Afterbirth were always destined for weirdness. You don’t write an album like Four Dimensional Flesh (2020) and have a normal go of things, even in something as kooky as progressive death metal. They’re kind of like if Blood Incantation had fully committed to oddball prog while being as capital-B Brutal as possible without veering into parody.
Even then, that’s a very shortsighted summation of what Afterbirth are, were, and will be. At this point, it’s clear the band have no dogmatic alliances to any sound in metal, or at least ones that prevent jovial, purposed experimentation. They just are, they is, they am. Now that I’ve made the spell check shit itself with that sentence, let’s get into why In But Not Of is cosmically, canonically, and contradictorily one of the better death metal albums of 2023.
If you believe in brutal/prog death metal, then you know it to be somewhat formless in raw expectation of execution, just like anything else with a progressive label. Sure, we can argue all day about the tenets of prog death metal versus technical death metal, but the former is amoebic by nature, less stringent in anything than other genres might be. Afterbirth take full, maximal advantage of this with songs like “Hovering Human Head Drones” that are replete with a more gentle, but off-putting atmosphere using wavy, watery guitar melodies and leads straight up timewarped in from ‘90s rock. It’s not nostalgic dick-jacking though, it’s another way for Afterbirth to envelop their dark universe with a sense of alluring wonder but also danger.
“Time Enough Tomorrow” perhaps does this even better - it’s an instrumental track, missing Will Smith’s (Reeking Aura, Exsanguinated, ex-Artificial Brain) pigfuck gutturals, but filling the space with meditative percussion and irradiated synths that glow in the mix. This goes to show how well Afterbirth meld worlds beyond mere channeling an influence or making a neat interlude track - this shit is in their blood, and the music is ensconced in these worlds, linked by bridges rather than portals where a clear partition exists to segregate. Like, the title track sounds like it could be a Tool B-side at times and I don’t even like Tool.
There’s so much strength in these genre-nuking moments that it makes the more hardline metal moments wane in comparison, but they are part of the formula. “Autoerotic Amputation” pummels for sure, but it still can’t help but connect its more shred-oriented guitar work and drumming BPM higher than your blood sugar with a respite of spaciousness. One of the longest tracks “Vomit On Humanity” shows the band reveling in some mid-era Cannibal Corpse play, distinguished further by progging all over itself with tonal and stylistic shifts that are rather unique to Afterbirth.
This is just exciting stuff from a band that was already exciting and different. The continuity that’s been established here is immense. Even the covers of In But Not Of and Four Dimensional Flesh are similar. The latter’s cover shows a space-suited figure faced with an M.C. Escher-like landscape that’s familiar yet esoteric and futuristic enough to raise both eyebrows. This album has a deconstruction of the other cover - architecture is freely cast about in a way that’s an affront to our physical sensibilities and our figure grows into a much more abstract representation of itself with a lone fetus implanted in the head. It’s striking, made up of as much detail and layering as the music itself. It’s also exciting to think of the places Afterbirth can go from here, but it’s clear from this album and what they’ve pulled from other sources and areas into this album that the limits are nearly nonexistent. It can go anywhere including south, though something tells me the facts will prove anything but.
Bottom line: Afterbirth don’t really give a fuck, and so neither do I in the sense that I don’t hold this album to any preconceived notions of genre. Just let it ride - you either like it or you don’t. For me, it sounds great and this is precisely where more extreme death metal should be going - everywhere. Maybe that’s what the title In But Not Of means in part: turn your growth and questions inward, into the galaxy of matter hidden within you, gloriously unbounded; not of something already predetermined and molecularly rigid.