Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tosin Abasi – Reinventing Modern Progressive Music

Music can touch the soul, create movements, define us. Prince's music showed us what it means to love and break through societal boundaries, and Beyonce's latest album Lemonade empowered women all over the world. There are numerous artists who are under-recognized and who are just as influential. HBW staff member Connor Noteboom analyzes the innovative style of guitar player Tosin Abasi. 

Tosin Abasi – it is a name you have probably never heard of. He is the primary writer and guitar player for the band Animals as Leaders – another name you have probably never heard. Despite his relative mainstream obscurity, he is changing the face of what modern progressive metal music looks like. Abasi’s full name is Oluwatosin Ayoyinka Olumide Abasi and he is a first generation American born to Nigerian parents. Abasi was born in Washington D.C. in 1983 and still currently resides there.

After seeing an advertisement for cheap guitars in the newspaper at the age of 12, Abasi convinced his father to buy one for him. In a Noisecreep article, it is reported that Abasi said: “I told my dad I wanted one and he was open-minded, for a Nigerian immigrant.” Abasi also mentioned how his mother’s experience as an immigrant led her to be less supportive of his music. Abasi said, “My mom definitely represents more of the traditional immigrant mentality of education and conventional channels being way more important than a creative endeavor. She doesn’t get it, which is fine, since my dad was totally liberal about the whole thing and encouraging and proud. The two forces balance each other out.” Abasi learned to play the guitar quickly and he was soon the best player in school. He went on to play in a series of local metal bands before receiving an offer from Prosthetic Records to join their solo artist roster. At first, Abasi refused, preferring to improve his talents by studying at the Atlanta Institute of Music. Eventually, after graduating, he accepted the deal which spawned his band Animals as Leaders.

I first heard about Abasi when my guitar teacher recommended some guitar players for me to listen to. Yngwie Malmsteen, Guthrie Govan, and Andy McKee were some names my teacher gave me (who are all incredible players in their own right) but Abasi stood out above the others. “He’s an alien, man!” my guitar teacher told me. And after hearing my first Animals as Leaders song, I had to agree with him. There were so many elements going on at once, even as a practiced guitarist it was difficult to comprehend. I had never heard anything like it. Odd time signatures and jarring tempo changes dominate this music – one second there are heavily syncopated low-tuned guitars hammering away at a complex rhythm and the next there is a clean jazz section with a two-handed tapping lead thrown over the top. At times it can be tough to bob your head to. There are points where the music sounds just plain ugly with dissonant lead playing that dances around the musical scale, stepping in and out of key, building and releasing tension. There are others times where the music sounds perfectly lush and relaxed, and yet never goes in the direction one might expect. Abasi's music is incredibly diverse and exemplary of “progressive” music.

Abasi's music is unique in a few different ways. The first and probably most noticeable is his use of eight-string guitars. He is not the first person to use eight-strings, but he most certainly was one of the first few to utilize them to their full potential. Before Animals as Leaders, eight-string guitars were mainly utilized by bands like Meshuggah in order to get a very deep, low-tuned, heavy sound that revolved around the low eighth string. The rest of the guitar tended to be ignored even though it offered such a wide range of tonal and technical possibilities.

This video gives a simple demonstration as to how the two extra low strings can add to and shift the sounds that are possible compared with what a normal six string guitar sounds like. 

Abasi frequently uses the full range of notes all over the fretboard and across every string. He also does much more than pick and “chug” on the low 8th string.  The most recognizable contribution Abasi has made to this style of music is his unique take on slapping and thumping which were mainly bass guitar techniques which he adapted to guitar. These techniques, tapping, sweeping, slapping, and “thumping,” achieve a variety of different sounds in addition to traditional techniques.

He is not the inventor of these techniques, but he has certainly adapted them to fit his own style and music as well as popularizing them among the progressive metal audience and scene. For instance, tapping and sweeping have been a part of guitar music for quite some time dating back to the mid-1900s and made their way into metal music around the 80s when the techniques were popularized by the likes of guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Steve Vai. But combined with Abasi’s eight string prowess and technical ability, he has made the techniques into something very much his own. The musical context they are played in is so much different than in the previously mentioned guitarists’ music; if you played the two side by side it would be tough to tell that they are the same basic technique. 

In this video, he explains the technique and how he utilizes it in his music.

This video gives some more information on the technique and offers some other cool examples of its use in Animals as Leaders songs.

Abasi’s playing style is unique, creative, and was almost unimaginable until he brought it forth through Animals as Leaders.  He is a guitar playing legend and he has been recognized for it in magazines and websites all over the world. Most recently, he was one of five guitar players to participate in the Generation Axe tour which brought together five guitarists from five different musical backgrounds and generations, all considered to be masters of their craft. Those five were Tosin Abasi, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettancourt, and Zakk Wylde. Abasi represents the newest generation of guitar players utilizing influences from a multitude of different genres of music, and with the internet there is now the ability to connect and share ideas more than ever before. With these resources, musicians continue getting better and more creative while they are younger, and this will continue to produce unique and innovative guitar players such as Tosin Abasi. 

If you are interested in hearing more, check out their debut album Animals as Leaders and their most recent album The Joy of Motion. Following are some select tracks from each album.

From their self-titled album:
“Thoroughly at Home”
“On Impulse”

From “The Joy of Motion”:
“Another Year”
“Physical Education”
“The Woven Web”

[by Connor Noteboom]

Connor Noteboom is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in English and philosophy. Connor is also a staff member and novels specialist for Project HBW. 

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