Review / Multiple Authors

Interscope (2006) — Neil F., Alex N., Scott, Matt

AFI – Decemberunderground cover artwork
AFI – Decemberunderground — Interscope, 2006

The precursor to Decemberunderground was that it was a change from what AFI have offered before. Of course, all that is to be expected. The AFI paradigm has some inbuilt concept that they must always change and evolve. Antecedents of more electronic elements, with VNV Nation's Ronan Harris drafted in to help, even more epics and some threat or other of the expansion on acoustic elements stood as testament that Decemberunderground wasn't going to be Sing The Sorrow Part II. But change is a very volatile thing. A line must be drawn between evolution and change for change's sake. Sadly, it seems, AFI have forgotten that at times.

Decemberunderground opens with the omnipresent AFI intro track, "Prelude 12/21". Akin to "Miseria Cantare" with synthesised drumbeats, it soon descends into flares of guitars and a gothic hip-hop backing track. "Kill Caustic" crashes through and past in two minutes of guitar blasts and screeches and into first single, "Miss Murder", a stylish rock anthem with pop overtones, built for radio play. As the album passes into "Summer Shudder" a lament of heavy rock guitars and soaring vocal work, everything is as it should be. Good rock sensibilities, complete with 80s influences and epic choruses combining flawlessly.

But then it hits. "The Interview", a slow and uninspired dirge, with hints of electronics somewhere deep in the mix. "Love Like Winter", with its fusion of synths, dance beats and guitars, is a good idea gone wrong. "Affliction", a toned down resurgence of "Kill Caustic", and "The Missing Frame", which exists as proof that Placebo should be banned from having any influence on any band, ever. All come in sequence and drag Decemberunderground down and away from all the excellent groundwork that ended with "Summer Shudder" and towards a distinctly middling sound well below capabilities.

It rises back through the ambient / verve fusion of "Kiss and Control", the catchy pop-rock of "The Killing Light", the dark-wave industrial-influenced "37mm", easily the highlight of the album and the grand closer, "Endlessly, She Said", the sequel to "...But Home is Nowhere". Decemberunderground presents itself as an album with three distinct parts - a solid start, a benign middle and a flurry towards the finish. It comes with more angst-laden lyrics. It delivers more catchy, easy choruses. It moves with 80s nuances and anthemic motives and yet, still, manages to sound depressingly average at times.

Change and evolution are much-maligned concepts within the pop-culture world but stagnancy was never going to be the problem with Decemberunderground. It is an album that grows and builds. It is an album that gets better with each listen. It is an album that demands to be listened to and understood as a complete work. But, ultimately, it is one that is held back by the tendency of AFI either to overstretch or to change for the sake of change. It is an album that has, finally, moved AFI out of the fast-slow-quiet-loud song structure that has been a staple of their music for a decade or so, but one that, in the end, shows a slight of immaturity and a hand of good ideas that were, never quite realised in full.

For AFI, the name of the game has always been about evolution. About "out-doing" themselves one time after another. I can't say that they haven't, because each record has had it's own significant changes, some more noticeable than others, but they still retain part of their roots. Decemberunderground retains the (usually) well-placed aggression and excellent pop sensibilities that were present in Sing The Sorrow, but goes further by incorporating more of both in addition to more synthesized touches than ever before.

Two years is a long time to be in the studio. Recording 50 songs and tirelessly working from there on a small section of those songs is damn near dangerous, because sometimes committing so much time to perfecting songs can cause the artists to lose sight of what they were going for in the first place. Luckily, only a couple tracks on Decemberunderground seem to reflect this. "Miss Murder", while it does sound much better in the context of the album, certainly sounds like a single. And while I do enjoy the song, I think it's one of the weaker tracks. "Kiss and Control" is the other track that seems to suffer from having too much time spent on conceiving it, as it ends up as being repetitive and almost predictable with the whole 'aggressive screaming followed by singing' formula in the chorus.

The standout tracks are the ones that manage to meld the catchy choruses and synthesized effects. The synth-pop of "Love Like Winter" and "37mm" and the soaring melodies of "The Missing Frame" and "Summer Shudder" are some of the best of what Decemberunderground has to offer. The aggressive tracks ("Kill Caustic" and "Affliction" most notably) are also for the most part well-executed.

