Of the various bands that are incessantly labeled "emo" as of late, AFI, more than any other, could most accurately claim to be. Of course, they've never claimed to be, and it would be a dubious honour nonetheless: to be dubbed "emo" in the modern age is almost always a mark of shame, the insult of all insults. Far from relating to the early '80s post-hardcore movement of Fugazi et al., the term has learned new connotations- it's invariably applied to a variety of pop-punk bands who project a particular type of image; any hardcore influence is incidental, "emo" is now a term applied to all overtly "emotional" music, more specifically music which exhibits a certain type of blinkered introspection which borders on or embodies complete self-loathing. In this sense, the Davey Havok-led band are in every sense an emo band. More recently, the term has become yet again broadened to apply to just about anyone who wears eye-shadow (and is a man); most ridiculous is the branding of Green Day as an emo band, a band whose level of introspection is roughly comparable to that of a lighthouse.
Nonetheless, my purpose here is not to argue genre labels. My purpose is to highlight an album which in some ways precipitated the success of bands such as My Chemical Romance, Hawthorne Heights etc., but comes from an entirely different background: the marrying of post-punk pseudo-gothic influences like Joy Division and The Cure to more mainstream punk and hardcore beginnings. Post-rock in general, and post-punk in particular, often receives unfair criticism for its uniqueness; fundamentally, post-any genre is music that is strongly informed by but ultimately sonically irreconcilable with its core genre. The move from straight-up punk/hardcore to something a little more textured has been a long time coming for AFI; even so, they're by no means innovators on the gothic post-hardcore track. They have, however, with this release taken a giant step in any direction, following a series of baby steps which began with the A Fire Inside EP
and continued with the addition to the band of guitarist Jade Puget, whose post-punk tastes mirror those of Havok.
There's two mainstream views regarding Sing the Sorrow
and the commercial success it's achieved: the first lambastes the group for purposely taking a more pop-oriented turn on their major label debut, a blasphemy for many of their more "punk" fans; the second is far more forgiving, proclaiming Sing the Sorrow a work of epic genius, the realisation of Havok's hitherto unrealised potential. Certainly since Jade Puget's arrival the band had been gradually drifting towards a sound further and further from their base punk sound and had incorporated influences like the Smiths, the Cure, Joy Division, which Davey Havok had long since had an affinity for. The question remains however: is Sing the Sorrow the next logical step (albeit a bigger one than previously taken) or had the band simply sold out? The shedding of punk and hardcore roots and their replacement with goth rock and post-punk could only lead to a certain sanitisation
of the band's sound; it's certainly easier on the casual listener's ear. Metallica found themselves in a similar quandary following the release of The Black Album
in 1991- they were accused of making their sound more digestible to the mainstream listener in the hope of achieving commercial success. Just as Sing the Sorrow
is considered by many to the group's most accomplished record to date, The Black Album
is just as much a bone of contention in thrash metal quarters: hailed by millions, discarded by just as many. Most crucially, perhaps, both bands earned themselves many new fans, as their respective releases bought them unprecedented mainstream success. My place is not to mediate such conflicts, however, merely to pose the questions.
Now, let me return to an earlier point, the topic of Davey Havok's perceived self-loathing. While I'm not particularly interested in whether this makes him emo or not, there is a persistent thread that runs through not just this album but all of AFI's previous releases: a consistent type of self-deprecation and the apparent desire to have himself punished. Earlier albums saw Havok take on a rather direct approach to writing lyrics and hence they were laced with lines like: "Cut myself today/It's all for you" and "Throw me away/I've got no use/I am useless." Charming. After Jade's accession to the band, Davey's lyrics took on an increasingly poetic bent; this again alienated many of the band's fans who, perhaps not undeservedly, felt his lyrics were becoming, well, pretentious wank. And who could blame them, with song titles like "This Time Imperfect" and "Miseria Cantare"? If further evidence was ever needed, we're talking about a man who used the word "imbrued" in the lead single for the album ("Girl's Not Grey"). Of course, many consider Poe pretentious, and he's only one of history's most celebrated poets, so who knows? The gothic poet is said to be an influence on Havok's lyrics, though he probably takes more from lyricist such as Peter Murphy, Robert Smith and Morrissey.
From a sonic bent, Sing the Sorrow
is a logical conclusion to the direction taken by AFI on their previous outing, The Art of Drowning
saw the band drop some, but not all, of the hardcore punk elements which had typified their sound to date. Replacing the fast, furious guitar riffs of old were more intricate passages, courtesy of guitarist Puget; Davey Havok, too, introduced softer melodic vocals rarely heard on earlier releases; the rhythm section, bassist Hunter Burgan and drummer Adam Carson, was therefore afforded a more prominent role in the mix; additional instrumentation was also introduced to the band's repertoire, most notably the strings used on "Morningstar." This however, was the most conservative of developments when contrasted with the transition from The Art of Drowning
to Sing the Sorrow
- almost obliterated were the breakneck-speed chugging guitar riffs, the harsh screamed vocals; in there place were strings and keyboards, soft melodies, both uplifting and depressing, clean guitar parts, more complex and distinctive bass and drum passages.
