AFI’s major label debut, Sing The Sorrow, was a decent commercial success in 2003 but because it arrived pre-iTunes and pre-MySpace, a lot of AFI’s would-be fan base never heard it. The following year, My Chemical Romance blasted onto the scene, stealing AFI’s alterna-goth thunder and forcing the Bay Area band to play catch-up. Accordingly, AFI return with Decemberunderground and the single “Miss Murder,” maybe the most radio-friendly song they have recorded to date. You can’t begrudge the band for softening its edge a little to earn an overdue mainstream hit, especially when the results are this good.
The album closely follows the Sorrow blueprint, with songs in which each chorus is a climax, featuring massively catchy pop melodies and walls of anthemic vocals (no fewer than 33 people receive credit for background vocals on the album). “Summer Shudder” is the most obvious success, balancing the intense guitar work of Jade Puget with a catchy as hell refrain, while “37mm” opens with a haunting bass intro but moves into a similarly sunny chorus. Both are impressive, even if they never quite reach the fist-pumping heights of Sorrow standouts “Silver And Cold” and “The Leaving Song Pt. 2.”
The album’s best track is one that breaks the pattern somewhat: “The Interview,” a near-ballad built around frontman Davey Havok’s voice that closes with the singer dueting softly with guitarist Jade Puget over a church organ. Havok’s captivating presence draws most of the attention, but the efforts of Puget, bassist Hunter Burgan, and drummer Adam Carson are worth noting. Puget’s aggressive riffs dominate several songs, and the band skillfully incorporates new elements into AFI’s sound, including skittering programmed drum beats in “Kiss And Control” and the ‘80s-sounding synths and surprising dance tempo of “Love Like Winter.”
As with all AFI records, the lyrics on Decemberunderground are consistently dark and a bit over the top, with nearly every song referencing murder, suicide, burials, or bleeding wrists. You get the impression Havok keeps a checklist of gloomy words to consult whenever writer’s block sets in. “Prelude 12/21” neatly pairs these lyrics with ominous keyboards and operatic vocals, with Havok imploring, “Kiss my eyes and lay me to sleep,” though, at 90 seconds long, it’s just a tease.
Only two songs, “Kill Caustic” and “Affliction,” recall the group’s earlier hardcore sound, with Havok screaming more than singing. It makes sense that a band that has its roots in the punk scene would want to flex its muscle a little—they wouldn’t want to become pop, after all. But even these songs rein in the screaming before long and eventually reveal pop hooks. That the sugary melodies might be in conflict with the grim lyrical themes never seems to matter. Both accessible and artistic, Decemberunderground is destined to give AFI that larger mainstream audience they missed out on the last time around.