After listening to Decemberunderground, I have some bad news
and some good news. The bad news is, while AFI's first major
label release Sing The Sorrow (2003) may have depleted much
of the band's original hardcore punk fan base, Decemberundergound
will utterly obliterate what was left of it. The good news is that
it does this consciously, and with a sense of pride. Now, unfortunately,
there is some more bad news: AFI claims to be a rock band, which I
believe them to be at heart. But what we have here is definitely a
powerpop album, with a few subtle hints of rock and post hardcore.
Let me preface this by saying that I love AFI, and I have only started
loving them since they released Sing The Sorrow. Therefore,
it is impossible for me to truly grasp the frustration their die-hard
fans must have felt after their 2003 release. I was just hopping on
the bandwagon, so from my perspective, it was a well-rounded piece
of work. For a first-time AFI listener, Decemberunderground
may have the same effect. But for anyone who has heard the band's
previous material, they are in for a surprise.
The album's first track, "Prelude 12/21", opens similarly
to what you might hear on Sing The Sorrow: slow, steady drumbeats
behind a repetitious, but deliberate chorus. AFI are never ones to
avoid making an entrance, and they haven't failed to do so in an army-like
fashion, similar to Sorrow's first song "Miseria Cantare
- The Beginning." The following track, "Kill Caustic"
(ironically one of the few songs without the word "kill"
in the lyrics) brings forth the not-so-distant memory of Sing The
Sorrow that is otherwise fairly absent on Decemberunderground:
fist-pumping catchy tunes with Davey Havok's gritty screams
to contrast his deliciously effeminate vocals. The track leads into
the album's first single "Miss Murder," which is not too
far off from the band's previous sound, but vaguely more melodic.
The down-tempo interlude featuring Havok's signature sing-screams
gives the single much more depth than would be expected from the song's
first two and a half minutes.
But this album doesn't let you off that easy. Following the first
three tracks are songs that almost make you wonder if you are still
listening to the same record. "Summer Shudder" could basically
be considered a pop song - a good pop song, but a pop song nonetheless.
The surprises don't cease with "The Interview" (which contains
the album's namesake: "I flee to Decemberunderground"),
complete with an organ solo to close the song, making it no surprise
to hear Havok say, "Here's my lullaby/Hush now/Don't you cry."
"Love Like Winter", featuring the album's strongest chorus
(if not one of the strongest choruses I have heard on any album of
2006), could give any stadium rock anthem a run for its money. But
all of these songs are virtually void of the sing-scream factor. Not
only that, but where are Jade Puget's screaming guitars? Who
are these people and what have they done with the original members
of AFI? Upon first listen, it feels like there is something missing.
Hearing these songs with the AFI title on them is close to blasphemy,
but it is also strangely refreshing. "Love Like Winter"
leads right into the distinctive Havok screech in "Affliction."
Oddly enough, I found this song didn't really do it for me until the
melodic harmonies found their way into the pre-chorus.
And that is where AFI takes you with this album. While the words
"Sell out" may flash in the minds of many, AFI wants you
to evolve with them. They want you to have it all: screaming vocals
and guitars, and melodic, down-tempo organ music all on a single record.
While they may have traded in their punk roots for a more melodic
sound, they have done so with the purpose of creating something new
with each release. Their logic: why make eight albums of the same
genre, when you could cross over into three different ones?
Unlike its extravagant entrance, Decemberundergound does not
make a grand exit with "Endlessly, She Said." It is one
of the album's strongest tracks, and a power ballad of sorts, complete
with emotional croons and screams. However, it ends subtly, with Havok
softly speaking the words, "As I wait for you dear endlessly."
It is almost as if the record is not finished, but is merely paving
the way for what is to come, whatever that may be.
The album's biggest weakness is found in its lyrics. As on his previous
albums, Havok has created a dark and abstract world through his lyrics.
"Kiss And Control" features the lines "City lights
like rain/Dance and explode/Fall upon debutants"and "I'll
feed you the sky/I will show you how/Steal the glamour from death
This provides beautiful (though somewhat nonsensical) imagery, but
not without the proverbial: WTF? Lyrically, the album can be summed
up in a line from "Miss Murder": "What's the hook/The
twist within this verbose mystery?" It sounds like Havok has
been shopping at Hot Topic a bit too often, and has overdone it just
a little. But while the lyrics are over-the-top, they are also fairly
one-dimensional, with repetitious themes of death, suicide, and darkness.
One of the lyrical exceptions to the rule, "Will the flood behind
me/Put out the fire inside me?" gives credence to the band's
acronymic name, A Fire Inside. "The Missing Frame"
sounds like it was recorded specifically for large arena shows, with
the catchy "But if you tear it/We can repair it!" That is
something that their pre-Sing The Sorrow fans may hate them
for. But there is one thing that their fans must come to terms with:
AFI can pull it off, and do it well. Sing The Sorrow was (arguably)
one of the strongest major label rock releases of 2003, and sonically
superior to AFI's prior albums (also arguable). Whether any of us
like it or not, AFI never promised that they were a punk band, they
just promised that they were a good band.
Maybe that's what makes Decemberundergound a fairly solid
album. Like most good pop albums, it has you thinking, "I'm not
supposed to like this." But then you do, because it sucks you
in. And that's what defines post-Sing-The-Sorrow-AFI as a good
band. It's not because Havok is ripping out his vocal chords anymore,
it's because they know how to write songs that stick in your head.
They do a fantastic job at capturing that emotional peak in the choruses
of their songs, like that moment in the movie Armageddon when
you know you're supposed to start crying. AFI tells you how to feel.
Havok's lyrics may be one-dimensional, but they are memorable. You
can't help but feel what he must have been feeling when he wrote the
songs on Decemberunderground, even if you're not entirely sure
what he's talking about.
The question of whether or not AFI have stayed true to their roots
is debatable; the question of whether or not they can write a well
rounded, powerpop/rock album can be answered with just a few listens
to Decemberunderground. AFI are a guilty pleasure of sorts.
What AFI has done for modern rock is not unlike what Bon Jovi
did for 80's hair metal: they made it pretty and they brought it home
to your mom. And while you may want to call them pansies for it, we
all know you secretly love it, just like you secretly bought Bon Jovi's
Slippery When Wet back in 1986, and you secretly still can't
get enough of it.
1. Prelude 12/21
2. Kill Caustic
3. Miss Murder
4. Summer Shudder
5. The Interview
6. Love Like Winter
8. The Missing Frame
9. Kiss And Control
10. The Killing Lights
12. Endlessly, She Said
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