Afterbirth are riding one of the more improbable comebacks in metal. They first formed in 1993 on New York’s Long Island, also home to death metal legends Suffocation. In their earliest days, they were a fairly typical gore-and-blasphemy act; their 1994 demo featured track titles like “Aborted Christ” and “Obliteration of Human Tissue.” You know, the usual stuff. They couldn’t get along, though, and they split up in 1995.
In 2013, they reformed and began writing new material. They recorded a four-track demo, but old conflicts rose up again and founding vocalist Matt Duncan was shown the door. This left the other three members — guitarist Cody Drasser, bassist David Case and drummer Keith Harris — to trudge on as an instrumental unit. There’s certainly room in the world for instrumental metal, even death metal, but it’s a hard slog, so when vocalist Will Smith (no, not that one) came on board, things were looking up again. They signed with Unique Leader Records, and released their first proper album, The Time Traveler’s Dilemma, in 2017, almost a full quarter century after they first formed.
The time away had altered the band’s perspective. The Time Traveler’s Dilemma was a punishingly aggressive record, mixed a little too clean and mastered a little too loud, but it was a complex one, too, with bursts of shrieking atonality creeping in amid the downtuned riffs, and some surprising rhythmic touches, like little rolls across the toms that recalled the work of legendary free jazz drummer Tony Oxley. The music was progressive and even psychedelic at times, with subtle guitar-bass interplay flickering in and out just enough to make the whole thing that much more fascinating. And although Smith’s vocals were an ultra-guttural, broken-toilet gurgle and thus totally indecipherable, the track titles reflected broader interests than the band had shown back in the ’90s; now, they were singing about “Multiverse Dementia,” and contemplating the “Timeless Formless” and the “Transcendental Object at the End of History.”
Three years later, Afterbirth are back with Four Dimensional Flesh. It comes out of the gate at a gallop, “Beheading the Buddha” and “Spiritually Transmitted Disease” — the latter left over from their 2014 demo — thundering along like a speeding bulldozer. Harris’s drumming is slightly less weird than it was before, but he’s still throwing curveballs regularly. Drasser’s guitar is mixed more like a wall of muddy water, and while Case’s bass vibrates itself into a postpunk dimension here and there, it blends with the guitar a lot, too. In general, the mix is less crisp and more sludgy than it was on The Time Traveler’s Dilemma, and the mastering isn’t so teeth-shatteringly loud. That said, “Spiritually Transmitted Disease” ends with a short passage of sculpted feedback that reminds you that Case was in a latter-day version of Helmet, and that these guys are still smart, questing weirdos.
“Girl in Landscape” hammers that point home. It’s a short instrumental with swooshy keyboards and an almost Killing Joke-ish feel that transitions seamlessly into “Everything In Its Path.” Again, the band seems to be trying to be more conventional than they are; this is brutal death metal, complete with pinch harmonic guitar squeals and gut-churning vocals, but there are some Krallice-y black-metal-as-art-rock blast beat sections, too, with shrieking background vocals swathed in graveyard echo.
As the album goes on, it seems to levitate off the ground, transitioning from progressive death metal to sci-fi death metal; Harris plays this repeated tom fill on “Never Ending Teeth” that shouldn’t work as a punctuating device, but it does. Meanwhile, the guitars stop grinding in the mud and start to soar like Voivod or even Astronoid. Of course, they can’t stay up there forever, and they drop back down to the ground for the floor-punching “Swallowing Spiders.” But even then, the howling ghosts show up in the background, and the bass tries to escape into the stratosphere before the blast beats come back to remind everyone there’s work to be done.
The slightly less loud, less separated mix on this album really works in its favor. (So do the subtle keyboards.) It sounds like a throwback to the early days of death metal, when nobody was quite sure what it should sound like, so it could sound like anything, and there was still room for bands as weird as Nocturnus or early Gorguts. And it’s recorded organically; there are multiple moments when the music pauses and a bandmember counts them back in. Afterbirth are proof that extreme metal doesn’t have to be a young man’s game; taking 20 years off made them a much more interesting band, and the more they come into their sonic identity, the better they get. This is a record that could appeal to fans of everyone from Voivod to Krallice to Blind Idiot God — if you’re interested in hearing musicians truly stretch themselves, Four Dimensional Flesh is one of the most exciting releases of the year.