“It’s a few genres combined into one. It’s like progressive metal, progressive jazz … space metal,” says Tosin Abasi, founder of Animals as Leaders, when pressed to pigeonhole his band into a category. And he’s right—in the course of a single AAL song, your ears might be assaulted by math-metal djent-isms with bittersweet Lydian sonorities, tapped open-voice triads, contrapuntal textures, 8-string slapping and popping that sounds like a cross between Victor Wooten and Eddie Van Halen’s “Mean Street,” and lo-fi electronica-influenced tones.

On the surface, this description of AAL’s musical mélange might reek of the sort of music-school pretension you expect from guys who wear Jaco Pastorious T-shirts and throw in every new device they learn in theory class to create a hodgepodge of faux eclecticism. But Animals as Leaders weaves every twist and turn so organically that it never sounds forced and, after a couple of listens, almost doesn’t make sense any other way.

Many got their first introduction to Abasi’s virtuosic style on Animals as Leaders’ self-titled 2009 debut, which garnered intense praise from fans like Steve Vai. Explaining its unusual origins, Abasi says, “That album was essentially a studio project done with [Periphery guitarist] Misha Mansoor and myself. There was no band present.” In contrast, Animals as Leaders’ latest release, Weightless, which made it to No. 1 on the Amazon metal charts and hit No. 80 on the Billboard Top 100—no small feat for an all-instrumental act—marks the change from a studio effort to a real band. Abasi recruited 8-string guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Navene Koperweis to flesh out the lineup. If you’re wondering why another 8-string slinger, rather than a bass player, was brought into the band, Abasi explains, “I’ve written music with Javier before. He’s one of a few guitar players I’ve actually had an effortless sort of rapport with. He’ll always think of different ways to complement what’s already there. For instance, he has a good handle on diatonic chord harmonies, so he’ll invert the chords that I’m doing.”

Animals as Leaders is perhaps the most groundbreaking progressive metal band of the current generation. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that they’re the genre’s game-changer. One of the secrets to their success is the accessibility of their music. Unlike some progressive bands that play epics with so many sections that you need to pop a couple of Ritalins to keep focused, AAL keeps things pretty concise. The longest cut on Weightless clocks in at a mere 5:16. Asked about this, Abasi says, “The songs on the new album are shorter— usually just three to four parts per song. It was more about taking a look at the fact that we don’t have a singer, and thinking of what would really ingrain these compositions in the listener’s brain. We wanted to trim the fat and distill each song to its essential parts.”

Guitarist Tosin Abasi turning heads with his tapped 32ndnote flurries at a gig in NYC on December 11. Photo by Sam Charupakorn

Here, Abasi and Reyes talk about what set them on their unique paths and what they used to conjure the plethora of tones on Weightless.

How did you guys learn to play the guitar—lessons, books, or by ear?
: I was self-taught. I was never that good at really figuring out what someone was doing and reproducing it. What I would do is turn on the radio and improvise over whatever was on. Inadvertently, I was learning, “I can use Dorian over this song or Mixolydian sounds cool here.” I would wear out my REH or Hot Licks videos of guys like Paul Gilbert and Frank Gambale, learning the licks and some of the concepts. That’s how I basically played for 10 years or more. Then I went to a oneyear music program at the Atlanta Institute of Music in 2005. That’s the extent of my formal music education.

That’s not too long ago. I’m guessing you probably could already play pretty well by 2005.
: The chops were already there. Music school was more for learning chord construction and understanding how to work in a key, as well as learning jazz standards and classical guitar stuff.

How about you, Javier?
: I had a number of teachers, all at this one store. My main teacher has been Julio Sosa. He lives in Washington, D.C., and is relatively unknown but is phenomenal. He’s a master of his craft. I started with him when I was probably 11 or 12 and continued until I was 15 or 16. Probably about six or seven years ago, I started studying with him again and almost became his apprentice, if you will. I took it to a way more serious level.

Were you also into rock or was it classical right off the bat?
: Well, it was a little of both. My first teacher was a flamenco teacher but then maybe a year after, my older brother was playing the electric guitar—so I also wanted to do it. I started learning Beatles and Rolling Stones stuff. Then I started with Julio Sosa and stuck with the nylon-string for a while. I always played 7-string electric on my own. I was into metal and listened to Pantera and Dream Theater and stuff like that. I was always looking for bands that highlighted guitars—a little bit of everything … classic rock, Judas Priest.

What were you listening to growing up, Tosin?
: Before I got a guitar, it was whatever was on the pop charts, like Guns N’ Roses and Michael Jackson. I got a guitar when I was 12, during the beginning of the whole alternative scene, so it was a lot of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Soundgarden. My older brother was playing drums at the time, and he had better taste than me. He got a lot of the Modern Drummer Festival videos, which had really technical players. That was the gateway into bands like Dream Theater.

Let’s fast-forward to today. Are the solos on the album worked out or improvised?
: They’re actually improvised until they’re composed. I’ll play the solo section over and over and flesh it out, throwing in a few different ideas and angles of approach until I figure out something that’ll work, and then this will end up being the composed solo. I feel like I’m going to get a better solo that way. The solo sections for some of the compositions are hard. You don’t get a whole lot of choruses to really develop your solo or anything like that. It’s like one time through, usually at a very rapid tempo and in an odd meter. That’s not my ideal improvisational setting and not where I feel too comfortable improvising.