A Fire Inside: ‘Decemberunderground’

When A.F.I. released ‘Sing The Sorrow’ in 2003, it was after a decade of building a rabid underground fanbase around the world. But, now, for the first time, the band was reaching out to the general public via an album on a major label; the company’s marketing machine kicked into gear and gave them exposure that they had yet to experience before. Coupled with some ever-more-polished singles to support the platter, ‘Sorrow’ became their biggest seller yet and slipped their names on many tongues.

Then came a 3-year hiatus – during which they wrote, according some accounts, about one hundred songs and recorded a new twelve-track album. More time was being spent on the production than they ever had before; where they used to release an album every other year, they now decided that time and money could be invested to make a more polished gem that permitted them to expand like they hadn’t done before.

With ‘Decemberunderground’, which is amusingly being released on June 6, 2006, the band has collected a set that couldn’t possibly be more varied. While there are some AFI ‘standards’ on the disc, it will probably be a surprise to many fans – especially the ones who did not hear (or, God forbid, did not embrace) the last disc.

AFI started using a intro numbers on ‘Black Sails On The Sunset’ and this album continues the welcome tradition: “Prelude 12/21” begins with a childhood lullaby, complete with anthemic choruses that would be thoroughly enjoyed by fans of Evanescence. But then, to temporarily dispell any such misconceptions, the band kicks into high-gear with “Kill Caustic” and erases all associations.

The new single, “Miss Murder” is simple, yet very catchy, and clearly worthy as a first offering; one would be forgiven for having the song looped in one’s head for hours at a time after hearing it a few times. It is already fairly distinct from AFI’s other material, but it is the last somewhat traditional piece before the album takes a complete turn.

For what is the first time, the album is fully backed by synths and other electronic textures: “Summer Shudder” begins the tradition in a more suggestive way, but “The Interview” is completed rather admirably by organs, and “Love Like Winter” unabashedly uses a keyboard lick as its main hook and is further layered with synths (the latter, infectious as it is, has single potential and could very well get a fair bit of airplay).

Then the band returns to a familiar form with “Affliction” but, again, comes out with another surprise: a delicate instrumental arrangement on the tail-end. This band can deliver the punches, but it can also paint portraits of intricate beauty – so this is a welcome daydream before we wake again for the final hits.

“The Missing Frame” is a fun track, complete with ’80s influences in its sound and its backing vocals; “Kiss And Control” is AFI, the way we like them; and “The Killing Lights” is a catchy pop ditty – as is “37mm”, which is easily one of the most accessible number on this album. The anthemic “Endlessly, She Said” then closes the album on a very high note, with is rolling guitars and expansive vocals.

The vocals are, one of the most remarkable elements of AFI, and ‘Decemberunderground’: Havok can transform his voice to suit any situation and is often heard screaming one moment and then whispering wistfully quite literally the next. The sound of his voice also changes for the occasion; he could probably make himself sound unrecognizable on every single track, should he so desire.

He is undoutedly one of the most talented male vocalists in rock music today.

On ‘Decemberunderground’, AFI have proven to themselves that they can throw in texture and produce a multi-layered effort. They are continuing an ambitious journey that began as far back as ‘Black Sails’ and are doing so with tremendous verve and skill. The gritty side has been muted, yes, but the hard work is present in every moment of this latest offering.

AFI have not only gone well beyond their previous achievements, but they will probably continue to challenge themselves, and their audience, for years to come. And while “Decemberunderground” is a very different album from anything that A Fire Inside has ever put out, and may, consequently, alienate some of their earliest fans, they are worth keeping an eye on – if only to hear what they will attempt next.

We give it a 7.5 out of 10.

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