It’s amazing to think how much things can change in just 20 years time. Bands form and can run their course over that period, whereas some of the best bands can stand the test of time by reinventing themselves over and over again. Enter AFI, who would continue to evolve and release some of the best melodic punk rock of this decade with this record. The Art of Drowning feels just as immediate, punishing, brooding, and essential as it did on its release via Nitro Records in the start of 21st century. Black Sails in the Sunset marked a smaller musical turning point for the band, as they began to explore some darker elements, and featured some new band members in Jade Puget (guitar) and Hunter Burgan (bass). But The Art of Drowning would remain the album that changed this band’s life for the foreseeable future. This core lineup would go on to record some of the more quintessential Gothic punk rock that future bands would try to emulate for years to come.
Lead single, “The Days of the Phoenix” really kicked off a great promotion cycle for AFI as they received moderate radio airplay of the track, and the video hit the right chord with the misplaced youth of America looking for their own voice. The song itself featured a more melodic tone than what the band had released at this point in their careers, and the introductory riff by Puget is as recognizable as ever with the band rips into the song during their live set. Davey Havok’s lyrics in the bridge hit to the core of their audience as he read the words of, “The girl on the wall always waited for me / And she was always smiling / The teenage death boys / The teenage death girls / And everyone was dancing / Nothing could touch us then / No one could change us then / Everyone was dancing / Nothing could hurt us then / No one could see us then / Everyone was dancing.” The simultaneously dark, yet upbeat tone to his lyrics made for a listening experience that both the hardcore punk kids and the alternative rock fans could both enjoy.
Other early standouts on the record such as “The Lost Souls” and “The Nephilim” continued to explore the darker, brooding tones first introduced on the Black Sails in the Sunset record, but AFI seemed even more poised and professionally ready for this moment in their career to captivate their audience in new and exciting ways. From the carefully crafted bridge of “Take my hand, I’ll be everything to you / Take my hand, I’ll take everything from you,” it appeared as if AFI were speaking directly to their audience as they were saying, we can be the band you want us to be for as long as you’re willing to have us. The latter track is a slab of breakneck punk rock with lyrics of “Swing through sadness, tears of joy / Curse the sunlight / Arsenic for the girls and boys,” that allow for both the goth kids and the punk rockers to come together in the mosh pit.
”Ever and A Day” marked another strong turning point for AFI as they began to lean more towards alternative rock elements in their song structures to slowly expand towards a larger audience. Songs like this would continue to be felt in their evolution on records like Sing the Sorrow that fully realized their potential, and would eventually take AFI into the mainstream. “Sacrifice Theory” would still remind the early fans of AFI that the band was still capable of making the thrash punk rock that they had grown accustomed to over the years, but with more control and carefully calculated risks along the way.
Other songs like “Smile” and especially “The Despair Factor” began to introduce some electronic elements into their sound for the first time, and it would soon become an element that would be fully entrenched in AFI’s sound for years to come. “The Despair Factor” features a programmed beat in the beginning and the song itself would launch the official fan club of a similar name in The Despair Faction. Now that AFI knew what to call their army of followers from this point on, it seemed like the legend surrounding The Art of Drowning would only grow for years to come.
Album closer, “Morningstar” showed the full breadth of what the band were capable of creating when they were firing on all creative cylinders. The song laid down the blueprint of what fans would come to expect on the album closer of an AFI album for years to come, and the track certainly continues to live up the hype. Havok sings right before the crescendo, “And I don’t want to die tonight; Will you believe in me? / And I don’t want to fall into the light / Will you wish upon? / Will you walk upon me? / I don’t want to die tonight” and he leaves a glimmer of hope that as dark as the material is, there is always something to look forward to on the horizon.
It’s no secret that The Art of Drowning was a major turning point in the career trajectory of a band that was searching not only for a core audience, but for a clear path forward in their evolution. Since the material on this LP was so strong, AFI had little trouble accomplishing both of the aforementioned goals. The success of the record would lead to them being signed to a major label, and allowed AFI to take their unique brand of dark-toned punk rock to the masses. Sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in time where a band finally showed they had turned the corner that marked the turning point in their evolution, but that is not the case with AFI. The Art of Drowning will continue to be that legendary record that put AFI on everyone’s radar and made for everything that came next seem that much more important.