hen A.F.I. dropped Sing the Sorrow in 2003, it was a nearly definitive document of a sound that was still novel: mainstream rock that whipped black mascara, purple poetry, and “Blue Monday” into the sonic interpretation of a bruise. Slight variations of this alchemy have made more than a few bands incredibly popular in subsequent years, and notably more so than A.F.I. But with a swaggering single in “Miss Murder” and a #1 debut on Billboard, they want you to know they’re intent on coming back like conquering heroes ready to regain what was once theirs.
At least they want it to sound that way. Glutted with stadium-echo claps and strings (but hardly any guitar), “Prelude 12/21” is one of the most daunting displays of recording budget largesse since the entirety of Korn’s Untouchables. But underneath, Havok sounds squirrelly and vulnerable. It’s telling; get past the massively impressive production, and you hear a band that’s weary from a three-year campaign to make Decemberunderground not sound like the underwhelming album it was destined to be.
Sing the Sorrow was a coming out party and a victory lap that spared no luxury, indulging in choirs of the damned, thunderstorm sound effects, hotshot soloing, and every studio trick ever invented. But while Decemberunderground isn’t as triumphant, it still draws from the same pool of descriptors as a space shuttle: sleek, explosive, futuristic, and astronomically expensive—not to mention that it’s engineered to be completely foolproof. Determining the singles here requires no guesswork whatsoever; just launch ‘em and watch it shoot for the moon.
While “Miss Murder” is mostly a great hook looking for a tune, it’s one of the few moments that breaks rank with the past. Obvious second single “Summer Shudder” begs for the kind of video treatment that could dispense with Interscope’s entire third-quarter budget, and it may very well deserve it. Heroic, chunky riffage emerges from digital synth baths before the soaring chorus reimagines Live Aid on the set of “Helena.” And that’s before everything drops out to spotlight the strings. They’re ridiculous and ridiculously awesome, the work of a band who watches the entirety of the “November Rain” trilogy and laments that they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.
But the labor pains of Decemberunderground’s three-year birthing process start to show as A.F.I. scrambles for new ideas with only mild success. “Affliction” is the token mini-concerto, but it functions as little more than an overstuffed appendix of lost verses from no less than four Sing the Sorrow cuts. And if they’re going to chafe at facile comparisons to TRL kingpins, they probably shouldn’t encourage them so much by adopting—what else?—chintzy New Wavery as their major sonic update. “The Missing Frame” is such a blatant Killers imitation that they might as well become Mormons to complete the job.
Davey Havok improves marginally as a singer, relying more on an authoritative, stentorian croon than the squeak-toy yelp of albums past. Lyrics are a different story altogether, as once again, they’re the kind of stuff that will be memorized by the hardcore A.F.I. fan and probably ignored by everybody else. If you don’t know where you stand, ask yourself this: when you went through your Doors phase in high school, did you think it would be way awesome if Jim Morrison used a vocal filter every time he said the word “death” during his spoken word bits? When Decemberunderground leans on Havok’s flowers-in-the-graveyard talk, it just ends up being lifestyle music for cape-wearing teens.
Keep in mind that Havok is now 31 years old; hopefully he’s learned from Robert Smith that there’s only so many years you can realistically spend in pancake makeup before you look like you’re made out of pancake batter. Whether we’ll hear from them next in 2009 remains to be seen, but at their current pace, Decemberunderground carries a distinct whiff of missed opportunities. On the wrestler’s theme intro of Sing the Sorrow, Havok bellowed “You are! One of us!” But with their hesitance to either top their competition or distance themselves from them, they fall back on “We are! One of them!” Decemberunderground is a pretty good album, but it’s an even better argument against waiting three years to capitalize on newfound fame.