From the get-go, opening track "Miseria Cantare" (Latin: Sing the Sorrow), the stylistic shift is brought into stark view. Fading in to synthesised percussion & strings and the chiming of church bells, the album intro sounds more like a gothic, glam metal hybrid at first, reminiscent of L.A. Guns' "Over The Edge," before aggressive group vocals pull the focus straight back to hardcore territory- all four members shouting repeatedly: "Love your hate/Your faith lost/You are now/One of us." Immediately the macabre lyrics strike as a complete departure from previous material, as Havok goes on to make the bold statement, "Nothing from nowhere, I'm no one at all." The theme of sorrow, misery, regret, self-deprecation, death is already materialising.
Three singles materialised from the album: the lead single "Girl's Not Grey," which earned the band an MTV Music Award, "The Leaving Song Pt. II" and "Silver and Cold." "Girl's Not Grey" afforded the band considerable coverage on music channels prior to the album's release and, as the most overtly "pop" track on the CD, led many fans to fear the worst when the album finally was released. Led by a clean-but-aggressive guitar attack and Havok's soft melodious vocals, the song is two parts power-pop, zero parts hardcore yet the vaguely uplifting atmosphere belies lyrical themes of death and suicide, with the singer feeding such lines as "I'll lay me down tonight," "Swim in the calm tonight," "What follows will swallow whole." As is the artist's wont throughout the album, morbid lyrical themes are often wrapped in rather more upbeat melody lines. The band even throws in a bridge centred round Adam Carson's drum rolls, bringing to mind military manoeuvres of some sort. In stark contrast, "The Leaving Song Pt. II" is not nearly as deceptive; in one of the album's most obvious nods towards hardcore, Havok shouts in the chorus: "Break down and cease all feeling/Burn now what was once breathing/Reach out and you may take my heart away" to the backdrop of Jade's simple-but-expressive picked chord patterns.
Most impressive however, is the third and final single: "Silver and Cold." Boasting an accompanying video which features the sprawling landscapes around the city of Prague, Czech Republic, the track is a mini-opera of sorts, gradually building from an understated solo piano opening to an expansive rock ballad, as Puget's Jeff Buckley-like guitar licks become progressively harder and heavier and the urgency and intensity in Havok's voice continues to build and fall, build and fall. Impressive utilisation of the loud-soft dynamic make the explosive choruses all the more powerful, the repeated cry of "your sins into me, oh my beautiful one" bringing the piece to quite a thrilling climax.
AFI do throw a bone to their older fans in the form of "Dancing Through Sunday," a hardcore-influenced punk song in the vein of their earlier material though maintaining the clean guitar sound so prevalent on the album. Hunter's metal-informed thumping bass plays an important role, as does the pounding drumbeat which underpins it. Davey's vocals again veer towards hardcore territory, being as they are half-sung, half-shouted, and the group chorus call of "Oh, we dance in misery" (again relating to Sing the Sorrow) again cloaking a rather morose sentiment in almost celebratory chant. Jade Puget's quick burst of off-tempo shredding after a serene breakdown again points towards hardcore or even grind, if only for twenty seconds or so. Likewise, "Paper Airplanes (makeshift wings)" and "Death of Seasons" bear more relation to the group's hardcore material than the rest of the album- the former a ill-tempered tirade against seemingly "fake" fashionistas, wherever they may be; the latter a foul-mouthed lyric of two different but related themes teetering between aggressive screamed vocals, where Davey insists "this hate is fucking real," and a softer passage with boyish vocals where we're treated to the image, "I watch the stars as they fall from the sky/I held a fallen star and it wept for me, dying." Despite, or perhaps aided by, a short-but-memorable techno passage, the track is a firm fan favourite both from the album and the band's entire catalogue.
As the album draws to a close, the tracks become ever more expansive in scope, final "track" "...but home is nowhere" encompassing no less than three distinct songs: the first, a vocal-driven personal epiphany which, through the medium of the theatre, sees Havok come to terms (to a degree) with who he is, accepting "this is my line/this is eternal." Equal parts resigned and desperate and beautifully sung, it's probably the most open expression of the self on the album. It leads into a child reading a poem to a gothic piano piece, before the pseudo-power ballad "This Time Imperfect" begins, and the lyrics show the gradual acceptance of fate exhibited earlier nearing completion. The author sings in the chorus: "There are no flowers, no, not this time/There'll be no angels gracing the lines/Just these stark words I find."- quite naked images of death, specifically a funeral.
While fans have many theories as to the way the "story," if there is a story, progresses through the course of the album. Davey Havok has never expounded on the often ambiguous images painted by his lyrics, leaving the fans to interpret as they will- the way it should be in my opinion. Whether you subscribe to the idea that the story is best read from back to front or you just think the coherent themes that run throughout provide enough information, or the often unusual choice of words and verse turn you off completely, they are a source of huge contention among fans and perhaps the mystery is best left unsolved. All four members of AFI have crafted an album here which they knew would alienate large sections of their fans, leaving more of the traditional punk and hardcore sounds aside than most mainstream post-punk acts, and it's debated whether it was a good move or not. I like it though.