Throw the word ‘progressive’ at a caveman already happily entranced by the circular rhythmic lull of slamming brutal death metal and the thought resultant may as well be a time machine for a pit-limited worldview, aging forth but still fighting to run up the side of their filth-slicked fishbowl into the world beyond. Long Island, New York death metal band Afterbirth had exited the cave, seen the stars, and found greater distinction in slime all the same in the early 90’s having found a new voice for underground death metal and infamously inhaled-out a remarkably heavy tapes or two before dissolving mid-decade. With the greater schemata of music of early 90’s New York in mind, a demo tape like ‘Psychopathic Embryotomy‘ (1994) could be seen from two positions, each benefiting from hindsight: The first is a young band amidst the high birthrate of brutal death metal in their region tweaking their performative style to suit their own artistic goals, however serious, and finding compatriots in the burgeoning brutal death spheres nearby. The second is seen by the full outsider as an avant-garde take on death metal that’d bear no limitations of legacy or ‘trueness’ to interrupt their mauling of forms, it was a primal lunge that’d bear the rotten inverted crepitations of a dying lung as its leader. Not unheard of with global hindsight for 1994 in hand, it certainly wasn’t ‘Nespithe’ but, it was a strong microcosm of influence that’d slowly expand in the dark and restless world of brutal death metal music since. The train of thought on Afterbirth since their reformation in 2013 offers a refraction at every juncture or, recording, that has followed — The only guarantee heading into the future was, and continues to be that they are keen enough to remain one step ahead of expectation. This is even more true as their second full-length album, ‘Four Dimensional Flesh’, threatens to bear down upon us in 2020.
I was wrong. Fantastically, stupidly wrong about ‘The Time Traveler’s Dilemma‘ (2017) when it came out. As a casual listener habitually flipping through Unique Leader‘s new stuff each month, and a ruthless collector of every old death metal demo tape I possibly can, I’d seen the ‘progressive/slam’ tag but was curious what Afterbirth were all about 20+ years later. I’d crumpled into myself out of disgust, clicking away as soon as I’d heard the first guttural vocal. That knee-jerk reaction stemmed from a general disrespect for slamming brutal death metal, festering since the godawful pro-tools’d gluttony of early 2000’s and eh, an attitude I’ve since gotten over. Though I don’t think it’d have made my Top 50 of the year even if I’d had a more open mind at the time, that first record would have primed me for the impact of ‘Four Dimensional Flesh’, which threatens to possess and further distend the already sagging orifice that is my mind today. In revisiting ‘The Time Traveler’s Dilemma’ in this state, I see enthusiasm and reverence for their own past running high while the performances burst out like a true technical death metal band of today. It was too much, too fast, too wordy and completely satisfying despite the proper extremity of the full listen. The guttural aspect of the songs still tied to the ‘Maggots in Her Smile‘ (2014) demo were prominent, a distinctive trait for Afterbirth that eases quite a bit along the with the pacing of ‘Four Dimensional Flesh’, which is arguably a progressive death metal album with some technical and brutal leadership. If that first album was a John Berkey, this second record is more of a John Harris, if you will. On that note both fantastic album covers were painted by Kishor Haulenbeek whose brilliant illustrative style did a lot to pull me back to this record when I was initially unsure of it.
Wedding the grotesque downtuned burl of Afterbirth‘s beginnings with a beauteous, meandering progressive death metal soul wouldn’t work if not for such careful and distinct choices made for the sake of tone, a guiding rhythmic thread, and interlacing dynamic performances eased between each of the four members. In other words, toes are not being stepped upon between the four performers, a rare feat for metal albums in general; Some of this is due to the search for exactly right guitar sounds, effects, and a draft-heavy writing process but I’d also suggest any death metal record with Colin Marston on production/engineering duties allows for a righteous ‘shared space’ between each instrument. The tightly wound and overstuffed hulk of ‘The Time Traveler’s Dilemma’ bore the weight of two decades on its shoulders and with all of that shrugged off, Afterbirth have made good work of the three years spent neatly arranging ‘Four Dimensional Flesh’ into an experience that breathes, writhes and appears to delight in its own ghastly brand of eruptive, brutal psychedelia. Yet the bigger picture doesn’t purely emphasize space-faring headiness nor violence, welcoming a thread of space-rocked cosmic horror and dark spiritual decay that should recall an oldie like Wicked Innocence as easily as it does Wormed.
“Beheading the Buddha” is the sort of opener every brutal death metal wished they could’ve written after hearing “Liege of Inveracity” back in 1991 and I’m only saying that because it could’ve been floated to a drying abandoned legacy band like Suffocation and be heralded as the ‘second coming of…’ for its murderous technical attack and body-dragging heaviness. If you’re familiar with the aforementioned ‘Maggots in Her Smile’ demo the structure of “Spiritually Transmitted Disease” should be familiar here as a bold choice for a second track, which finds Afterbirth elevating the already transcendental lilt of the song while emphasizing the guttural bellows and mosh riffs more prominent in the bands original conception with vocalist Matt Duncan (R.I.P.). What vocalist Will Smith (Artificial Brain, Biolich) is able to do on this song, and across the whole album for that matter, goes above and beyond; Serving as less a point of plain narrative and more of an additional textural instrument (review cliche, I know) that weaves purposefully within celestial atmospherics as often as it directs the flow of things. “Girl in Landscape” is the moment where most will realize this is not just another record and that Afterbirth are intending more than a mind-flaying, but a trip and a step beyond anything previous. The fairly simple at-a-glance instrumental piece is just the first plunge up to the knee that you’ll take before realizing this album actually is a step ahead, and aiming for full immersion.
No doubt for some it’d take another thousand words to be convinced to fall into ‘Four Dimensional Flesh’ but for me, it’d take about ten more minutes of listening. I’d probably landed on “Rooms to Nowhere” still feeling the glancing blows of “Never Ending Teeth” and found its springing ‘Focus’-esque bass and fidgeting riffs a more than appropriate second wind onto Side B and stunning highlight on the album with some Pyrrhon-esque chord-dragging to really drive thier drill ear-to-ear. This is thus far one of my favorite tracklist arrangements on a record this year if only because it has the versatility of playing back to front from either side of the LP. Granted this is a ~37 minute record and I tended to be exhausted by the time “Swallowing Spiders” swung in to cut my damn head off, and it was only by the grace of the interstitial ‘ludes surrounding “Blackhole Kaleidoscope” that I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the full listen. It is a lot, the good kind of a lot and a masterful record on every count: Pristine artwork, soul-shredding themes, intentional arrangements, vitally dynamic sound design, technical-yet-corporeal performances, and a distinct ‘abominant-yet-ethereal’ personality — Old kosmonauts, still off in goddamned space discovering new frontiers. A fantastic second record from Afterbirth and by hell or high gravity one of my personal favorites so far this year. Very high recommendation.
Very high recommendation. 4.5/5.0
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