Brutal death metal, especially in its more technical manifestations, has been experiencing something of a renaissance as of late. Devourment, Wormed, Organectomy, Infant Annihilator, Unfathomable Ruination, Disentomb, and a host of others dropped albums in 2019 that could easily be counted among their finest work, setting the table for a veritable feast of violent sounds and textures that fans of the slammiest, smashiest riffs in the game were able to sink their teeth into with relish. But all good things must come to an end, and 2020, outside of being an absolute dumpster fire of a year so far, is ripe for a regression in quality for the genre. It’s incredibly difficult for any musical mode, especially as it plateaus in popularity, to maintain consistently high levels of quality. Death metal as a whole has seen a bit of a dip in high quality releases across the spectrum over the past couple of years, and while 2019 still produced a few almost certain classics (Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold being the main culprits here), it seems to me that the most intense concentration of premium releases in the death metal revival may be at its end. Then Afterbirth swoops in and turns that logical perception completely on its head.
Originally established way back in the death metal golden years of the early 1990s, Afterbirth released two demos of high octane brutal death metal in 1993 and 1994 then vanished from sight, not releasing any further original work until dropping their third demo in 2013. That’s certainly a Timeghoul-esque way to spend a career. But 2017 changed that trajectory with the release of the band’s first full-length, The Time Traveler’s Dilemma. It sounded exactly like the kind of music a band that had been playing together for a decade-and-a-half should create, and is still listed as one of the most surprising death metal debuts I’ve heard. This year brings us the band’s second full-length record, Four Dimensional Flesh, which has pretty big shoes to fill when it comes to matching the strengths of its predecessor… And fill them it does.
Four Dimensional Flesh is one of the most varied, intricate, and fully developed brutal death metal albums I’ve heard in years. On nearly every level, it offers utterly exceptional technically rigorous brutal death metal that adheres to the foundational concepts that make this brand of music special, is shockingly progressive in its songwriting direction, and is never short on sonic surprises. Opener “Beheading the Buddha” sets the tone with some supremely effective riff-building, delivered with masterful precision by guitarist Cody Drasser, who shines brightly throughout the entire record. Bassist David Case’s fantastic work is also immediately recognizable here, given prominence and plenty of quality highlights in the track’s songwriting structure as well as the mix, culminating in a string-based dual assault that’s as impactful as any I’ve heard this year.
The sheer variety of the songwriting contained in the opening track alone gives off a vibe that this record could soar into any version of death metal that the band so chose. There are more-than-trace elements of bands like Gorguts and Gigan contained in Four Dimensional Flesh’s DNA, while the production and mixing, delivered with seamless execution and clarity by board master Colin Marston, adds an additional element to heighten this perception. But Artificial Brain madman Will Smith provides a brilliant counterpoint with the most guttural of guttural vocal deliveries, keeping the music thoroughly grounded in the most brutal aspects of the genre. It’s a mix of approaches that works beautifully, allowing the band to propel their songwriting and instrumental performances into incredibly adventurous territory without sacrificing their brutal roots. For every “Spiritually Transmitted Disease” there’s a more experimental cut like “Girl in Landscape” adding psychedelic, almost celestial elements that create a simultaneous sense of balance and unpredictability that causes this record to stick out from the technical/brutal death metal pack like a sore thumb.
But for all its potential wizardry, a brutal death metal record is only as good as its ability to elicit a royal head bang or two, and Four Dimensional Flesh delivers such moments in spades. “Never Ending Teeth”, “Rooms to Nowhere”, “Swallowing Spiders”, and “Black Hole Kaleidoscope” contain enough rhythmic punishment to keep even the most masochistic of metal fans satisfied. Drummer Keith Harris should be thanked profusely for keeping the proceedings tight and lethal, peppering listeners with an incredible onslaught of blasts and jazz-infused cymbal work that never dips anywhere below engaging. It’s as complete a package of aggression as I’ve heard in a good while, and I’m all the way here for it.
Afterbirth may only have two full-length records to their name, but that’s all the exposure they have needed to catapult themselves into the upper stratosphere of brutal and technical death metal acts. From its insane opening moments to its stunning, widescreen finale, Four Dimensional Flesh is a record that is as thoroughly entertaining as it is performatively impressive. There’s little to nothing that I would change about this record, and it’s vaulted itself near the top of my list of favorites for 2020 thus far. We’ve never needed a soundtrack to societal self-destruction so badly, and Afterbirth have delivered unto us the goods. Praise be.
Four Dimensional Flesh is out now via Unique Leader Records.