Many of today’s bands like to describe their new records as “bigger sounding,” simply because they convinced their labels to pay the massive fees for their dicking around in the studio. Most acts could learn more than a few lessons from AFI, a unit who are well aware that sounding big is all about having a vision in the songwriting phase. Which is why Crash Love’s dozen tracks are packed with as much exuberance, mystery and drama one can handle.
Overseen by producers Joe McGrath (Alkaline Trio) and Jacknife Lee (Bloc Party, REM), the album is ambitious in its execution. AFI are a dynamic rock band at their core: The rhythm section of Adam Carson (drums) and Hunter Burgan (bass) has matured into a tighter, precise unit; guitarist Jade Puget’s sense of the appropriate remains crystal clear; and frontman Davey Havok’s cartwheeling down the pretentiousness tightrope puts a sweat-and-blood face to his ruminations on everything from celebrity culture to personal loss. But it’s their detail to arrangements and atmospheres that separate AFI from the legion of subcultures who carry battered crosses under a “-punk” suffix. From the 15 seconds of ’40s horror-movie ambiance that opens the gothmo “Torch Song,” to the ’90s-tinged, melancholy-and-menace of “It Was Mine,” Crash Love reveals more treasures with repeated listens.
The brisk tempo and Johnny Marr-ish guitar jangle of “Veronica Sawyer Smokes” makes it the best single of 1986. Likewise, “OK, I Feel Better Now” would’ve been a jewel had it appeared on that Ross Robinson-produced Cure album: Here, it’s just greatness as usual, offering a production girth so big, you have to use movie metaphors like “Technicolor,” “widescreen” and “IMAX” to convey the vision. It’s immediately followed by “Medicate,” a pulsing rocker that’s the more sophisticated, cosmopolitan cousin to Decemberunderground’s “Kill Caustic.” Reminding listeners that My Chemical Romance do not have the franchise in the simultaneously anthemic-yet-cocky department, there’s “Sacrilege,” driven by Puget’s ’70s guitar histrionics and Havok’s loud ’n’ proud vocal prowess. This year’s model’s power ballad, “Darling, I Want To Destroy You,” is too animated for slow dances or placement on Grey’s Anatomy, but still offers a somewhat dialed-down respite.
What does all this mean in the mythology of AFI? In no uncertain terms, Crash Love is an accomplishment that raises the bar for them as musicians and writers. In many aspects, AFI seem to be exiled on a psychic island of their own. Think about it: The hellfire-and-brimstone punk purists from the scene the band came up in aren’t going to be lining up in front of the merch table anytime soon, and much of the spoon-fed American mainstream aren’t going to readily embrace their stylistic inversions. Although the members of AFI can’t go home anymore, they’re exploring more sonic vistas than any random group of smelly dudes in a van plastered with hardcore stickers or Clear Channel-sanctioned modern-rock dullards kicking back in $8K-a-week coaches, combined. Fortunately for music fans, AFI are embracing the spirit of adventure in an age of indifference.