To prepare myself to write a review of AFI's second major label album, and perhaps biggest musical shift, I decided to sit down with my entire AFI back catalog and try to figure out what kind of reference points I could use to put the sheer magnitude of the changes in context. I began with the band's decidedly straightforward sophomore full-length, Very Proud of Ya, which was about the most conventional thing the band ever recorded, but featured so many great little songs: “Cult Classic,” “Modern Epic” and a sound that was decidedly rooted in Southern California melodic hardcore. At the time, AFI was a staple of skateboarding mixtapes, and I can almost guarantee that any tape we took to the park had at least one AFI, one Guttermouth, one Operation Ivy and one 88 Fingers Louie track on it.
Of course, the very next album the band recorded dropped some of the snotty attitude and bolstered the sound with a lot more venom; the oft-cited classic, Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes is many things: a band embracing their dark side, a wonderful and murderously aggressive piece of hardcore punk, and, an album that managed to piss off at least half their skate/punk fans. By the time I got to my favorite, Black Sails in the Sunset, one thing became perfectly clear to me: AFI always pisses off half their fans. I can still remember hearing my friends refer to Black Sails as “metal shit” and writing the band off forever. If I had done the same, I would have certainly missed out on one of the most capable marraiges of gothic darkness and hardcore bluster; the same could be said for their next album, Art of Drowning, which frequently dialed down the momentum to give front-man Davey Havok a chance to actually sing.
When the band signed to a major -- on the urging of their former label, at that, they released an album which was firmly rooted in hardcore punk. The addictive single “Girl's Not Grey” sounds like Glenn Danzig fronting Bad Religion, and while I didn't entirely grasp the record immediately, it soon grew on me and fit very naturally after Drowning. Nevertheless, I can tell you that half my friends hated that and there is a good chance they'll hate Decemberunderground.
Because if they do, they'll miss another startling evolution in a band that has made it their mission to shock, rock and challenge their fans at every turn. The first single, “Miss Murder” with its Evita-styled video and grimey, rock'n'roll vibe is actually a far more appropriate tone-setter than the single hardcore track “Kill Caustic,” which oddly appears at the very beginning of the album and is as out of place there as anywhere else on the album, unfortunately. By “Summer Shudder,” it becomes adequately clear what the band is aiming for with the album: a synthesis of three main influences: Nine Inch Nails, the Cure and New Order; abundantly so in fact, based on Jade Puget's effects-laden instrumentation and vocal pyrotechnics courtesy of Mr. Havok.
The absence of the Danzig influence is probably one of the most striking aspects of the album; the band's previous singles “Girl's Not Grey” and “The Leaving Song, Part 2” were defined by that sound; completely gone is Davey's beloved, but Danzig-aping “whoa”s and his yelling voice, which was a staple of pretty much every AFI record save Very Proud of Ya and Fashionable.
Another shock comes in the form of the `80s-influenced “Love Like Winter,” with Depeche Mode-style loop accompanied and heavily affected guitars. It sounds like it could have been horrible, but the melody is just too memorable. But it's not until “Affliction” that the band turns up the heat again; with the minor annoyance of Davey's metalcore-style opening vocals, it's a definite crowd-pleaser and sure to be a live favorite. “Interview,” conversely, will become a living room favorite and is a mellow and dreamy affair carried by Davey's anthemic vocals and intricate instrumentation.
OK, I did lie when I said the "whoa"s were gone; they briefly resurface in “Missing Frame,” but you'll barely notice as the band ventures into art-punk territory, sounding as much like Gang of Four and Mission of Burma as AFI. “Killing Lights” sounds virtually identical to a Cure song in its opening moments but soon returns to the rock with a nice guitar-heavy chorus. The last two tracks are perhaps the most unusual songs the band has ever done; “37mm” is almost entirely electronically backed, and a song that's certain to fit in perfectly at the next `80s music night at your college club.
The closer (at least for American listeners) is “Endlessly She Said,” which is probably as close to Art of Drowning's slower moments as anything on the album; a darkly melancholy song and remarkably pretty, for lack of a better word. And while this band has been essentially the same unit since Black Sails, this track closes an album which bears the least resemblence to any of that record and not just the sound, or the performances or the songwriting.
Other then minor sequencing problems, and Davey's regrettable “metalcore” style scream on two tracks, the album is remarkably strongly written and musically cohesive for one that combines so many unusual influences. Of course, I miss the old AFI as much as anyone, even though it's anyone's guess what the old AFI actually is. The truth is, even Sing the Sorrow was three years ago, and Very Proud of Ya was a full decade past. The expectation of a return to that sound is a denial of the band's right to grow, and I'd be more disappointed to hear them trying to rewrite music they don't have in them anymore.
In the end, while every band seems to be working to revive the notion of the concept album, from odd science fiction plots to messianic stories of the suburbs, what AFI has done is deliver a different kind of concept album altogether: a modern hardcore/punk band writing an retro-`80s goth/rock album and in that, an unqualified success. Decemberunderground is a remarkable album, and one that is many great things: goth, industrial, punk, electronic, though it isn't the AFI you remember. But it never is.