Lyrically, Davey Havok has come to rely less upon his anger and (what has always seemed like) depression, and has evolved to using narrative to tell a story with AFI albums. Rumors still circulate that Sing the Sorrow is a story in which the tracks need to be arranged properly to be understood, thus explaining why "The Leaving Song Part 2" comes before "The Leaving Song" in the track sequencing. Decemberunderground furthers his use of narrative in songwriting, helping it to become even more atmospheric in conjunction with the music.

The most disappointing aspect of this album is that the band claimed that some parts go back to Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes-style aggression, and that turned out to be a lie. Shut Your Mouth... is still my personal favorite AFI record, and there is barely anything on Decemberunderground that sounds like that album. Yes, there is screaming, but that sure as hell doesn't make it sound like Shut Your Mouth..., because even the way Davey Havok goes about doing the screams is very different. I also had a hard time adjusting to listening to the screaming he does in some of the songs, as they don't really sound like him (the first few times I listened I thought it was one of the many guest vocalists that was doing those strange screams, but I was wrong). I'm alright with it now, but I'm not totally sold on it. I wouldn't mind if it wasn't in there.

Decemberunderground marks another evolution for AFI, a band who continue to broaden their sound, yet still manage to keep their identity. In many cases, the songs have become longer and more atmospheric than ever before, providing a very different feel from earlier albums, but additional instruments and effects prevent those longer songs from ever becoming trite or monotonous. It's certainly not my favorite album this band has done, but I have a feeling that just as Sing The Sorrow did, it will grow on me over time, because over the course of the 30 or so times I have listened to it I find more and more to like about it.

AFI managed to write over 100 songs for this album. That's an amazing feat for a band, right? But anyone can write a catchy song. If a band has to write a hundred songs and then choose the best ones, think of all the crap that had to be weeded out, or maybe it was quite the contrary. "Reivers Music" and "Now The World" were two of the best songs left off Sing The Sorrow and saved for a Hot Topic exclusive picture disc. There's no denying AFI has a knack for writing catchy hooks, since The Art of Drowning where they really took a turn and shone, formulating eerie pop melodies into their already dark punk songs. They had grown out of their hardcore roots, but quite an album it was, and I had to figure The Art of Drowning and Black Sails In The Sunset would be AFI's peak.

I had my expectations for Sing the Sorrow, but they weren't too high, knowing they signed to a major after 12 years as a band. Sing the Sorrow had its moments, but repetition was getting evident. "This Celluloid Dream", "Bleed Black", and "The Leaving Song pt.2" were three songs that really stood out in that album. It did start to show some experimentation, wandering a bit into the softer side. It was bound to happen. Decemberunderground sounds like an extension of that. Every song is different, and it seems like AFI really wanted to abandon what they knew best and start experimenting farther.

Only they didn't get that far. It sounds a lot like Sing The Sorrow only dolled up with more effects and instrumentation to try and fill in the gaps. They went with Jerry Finn again on this album to produce it, so the production is obviously a lot like Sing The Sorrow. The drums' production most noticeably bothered me in this album; overproduced and too often accompanied by a drum machine. The only thing bothering me more is Davey Havok's unnecessary vocals where he sounds like he's chest-to-knees on the shitter. He's got vocal range, but this is something he needs to quit doing, it doesn't sound aggressive, edgy, or hardcore. It's just plain annoying.

Miss Murder, their current single, left me a bit shocked. The song just wasn't cutting it for me. It screams "for the radio" more than "Girls Not Grey" did. I can understand how they went for experimentation on this album, they just don't expand on anything long enough for it to go somewhere. I didn't know The Killers were guests on this album either.

Decemberunderground has its moments, but the moments are only found when picking apart the songs. "Affliction" and "Kiss and Control", are good example of what this record could be. I hear how this record will reach tons of new fans, it's catchy, it's poppy, and it's got everything that's appealing. I also hear how it will detach some: the composition just isn't there, the extra instrumentation sounds like it was just placed there. It's got the hooks, but those can only hang on for so long. I just don't listen to this kind of music any more, I've grown out of the genre like many have, but people new to AFI will find a common place with them and enjoy a new chapter of music in their life like I once did.

