The Genius Of… Sing the Sorrow by AFI

The spooky punks’ major label debut saw them shed the trappings of the East Bay hardcore scene from whence they came, and created a magnum opus that would point the way to the genre-agnostic future of alternative music.

Jade Puget of AFI

Jade Puget of AFI. Image: TIm Mosenfelder / Getty Images

By the early 2000s the juggernaut of nu metal was beginning to run out of petrol after half a decade spent redefining heavy end of the spectrum through the lens of baggy jeans, backwards baseball caps and seven-string guitars. But as with most genres of popular music, by the time nu metal hit its second or third wave, the quality had taken a huge nosedive – also-rans from Trapt to Taproot had flooded the market with crap, all pining for just a whiff of Korn or Slipknot’s relevance, while the pioneers started foraying into different sonic pastures.

With the punk scene post-Green Day having been similarly pillaged by major labels, making pop-punk a lighter ying to nu metal’s angry yang, there wasn’t a lot of obvious fertile ground for the A&R men to sift through in the quest for the next big thing to keep the alternative-mainstream fire burning into the new century.

Thus the majors ended up at an unlikely door – hardcore. The very essence of punk’s angry younger brother had made the thriving scenes in places like San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC and New York a no-go area for major labels in the past, but the wave of bands coming out of these scenes and elsewhere at the tail end of the 90s – the so-called post-hardcore bands – were less restrained by the old-school punk and hardcore fundamentals, and thus more amenable to making the switch.

Thus began the post-hardcore boom – if you can really call it that. Bands such as Thrice, Cave In, Glassjaw, At The Drive-In and more used the power of major label backing to create some stunning records that defined the genre for years to come… but they never really took over the world in the way that the labels had hoped, with many of them quickly returning to indies.

The exception was AFI. Born from the East Bay hardcore scene in 1991, A Fire Inside had slowly evolved and grown into something quite different. By 2003, AFI were as big as you can get without being a mainstream band. Releasing three studio albums – Answer That and Stay Fashionable, Very Proud of Ya and Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes – in two-and-a-half years made them fixtures of California’s hardcore underbelly.

They signed to Nitro Records, which was run by The Offspring singer Dexter Holland and bassist Greg K, in 1996. Then, on Black Sails in the Sunset and The Art of Drowning, they pushed the boat out to gothic punk, flaunting their love of the Misfits, Danzig, The Cure, A Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice.

AFI - Sing The Sorrow

The Art Of Drowning was a smash – the first full-length with guitarist Jade Puget on board, it signalled a band evolving far beyond punk into something much more ambitious and interesting. The shift proved so fortuitous that Holland, in an altruistic if objectively counter-intuitive business decision, reportedly let AFI go mid-contract, feeling they’d become a big fish in Nitro’s small pond.

When Dreamworks swept them up, the four-piece reached new heights by actually embracing the pop-minded, hook-driven expectations such a megaforce label would have. Sing the Sorrow, now 20 years old, has transcended time by acting as a 21st-century conglomeration of beloved 80s dark-side sounds. It’s defined by post-punk, goth rock and mighty singalongs, yet peppered with the ever-identifiable hardcore attitude with which its creators launched their career.

Image: TIm Mosenfelder / Getty Images

Opener Miseria Cantare: The Beginning is the perfect clarion call for the wider, ardent fan-base a major label debut would hope to pull in. Over marching, militaristic drum beats, an army of vocalists wail, “Love your hate! Your faith, lost! You are now one of us!” It’s a manifesto that welcomed all the nihilists and outcasts alternative music attracts into the cult of AFI, while also encouraging unity and self-love among those already in the band’s dedicated fan club, the aptly titled Despair Faction.

Then, The Leaving Song, Part II bridges the old with the new. Its verses relay punkish chords, albeit slower and gloomier, as frontman Davey Havok darts from hardcore shouts to the kind of silken croon that rock radio requires to give you airtime. While Paper Airplanes (Makeshift Wings) more consistently bludgeons with blistering speed, Silver And Cold delves deeper into the waters of pop. It subverts hardcore’s floods of gang vocals by using them to create a triumphant, lovelorn hook. No wonder one contemporary review lauded AFI for “bringing back the big ’80s rock chorus”.

When it comes to Sing the Sorrow’s standout songs, though, the elephant in the emo basement is Girl’s Not Grey. The album’s lead single was a last-minute addition, penned when Puget was enjoying a change of scenery up north in Toronto. Its pure pop catchiness was a palate-cleanser for its writer, and functions similarly within Sing the Sorrow, interrupting the hardcore Dancing Through Sunday and the hugely influential Death of Seasons, whose pounding techno beats would pave the way for a decade of electronic music interfacing with heavy guitar.

Beyond that, the single’s status as the first thing anybody heard of the “new” AFI in January 2003 made it an instant MTV mainstay. That call-and-answer chorus carried Girl’s Not Grey to number 7 on the US’s alternative charts, then made the track a favourite within the Rock Band and Guitar Hero rhythm game franchises. To this day, it’s the band’s most-played song live, having been performed some 580 times according to setlist.fm.

AFI have said that Girl’s Not Grey’s pop inclinations didn’t ignite as many cries of “Sell-out!” as you may assume – nor, seemingly, did the band’s aesthetic reinvention. The one-time basement kids, who mimicked the gangster charisma of Reservoir Dogs on their debut’s cover, had evolved from the goth-punks of Art Of Drowning to slick black-clad emo posterboys. Havok pushed even further by becoming an androgynous enigma. Whether intentionally or by chance, such visual femininity was another inclusive statement that broadened the band’s reach beyond uber-masculine punk rock teenagers.

Sing the Sorrow made AFI the 2000s’ first wholly successful transition from hardcore living rooms to MTV residency, before follow-up Decemberunderground affirmed their rapturous reception. They proved that the tactic of plucking hardcore bands from obscurity can create cash – and, within two years, My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy were rocketing out of similar origins into being the biggest bands in the world. It’s safe to say that, without AFI, millennials’ teenage years would have been so much worse.

Sing the Sorrow is being reissued as a double LP this summer.

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