Fans were cautiously optimistic when AFI announced AFI (The Blood Album) last October, hoping for music that would reward their loyalty and solidify the band’s standing. Secretly, they realize the likelihood of new material with the influence of 2000’s The Art of Drowning or chart-oblivious fan favorites like “God Called in Sick Today” are slim. Most bands in the second or third decades of their careers make records that are fine, but unmemorable. It’s like The Killers releasing Battle Born or Fall Out Boy releasing American Beauty/American Psycho. The new material won’t tarnish hits of old, but its existence doesn’t really matter.
That’s a bit harsh for AFI, the band’s 10th studio album and first with Concord Records. It’s not that the record isn’t good – it possesses potential chart-climbers and bittersweet moments that’ll make fans nostalgic for the group’s early punk days. But does AFI have the frenetic energy of their debut, Answer That and Stay Fashionable, or the visceral emotion of Black Sails in the Sunset? No. In the three years since their last release, Burials, AFI had to choose between staying the course of recent history or reverting to their hardcore roots. In this case, they chose the shelter of mainstream acceptance, a predictable – if disappointing – decision.
Perhaps the softcore sound AFI developed after finding mainstream success with 2003’s Sing the Sorrow reflects their current musical preferences. Their sound has been in flux since the present lineup of vocalist Davey Havok, guitarist Jade Puget, bassist Hunter Burgan, and drummer Adam Carson cemented in 1998. Hardcore turned into goth-punk, which turned into pop punk with emo undercurrents. AFI now creates a masses-friendly version of hardcore: it’s like the real thing, only with a spoonful of sugar and a pat on the head mixed in. But there’s still a disconnection. Despite flares of emotion in Havok’s vocals on AFI and upticks in tempo reminiscent of the blitzing pace of earlier albums, it feels like AFI are holding back.
AFI opens with “Dark Snow”, a lackluster offering typical of a post-punk comeback. It’s difficult at this point to avoid the question of age. Music doesn’t belong to the young, but there is an obvious difference between those with rebellion coursing through their veins and artists who have matured past the point of living and dying by their art. “Still a Stranger” comes as a quick relief, with Carson’s introductory drum roll and Havok’s pleading cries of “I need you, I need you” lending the music an immediacy that was missing in the opener and in much of AFI’s recent music.
“Hidden Knives” is the first track that demands attention and brings The Blood Album’s theme to light. The driving hook makes it more “Miss Murder” than “The Days of the Phoenix”, with greater emotional immediacy and landing power than its prior track, “Aurelia”. AFI hint at death and violence on “Dark Snow” and “Aurelia”, but their lyrics grow excited with imagined murder scenes in “Hidden Knives”. The playful tone shifts to paranoia in “Get Hurt”, another hook-driven track that shows the narrator concerned for his safety while fearing discovery for past crimes. “Get Hurt” is AFI’s pop punk offering, propelled by an easy beat layered with ornamental vocals and brief guitar solos.
Leading singles “Snow Cats” and “White Offerings” emphasize the genre gap AFI’s trying to breach with AFI. While the former has a yawningly simplistic tempo and self-pitying lyrics, the latter prioritizes sound and speed over lyrical content. The real joy of the album is hidden in “Dumb Kids” and “Pink Eyes”, both of which recognize the band’s earliest fans. While “Dumb Kids” is full of raw vocal angst and racing instrumentals, both essential to ’90s AFI, “Pink Eyes” has the boundless musicianship and romantic imagery that mark the band’s best hardcore tracks – just beware of the “Rock Lobster” sample Burgan sneaks in after the intro.
AFI covers most of the band’s explored genres, giving fans from every era something to appreciate. Unfortunately, this means no one will be completely satisfied. It’s useless to try to please everyone, so here AFI follow their instincts and try to do justice to the styles that have inspired them thus far.
Essential Tracks: “Hidden Knives”, “Pink Eyes”