To call California-based hardcore/screamo quartet A.F.I. a band without a flag in the current modern rock landscape is not an unfair assessment of their situation. Firmly entrenched in one camp are the '70s and '80s retro-rockers (Turbonegro, the D4, Interpol, the "The" bands) currently being fawned over by, ahem, rock critics. Meanwhile, the other camp is comprised of the lunkheaded nü-metal crew who think the Stooges refers to Moe, Larry, and Shemp. In today's cookie-cutter modern rock radio work, failure to conform to either of these styles often leaves a band on the outside looking in. But if that's the case, then how did A.F.I. (A Fire Inside) Dreamworks' debut, Sing the Sorrow land at number five on the Billboard charts with little to no rock radio airplay upon its release in mid-March? Credit the band for sticking to their 10-years-and-counting vision on Sing the Sorrow, an album that illuminates a viable third avenue for modern rock.
A.F.I. -- lead singer Davey Havok, guitarist Jade Paget, bassist Hunter, and drummer Adam Carson -- recruited producers Jerry Finn (Green Day, Rancid) and Butch Vig (Garbage, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins) to handle knob-twisting duties on Sing the Sorrow. Given that, it's no surprise to find the producers maintaining the band's established gloomy hardcore/pop aesthetic while stretching the songs longer to create more opportunities to showcase the band's dark lyrics and musicianship. A.F.I. has the passion and, um, fire inside, to pull off a winning album.
Album opener "Miseria Cantare -- The Beginning" is a theatrical invocation that casts Havok as the high priest of impending doom and gloom. Bombastic though it may be, Havok knows how to pull the listener in: "You are now one of us!" he commands in the tune's chorus as Hunter and Carson's rhythm section swirls around him. Between "Miseria Cantare"'s Latinate underpinnings and his brief jaunt into Spanish on "The Leaving Song, Pt. 2", Havok spends the early part of the album channeling his inner Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, Tomahawk). Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that Sing the Sorrow's dusty-book-as-album-cover motif fits right alongside Tomahawk's two similarly-designed covers.
That said, "The Leaving Song, Pt. 2" is also where Vig and Finn's fingerprints first show up on the album -- I heard the Paget's ringing guitar intro and expected to see coverage of the Clinton impeachment trial on CNN. Too many of these heavy-sounding bands want it both ways: heavy as hell, yet melodic. Fortunately, A.F.I. remembered that having it both ways requires writing hook-laden songs to offset the darkness, which Sing the Sorrow has in spades. "Silver and Cold" opens with the sound of a car driving in a thunderstorm, dives headfirst into Havok's introspective verses, then yields to a fist-pumping anthemic chorus with a guitar that could double as a Vaudevillian prop gag hook. It's a recipe that is repeated throughout the album; A.F.I. have learned from Vig the merits of quiet-loud-quiet-loud song structure.
There are variations though. "Dancing through Sunday", the album's best brush with hardcore, keeps it on the loud half of the court, and features a killer '80s-guitar-hero solo courtesy of Puget. Meanwhile, "The Great Disappointment" is exactly that -- too dirge-y and guilty of overstaying its welcome, though Hunter's bass gets in a few nice licks. For a band that has been shifting away from straight-up hardcore since 1999's Black Sails in Sunset, A.F.I. Vigs-and-zags through some nifty production tricks in the process of carving out their own modern rock niche. "Bleed Black" grafts on, Frankenstein-style, an acoustic interlude that really shouldn't work, but does. More ambitious, if less successful, is "Death of Season"'s unholy alliance of hardcore, techno, and a coda of Havok ranting over haunting violins. If nothing else, these experiments show a band willing to grow in any number of directions.
For many listeners, though, the fire that lights A.F.I. is Havok's impassioned lyrics. They're certainly colorful . . . by which I mean black as night and with a tendency to run towards purple. To wit, "Dancing in the rain of descending ash / Dancing on your grave / I'll see you all falling" quoth Havok on the I-told-you-so-Icarus "Paper Airplanes (Makeshift Wings)". The songs may have opened up around him, but Havok's lyrics are as pained and sharp as they ever were. If you're looking for melancholia, Havok's your man.
There's a line from the album's epic closer, ". . . But Home Is Nowhere", that encapsulates A.F.I. so perfectly, so thoroughly, that I can only assume it was written so rock critics could end their review of Sing the Sorrow with it: "There is poetry in despair / And we sang with unrivaled beauty / Bitter elegies of savagery and violence".