Ask Javier Reyes who his formative influences were, and one name stands above all others: John Petrucci, guitar hero for long-time progressive-metal giants Dream Theater. Petrucci, Reyes says, is the reason he first started playing a seven-string electric guitar and the reason he turned his friend Tosin Abasi onto seven-string guitars, too.
Nowadays, Abasi and Reyes are two of the best young guitarists in metal, thanks to their work in the progressive metal band Animals as Leaders. The mechanically precise and technically superlative shredding is the type of which is typically fawned over in guitar rags. (To wit: Abasi has graced the cover of Guitar World twice in the past three years.) But if, in hip-hop parlance, game recognizes game, then Animals as Leaders has peer cred in spades, too. A virtuoso no less than Steve Vai, considered one of rock's all-time great guitar players, once hailed the band as "the future of creative, heavy virtuoso guitar playing." And last year, Abasi and Reyes got some praise from their hero: On the heavy metal website Loudwire, Petrucci named the band as both an influence as well as inspiration.
"That's an honor, man," Reyes gushes. "He's a direct lineage of why we are some of the players that we are. I started playing a seven-string [guitar] because I saw John Petrucci play one, you know? When Tosin and I met as teenagers, I was like, 'Oh, hey. Check out this seven-string. Play a seven-string guitar.' So it's cool to have that guy say that about us now."
For most bands of Animals as Leaders' ilk, that's typically as good as it gets — relentlessly technical prog-metal bands don't usually experience a great deal of chart success. But Animals as Leaders' last two albums have charted on the Billboard 200: Weightless, released in 2011, peaked at No. 92; Joy of Motion, released in March, debuted at No. 23. To say that level of commercial success was unexpected is an understatement.
"Uh, yeah," Reyes says, his voice inflecting upwardly as if he can hardly believe it himself. "I mean, I think considering that we're an instrumental band, I mean, that's a pretty hard thing to achieve. At the same time, as it's happening, it's exciting and surprising."
He chuckles. "We're stoked, obviously."
Tosin Abasi formed Animals as Leaders back in 2007 as a solo project, but today, the band is far from a one-man show. Reyes, who'd played in bands with Abasi when the two were teenagers, joined the band in 2009, and his playing is now as vital to the band as Abasi's.
The trio — rounded out by drummer Matt Garstka, who joined the band just last year — outpaces its peers by welding disparate influences together. Most every song on Motion features a dazzling array of complex arpeggios and sledgehammer djent, but as the band has grown more collaborative, its sound has also evolved. Abasi has always spiced Animals as Leaders' material with jazz inflections, and they make appearances here: mid-disc cuts "Another Year" and "Physical Education" are fleet-fusion workouts, but they yield to the driving power-metal of "Tooth and Claw." But even in those heavy moments, new flourishes emerge, like the percolating synthesizer arpeggio that subtly pokes in at the end of "Tooth and Claw" or the more pronounced ones that provide a dual harmony for the opening guitar lines of "Crescent." Flecks of unlikely influence show up in odd places: the flamenco sketches of the Reyes-written "Para Mexer," for example, or the opening of "Air Chrysalis," where sky-splitting post-rock yields to jazz fusion. Album closer "Nephele" features a tender ballad break between slabs of savage djent. These moments of electronica and jazz now add layers of ethereal atmosphere to the band's already powerful sound.
So it's not just that Abasi and Reyes play lots of notes really fast that makes Animals as Leaders so impressive. It's the way they use myriad guitar techniques to create stunning compositions with peaks and valleys and loads of dynamism.
Or, put another way — they write songs, not showpieces.
"When songs come out, they come out naturally," Reyes says. "We don't say, OK, we're going to write a song that does this. Putting those riffs into a band format tends to be a challenge for us. But I think when we're trying to write parts, we're trying to write parts that should work naturally together."
As evidenced by its chart success, Animals as Leaders has grown extremely accessible while maintaining its core prog-rock underpinnings, though Reyes admits that requires a careful balance.
"Obviously, there's going to be some progheads who, if we do something too poppy, they'll complain that we're all of a sudden too poppy," Reyes says. "But I think for more people, it'll probably be fine. I'm sure there are parts that are way too heavy for people who aren't into prog."