Nothing about AFI is particularly revolutionary – its early hardcore punk was merely an attempt to ape the scene that it developed under. Furthermore, the band’s “middle” era (Black Sails and The Art of Drowning) featured gothic punk – a standard developed by the Misfits. It is fortunate, however, that AFI has such talented members; the “middle” era features some of my favorite modern punk with amazing drums and bass providing a backbone to lush lyrics seen in the fantastic vocals of Davey Havok. Indeed, the two best Nitro records (and the fantastic All Hollows EP) formed a solid background for the band to make the jump to a major label.
Luckily for fans, the first jump was a very good one. Sing the Sorrow managed to push AFI into a more popular view without losing much of what made them great. Even more, Havok’s vocals seemed better here than before. By dropping the forced screams and allowing a greater range to take the spotlight, the record seemed like a great new extension for the band. By retaining punk sensibility and managing to still display one of the greatest drummers in rock, the dark, anthemic album now seems as a great entry point for the band.
Unfortunately, AFI, in some quest for greater musical achievement, has gone astray in their second major label release. Decemberunderground starts with a very foreboding chant with an emphasis on clapping and strings. While this is generally a compliment on an AFI album, what follows quickly ruins the mood. As if they forgot all progress made beyond their earliest screaming days, Havok jumps back into the hardcore role with “Kill Caustic”. While the band works well as a unit, producing some excellent guitar sounds, the ears are too distracted by the nonsensical screaming.
This unfortunate screaming exists in other places on the album. “Affliction,” “Kiss and Control,” and “Endlessly, She Said” all feature prominent yelling and detract from what could have been excellent vocals (as seen in previous albums).
Yet it is not the screaming that is most problematic on Decemberunderground. Instead, it is AFI’s insistence on pushing things toward new wave and electronic leanings. Starting with “Summer Shudder,” we begin to hear synthetic noises enter the mix. However, it is in “Love Like Winter,” “The Missing Frame,” and “37mm” that the band really jumps off the deep end. Heavy-handed electronics create a cold sound that doesn’t seem to fit the warmth seen in the dark atmospherics of AFI’s normal set. Particularly, “The Missing Frame” seems like a lost 80s song; while not necessarily a bad thing to some, it sounds too fake in the hands of AFI. Then “37mm,” likely a point of division on this album, is simply weak. For all the intentions held in the electronic additions, this song simply cannot deliver.
Thankfully there are good songs to be found on the album. “The Interview” seems to summarize some of the band’s greatest strengths in one song. Group singing is led by Havok’s soaring vocals as a solid bass line dances with drums as the song moves along without losing itself. Also, despite the move toward synthetic noises, “Love Like Winter” manages to be catchy over time (if not quite excellent).
However, the real highlight of this album is the song left furthest from the electronic styling. “The Killing Lights” is a nearly perfect AFI song with evocative lyrics, a strong rhythm section and a catchy melody that isn’t easily forgotten. Yet a surprise highlight makes this song superior to the rest of Decemberunderground – Jade Puget’s perfect guitar solo. Generally not noted for their solos, AFI suddenly cranks a short yet magnificent number out late in the song (near the 2:48 mark). The compact-yet-powerful passage really seals the deal and makes the song stand out.
It is unfortunate for this album that AFI are so skilled in the realm of punk rock. By letting their minds wander, the band left that genre for an expanded view of music. Sadly, that meant leaving a point of excellence in their work. With heavy-handed electronics and an unexplained return to screaming, Decemberunderground is a far weaker album than the past three outings from AFI. While not a total loss (thanks to songs like “The Killing Lights”), this is an album that is best for exploration, but shouldn’t be depended on for excellence.