Written by Kep
Afterbirth – In but Not Of
> Progressive brutal death metal
> New York, US
> Releasing October 20
> Willowtip Records
Afterbirth have an uncommon story, one of my favorite in all of metal. Originally appearing as a part of the brand new New York-centered brutal death subgenre back in the early 90s, they called it quits after three short years and disappeared for nearly two decades. In 2013 the band re-formed with the same lineup and released a promising demo a year later, but then disagreements about the best musical path forward would cause them to split with vocalist Matt Duncan, one of the originators of that hyper-guttural style of gurgling brutal death vocals; he would die two years later by suicide at only 42. The band moved forward as an instrumental three-piece for some time before adding new vocalist Will Smith, who at the time was known for his work in Artificial Brain and Buckshot Facelift, and they released a monster of a long-awaited full-length debut, The Time Traveller’s Dilemma, in 2017. Then, in 2020, their sophomore effort Four Dimensional Flesh: nothing short of stunning, an unpredictable and inventive piece of extreme music wizardry.
This year marks the thirty-year anniversary of Afterbirth’s emergence, and while their uncommon story is already a great one, it’s far from finished. In fact, if In but Not Of is any indication, then these veterans are still on the upswing and the legend is only growing as their music becomes even more uncommon than their story.
This theme of uncommonness permeates the record from front to back, from macro to micro. Eleven tracks of wildly different lengths, stylistic bents, and structures comprise the album’s 36 minutes. There are miniature brutal beatdowns packed with all sorts of personality (“Tightening the Screws”, “Autoerotic Amputation”, “Vivisected Psychopomp”), groovy post-punk rock beauty dashed with growling death punctuation (“Hovering Human Head Drones”), drugged-out space haze atmospheres (“Time Enough Tomorrow”), darkly violent swirling cosmic abysses (“Angels Feast on Flies”), and nearly everything in between. The title track is an instrumental fake-out that spends four of its five minutes building before a monstrous vocal entrance and bullish conclusion. This thing is built to keep you on your toes at all times, with a sudden change or mindbending twist lurking around every corner. Yes, it says brutal death at the top of the page, and brutal death obviously makes up a large chunk of Afterbirth’s base sound, but this album is far more than that. In but Not Of is an expansion of event horizons, a constantly morphing and ever-searching exploration of the edges of extreme music possibility.
It’s a unique-sounding album from the start, and not only because of Big Will’s extremely distinctive belching death croaks and abysmal growls. Both the riffs and the production are instantly identifiable as Afterbirth, the former as angular and jazz-influenced as anything in the brutal death sphere and the latter giving remarkable prominence and clarity to both David Case’s ropey bass and Smith’s aforementioned gurgles. Guitarist Cody Drasser’s style is chameleon-like and quirky, making notable use of syncopation and empty space while also displaying an odd sort of economy: his technical prowess is undeniable, but he doesn’t need to fly up and down the fretboard to produce compelling riffs. In fact, some of his most distinctive work here, especially notable in standout track “Vomit on Humanity”, is built on simple minor seconds and thirds, sidewinding repetitions of angular patterns shifting by half-steps and providing an unsettling but powerful framework. Producer Colin Marston contributed synths as well here on In but Not Of, a responsibility handled by drummer Keith Harris on Four Dimensional Flesh; they’re mostly subtle touches, but enhance the songwriting enormously when they feature for moments of burning warmth in tracks like the beautifully reflective “Time Enough Tomorrow”.
The top-notch production abilities of Marston are on full display as well: Harris’ charmingly idiosyncratic style behind the kit, replete with bright cymbal bells and playful syncopations, is lively and attention-grabbing,Drasser’s guitars balance remarkably well whether they’re driving the texture with tremolos and crushing riffwork or glowing with burnished alien sunshine on atmospheric melody, and Smith and Case’s respective lows never feel covered or obnoxiously pushed to the front of the mix. Case does killer work, swelling and bursting beneath the other instruments at times while rattling brutally at others, painting countermelodies smoothly beneath surprisingly gorgeous moments like the middle stretch of “Hovering Human Head Drones”.
It’s goddamn refreshing to listen to an album that can be anything it wants at any given time and do it all with panache and expertise. There are stylistic shifts of both the deft transformation and tires-squealing hard left turn sort in nearly every track, and each one is a delight. “Devils With Dead Eyes” features a manic gallop that incorporates a slippery psychedelic harmonized guitar solo that shapeshifts into spacey heavy metal shred before crashing like a chunky meteor back to planet surface. There’s a memorable tempo shift about halfway through “Autoerotic Amputation” that features rapid-fire vocals from Big Will along with headbang-bait in the guitars. Tracks like “Angels Feast on Flies” and “Succumb to Life” make liberal use of blasts and tremolos for just long enough to invoke thoughts of cosmic black metal before expanding into spacious atmospheric moments or getting tricky with rhythm and chunky guitars, shifting your ears into new universes influenced by space rock and progressive metal.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There is nothing common about In but Not Of, just like there’s nothing common about Afterbirth, and that’s what makes this record so great. The newest effort from the Long Island four-piece is among the very best releases of the year in any genre, and it will absolutely be a deserving entry on many AOTY lists. Do not miss it.