Album number ten for the ever-evolving Californian four piece, whose shift in sound from skate punk to hardcore to "goth punk" to pop-influenced radio rock to... whatever 2009's Crash Love was... is well documented. And now here we are, after the gritty, aggressive Burials: a self-titled album also known as "The Blood Album".
At first listen it's not too dissimilar from its predecessor: a mid-tempo, brooding opener with Davey Havok's piercing vocals slicing through synthesisers and heavily EQ'd drums. The album opens strongly, kicking quickly into fast-paced singalong "Still A Stranger" with some smart acoustic guitar interplay pushing it along.
There are some disconcerting moments early on, though: Havok's enunciation on some songs seems to have taken on a Brian Molko-esque brogue: the word "heart" in "Get Hurt" in particular is cloying, reminiscent of Tom DeLonge's exaggerated pronunciation throughout Blink-182. Havok's rich voice has always been at the heart of AFI's sound but his occasional missteps like this can sometimes detract from its raw power.
Similarly, there are some poor sequencing choices: "Hidden Knives", "Get Hurt" and "Above The Bridge" all start with similar intros in similar keys and with similar beats. Casual listeners could be forgiven for being unable to detect when one song ended and another began.
Guitarist Jade Puget gets full music credits here, as with Burials (prior to this, music was credited to the entire band). Unsurprisingly this means guitar parts are given priority and several songs suffer from same-y guitar leads and a disappointingly sparse highlighting of AFI's talented rhythm section. I found myself noting the too-few occasions where Hunter Burgan's signature bass sound managed to rise to the top of the mix ("Dumb Kids"), compared to the glory days of songs like "Sacrifice Theory" where his ranging runs were the backbone of songs.
We get another teenage atheist anthem in the form of "So Beneath You". Come on, guys – we already did this on "Sacrilege" (on 2009's Crash Love). Sample lyrics:
I won't kneel. I won't bow.
If you're there god
Strike me down, strike me down
From the band who once "set Baudelaire to music" this is, frankly, embarrassing. AFI were always at their best lyrically when singing about creepy, evocative imagery and ambiguous stories, figures and emotions. Skip this song.
That said, there are strong moments on The Blood Album: the band know how to write a chorus and use of studio work to add expansive, choir-like vocals ("Pink Eyes", which perhaps tries to do too much, but is bold and shifting). The two early tracks premiered before the album's release ("Snow Cats" and "White Offerings") are both standouts. The closing tracks are strong too, particular "She Speaks The Language", with Havok's vocals dropping to the lowest end of his range for added melancholia and closer "The Wind That Carries Me Away" swaying along with a groove not usually heard on an AFI record.
AFI have probably shifted their sound too much over the years to retain the ability to please all of their audience, although that ship probably sailed into the sunset (along with its black sails) several records ago. After a few disappointments, though (in particular, Crash Love), Burials felt like a return to form and now The Blood Album appears as—if not a complete improvement—a continuance in the band's rediscovered ability to write powerful, catchy and emotional music.
The odd misstep and occasional production hubris aside, this album is a worthy milestone: a tenth album from a band whose refusal to plough the same, safe furrow and shy away from the mainstream has seen them find that rare thing: critical and commercial success. Maybe it's in their blood.
AFI's trajectory over the last twenty and more years has been one that emulates growth and experimentation and the quartet that once sang about not being allowed a mohawk is now one that that sings about much darker, twisted subjects (although in more obvious terms than they once did). Still led by the effervescent Davey Havok, AFI are a band that peaked in 2003 with Sing The Sorrow, lost their way a little with the weird stadium rock vibe of 2009s Crash Love and came back to their darker elements with the delicious Burials in 2013.
The Blood Album tries to take the high points of those two records to create an album that reflects a band that has been together for over two decades - the big singalong moments and the shadowy elements from the aforementioned pieces combine here to signal the band moving on and realising that actually, they should be making the kind of music they want to, and not what their rabid (and vocal) fanbase would like to hear. Of course, many of those fans would love The Art of Drowning V.2 but that's insulting and boring and the charm of AFI has always been in their evolving sound - whether that's something people would like to admit or not. We are now longer weird fifteen year olds and neither are they.
The AFI of the late 2000s is one that will garner them new fans, lose some older ones but please many and The Blood Album is a record that bears repeated listens. On first impressions there's some wonderful highlights - "White Offerings," "Pink Eyes" and "Dumb Kids" - but the album is a tad too long and with some smart editing, could stand to lose a couple of tracks. But on the whole, it's a fun piece of work that will stand the test of time (unlike Crash Love and perhaps even Decemberunderground).
"Dark Snow" ushers in the album on suitably gothy overtones and dark, shifting waves while frontman Davey Havok lays his recognisable voice through electronic effects and introduces us to AFI's tenth (!) full length record. "Still A Stranger" is signaled by an interesting acoustic intro while Havok loops his voice from high singing to the older style screams older fans may remember fondly - it's visceral at times and harks back to a time when AFI were deeply angry and more interested in metaphorical pain rather than the kind that they grew to know with the passage of time.
"Aurelia" is a fun, toe-tapping track that features a catchy as heck chorus that may stick around for a few hours after first hearing it but then the album dips a little in the mid-section with a run of tracks that don't excite and could easily be left out but "So Beneath You" pushes back and is incandescent in its beginning stages, sounding very much like something that could be found on Shut Your Mouth or Black Sails in the Sunset before it switches to sound much more like the band of 2017. It's a nice nod to previous music but they pull it firmly into the future without it seeming like they are trying too hard to be the people they were all that time ago.
Guitars are fun with Jade Puget running his through multiple effects to create more expansive sounds and interesting notations but the distinct lack of overt bass riffs is a shame - perhaps the shift away from terrifically punk structures is to blame, but the few moments where the bass is prominent - "Dumb Kids" and "Pink Eyes" - are highlights. The latter being a standout track with gang-like vocals coming through and Havok getting a little gruff at times (always a plus).
The closing stages of The Blood Album are strong too, with "White Offerings" bathed in vitriol and "She Speaks the Language" dripping in melancholy and baroque imagery before "The Wind That Carries Me Away" swaggers out of view on a delirious groove and finger clicking melody that is unexpected and joyous. The Blood Album may not be perfect but it's a record that continues AFI's transformation from old school punk to gothic tragedy to electronica to dark, flamboyant rock and encapsulates a maturing band who love to make music together.