I think of myself as a patient person. I don’t mind standing in line, I don’t get frustrated sitting in traffic, and I purposefully start Frances the Mute at the beginning of the title track. But the truth is that I haven’t done all that much waiting in my life. Afterbirth have. In fact, they’ve been around since 1993 and just now are releasing their first album, a case of musical blue balls longer than my entire lifespan. Though it’s not as if this is an unreleased album waiting for publication since the ’90s – as suitors have come and gone, each taking a piece of hope with them, the core of Afterbirth have persevered, unraveling and reweaving their tapestry until the right one comes. And when you’re looking for a brutal death metal vocalist in New York, there is one in particular who can string the bow: Artificial Brain‘s Will Smith.
Ever since zombies killed his dog in 2007, Will Smith has been dealing with his grief in the healthy way: by gurgling, screaming, and howling his way across New York’s underground metal scene. Many will be familiar with his work in Buckshot Facelift and Artificial Brain1, and his talents are just as well displayed in Afterbirth as in his main bands. But of course, Afterbirth‘s other three members, Kieth Harris (Drums), David Case (Drums), and Cody Drasser (Guitars) are the real stars of the show, and their sci-fi slam stylings are the real deal. Not as groovy as Abominable Putridity, not as batshit crazy as Wormed, but brutal and progressive nonetheless – like a nerdier version of Internal Bleeding. The end product achieves an old-school brutal sound without sounding too dated, thanks to snappy bass playing and plenty of progressive influence.
The riffing in The Time Traveler’s Dilemma follows the slam playbook; chunky and chromatic, simple enough to be reshaped in repetition without losing familiarity. The pitfall with this style is that if the source material is no good, the variations fall flat – but after a lifetime in the death metal underground, Afterbirth are no slouches when it comes to their riffing of riffs. The motif in “Eternal Return” starts off in Immolation territory before walking through the Gorguts neighborhood into a less easy to pin-down style that I’m willing to say is what Afterbirth actually sound like – and it’s good. Bass and guitar alternately chase more complex lines while the drums play careful complement to their interplay. Pinch harmonics get thrown around and the band rarely repeat themselves without switching up the punctuation.
Given the album’s source, my main complaint about The Time Traveler’s Dilemma should come as no surprise. It’s super-brickwalled, and the dry production only adds to the feeling that the album is crumbly and brittle. Every time I spin this album, it feels like the mp3s have degraded a bit more, and that’s a shame, because it has only grown on me with repeat listens. After the first few songs, the album seems to really find itself and the songwriting gets more progressive; the band take more risks, increasingly using feedback and effects to build a deeper sense of identity into the album. The instrumental title tracks (I and II) really reach further and show a more contemplative and adventurous side that you wouldn’t expect from a band called Afterbirth. Yet even as the album gets better, I’m fatigued and annoyed by its inappropriate mastering job, which robs the music of the depth needed to really make these more progressive songs land.
The Time Traveler’s Dilemma caught me off guard with its songwriting quality and progressive leanings, but the whole package isn’t quite there. I know I’ll come back to this album in the future and unpack even more of its compositional nuance and exemplary performances, but I’ll do so with the annoyance of its lack of dynamic depth. This might be a brutal death metal album, but it’s not the “throw shit and mosh” slamfest where mastering issues take a backseat to pure kineticism. Afterbirth take after Gorguts and Artificial Brain in their approach, and their music deserves matching production. My advice to Afterbirth: take the trip into the city, record with Colin Marston, and do it quick. Nobody wants to wait another twenty years before hearing the next one.