Tosin Abasi, center, guitarist Javier Reyes, left, and then-drummer Navene… (Jonathan Weiner )
From adolescence, guitarist Tosin Abasi knew he was different. For one, there's the name. But that wasn't all there was to it. "I was a bit of an outsider," says Abasi, 29. "Especially to be a black kid playing guitar and skateboarding. I would bleach my hair blond, paint my fingernails and wear really weird clothes. Where I'm from [suburban Maryland], it was kind of odd."
His Washington, D.C., progressive metal band, Animals as Leaders (so named because humans have blown the gig), is equally nonconformist. Its 2009 debut was full of complex compositions that challenge the pummeling genre rhythmically, harmonically and structurally, and attracted a loyal, cult-like following (the trio open a sold out show Saturday at Club Nokia with headliners Thrice).
But despite a sound that hits from every angle — bucking like a Brahman, shredding like a piranha, twisting with snaky intelligence — something is intentionally missing.
"People think a vocalist is gonna come out," says Abasi by phone from the road. "And then, 'Wow, he's not.' But by the time the set's done, it's like everyone's into it."
The instrumental, vocal-free approach is a first for Abasi, who prior to forming AAL worked with respected vocalists from East Coast metal bands such as Reflux and PSI.
Although mostly self-taught, Abasi sweated through a formal, yearlong crash course in 2006 and 2007 at the Atlanta Institute of Music that included jazz and classical music. The result? A new sound loaded with the severe aggro of his metal youth and a scope and sophistication ranging from classic John McLaughlin fusionistics to modern Ron Jarzombek-style heavy extremity.
To go completely voiceless, though, was a massive risk — audiences connect with words, even words rasped beyond intelligibility, modern-metal-style. But Abasi understood that vocal abstraction has actually laid the groundwork for a completely instrumental approach. So at AAL shows, raw thrashers now headbang in perfect sync with calculus buffs.
Last year's sophomore release "Weightless," with drummer Navene Koperweis and PSI guitarist Javier Reyes, steered AAL in a direction that expanded its base; the band's 2009 "CAFO" video has piled up 2 million YouTube views. Early this year, the band played dates with Swedish math-metal giants Meshuggah and headlined its own tour.
Gods of technique tend to be schooled. Abasi, though, learned his craft by obsessing over instructional videotapes on the REH and Hot Licks labels, whose catalogs feature Yngwie Malmsteen, Al DiMeola and Metallica. So he felt honored when, by student demand a year ago, he staged a clinic at Hollywood's famous Musicians Institute.
Oh no, Abasi doesn't disparage the rigorous M.I. curriculum: "I'm sure they're getting every penny worth!"
Lest AAL get consigned to guitar-geek cultdom, they strive to seize audiences by alternative means, employing two 8-foot onstage screens that display digital animation created to complement their music. The synchronization extends to the performance, which expands the core sound of live drums and two eight-string guitars via preprogrammed electronic drums, bass and synth.
"The only hard part," says Abasi, "is if you get off by one beat, it's enough to be potentially disastrous. We've had moments like that, but I guess it's part of the fun!"
Abasi is touring with Irvine's wide-ranging rock stalwarts, Thrice, who are bidding temporary farewell to fans in favor of family. An AAL fan from the get-go, Thrice drummer Riley Breckenridge remembers, "When it came time to put together this tour, they were at the top of my list. They've also toured with some good friends of ours [Circa Survive and Darkest Hour], and I'd heard nothing but good things about them. I'm really glad it worked out."
Abasi agrees: "We thought it was a great opportunity, because Thrice is such a respected band."
And Abasi got a chance to expose a fresh audience to his mission — "I'm hellbent on creating something new!"