Much like the explosion of the alternative music scene in recent years, the post-punk and hardcore resurgence of the early to mid-90s inspired hundreds of teens to form bands and try their luck in the music industry. The following decade was a true test for these young musicians, who had to struggle for recognition amidst the grunge, nu-metal, rap-rock and other trends that came to dominate the mainstream airwaves.
Today, alternative music’s rise in popularity has opened new doors for the bands that survived the natural selection process of the ’90s. The mainstream music industry has realized the current marketability of alternative music and is increasingly willing to invest in such bands. Many artists – both scene veterans and newcomers – are taking advantage of mainstream interest to jumpstart or further develop their careers.
One such group is Ukiah, Calif. natives A Fire Inside – AFI. Formed in the early ’90s, AFI – singer Davey Havok, drummer Adam Carson, bassist Hunter and guitarist Jade Puget – has built their career on a constantly shifting, yet instantly recognizable sound. From their punk and hardcore beginnings to their latest unique blend of various alternative genres, AFI remained an underground favorite until about three years ago.
The release of their 2003 disc “Sing the Sorrow” brought cries of “sell-out” from long-time fans, not so much because of the album’s content, but because it was their first disc on DreamWorks Records. The group left the independent punk label Nitro Records in 2001 and jumped to the majors, a career move frequently frowned upon by devoted scenesters.
But despite some upset fans, “Sing the Sorrow” did quite well, selling over one million copies in the U.S. and gaining mainstream recognition in the form of 2003’s MTV2 Viewer’s Choice Award for the first single “Girl’s Not Grey.” About half way through 2004 AFI reentered the studio, spending the next two years crafting their follow-up album.
“Going in to record this album was just a matter of recording the 15 songs that we had sort of boiled down from the 100 songs we’d written,” Hunter said. Given the quantity of songs and the available resources from their label, it was no surprise that the band took their time to record the album, while fans waited expectantly to hear the new material.
The result was “Decemberunderground,” AFI’s seventh full-length album, which was released this past June. As a whole, “Decemberunderground” is unlike any previous AFI album – but that should come as no surprise to long-time fans.
“I think we’ve conditioned [our fans] to expect that,” Hunter explained. “We sort of established ourselves early on as this band who’s going to constantly evolve and change musically. And I think the fans who have stuck with us are the ones that understand that and embrace that.”
Ever since the early days of 1995’s “Answer That and Stay Fashionable,” AFI has incorporated new elements in each successive album, demonstrating the wide variety of influences on the band.
“We all take influences from a number of places, so it would be incorrect to say that there’s one or even a handful of specific things that influence us as a band,” Hunter explained. “A lot of people have pointed out that this record has an 80s influence. I think that’s just because we’re all children of the 80s – it’s hard to listen to 10 years worth of music and not absorb some of that.”
In fact, “Decemberundergound” is in many ways a retrospective of AFI’s career, highlighting the hardcore, punk and goth-punk elements – the musical themes that have dominated the quartet’s past albums. The first three tracks, including the album’s first single “Miss Murder,” could have easily fit on “Sing the Sorrow.” They maintain that album’s movement toward a polished and more mature version clearly rooted in their earlier work.
But the influence of the 80s starts to manifest itself on the fourth track, “Summer Shudder,” and hits in full force on “Love Like Winter,” calling to mind the likes of the Cure, Duran Duran and other influential groups of the 80s. The album continues to alternate between the old and new sounds, with “Affliction” and “Kiss and Control” serving as reminders that AFI hasn’t abandoned their past, and “The Missing Frame” and “37mm” as examples of their expanded musical horizons.
AFI has truly come a long way since the 90s, showing that they are not a band to remain stagnant and comfortable with one specific sound. “Decemberunderground” is further proof of their constant drive to push themselves into new musical territory, but while the sound may change, AFI has always kept one thing the same. As Hunter explained, “the consistency between all the records is that we are writing songs that we feel very passionate about – songs that come from our hearts. You can love it or hate it, but it’s a true expression.”
AFI will be playing at the Main Street Armory in Rochester this Saturday, Oct. 28. Tickets are $22 and are available through Ticketmaster. Supporting acts are Brooklyn, NY natives the Explosion and the Vermont quartet the Static Age. AFI will take the stage at 10 p.m.