AFI | Decemberunderground (Interscope)

This is my rifle, there are many like it but this one is mine. And this is my anger, my sadness, my inadequacy. They’re also mine, and by wearing them on my sleeve I might become strong, accepted, safe. Such is the mantra behind the current wave of punk and emo-rock bands, leagues apart from the generation of feral street punks that birthed the genre. With their wide-eyed yearning and outright pleas for acceptance, the new breed look like they could fall to a stiff wind. Leading the charge is the mainstream cross-over AFI (an acronym that stands for “A Fire Inside”).

Last we checked in with the band, they were burning up MTV2 with their genre-hopping breakthrough Sing the Sorrow. Still a high point of 2003, the perfectly balanced album managed to pack the band’s essence into each track, creating long-form solidarity of a dozen disparate energies ranging from Bay Area punk, goth, new wave, even a touch of thrash metal. Singer Davey Havok looked the part with his full-sleeve tattoos and pierced lip, though the latest incarnation sports a lopsided bob that bears a notable resemblance to schoolyard bully Dolph from The Simpsons. It’s hard to separate the music from the fashion, since this is a band so obsessed with their (highly romanticized) expression of authenticity and individuality.

Decemberunderground continues the band’s move toward ’80s modern-rock influences like The Mission U.K. and Love and Rockets, though the album adds a new stylistic touchstone from the ’80s to the fold: pop metal. Songs like “Summer Shudder” and “Love Like Winter” resurrect that Winger melody you thought you’d buried in the late ’80s, along with Stephen King’s hard-drinking alter ego. The album’s arrangements aren’t as intricate as Sing the Sorrow, though the slick veneer is in abundance from start to finish. Ultimately, each track is packed with so many hooky sounds, creative ideas, and propulsive rhythms that you find yourself wishing they’d pick one and let it germinate for at least a whole verse.

The single “Miss Misery” is the album’s singular highpoint, a tightly wound corker that carries the rollicking energy of a modern-rock crossover like you haven’t heard since Green Day last stormed the charts. The goth-glam stomp becomes memorable despite its soporific refrain of, ”Hey Miss Murder, can I make beauty stay if I take my life?” Like the single, many of the songs revolve around a safe and sanitized vision of suicide, while “The Killing Lights” ultimately sets Havok’s existential ambivalence against vintage New Order–meets-Cure guitars with the album-defining lyric, “Am I beautiful, am I usable?”

Decemberunderground is a highly creative work, maybe as much as its predecessor, though notably more derivative and ultimately less enduring. Where Sing the Sorrow’s that CD you already own yet look for on the used racks so you can marvel at the diamonds people throw away, Decemberunderground will be the one you actually find. It’s disarming, entertaining and compulsively listenable. But once you break the rhythm and put it down, it might be down for good.

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