Review Summary: a little pop-punk island getaway
Earlier today while wandering though my local Best Buy, I stopped in the new releases section and looked over the new A.F.I.
live CD release (ironically not the disc I am reviewing today), when a kid a year or two younger than I approached me. He found it odd that an upstanding gentleman such as myself in a trenchoat and Iron maiden hoodie was wasting my time with quote-unquote Pussy Music. I told him, of course that A.F.I. has always had a stellar live act, and I figured they’d put out a decent live album, an art sadly lost in today’s rock world. This answer proved less than satisfactory as he proceeded to chide me, call me a poser, and explain to me that A.F.I.
represents the epitome of commercialist pop oriented teeny-bopper radio bull***. After a short pause I said: “You know, You’re right. Now. But did you ever listen to them back when they were good?” Insert blanks tare here. “You know? Black Sails in the Sunset?” cue the long, awkward pause.
So now it occurs to me that most A.F.I.
‘fans’ I know. Hell, I’d wager to say most people I know in general have never listened to or even heard of Black Sails in the Sunset, the band’s artistic and musical peak, in my humble opinion. So I took it upon myself to write this review and exercise my frustration that so called music appreciators are completely ignorant of what I can only assume, after an enormous jump of logic without any base, is becoming somewhat of a buried treasure. Folks, if you like catchy punk music, catchy lyrics with some symbolic and emotional depth, and don’t find Davey Havok’s voice completely unlistenable, maybe you’d do well to seek this little gem out.
Audibly, fans of Sing the Sorrow and Decemberunderground will find this disc more than a little alien. There’s nary a synthesizer in sight, only one guitar, one bass, one diminutive signer and one very well mic’ed drum kit. The bass drum echoes with vigor and the toms sound big enough to carry the weight of the surprisingly deep sound the foursome conjure up. The cymbals, thankfully, ate not mixed unnaturally loudly, but are still razor sharp and jingle finely enough to keep the sound clean, which is important because drum wise this is a quite varied punk CD. Yes, there’s a fair share of rapid kick-snare with hi-hat accompanied speed freakouts; it wouldn’t be a punk CD without them, but if you listen carefully you’ll hear some very intricate rolls, fills and tom ditties, as well as more than a few time signature changes. On this CD A.F.I.
learned that a song does not need to end exactly where it begins, and that nontraditional song structures can be just as affecting as the same old verse-chorus-verse we’ve all heard a billion times before. Lessons they sadly seem to have forgotten, recently.
The guitar and bass duo sound great, and have an uncommon tone that dances a tightrope between the dirty grind of a bar punk band and the more clear, crystalline production they favor now. I personally think the word ‘epic’ is used far too often in the world of music criticism, and I certainly would never use it to describe songs that collectively average about three minutes long, but the word did pop into my head while dissecting the various riffs and bridges. Perhaps the word I mean to use is lush, or seductive. There is only one guitar playing, which never solos, but in its various diminished power chords and speed picked arpeggios it creates a definite soundscape. The music, for once, really matches the album art: the simple bleak loneliness of that textured woodcut ship reflects the ingrained gothic isolation and rambunctious poetic energy of the melodic interplay at work here. Say what you will about the effect A.F.I.
have had on the popular music scene, but for a pop-punk band they have a definite grasp of how to make brittle but deep emotive soundscapes with minimal instrumentation and that talent is front and center here. They know when to strain out a few notes, when to reach into a skank-able groove, when to explode into the Hardcore Punk they grew from, but most importantly they know how to use silence. Several times the bass or guitar wills top for dramatic and transitional effect, sometimes for a moment sometimes to give one another the room to breathe a new, more twisting serpentine melody in to reflect the world Havok narrates.
Which Brings us to Havok. Yes, he still sounds like a naggy twelve year old, albeit here maybe a twelve year old who smokes a pack of Marlboros a day. The shrill nature of his voice almost betrays the lines he delivers, because this is a shockingly poetic CD. As per the norm, Havok stays mainly to the first person, and refrains from telling any kind of narrative or using imagery overtly in his lyrics, the songs focus mainly on internal emotional states expressed via dialogue. It’s easy to write this off as working within his comfort zone, and considering the dark self-deprecating nature of their content its doubly easy to dismiss this as juvenile or ‘emo’. Such is not the case. Davey may be a man sized boy, but at least on this disc He’s a boy with more on his mind than his lost girlfriend or how much he dislikes his parents. This is an angsty disc, but its angst is focused primarily toward the pain of becoming a better human being, the struggle between desire and morality, and more than its fair share of Christian guilt. God, angels, and the devil all clock in a few hours here textually or subtextually, and they’ve all left their hooks in Havok’s poetry, and for that alone he endeared himself to me during his run as captain and narrator. In a musical sea awash of boys who cry their way home on skateboards and girls who get cheated on, this is a little island paradise of philosophical musing and legitimate internal strife. No, Nietzsche himself does not make an appearance, but one could safely assume he’d give a cursory peek at the lyric book and give an approving nod.
I cannot really say where the album falters, specifically. Overall it’s a wel polished little jewel with good flow and no outstandingly bad tracks, but very few outstandingly good tracks, either. Other than Maleficus Maleficarum
, there are no champion tracks on the disc. Neither do the songs as a group build to any kind of dramatic tension. They just sort of cruise on their way and we get the abrupt melodramatic finale of God Called in Sick Today
. The band seems to have found a formula that works, and stuck to it. Perhaps too well since nowhere in the disc is there a real highlight or curve ball, it all becomes rather samey after a while, and the band leave it up to fans to pick which tracks are their own personal favorites: after all, they’re all quite similar.
Overall I can’t say who will or will not like this CD, in terms of the band’s history it’s their definite peak, but still kind of an oddball. It’s unique, whimsical, poetic, a bit dark, but… spunky. And far better musically than it has any right to be! This disc probably won’t make any of the band’s detractors into fans, but it may take more than a few of them by the ear and say “look here, I can be truly great when I want to be, and you just need to accept that.” It’s a crying shame that the boys in A.F.I.
decided for a more commercial, accessible route as opposed to continuing their more twisty, Tim Burtonesque direction here. Perhaps Havok’s hiatus with Blaqk Audio
will give them some time to reaffirm themselves as standouts students in a mediocre class.