear that coming out.

Reyes: When I was writing it, it had a 6/8-type of vibe. I was originally writing it on my own then Tosin walks into the house, hears it, and says, “There’s another song.” [Laughs.] It was literally like, “That’s sick. Cool—we’re using it.”

It sounds like you’re using the augmented scale on “Lippincott.”
Abasi: Yeah, it’s totally the augmented scale. There’s some harmonic major stuff as well. There’s this dude, Tom Lippincott, who is one of the instructors for Mike’s Master Classes []. I bought a few of his classes, and on one of them he was breaking down the diatonic structure of the harmonic major scale. Man, that’s an amazing scale. I kind of got obsessed. So “Lippincott” employs all the melodic concepts I learned from watching Tom’s videos.