How exactly did AFI transition from being a band that hardcore and goth kids had in their back pocket to becoming such a pop culture worldwide phenomenon? The answer depends on who you ask. Having outgrown their indie label of Nitro Records given the monumental success of their fifth studio album, The Art of Drowning, AFI were simply destined for a wider audience on their major label debut called Sing the Sorrow. This record was produced by A-list veterans Jerry Finn (Blink-182) and Butch Vig (Nirvana), and they helped the band craft some of their strongest songs to date. Much to the surprise of many record executives, and to the delight of their Dreamworks Records label, AFI’s Sing the Sorrow would sell 96,000 copies in its first week and debut at number five on the Billboard 200. This record seemed to be an unstoppable giant that both the hardcore/goth kids could sing a long to with the same audience as newer fans who liked Blink-182 and other pop-punk bands. The lead single of “Girl’s Not Grey” was a perfect choice of introducing AFI to a wider audience, and it was filled with slick hooks, great guitar work, and Davey Havok’s trademark vocal howls. The great thing about AFI’s growing audience was that their concerts would be a combination of kids from all different backgrounds coming together with the same unified feeling towards this band’s music. This accomplishment didn’t happen overnight, and yet AFI’s trajectory had quickly launched into the stratosphere.
Sing The Sorrow opens in a similar fashion as The Art of Drowning with its call to arms approach of brooding in the darkness on “Miseria Cantare (The Beginning)” before Havok sings passionately, “Nothing from nowhere, I’m no one at all / Radiate, recognize one silent call / As we all form one dark flame.” It was a meeting of minds of bringing together all audiences to dance through the misery. “The Leaving Song Part II” follows the level-setting opening track with an ultra-unique guitar riff from Jade Puget that spirals its way around Havok’s lyrics. Havok sways between near-screamed vocals to a crisp croon on the second verse of, “Imperfect cry, and scream in ecstasy / So what befalls the flawless? / Look what I’ve built, it shines so beautifully / Now watch as it destroys me.” AFI were never strangers to the darkness, and yet there is more glimmers of hope to be found on this record. The music video associated with this song really captured AFI’s strong live performance, and showcased why they were one of the premiere acts you needed to see live in concert to get the whole picture.
”Bleed Black” invited audience participation on the refrain of, “(If you listen) Listen, listen / (Listen close) Beat by beat / (You can hear when the heart stops) I saved the pieces / (When it broke) And ground them all to dust.” The material was dark, but the sounds around the lyrics still allowed for chances to mosh away the worries. One of the more recognizable songs from the LP is “Silver and Cold,” that remains a staple in AFI’s setlist. I remember when the music video for this came out, and Davey Havok looked as captivating as I’ve ever seen, and he really came into his own as an actor within this setting. The bigger budget videos allowed for AFI to spread their music like wildfire to larger and larger audiences.
”Dancing Through Sunday” sounds as if AFI merged with Blink-182 to write a hardcore/punk anthem, and that’s where Jerry Finn’s expertise really came in handy in making sure it still sounded like AFI. It just happened to be a super-charged version of themselves that could adapt to a wider audience for consumption. “Girl’s Not Grey” really started off the incredible ascension of this band, and is the perfect starting point for someone to determine if AFI is for them. Luckily this song captivated not only longtime fans of the band, but made a plethora of new fans as well.
”Death of Seasons” is a song that just demands to be played in a dark club setting, as Havok’s vocals growl against the buzzing lights above. The bass line by Hunter Burgan paired with the drumming of Adam Carson is just pure magic, and showcased that AFI was growing at a pace that may have been unforeseen a few years back. The picturesque lyrical imagery found on “The Great Disappointment” as Havok sings cautiously, “I can remember a place I used to go / Chrysanthemums of white, they seemed so beautiful / I can remember, I searched for the amaranth / I’d shut my eyes…to see / Oh, how I smiled then, so near the cherished ones / I knew they would appear…saw not a single one / Oh, how I smiled then, waiting so patiently / I’d make a wish…and bleed,” highlights AFI’s finest work that is mapped out to perfection.
Other songs on the back half like “Paper Airplanes (Makeshift Wings)” find AFI showing off with breakneck tempo changes and vivid lyrical imagery, while the ballad of “This Celluloid Dream” showed that this artist was capable of painting a masterpiece at just the right moment in their career. “The Leaving Song” is a nice pre-cursor to the double closing songs of “…But Home Is Nowhere” and “This Time Imperfect,” with the latter showcasing a masterful crescendo towards the tail end of the track to leave the listener in utter awe of what they had just experienced.
At a time when so many pop-punk, emo, and hardcore bands were being signed to major labels, AFI arguably deserved this new glory the most. Having formed in 1991, and then finding their true, breakthrough success in 2003, it was a remarkable achievement for a hard-working band that was ultra-prepared for their close-up.