2006 / Music

Review: AFI Continues To Smooth Out Punk Edges

California Group Continues To Morph Into Mainstream Metal Act

“How low can a punk get?” Bad Brains frontman H.R. sneer-screamed on the group’s landmark second album.

Photo: Interscope Records

Photo: Interscope Records

It took more than 20 years and the form of California punk-metal combo AFI’s new record to give H.R. an answer: all the way to the top of the pop album charts. The band’s new disc, “DECEMBERUNDERGROUND,” sold nearly 200,000 copies in its first week out and bested the competition on the Billboard rankings (and rubbing shoulders with the Dixie Chicks and Red Hot Chili Peppers).

Like punk rock itself, AFI’s transition from mavens of outsider music to rock stars has been a slow and deliberate journey deeper into the mainstream. The group came together in the early 1990s among high school chums in northern California. After ejecting a handful of band members over the years, the quartet transitioned from their roots in hardcore punk to a more consumer-friendly, emo-metal sound. Sure, they still look the part with the tattoos, eyeliner and mean stares, but these guys surely know a hook as well as they do a safety pin.

This change in the band’s orientation shouldn’t be a big “whoa” to longtime fans. Some of the group’s preceding albums and EPs found homes on indie labels run by the leaders of both the Offspring and Green Day — two groups that perfected a process for harnessing punk’s main tenets and its energy to palatable melodies back in the mid-’90s.

“DECEMBERUNDERGROUND,” the band’s seventh release, continues to blur the line separating punk and metal and infuses still greater elements of Misfits-style goth and New Wave than previous albums.

The music is also increasing focused on vocalist Davey Havok, who clearly presents himself in the classic tortured frontman mold, and guitarist Jade Puget’s metal guitar chops.

The album’s second track, “Kill Caustic,” best exemplifies this fusion of hard-edged music and accessibility. The drum beat is pure punk, furiously driving forward. Havok schizophrenically switches between a low-level croon and a decent impression of Pantera singer Phil Anselmo’s deep-throated squeal. Living in the same song, however, there are churning pop-metal riffs and a brazenly bouncy, almost cheerful-sounding chorus. At the tail end, Puget duplicates one of Audioslave/ex-Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello’s signature wah-wah effects.

Several songs are singles just waiting to be made into videos. Cuts like “Miss Murder,” “Summer Shudder” and “Love Like Winter” are plenty heavy, but so melodramatically sugar-y as to dissolve any real feeling of threat. What’s to worry about when on “Miss Murder” and “Summer Shudder” Havok sings such sweetly obvious choruses with a crowd backing him up. We know as well as he does where we’re going by song’s end: the same high-energy chorus repeated one more time. Puget’s riffs are enjoyable, if not totally original, and the later song features an intriguing electronic syncopated breakdown. “Love Like Winter” has still more electronic beats and pretty ’80s synthesizer following the chorus, but seems designed to help slumming cheerleaders and jocks in the audience sing along.

“The Interview” is closest the band can come to a power ballad. It’s mercifully brief at about four minutes although its quiet-loud-quiet dynamic is entirely predictable. Havok sometimes duets with his own voice, crooning so indistinctly who knows what he’s feeling despondent about, although insight-less refrain of “pray for rain” comes through loud and clear. A church organ at the song’s end is an indulgent surprise.

“Affliction” has its own abrupt changes in mood. The tracks starts with the familiar punkish thrashing and Havok barking before softening listeners up for the record’s brightest chorus. But then it slows to a Black Sabbath-esque metallic crawl first perfected during the ’80s hair-metal era.

“The Missing Frame” and “The Killing Lights” are more insidious cuts and interesting because of it. Both begin with less hyperactive versions of Strokes’ guitar lines and they do a much better job at understating their radio-friendliness. Puget can get the credit as his playing is less submissive to Havok’s theatrics and the obligatory hooks.

The problem with “DECEMBERUNDERGROUND” isn’t that it blatantly grabs for the brass ring with hooks or Titanic-sized melodies. Nor is it because the band or music fails to live up to the punk aesthetic of shunning success. Rather, it’s the band’s wrapping, their image. They present themselves in such an outsider way and yet are so cuddly musically that something smells wrong. It all seems like a trick, planned for effect, to win everyone’s hearts and minds.

“And now my times run out/What’s it all about?” H.R. growled, concluding his ode to the spartan punk rock life.

Once again, AFI has the answer. To quote Bad Brains again, they know it’s all about “The Big Takeover.”

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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