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Interscope Records

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.

-Allegra Willis

Track Listing:
1. Prelude 12/21
2. Kill Caustic
3. Miss Murder
4. Summer Shudder
5. The Interview
6. Love Like Winter
7. Affliction
8. The Missing Frame
9. Kiss And Control
10. The Killing Lights
11. 37mm
12. Endlessly, She Said

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