I wanted to hate this. I really did. Don't mistake me for an elitist music journalist; A.F.I. is the band responsible for this webzine's founding. But A.F.I. or no A.F.I., I was determined not to like this record.
Not being a listener of electronic or synth-based music, and being too embarrassed to ask what "EBM" stood for, I was a little unsure what to expect here. Sure, I'd seen the promo photos, heard the screams of the fangirls as they reveled in the innuendo of "Stiff Kittens" (and that's before we even get to the lyrics), but I didn't really know what this side project from A.F.I.'s vocalist and guitarist, Davey Havok and Jade Puget respectively, was going to be about.
The aforementioned "Stiff Kittens" kicks off the album, with some layered synths and some dark basslines. Havok's vocals keep mainly to his baritone warblings, but we get some of his higher range that are impossible to completely disassociate from A.F.I.. Puget's musical contributions here are appropriate, with recurring layers giving some depth to proceedings. Lyrically, Havok seems to have adopted a slightly more 'adult' tone, which is apparently unsuited to A.F.I. songs. "Between Breaths (An XX Perspective") features the immortal lines:
Make it, make it, make it harder to breathe. / So I'll climb on top and I'll never stop / Till I make you forget who you are / And just feel.
Vocals here are quite melancholy and slow, almost Nine Inch Nails-like in parts but a little too melodic to be truly reminiscent. At times on the album, the boys don't always sound too confident with what they're doing, filling voids with vocal effects and ambient noises, but for the most part, this does appear to be something they are serious about. If the creeping introduction of loops and synths to A.F.I.'s sound over the past few years is any indication, this is probably the kind of album they've wanted to make for years.
"Where Would You Like Them Left?" is almost a Decemberunderground outtake, with a sing-along chorus whose 80s keyboard lines in the chorus are the only real factors that separate it. Minus a weirdly discordant piano riff midway through, the song is a standout. Similarly, the riff-heavy "The Love Letter" is a lurching rocker that could have been found on an A.F.I. record.
Some mild filler later and we get "On a Friday," which I can only describe as reminiscent of an Eastern Europe nightclub at 2 AM; possibly the aesthetic the band were aiming for. It's almost strange to hear Havok singing of 'real' life as opposed to his more poetic subjects in A.F.I., particularly in lines like "So let's cut clean to the sex scene / Drop the white lines 'cos no-one is clean." "Semiotic Love" is the same, with a chorus annoyingly borrowing half of Pachelbel's Canon in D, which seems to get everywhere. Vague lyrics like "Hooked on a star / Enraptured by the sky / In love with a satellite" are probably destined for bad tattoo heaven, but it was inevitable that this record was going to be treasured by fankids everywhere even if it consisted of loops entirely constructed from recordings of Havok's bowel movements.
"Again, Again, and Again" is a misstep, with an embarrassing female sample ("I want... you.") and overly fast beat that sounds too close to embarrassing Eurodance trash Cascada. The album closes up with a slower number, clocking out with an epic feel and ending fairly discordantly and unexpectedly.
So why couldn't I hate this album? For one, that would be too predictable. The poorer sound of A.F.I.'s recent releases may justify some expectations on the part of the listener, but in truth, this record is perhaps more true to Havok and Puget's desires than Decemberunderground ever was. Here, they do not aim to straddle multiple genres and please wildly differing fanbases from different generations. This album is what they wanted to make and seem to having fun producing and promoting. Some parts sound shaky and unsure; others are little more than loop-based filler that the kids will eat up, but on the whole, this is something that probably won't alienate A.F.I. fans, won't offend hardcore electronic/EBM (whatever that is) fans, and probably won't spell the end of A.F.I. as we know it just yet. Not necessarily a keeper, but definitely not a failure either.
Depeche Mode Violator, VNV Nation Empires, and Covenant Sequencer
As a rock band who have become progressively more electronic throughout their career, A.F.I. might have gone some way to introducing their fan base to the influential artists that have inspired CexCells and may have even converted some of them over to the dark(wave) side. If I was feeling optimistic, I'd say that Blaqk Audio the much anticipated side-project of Davey Havok and Jade Puget - could prove a gateway band, bringing the attention of their audience to some comparatively obscure electronic artists with distinctly similar sounds. After all, what Havok and Puget are attempting with Blaqk Audio's debut has been done many times before and unfortunately - with greater success. Herein lies the problem with CexCells: to established electronic fans the album is ultimately unexceptional, whilst existing A.F.I. fans may feel alienated by what is another step (like some of Decemberunderground) away from the nostalgic A.F.I. of years gone by.
Though CexCells is not an A.F.I. output, it smacks of many of the same failings that hampered the likes of Answer That and Stay Fashionable and Very Proud of Ya. Foremost amongst these is the fact that, although by no means dilettantish, CexCells is simply not striking enough to distinguish it from many other albums like it. On tracks such as poppy Semiotic Love, lush ballad Cities of Night and the confusingly infectious Again, Again and Again the potential for what Blaqk Audio could be shines through but the overwhelming majority of the music feels too somehow inhibited, Havok's vocals alone are not enough to sustain interest for more than a handful of tracks at a time.
I have a hard time really disliking any of CexCells, but beyond any temporary infatuations that I might have with a few of the more catchy songs, it just doesn't feel as if there's anything lasting here.
Depeche Mode Violator, VNV Nation Empires, and Covenant Sequencer
6.3 / 10
Reviewed by 2 writers.
Posted Jan. 20, 2019, 2:39 p.m.
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