AFI 'Crash Love' - CD Review

Since they took their first steps into the mainstream rock world six years ago with Sing the Sorrow, AFI seem to have been making a conscious effort to reinvent themselves as dark rockers on a grand scale, while still hanging onto the essence of their early goth-punk roots. While it's true you can't always have it both ways, they've certainly come as close as any savvy artist could to achieving this creative balance. 2006 smash Decemberunderground introduced the band to their widest audience ever, but in the process put off more than a few punk-oriented purists with an infusion of '80s synth-pop elements. Seemingly in response to this backlash (although in the works since 2002), frontman Davey Havok and guitarist Jade Puget spun off side project Blaqk Audio to further expand on those influences.

With the electronic elements relocated to their own home, what remains of the AFI sound is cleaner, leaner pop-rock, with little of the punk grit remaining but with the lyrical shadows intact – and this formula would shape AFI's new release Crash Love, which streets tomorrow from Interscope. Read on to find out how the band put this latest creative phase into action...

Despite the more focused, elemental rock sound, Crash Love actually feels larger in scope than its predecessors. This may be due in part to the production styles of Jacknife Lee (who lent a similar heaviness to his work on U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) and Joe McGrath (whose clients include Blink-182, Morrissey and Alkaline Trio). But it also comes down to the strength of the band's arrangements, which blend lush atmospheric textures, expansive guitar work from Puget, and Havok's vast vocal range, with often haunting results.

The darker spirit of pre-mainstream successes like The Art of Drowning has softened considerably over the years, but lyrically it still comes across much darker than the output of latter-day pop-punk peers like Green Day. There may be more emphasis on radio-friendly singles this time around, but despite a couple of lackluster cuts this album holds together pretty well as a cohesive work unto itself.

The emotional dynamics here cover a pretty wide range, despite managing to sit comfortably within the 'safe' frequencies of the gothic rock spectrum. First single Medicate seemed a bit formulaic at first pass – it's not up to the caliber of Miss Murder, for example, and I personally feel the following cut I Am Trying Very Hard to Be Here would have been a better candidate – but it managed to grow on me unexpectedly (it’s pretty damn catchy; I can understand why it ended up in Guitar Hero 5). More so the strong opener Torch Song, which stands among the best of AFI's big-label work thanks to richly layered vocals and some surreal guitar atmospherics. Beautiful Thieves and End Transmission are callbacks to Decemberunderground, but in a good way, particularly the latter. Tracks like Veronica Sawyer Smokes (with its cinematic teen-angst references to Heathers and the late John Hughes) and OK, I Feel Better Now are infused with a nostalgic feel – actually putting me in the mind of The Cure and other '80s alt-rock heroes of my misspent youth – and they travel even further back in time with Sacrilege, which has a certain '70s glam flavor.

The patented formula doesn't always hold up to the radio-rock transition, however; while the bold power-pop ballad Darling, I Want to Destroy You stands almost as boldly as past hits like Miss Murder, the lackluster dance number Too Shy to Scream sounds a bit too formulaic, and Cold Hands just kind of drifts aimlessly. These low points aren't significant enough to drag the album down, but you may find yourself hitting the skip button here and there.

On the high end, we get the massive, breathlessly epic closer It Was Mine, which has the power to send you out with that strangely elated sense of melancholy that is the strong suit of Havok and company, and left me with the assurance that they haven't lost their unique fingerprint among countless moody alt-rockers on the same steady slide into the mainstream. If this is straight-ahead pop – and you can't really argue that it's anything but – that doesn't represent a failure for this particular band. I've always considered it an admirable goal to push pop music into darker corners, and if anyone can pull that off, AFI should rank proudly among that number.

Don't be misled by the gold heart on the cover, or the apparently lighter sound that infuses many of these cuts – Crash Love is still prime AFI, and represents some of the band's strongest material of their current era. Their skill with a hook is still indisputable, and their songwriting skills have acquired more subtlety and emotional resonance. They're not as creepy as they used to be, but they have yet to move out of the shadows, so I suspect their core fans will still be ecstatic, even as they scowl at the newer, younger audiences who have come to love the band for their newfound pop appeal. I'd say that makes it win-win in anyone's book.