Instrumental music seems to be coming up in a big way in the metal scene these days, but no one can accuse Animals as Leaders of jumping on that bandwagon with their newest release The Joy of Motion seeing as AaL have been playing incredibly technical and complex instrumental music since the group sprung from the hands and mind of guitar virtuoso Tosin Abasi in 2007. Since then, the band has gone from what was essentially a solo project of Abasi’s to a full-fledged trio and leader in progressive metal, particularly instrumental progressive metal. This album, their third, is unquestionably their best effort yet and is a culmination of all that the members have done since the self-titled debut came out, both inside AaL and out.

The Joy of Motion is very difficult to categorize, and it’s all the better for its eclectic nature. While it’s essentially rooted in the genre of progressive metal that AaL has always been a part of, the “progressive” part of that tag is the emphasis throughout. So many genres come and go throughout the album, yet it never feels spastic or unfocused. This album is truly a marvel of transitions and how to shoehorn all one’s influences together in a cohesive and sophisticated manner. Tracks like opener “Ka$cade” play like the typical progressive metal that AaL fans have come to expect, but “Another Year” delves deeply into jazz, almost sounding like something that one could hear on The Weather Channel’s “Local on the 8’s.” “Physical Education” is built around Abasi’s penchant for utilizing the pop-and-slap technique (usually reserved for bass guitar) on his eight-string. It oozes funkiness and groove while also being quite heavy in its own right; it will be tough not to dance (or at least headbang awkwardly) to all the polyrhythmic grooves on display in this track. “Tooth and Claw” is the most overtly metal track on the album (and, as a result, is the most forgettable, though still remains fantastic). Spacey synths and elements of electronica/techno creep into tracks like “The Future that Awaited Me,” and make themselves known throughout the album on nearly every track. The common components throughout the album are these programmed elements, which help to give the record more of a sense of being an album (rather than a collection of individual tracks).

As previously stated, this record stands as a testament of all its members has been through over their time with the groupat least the two mainstays, Abasi and fellow eight-string-slinger Javier Reyes. Two years ago, the two were members of jazz fusion band T.R.A.M., and influences that they picked up during that time are clearly on display here in chord phrasing, progressions and note selection. Abasi’s love for the pop-and-slap that he discovered on AaL’s last release Weightless rears its head several times throughout the record, as previously mentioned. Also from the Weightless-era come the more ambient, restrained parts that were not as well-received on the last release. They are used sparingly and to great effect here. The style of Reyes’s own solo side project Mestis even gets some airtime here in highlight “Para Mexer,” a very flamenco-, Mexican/Spanish guitar-inspired piece. New member Matt Garstka on drums struggles a bit to find his own style, sounding for much of the album as if he’s trying to replicate the style of former drummer phenom Navene Koperweis. He still does an excellent job playing extremely complex material and keeping up with the ridiculous technicality of Abasi and Reyes. Session bassist (and producer) Adam “Nolly” Getgood holds down the low end where needed on this record, though, with two eight-string guitars, it is a bit questionable whether he was needed at all. Still, Nolly’s bass skills do add another, groovier texture to the album and allow for Abasi and Reyes to delegate the lower end to a session member live, leaving them free to shred all over their fretboards.

Nolly’s talents are well-known in the progressive metal scene, and really nail the sound that a record like this should have. The production is immaculate. All the densities and intricacies come through brilliantly, and though it will certainly take several listens to digest all the material here, it’s due to the immensity of the compositions, not a fault of the production.

Though the record is very dense and complex, it is also very accessible. Most of the album is immediately catchy and digestible, but its genius comes out upon several listens, as one really becomes able to digest all the insanity occurring around the main infectious melodies and grooves that pepper nearly all the songs.

At a lengthy 55 minutes, this album still seems too short, which is a true testament to how fantastic the material is through and through. There is not a weak track here.

By wrapping up such mind-blowing technicality in such an accessible and catchy package, The Joy of Motion is an early contender for metal album of the year, if not album of the year in general. The replayability is almost outlandish. This is a record that will likely not leave listeners’ playlists for some time and should become a cornerstone of instrumental progressive metal in the future.

4.5 out of 5 stars