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AFI’s latest looks from ‘December’ to new year

Marty Schroeder | Thursday, August 24, 2006

Any band that has been around for a decade and a half faces the problem of musical growth. This does not necessarily mean being able to please people with the latest album, it means balancing what the band thinks is the right direction and what the fans think is the right direction.

More so with punk than other genres, a legion of hardcore fans can about-face and call a band ‘corporate’, a ‘sell-out’ and other such admonishing titles that leave them out in the cold with no mainstream support and little of its original fan base. Or, conversely, the band can do exactly as it pleases without regard to anyone.

This attitude – that the music is more for artists and if the fans like it, great, if not, well they shouldn’t buy the record – has defined the band AFI (A Fire Inside) in recent years. AFI released its seventh album “Decemberunderground” amid talk of yet another shift in its career. After humble beginnings as hardcore punks with “Answer That and Stay Fashionable” and “Very Proud of Ya,” the first shift began to occur. AFI 2.0 started with 1997’s “Shut Your Mouth & Open Your Eyes.” This album introduced an AFI that was less punk rock and more a band in the vein of The Misfits.

Dark, brooding and morose lyrics began to surface and the band was frequently seen wearing black. This culminated with what many consider to be the peak of its career, “The Art of Drowning” (2000). This album also marked the beginnings of its success outside the usually tight-lipped punk circles and into a wider audience.

“The Art of Drowning” was also the last album AFI released with the independent label Nitro Records and the beginning of its relationship with Dreamworks. “Sing the Sorrow” (2003) was its major label debut and saw many new fans enter the scene, while many of the old guard left in disgust with the directions the band was taking. After this whirlwind, the latest installment arrived – “Decemberunderground” on Interscope Records.

The poetic, melancholy lyrics that have come to define AFI since “Shut Your Mouth” return in the beginning of the album.

Per tradition on AFI’s works, the first track serves more as a prelude than an opening song. Front man Davey Havok sings of farewells and long sleeps, references to death that fit within the bands seeming obsession with life transitions and the macabre. The title of this album’s single makes the band’s fascinations literal – “Miss Murder” is poetic, anthemic, nocturnal, melodic and explores some of the electronica influences that AFI has been experimenting with since “The Art of Drowning.” Havok provides swooping vocals that do not seem to have lost their punch after vocal chord surgery.

However, with all the talk of transitions and career changes aside, “Decemberunderground” reveals a band that knows where it came from and where it wants to go.

“Kill Caustic,” effectively the first track on the album after the prelude, is the sock-in-the-stomach punk that reminisces about AFI’s earlier days. Havok tears his voice through nails in “Affliction” and reminds the band’s die-hard fans that hardcore punk is not dead.

The band, however, heads in a more independent direction with the songs transitioning halfway through to what sounds more like Death Cab for Cutie than Glenn Danzig. The future of AFI seems to lie with the combination of the hardcore aesthetic, the Halloweenish image and the polished nature of electronica.

The once-straight-up punk rock band from Northern California has come a long way since 1991.