Sing the Sorrow begins like a biblical epic: Ominous white noise crackles around buzzing guitars and lugubrious strings. A cymbal swells. A bell tolls. Toms thunder out a beat, and a chanting chorus howls: "Love! Your hate! Your! Faith lost! You! Are now! One! Of us!"
Welcome to AFI's nightmare. Sing the Sorrow is a dark planet that refracts various strains of rock, from punk to hardcore to metal to mope rock, and beckons everyone to twist and shout along as the whole shit house burns. Cheery, indeed -- but somehow AFI (the name stands for A Fire Inside) make abandoning all hope sound so inviting. Co-producers Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins) and Jerry Finn (Rancid, Green Day) let the band experiment with chamber strings, angelic choirs, techno pulses and fleet-fingered guitar solos but also keep the feral energy of AFI's previous work. "Silver and Cold" opens with thunderstorm sound effects and an eerie piano figure before launching into an uplifting pop-punk chorus. "The Great Disappointment" creeps in with a siren song of overdubbed feedback, pinging cymbals and a menacing bass line. And on "Death of Seasons," cellos saw away as Havok screams, "The stars go out and disintegrate!," his voice swallowed in reverb, as if from beyond the grave, or at least an underground parking garage.
Sing the Sorrow begs to be listened to with lyric sheet in hand, preferably by candlelight. Havok haunts these tracks like an Edgar Allan Poe spook, laying on purple phrases such as "somber resplendence," "monolithic statues so fragile" and "chrysanthemums of white." On "Death of Seasons," he intones, "Of late, it's harder just to go outside/To leave this dead space with hatred so alive." Despite all this solemnity, the band's urgent delivery and varied attack never allow the songs to sink into torpor. "Silver and Cold" features a call-and-response hymn at a punk-rock mass between Havok and a group of ganged voices.
Some of these bleak singalongs occasionally produce unintended comic results. On "Dancing Through Sunday," the group vocals have a sweet, arm-swinging quality that suggest a gothic Blink-182: "Oh-wee-oh, we dance in misery!" Not a good thing by any phantasmagorical stretch. But these moments are rare. Sing the Sorrow is not exactly a concept album, but it does have a singleness of dark purpose that builds in momentum as the disc progresses. Sorrow's two closing tracks (the last one hidden) are some of AFI's best and most ambitious work.
On the power ballad "This Time Imperfect," Havok uses his last breath to gasp, "I'd show a smile/But I'm too weak." Yet the ambient sounds that follow sound familiar -- we've heard them before, at the start of the album. It's all about to begin again for the poor guy.
(Posted: Feb 25, 2003)
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