AFI's Goth-punk breakthrough, "Sing the Sorrow," begins like the aftermath of the apocalypse. The sky buzzes quietly with the sound of death. A bell tolls. Drums pound like God's angry footsteps. Then a chorus of fallen angels roars a doom chant: "Love! Your hate! Your! Faith lost! You! Are now! One! Of us!" But the most unnerving noise is the most fragile one: Davey Havok's lead vocal drifting elegantly from the heavens, sounding sweetly like Dennis DeYoung of Styx asking you to come sail away . . . to purgatory.
That's AFI's grand illusion: These guys aren't as gloomy as the dark eyeliner and dead-boy lyrics suggest. After more than a decade in the underground hard-core scene, the Northern California band is about to turn its blackened heart into green. "Sing the Sorrow" is a monstrously melodic, anthem-packed shout-along for the masses. It's the Misfits meets the Offspring, with body parts of everything from the Smiths to U2 and Motley Crue dumped into a mass grave. Co-produced by Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins) and Jerry Finn (Green Day), "Sing the Sorrow" is an ambitious major-label debut with significant airwave potential. ("Girl's Not Grey" is already on radio.)
The AFI dichotomy is strangely irresistible: despair-soaked words and inviting, fist-waving choruses -- a communal sadness with the potential to attract not just spooky kids but, perhaps, the entire MTV demographic. AFI's most extraordinary talent is the ability to transform Havok's hopeless, solipsistic musings into something that resembles a college fight song. On "Dancing Through Sunday," you almost expect a squad of zombie cheerleaders to bleat, "1-2-3!" before Havok cheerfully chirps, "We dance in misery!" His pathos-filled vocals are captivating: He snarls in anguish one minute, then howls tunefully like Danzig Jr. the next, often barking a call-and-response with a platoon of his own beautiful, layered voices.
Old-school fans may not appreciate AFI's open-minded vision, which welcomes violins, impressionistic noise, tempo shifts, spoken words and -- well, not much actual punk. But AFI (which stands for A Fire Inside) made a conscious decision to leave its peers behind. The band never sounds calculated or forced when it takes a risk, from piano and electro-rhythm jolts ("Silver and Cold") to bittersweet acoustic ballads ("The Leaving Song") and '80s-metal guitar solos ("Dancing Through Sunday"). These inventive touches serve as a blood transfusion: Even the recycled pop, punk and metal riffs feel fresh.
On the mosh-pit masterpiece "Death of Seasons," guitars churn while pick-slides mimic fighter jets plummeting into a black sea. Industrial-synth beats interrupt and an undead barbershop quartet proudly proclaims, "I decay!" Then, as usual, Havok's tortured psyche unravels: "I hope to shade the world as stars go out and . . . I . . . dis-in-te-graaaaate!" he shrieks, before a lugubrious string section slowly smothers his echoed cries like dirt shoveled onto a coffin.
Horrific? Tear-jerking? Ah, get over it. Havok's mopey corpse is about to shove right back up through the soil, gleefully clutching a worm-covered microphone in one bony hand and AFI's first gold album in the other.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8183.)