Listening to AFI's teenage recordings, one never would have guessed they'd be future leaders of the eyeliner-punk pack (Alkaline Trio, My Chemical Romance) to fill in the blanks between the Cure and the Misfits. Emerging out of the same Bay Area punk scene that spawned Rancid and Green Day, AFI for most of their early career were associated with these groups but remained a step harder than their pop-punk contemporaries.
That all began to change with a Cure cover in 1998, followed by Black Sails in the Sunset in 1999. With singer Davey Havok's bellow sounding more late Danzig than early Misfits, and the band's all-terrain hardcore beginning to get mired in black sludge, something original began to coalesce. Some call it goth-core, which AFI have encouraged by embracing Halloween, pancake makeup and lyrics about drinking blood.
The real rupture came with Sing the Sorrow, which some hoped would be the band's Nirvana moment. Teaming with Butch Vig and pop-punk producer Jerry Finn, AFI took a cleaver and hacked off their punk past. Sorrow exploded with the swagger of a mature band finding its own footing. Pop choruses blasted out of nearly every song, guitars ricocheted in and out of verses in a dozen different voices and whispers built to screams built to full-band war cries. It was practically impossible to tell this was the same group that recorded "I Wanna Get a Mohawk (But Mom Won't Let Me Get One)" eight years earlier; this was more a band that should be singing "I Wanna Get a Manicure (But My Fans Think It's Gay)." While hardcore-punk fans bellyached, AFI's album sales climbed from 312,000 to 1.1 million.
But in the end, AFI only became more popular; they didn't become huge. So the question Decemberunderground grapples with is, what happens when you plan an orgy but end up just having sex? The answer: Well, you plan another orgy. The band regroups with producer Finn (but not Vig), and all the pop hooks and black-cloud guitars are there, along with a new electronic-industrial edge. The band writes a fist-pumping shout-along chorus like no one else; its "clippety-clop, clippety-clop -- whoa!" formula works every time. But where Sorrow is a great album, listenable front to back, Decemberunderground just has good songs.
Not surprisingly, every stand-out track touches on the theme of suicide, from the march-and-chant lead single, "Miss Murder," to the wonderfully overblown black-metal choruses of "Affliction" to the ridiculously catchy "Summer Shudder." Beyond these, there are moments on Decemberunderground that are poppier than anything AFI have ever done -- "The Interview" would be at home on the soundtrack to the next Spider-Man movie -- yet at the same time, the band plays to the angry youth with more polyp-producing screaming than ever. AFI's true strengths are in the middle of these two extremes, at the cemetery gates where the asexual teen misfits come to slash at their arms with penknives -- but not too deep, because that may really hurt.
From its creepy bedtime intro to its screaming Corpse Bride finale, Decemberunderground is a thoroughly enjoyable album to listen to, yet one senses between the notes that something isn't right in the world of AFI. The band continues to stand at the crossroads between Warped Tour package band and arena-rock headliner. Decemberunderground, then, is the sound of growing pains.
(Posted: Jun 6, 2006)
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