There is a light that never goes out, and it has nothing to do with the Smiths. It's actually more closely affiliated with Travelodges, train stations and airport terminals.
Last month, some friends and I attended most of the dates on A.F.I.'s Octoberunderground Tour with Dispute and The Explosion in Germany and the UK. It was a long haul, and probably something of a miracle that none of our party starved, caught fire, or acquired a communicable disease. Berlin, Munich, Cologne, London, Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester, Glasgow - all told, we caught eight shows of a possible ten for the whole tour, and even managed to squeeze in an extra gig with The Explosion and Dispute. There were mad scrambles for planes, trains and automobiles, and at times we visited two or three cities in less than twenty-four hours. We slept on benches at airports; the vegans in our party were frequently forced to subsist on soy pudding and pretzels. And it was all entirely worth it.
A.F.I. has the distinction of being one of those bands whose releases always attract multiple reviewers here at Scene Point Blank. Whether people love it or hate it, interest in their work is consistent in these parts, so when the opportunity arose to take in most of the dates on their recent European tour with three friends, I jumped at the chance.
I'm probably a bit biased. I've been listening to A.F.I. for more than a decade. I have anticipated each album release more than the last, with satisfaction at their artistic trajectory culminating in recent years over 2003's Sing the Sorrow and 2006's Decemberunderground, and I've always enjoyed their live shows. I embarked on this venture with an inkling it might be one of the best tours I've had the pleasure of attending. And it actually exceeded my expectations.
There are those who don't feel that gig or album reviews are professional or complete unless they are liberally dosed with negative observations, which is frequently understood to indicate that the reviewer was recounting the events in question with an impartial, objective eye. Those people might be disappointed by this review, but too bad. Even under critical assessment; this was a damn good tour.
Opening act Dispute is a Bay Area hardcore act with a couple of seven inches and a full-length album to their name, and a loyal following in North America. Though I only managed to catch about four of the Dispute sets, I thought they were truly at their best at a smaller show with The Explosion and local London hardcore band, Gallows, at London's Metro Club. They seemed much more in their element, with a handful of kids dancing; fist pumping and having a hell of a time. And even as openers for A.F.I., though they were frequently playing to crowds that had little frame of reference for them, they did a fine job promoting themselves. "Little Angel" and "Kiss the Case" from the album Everyone, Everything on Vexed Records were solid favorites night after night.
East Coast band The Explosion occupied the middle slot of the lineup. It was an interesting thing to observe the crowd reaction to these guys, who really are poised to just entertain the crap out of everything in their paths, in a take no prisoners' kind of way that still manages to seem totally effortless.
Singer Matt Hock's easy stage banter made an excellent complement to the accessibility of the band's set. Though the sets drew a lot from 2004's Black Tape (FYI, the live renditions of "Deliver Us" and "No Revolution" sound even better than the studio versions), The Explosion took the opportunity to introduce three songs from their upcoming album on Virgin/ Tarantulas, Bury Me Standing (projected spring 2007). The new songs, "New York Can't Dance," "Image of a Son," and "Warning" all fit seamlessly into the live repertoire.
While totally different from A.F.I., The Explosion struck the perfect notes, building excitement for the headliners, and establishing their own distinct presence. Tight, frenetic sets, and terrifically catchy songs, combined successfully to drum up interest and prime an audience of kids' eager to hear more.
A.F.I.'s sets on this tour really reflect the polished but no less genuine material from their summer 2006 release, Decemberunderground. Capitalizing on momentum attained through two sold out "teaser" dates in Berlin and London this past May, the band returned to Europe triumphant.
The stage set was minimalist, white and frosty. Based on the stark album imagery for Decemberunderground, it left many in the audience breathless to see such a sharp contrast to the darkness of the Sing the Sorrow tour. It also created a sense of drama and isolation for the opening song, which found singer Davey Havok singing by his lonesome on a stage flooded with cold white light, as the band opened with "Prelude 12/21". Twinkly and delicate, it played on the emotions of an amped-up crowd, before crashing into the Sing the Sorrow singles "Girl's not Grey" and "The Leaving Song Part II."
For the most part, A.F.I.'s sets wove their way through the best songs of Sing the Sorrow and Decemberunderground. The sets varied from show to show, but all were carefully crafted and paced. Tension was kept high as the band moved between moody reflection, with songs like "This Time Imperfect" and "Silver and Cold" to pounding aggression, with "Kill Caustic" and "Totalimmortal."
This is not to say that the performances seemed formulaic. Indeed, the band mixed things up by periodically including such sonic treats as "Morningstar," "Ever and A Day," and the rarely heard Cure cover, "Just like Heaven." The sets were thoughtful and deliberate; designed to keep the crowd enthralled, and succeeding in their purpose.
It's a funny thing about A.F.I.: legions of devoted fans are capable of moving forward with the band in the direction the band themselves wish to go. There's a trust there that A.F.I. won't let their fans down, which the band seems to take seriously, and the fans can really get behind. It's a double-edged sword, though.
The set lists might have disappointed those kids who regret they didn't get into A.F.I. sooner, and those who feel betrayed, somehow, by changes in direction. Truly good things can't be mired in the past, though. The shows and performances were perfectly in keeping with where A.F.I. are at this point in their career. There will always be those kids who are too cool for school, who will whine that "Prelude" isn't the best opener, and that it's "lame" to close the show with chart topper and MTV friendly "Miss Murder," but in truth, night after night, A.F.I. delivered consistently seamless performances and all present knew it. A.F.I. consistently delivered anthemic, stadium-quality stuff, which was perfectly tweaked to suit smaller venues, and they did this without losing any of the immediacy and intimacy that the band is known for. It's a pretty fine balance to strike, and the A.F.I. maintains this almost perfectly.
This group of acts just worked so well together from the audience perspective; Dispute, The Explosion and A.F.I. each brought something different to the table, but the whole came together so well it was remarkable. Just three bands doing their own thing to the best of their abilities at a given point in time--it actually couldn't possibly have gone wrong.
What follows is a show-by-show account of some of the non-musical highlights, as I scribbled them down in a notebook.