AFI – Decemberunderground – a 10th anniversary reflection

Decemberunderground was the seventh full-length album from California punk band, AFI. Released June 6, 2006 (6/6/6), it was as much a continuation of 2003’s Sing the Sorrow as it was a follow-up, picking up a story where the latter left off. If Sing the Sorrow was the story of a life, from birth (“Bleed Black”) to death (“The Leaving Song, Pt. 2”), Decemberunderground is what comes next. Speculations and theories include concepts ranging from Purgatory to Nirvana to immortality. However you choose to interpret the story that carries from Sing the Sorrow through the Clandestine short film to Decemberundergound – if you choose to interpret the story – it is hard to deny the beauty of Decemberunderground.

I was 15 years old (approximately) when I discovered AFI. And even though I am friends with other fans who make the same claim, I discovered them in the beginning of their career, 1996. For me, they fell in line with – despite being mostly overshadowed by – their peers in that time, Rancid and Operation Ivy, Green Day, Rage Against the Machine, even to a lesser extent bands like Weezer and No Doubt. For me, songs like “I Wanna Get a Mohawk (But My Mom Won’t Let Me)” and “High School Football Hero” were anthemic of my life in a small western town but it would be another five years before I considered calling myself a fan.

In my early adult hood (18, 19, 20, 21) I met two women, Caroline and Lindsey, who were both committed AFI fans. Through them, I fell in love with 1999’s Black Sails in the Sunset, which remains to this day my favorite album of the AFI catalog. But with each new album that came after Black Sails, I found something new to love.

Decemberunderground falls through the cracks for me. Sing the Sorrow is the album that so many current fans hail as their favorite, as the best, as the one that made them a fan. CrashLove is met with rabid mixed reviews from people who either love it or hate it (for the record, I was indifferent to it for a very long time but grew to love it for instead of in spite of its differences to its predecessors). With so much passion directed toward the one that came before and the one that came after, Decemberunderground gets lost in the shuffle.

But I never cease to be awed by the exquisite beauty in those tracks.

I am kind of ashamed to admit it but I forget to listen to Decemberunderground. I forget about the songs. But when they come on, wherever I am, I stop to listen and I am once again amazed. It’s the click of stiletto heels on marble tiles pulling me in again.  Even “Kill Caustic,” which is easily the black sheep of the album, is awe-inspiring in its own right.

There is a tendency among fans of any form of entertainment toward elitism. It is the attitude that “I am a better fan because…” and this attitude applies very heavily to Decemberunderground. With Decemberunderground, AFI found mainstream notoriety, most obviously with “Miss Murder” finding its way to top 40 radio but also with the inclusion of both “Miss Murder” and “Prelude 12/21” in television soundtracks. As a result, AFI also found a new crop of young fans who had never heard anything else from the band and, in some cases, lost interest when they started digging deeper into the catalog, if they dug in at all.

Despite that line of thinking, I remain enthralled by Decemberunderground.

“Prelude 12/21” is simultaneously minimalistic and epic, residing almost entirely in the percussion section, a simple drum cadence layered beneath the bright crispness of a glockenspiel (or possibly crotales, I was unable to find a definitive answer). Even as the song grows into the enormity of its climax – adding drum fills and choral chants – it manages to remain simple. It becomes a masterpiece by not striving for more than its title suggests. It is the prelude for what is to come, an album wrought with highs and lows, tempo surges, storms and calms, life, death, and the afterlife. All condensed into a mere 94 seconds. It’s no wonder that it has been used several times in the past decade as a soundtrack of foreboding.

“Kill Caustic” returns to us Havok’s guttural screams (which do not feature as heavily throughout Decemberunderground as on other AFI offerings) as he juxtaposes them with his melodic tenor, giving us the feeling of a conversation. I have developed somewhat of a fixation on the allusions to (fallen) angels throughout the AFI lyrics (enough so to design my second AFI tribute tattoo around them) and that, coupled with the immortality, life after death theories surrounding Decemberunderground, lead me to hearing those screams as one of those angels. Maybe I’m reaching but it is that depth and (potential) allegory that make even the acerbic screams – both from Havok and from Jade Puget’s guitar – of “Kill Caustic” so piercingly beautiful.

It was through “Miss Murder” that Decemberunderground met with such hostility. Not only from fans but also from activists, claiming it was “yet another” song for the teen demographic advocating suicide (along with Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” which was released as a single two months following Miss Murder’s single release). Understandably so, with lyrics like “Hey, Miss Murder, can I make beauty stay if I take my life?” the backlash really wasn’t unexpected. On the surface, however, “Miss Murder” appealed to the mainstream with its repetitive lyrics, upbeat cadence and catchy melodies. In some ways, “Miss Murder” functioned as a precursor to 2009’s CrashLove, which was written as a commentary on the fragility of privilege and the upper crust.

Possibly one of my favorite moments of the album (although it’s very hard to choose) is halfway through halfway. “Affliction” comes after attempts by ethereal tracks “Summer Shudder,” “The Interview,” and “Love Like Winter” to slow the pace of the album. At the apex of the album – the seventh track out of twelve, the start of the descent toward the end – “Affliction” ramps the energy back up. The screams return to full strength, pulling drums and guitars with them into controlled chaos. Two minutes into the five-and-a-half-minute track, however, that energy swell crashes into a melodic refrain, “So stay sweetly numb. Remain lifeless, love. Stay sweetly numb. Maintain lifeless love,” before another crescendo and then falls off again for the final two minutes of the track. These swells and crashes keep the song – and the album – from ever becoming flat. They are not uncommon in the AFI catalog but their prominence throughout Decemberunderground add that much more to the awe of it.

“Kiss and Control” is my sleeper favorite track (along with “37mm”). Like the album itself, I forget it exists, until I am thrown headlong back into it. “Kiss and Control,” for me, holds the most evidence of the immortality theory behind the overall meaning of Decemberunderground. A surface read gives easily to a romantic interlude but it doesn’t take a great deal of scratching at that surface to get the vampiric undertones in lyrics, “Part your lips a bit more/I’ll swallow your fear/I will show you how/All the bite marks impress/A need to be here/A need to see,” which only intensify as the song progresses. But it is more than the implication of vampirism that has drawn me into “Kiss and Control.” The melodies and vocal runs are positively delicious, the imagery in the lyrics, masterful. It is one more instance of Havok painting a masterpiece with his words.

Each track of AFI’s seventh full-length album, Decemberunderground, is wrought with excruciating agony and splendor and, in that, it exhibits insurmountable magnificence. Ten years later, I am still in awe of this album, hearing and loving new things each time I sit down with it. That it can grip audiences with its grandeur a decade later is a testament to what AFI, to what Davey Havok, continues to contribute to a music scene that has lost faith in itself. If you are like me and haven’t spun this album in a while, put your headphones on, turn up the volume, and embrace the uniquely exquisite and often overshadowed piece of artistry that came after Sing the Sorrow enchanted and before CrashLove outraged fans old and new.

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