One of the first major reappearances of punk mainstays AFI after their brief but sudden absence from the limelight is also one that seems unusual for them: a middle of the day, televised shindig held at a Times Square venue to a closed audience.
The spring sunshine is certainly no place for goths to be hanging about, but strangely enough, even at 3:30 P.M., the dimly lit pseudo-elegance of the Nokia Theater became a prime setting for the dark theatrics of the boys of A Fire Inside. The lucky and rabid few that managed to secure a spot packed into the building, expecting a preview of the new album and an eagerly anticipated band appearance and interview with MTV, but little did they know -- those sneaky Bay-area bastards -- were also planning to rock their faces off with an impromptu set.
As I strolled into the theater to the strains of a new AFI tune, a less than personable staff member pointed me towards one of the only remaining seats -- in the corner of the back area, behind a generator of some sort, obscuring my view of anything that might actually go down. Not one to get flustered, I settled into my seat and tuned into the music pouring from the speakers.
AFI, like many great bands before them, have stayed relevant by continually reinventing themselves over their albums. They famously modified their hardcore punk roots to explore more gothic textures upon the entrance of guitarist Jade Puget; 2003's Sing the Sorrow found them sharpening that style into a radio-ready weapon. Judging by what I heard of the new album, they have subtly dulled both of those styles in favor of straight-ahead, albeit image-driven, pop music. The lead single for the upcoming Decemberunderground, “Miss Murder,” has an irresistible Depeche Mode-style bounce to it, but hearing it one has to wonder if the recent dance-rock craze has had an effect on the type of songs the band has been penning. In the freshly premiered video clip, clutching black rabbits and leading imaginary fascist armies, Davey Havok almost seemed to have become a parody of himself, and the televised format of the goings-on also led to the band being painted in a somewhat silly light.
In fact, the first half of the event was (perhaps as a result of it being an MTV-sponsored event) decidedly TRL-esque. Teenage girls screeched at anything and everything, security staff all but beat down fans moving simply to get a better view, and the band rambled awkwardly in response to less than stellar interviewing by Damien Fahey (sample question: "So...what’s up with the bunnies?"). The kids don’t want your rabbit symbolism for inner turmoil, Mr. Havok, they just want to rock.
When the cameras and the band were swiftly whisked from the room and the seated portion of the audience was slowly summoned to the floor, it seemed as though they were about to get their wish. As the curtain parted, and the thunderous, primal percussion of “Miseria Cantare” flooded the room, any previous doubts I was having were immediately vaporized. The band is a force to be reckoned with on stage. Like the unholy offspring of Robert Smith and Trent Reznor, Havok’s stage persona is simultaneously feminine, wounded, and menacing. “As we all form one dark flame,” he intoned, arms spread crucifixion style over his legion of followers, an anti-Christ in mascara.
The crowd never quite managed to form one dark flame, however; at worst, they were more like several stagnant sparks. The room did noticeably pick up steam towards the end of the all-too-brief set, upon the unveiling of former radio staples “Silver and Cold” and “Girl’s Not Grey,” which was a welcome change. AFI have a satisfying way of making you feel like the songs are just as much yours as they are theirs; the microphone is pointed outwards almost as much as it is towards Havok. The audience slowly molds into the 5th member of the group, and the result is a pleasing, if temporary, unity.
The band’s energy remained rampant throughout, reaching a fever pitch during the closing encore “God Called in Sick Today,” as Davey actually stepped out onto the crowd’s hands as part of his performance. His balance only lasted for so long, but as he fell unexpectedly into the sea of fans, their voices suddenly became the lead instrument, and the result was a magical authenticity that could never have been planned. He soon, of course, returned to the stage to join his bandmates. Next thing I knew, the set was over; the band had vanished as quickly as they had appeared, and the house lights were up. It was time to go home. I wanted more; I hadn’t yet got my head around where the band was going, what they were trying to do, but yet the hit and run had left me with a pleasing sort of a buzz. Let me tell you, it was more than enough. Wham. Bam. Thank you, ma’am.