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The Fire Next Time

Nobody knows what AFI's next album will sound like, least of all the band members

The glamorous if shortsighted image of substance-fueled musicians in the throes of debauchery, burning out long before their time, will probably never be fully extinguished. The corpse of Layne Staley and the doddering figure of Ozzy Osbourne bleating out a helpless "Shaa-ron!" notwithstanding, there's something almost comforting in that notion. As you're bashing the snooze button for the third time, dreading another day of work, you imagine that an artist you admire is still awake somewhere, swilling Cristal and snorting coke off a thousand-dollar-a-night hooker's breasts.

That's not the way it works for the SoCal goth punks in AFI, however. In fact, it's quite the opposite in the case of bassist Hunter.

"I don't call myself straight-edge," Hunter says from a hotel in London following the drive back from Paris on the band's first headlining tour of the Continent. "Although I technically qualify for the straight-edge label, I don't personally claim it, just in case. If, for some reason later on, I want to shoot myself full of heroin, I won't be a hypocrite," he says, laughing. "No, it was never part of my culture growing up to claim straight-edge; it was just the way that I was.

They don't drink, they don't drug, and they don't smoke. But don't call them straight-edge.
They don't drink, they don't drug, and they don't smoke. But don't call them straight-edge.

"To a degree, we've sort of lived outside of that," he adds. "As much as people want to draw those associations, it doesn't necessarily have to go hand in hand."

On the wind that blows in from the Bermuda Triangle demarcated by the likes of Hüsker Dü, Bauhaus and Fugazi comes the black hurricane known as AFI (short for A Fire Inside). For their ilk, they of the sleeve tattoos and eyeliner, the stringy black goth hair and the doom-filled lyrics, one could easily assume that heavy drug use would be the norm.

Instead, the act's members -- Hunter, singer Davey Havok, guitarist Jade Puget and drummer Adam Carson -- channel their energy into a form of music that sprang from the straightforward SoCal punk sound but lately has taken on a more ambitious feel bordering on anthemic art rock.

The Ukiah, California-based four-piece began humbly, with early straight-ahead hardcore records like the 1996 debut Very Proud of Ya and 1997's Answer That and Stay Fashionable, which contains such fan favorites as "I Wanna Get a Mohawk (But Mom Won't Let Me)." In 1997, after a reconfiguration that saw the group's original guitarist and bass player depart in favor of the current lineup, AFI went to work on Black Sails in the Sunset, which showcased the potential for stepping further outside of the confines of hardcore. Following its fifth record on Dexter Holland's (Offspring) Nitro label, 2000's Art of Drowning, the act signed with DreamWorks. Though its musical heredity is firmly rooted in the broken asphalt and bloody noses of Cali punk, AFI has carved out a genre all its own by yanking a tried-and-true genre out of the rut that bands like Offspring, Bad Religion and Sum 41 have found so exploitable, safe -- and lucrative. With its first major-label release, Sing the Sorrow, released this past March, AFI is churning the waters once again, succeeding in taking its sound to another place.

"I think with each album, at the time that we write and record the songs, it's sort of a snapshot of where we are with our influences and what we're into," Hunter says. "Each of the four of us are influenced by completely different things; it's not like we're four guys that just listen to NOFX and so we play that kind of music. We're all completely coming from different places, and each time we write and record an album, it just shows where we are at that specific moment in time. Hopefully, from album to album, our songwriting matures and our ability to work better with each other progresses."

Indeed, Sing shows maturity in the act's songwriting, fearlessness in crafting actual tunes and even -- God forbid -- attaching melody onto the comet of the AFI sound. Havok's lyrics and screeching vocals are counterbalanced with smooth breaks in time signatures and tuneful bridges that allow the songs to develop more organically, to grow out of themselves rather than being ripped out of the womb in two-minute fragments. The record's first single, "Girl's Not Grey," borders on pop rock, with the anthemic hook "What follows..." presented like a call to arms. The radio-ready track immediately segues into the hardest song on the disc, "Death of Seasons," so as not to alienate the fan base. Havok delivers his shriek of old over a thumping bass line and rapid-fire drums, but this song, too, quickly emerges into a hook-driven chorus that nicely blends the disparate sounds. While the lyrics are a little overwrought at times ("Writhing with sickness / Thrown into banality / I decay," from "Death of Seasons"), the words work with the music, especially when Havok tears them from his throat at the expense of his vocal cords.

"I think overall what we came up with was sort of a deeper, larger, more dynamic album than in the past," Hunter says. "Perhaps slightly more cohesive, a little more mature, more accessible, but not in a compromising way. That was really important to us. We had other songs that could have just as easily gone on the album, but it was really important to us that there was a flow to the whole thing, [although] it's not a concept album. A lot of people think it is, and one of the reasons is that we made sure it had a sort of narrative to it."

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