Very few bands make the conscious effort to move so far from their origins. Bands and artists have done it before, but it has taken decades. In contemporary music, it just isn’t something that happens at the frequency that would be wholly interesting. The sure intrigue that would occur if the Red Hot Chili Peppers were to release a metal album, or if Marilyn Manson would release a strongly influenced electro-goth record. Man, despite what there is to like about those bands (and I pick on them for pure example) it sure would be…well...refreshing.
AFI are a band to look out for based on this merit alone. Background- AFI came from the Northern California punk rock scene. They ran the circuits, and released a few albums with powerful punk rock ethos and built a steady loyal audience. After some time, they got more gothic- more melodic- and then the major labels rolled along, gobbled them up, hired Butch Vig, and 2003 gave us Sing the Sorrow, a screamless sometimes instrumental and totally punkless one hour of moody atmospherics and post-hardcore rock and roll. Sing the Sorrow is a great album, but what was immediately invisible was the punk rock fury. It was a powerful album, but for very different reasons.
AFI debuted on the scene with Answer That and Stay Fashionable– a 30 minute blast of mayhem, accentuated by Davey Havok’s yelling vocals and the ADD-infected drumwork of Adam Carson who is unrelenting. Few songs reach 3 minutes (double check- none do) and most hover around these 1:30 blasts of speedy distempered instrumentation, which Havok in the driver’s seat, reeling the band between incoming traffic and through the wild frenzy of the world.
Where the group have moved past Reservoir Dogs and maybe into late-night sessions of romantic-dramas, they gave punk the gift of their early releases. Consider it homage. The Mother in Me seems like a faster-paced Black Flag track, and Half-Empty Bottlecould have came from a number of really good and largely unknown punk bands from the same era, but it would have lacked AFI’s signature touch (most notably, Havok’s appreciable voice). The Checkered Demon shows again their ability to craft a chant-worthy mini-chorus, a compacted little structure in under 2 minutes.
Answer That and Stay Fashionable isn’t particularly different than the next 2-3 albums from the band musically, but it is the beginning of a career that evolves and pyramids throughout its history. This is by no means a quality comparison but let’s for the sake for understanding, bring in the punk legends The Ramones. For all their influence and brevity, The Ramones always remained rather singular in their musical output. AFI has thrown this ideological punk rock belief to the fire. Are they sellouts? Maybe. Are they still good? Who knows. But there was a period of time where AFI did punk rock better than actual fully-fledged punk rock bands. This is not to devalue the accomplishments of punk legends, but let’s not forget that though AFI aren’t the best punk rock band by any means, they surely knew their way around the formula, and instead of expanding it, they just went ahead and broke the entire damn thing.