There are certain phrases that seem to be ever-present in AFI reviews across the music journalism world, suggesting either a lack of originality on the writer's part, or merely a convenient pigeon-hole that the band fall easily into. Either way, let's get some of them out of the way now:

  • goth-punk
  • dark pop
  • gloomy
  • cathartic
  • The Cure
  • The Misfits
  • goth
  • Robert Smith
  • goth-rock
  • "that girly singer"
Okay, now those are out of the way, let's proceed with the review.

Decemberunderground, AFI's seventh full-length, is a record that is somewhat predictable to those who've kept an eye on the band's ever-changing sound. Not that Decemberunderground bears an over-large resemblance to 2003's Sing The Sorrow; in fact, it has several notable changes, and this is what makes it predictable. With each release since their formation, AFI have morphed from east bay skate punk to crushing hardcore to a metal-influenced punk sound right through to their more recent industrial and electronic-tinged work. Decemberunderground ushers in more experimentation with electronic elements and shows a wider focus on frontman Davey Havok's often powerful vocals. Decemberunderground also sees the band embrace their Cure and Joy Division influences as they demonstrate their ability to write a decent pop song utilising synths, programming and guitar hooks that would make Slash weep. Not bad for the band who sang "I want a mohawk but mom won't let me get one" a decade or two ago.

By now, lead single "Miss Murder" will have infiltrated your local radio airwaves, and despite its Green Day-esque drum fills and "Hey!"s, it's a good piece of catchy pop rock. While the breakdown bears a few too many similarities to "Fall Children" on the band's All Hallows EP, the track is Decemberunderground's "Girls Not Grey", and will probably earn them even more exposure.

"Affliction" starts off similar to older AFI, with roaming basslines reminiscent of The Art Of Drowning's "Sacrifice Theory". Havok's metal-sounding screams are less appealing however, despite a Guns 'N Roses inspired guitar part. Nice use of a choir of backing vocals in the middle section do give the song a well-deserved epic quality, harking to the band's older sounds once more. Havok's lyrics show a tendency towards storytelling, with a chorus of "The future's bright without me" that will no doubt grace misunderstood teens' Myspace profiles in weeks to come.

"The Missing Frame" is likely to be the next single, with its wah-wah guitar and Placebo-esque vocals. If the band have learned one lesson since their last record, it's the art of writing radio-friendly hooks that aren't quite as insultingly catchy as, say, Fall Out Boy, but still bear a similar tendency to get stuck in the head after a listen or two. "The Killing Lights" has a great dark pop (apologies) chorus, although an irritating clicking noise in the "cut cut cut" breakdown makes it sound like Havok has a peculiar lisp makes it annoying to listen to at times. "37mm" is a great track once the listener accepts that AFI's ties with the punk and hardcore scene have been well and truly cut, which applies equally to closer "Endlessly She Said".

No secret track this time, in a gesture no doubt in place to illustrate the staleness caused by repetition. This is definitely a musical factor AFI are succinctly aware of, as Decemberunderground demonstrates. It has its successes, and its failures, most notably Davey's retching screams and a lack of bass presence that gives Hunter Burgan's work an often background feel besides the odd few moments. Music aside, the record has been promoted with a Da Vinci Code-esque trail of clues for fans to lead to a bizarre mystery centring around numerical clues, foreign languages and the mysterious 'Charlotte' & 'Miss Murder'. While a clever marketing campaign for the band culminated in portrait shots of the band available with the CD in a "collect them all!" frenzy, older fans may feel like the petty cries of "sellouts!" are somewhat justified with a campaign that partly takes advantage of the band's infamously committed fanbase.

Decemberunderground is a record that will do what most of AFI's releases have done - alienate half their fanbase but replace the disgruntled punks with a new audience of kids with a passion for the dark but a taste for the rewarding sound that AFI bring, no matter what their musical guise.

AFI – Decemberunderground cover artwork
AFI – Decemberunderground — Interscope, 2006

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Average score across four writers

7.6 / 10 — Neil F., Alex N., Scott, Matt • June 6, 2006

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