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Friday, June 23, 2006

Strength Through Wounding

Whenever people talk about being a fan of a punk band back in the day and how they aren't fans of the band anymore, there's an assumption that either the band sold out or they've simply outgrown the band. Well, that's not completely off, but I've had this strange on-again/off-again relationship with AFI. I'm not going to throw around "sell-out" accusations or say I'm too old for them, but they're a peculiar band for me.

I remember Brian "Dexter" Holland talking up AFI while he was promoting the Offspring's Ixnay on the Hombre. As a part of his label, Nitro Records, AFI would release five albums and an EP that saw them go from a kind of jokey punk band to a really cool mix of Misfits and dark, hardcore pop-punk. I originally couldn't stand Davey Havok's voice the first few times I heard "He Who Laughs Last . . .," but at one point, I just thought, "Hey, this is pretty good." I would pick up their third album, Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes, in my freshman year of college and despite it being much heavier and angrier, I really dug it.

With a new line-up of Jade Puget on guitar and Hunter Burgan now their permanent bass player, Black Sails on the Sunset was a whole other beast. Heavier, faster, while also being really melodic, this band was showing more of an influence from the Cure more than the Misfits (especially evidenced on their A Fire Inside EP with their covers of "The Hanging Garden" and "Demonomania"). Seeing them on tour with Hot Water Music a few nights before Halloween was an awesome sight. Yes, Davey was in full black leather with white powdered make-up on his face, but they weren't some stupid Goth band. Sure, this was a "show" element, but the force of the band's music went way beyond their wardrobe choices. Yet, by the time of the band's follow-up, The Art of Drowning, I felt I had enough of AFI's music. You can only sing "whoa-oh" in a certain amount of ways before it feels routine.

After the release of The Art of Drowning, the story goes that Holland, one of their biggest fans and label boss, told the band that they should find a label bigger than Nitro to go with. Holland's own experiences with the Offspring going from indie Epitaph to major Columbia Records was a step in the right direction for them. This was a classic case of a band's popularity becoming so big that an indie couldn't keep up. Well, the deal is that so many bands have become casualties of this decision to move into the world of major labels. Going to a major label usually means the older fans aren't going to be that into whatever the band releases next and there's no telling if a wider, more mainstream audience is going to even care. In AFI's case, they came out OK after they went with DreamWorks for the next album.

2003's Sing the Sorrow was an album that came out at a good time as nu-metal was finally fizzing away in the mainstream. Seeing a crossover into a broader audience (aka, not just punk and hardcore punk fans), the album received some high marks in the press (including a four-star review in Rolling Stone) and sold really well (I think it sold a million copies in the US). But what did I think of the album itself? I thought it was a necessary reinvention of their sound, but this reinvention didn't sound all that great. More attempts by Havok to sing in a natural singing voice along with forays into electronica didn't impress me. I tried to give the album a chance, but I couldn't get into this record at all.

Now with their new album, Decemberunderground, out, I find myself really liking the lead-off single, "Miss Murder." Yes, this sounds more in the vein of Green Day's American Idiot than the Misfits' Walk Among Us, but at the end of the day, it's a catchy tune. I'm not sure I'm that inclined to hear the whole album, but at least I can dig that song whenever I hear it.

What's strange now about the band is what kind of audience they play for. I'm sure there are some longtime fans in the mix, but a large percentage of the band's fans are young people going for this neo-Goth/vampire look. With their sort of KISS Army fan club going (The Despair Faction), I think of this as a long way from when they played for Sick of it All and Hot Water Music fans back in '98. Parts of this are cool to see (the band growing and evolving) but others aren't (your teenage cousin who thinks dressing up as a vampire makes him "unique" and "underground"). Sure, the band plays up their black/Goth vibe in their fashion choices and lyrics, but I don't think it's time for a Goth Talk-like spoof . . . yet.

So, there's my view. No "sell-out" accusations; just an outgrowth of gang vocal "whoa-ohs" and dark hardcore pop-punk after so many albums. I don't think that's abnormal as this is what often happens when punk fans get older. We still like punk rock, but not as much as we used to. So, we'll listen to our favorite bands from time to time, but we're not hopping online and waiting for the minute such-and-such's new album leaks on a file-swapping program.

1 comment:

Sarah E. said...

As someone who stood beside you at that pre-Halloween AFI show (which I thought was later than '98, maybe in '99 or '00?) and who was the hugest fan of the band (as you also know), I feel safe here in saying ... what happened? I liked them as they started to evolve, and even liked the stage antics, etc., but now I have no idea what happened to them. Odd. I don't even listen to them much anymore, except when I get the occasional urge to bust out an old album, but whenever I do hear a new song of theirs on the radio or MTV, I'm baffled.