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First, a necessary admission: I'm not really one for slam. I say that respectfully, of course. Slam and deathcore have carved niches for themselves in the broader world of death metal and extreme metal for over a decade, with the origins of slam stretching way, way back to rightly venerated groups like Suffocation. Typically, when it comes to critical writing, I evade the stuff; partly because I tend not to like it -- I'm often not the right critical voice to engage with it. It can be hard to set down a bias and approach something on its own merits and it would be disrespectful, most of the time, to present work covering those spaces with my name on the byline. Art criticism can never be fully separated from the subjective, attenuation, contextualization, history, whathaveyou, but just because it's always subjective in some large measure doesn't give us licence to run our mouths about anything we want.

I say this all because Afterbirth's latest release Four Dimensional Flesh is one of those few slam albums that makes me shut my mouth and eat crow.

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Its release happened around the surprise-release of It Comes in Waves from The Acacia Strain, a solid and engaging combination of sludge, doom, and some prog elements into a broader deathcore sensibility. Afterbirth falls in a similar camp, producing work that at once feels like it's deeply engaged with the slam canon while offering some more esoteric, progressive, and explicitly pretty and melodic elements that seem designed to catch people like me and make us pay our occasional respects.

Afterbirth's music is, in long stretches, spacey and colorful, erring away from the muddiness that sometimes passes for heaviness in some sectors of the death metal world and replacing them with riffs somewhere between more melodic death metal and a group like Gorguts or Voivod, tapping into that quintessential "space metal" vibe without sacrificing the occasional ultra-brutal breakdown and stomach-clenchingly deep growls.

Normally, my issue with slam is largely one built around songwriting. For me, a song predominantly focused around building up its breakdown and predominantly focusing on making that breakdown simply atom-bomb heavy doesn't quite work for me; it can feel, after a while, like the rest of the song is dead air, a waste of time, something to space out the slams and mosh riffs rather than something designed to be an equal-footed element of the song. Afterbirth, as a band, are smarter than that. These songs are tightly composed prog death, packing tons of twists and turns and plenty of shocking, delightfully strange dissonant chord choices and swirling proggy melodies -- these in turn make those deep, intense slam passages feel deeply earned. You can tell listening to Four Dimensional Flesh that Afterbirth wanted to make a set of songs where neither the neanderthal brutality or the PhD-level avant-riffing felt like the main course; they are synchronous halves of a broader whole.

The hybrid of vomit-inducing extremity and cerebral prog metal passages is enough to make the gang in Morbid Angel proud, which is just about one of the kindest things you can say about a death metal group.

The record's pacing is immaculate as well. For the most part, it is divided into sets of two knotty hybrid slam/prog-death tracks before one exclusively prog metal instrumental roughly a minute in length. This only breaks near the end, where the final repetition shortens the song portion to only a single track; Afterbirth make it up to listeners, however, by making it both the longest and perhaps the best traditional song on the record. There are elements of the spacier and more ambient black metal groups currently going on the instrumentals, feeling vaguely aware of the broader cosmic death metal scene that has become deeply entrenched in the underground over the last 20 years or so, as well as flecks of some of the classic tech-thrash bands of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Afterbirth rarely feature a long stretch that feels like a direct homage to other groups, but those with a decent compendium of bands and styles they recognize from within that subgenre space will have plenty of joyful "a-ha!" moments as the riffs roll by, something I can't deny added a great deal to how much I enjoyed Four Dimensional Flesh.

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I'm shocking myself by saying this, but I'm a bit sad there weren't a few more direct slam tracks on this record. The album opens up with "Beheading the Buddha," a remarkably intense track title featuring a conceptual aesthetic that is a pleasantly subtle shift to reinvigorate an otherwise somewhat stale approach, which in turn perfectly matches how crazy fucking brutal the song is. Aside from that track, however, the slam portions tend to be brief riffs, rarely even getting a full breakdown. I admit that this didn't displease me in one sense; I found each of the songs to be remarkably compelling hybridizations of technical, progressive, melodic, thrash, and brutal death metal ideas, producing a set that seems like it must feature on year-end lists of those serious about death metal as a style.

But in another sense, this felt like the perfect time and place to win someone like me over to more explicitly brutal and slam death elements, things I normally find somewhat cliche, overdone, and boring but here, with these players and this level of songwriting acumen, I could have seen myself digging.

Still, that barely registers as a real critique; faulting an artist for not making a record we personally make up in our heads doesn't really register as serious criticism of the work in front of us. So, placing that issue aside, Afterbirth's Four Dimensional Flesh ranks itself pretty strongly as my favorite death metal release of the year so far. (I feel comfortable saying this because as much as Sweven's immaculate debut certainly had death metal origins, it flowered into something quite a bit different, to no complaint from me obviously.)

I shamefully have to admit this review comes as late as it does compared to the record's initial release date largely because of genre chauvinism on my part; I ignored the very strong recommendations of some friends and colleagues in the metal criticism and broader fandom worlds off of the back that this was slam and thus not really my cup of tea. Don't make my mistake; track this one down. You won't regret it.

Death metal is the greatest art humanity can ever produce. Hail satan. Let's all die in outer space as a family.

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Four Dimensional Flesh released March 13th via Unique Leader Records.

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