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Fifteen Years Later: AFI’s Sing the Sorrow

In the great pantheon of seismic musical shifts, I don’t quite know where AFI taking a turn to the goth on Sing the Sorrow ranks. Akin to Bob Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival? Eh…probably not. On the same level as Mikael Åkerfeldt giving up the growls (seemingly) for good on Heritage? That actually might be a better analogy. While most of the reviews for the album were positive when it came out, it still proved to be a polarizing effort among those who had been with the band since their 1995 debut Answer That and Stay Fashionable – so much so that there seems to be a clear split between pre- and post-Sorrow fans. There are those who jumped ship and haven’t listened to anything that AFI released after Sing the Sorrow, and there are those who have never heard anything earlier than that in the band’s discography.

Sing the Sorrow turned 15 on March 11 (news flash: we’re all old). In its honor, we offer the following retrospective.

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Even before Sing the Sorrow, A Fire Inside’s discography was something of a mixed bag. Their first two albums—1995’s Answer That and Stay Fashionable and 1996’s Very Proud of Ya—were sophomoric affairs that sounded like the product of a band trying to find their own identity, which makes sense since frontman Davey Havok was only 20-21 at the time. Regardless, there was enough buzz surrounding the band that the ended up signing to Nitro Records, which was started by Dexter Holland and Greg K. of The Offspring.

Promo shot from the PR pack for Sing the Sorrow

1997’s Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes saw the first major shift in the band’s sound, moving away from the juvenile humor and derivative SoCal punk of their earlier albums into slightly more sophisticated territory. That shift continued with 1999’s Black Sails in the Sunset, which was their breakthrough and which a certain set of AFI fans still claim as their favorite of the group’s albums. Black Sails was the first album that the present incarnation of AFI recorded together, with guitarist Jade Puget, who had provided background vocals on previous AFI albums, joining on guitar and keyboards. The Art of Drowning followed the next year, and started to build on some of the more subtly gothic elements of the band’s previous album, including introducing electronic elements for the first time on “The Despair Factor.”

After a run of five albums in six years, almost three years passed between The Art of Drowning and Sing the Sorrow. In the interim, AFI jumped from Nitro to DreamWorks Records (now Universal), which afforded the band the ability to spend five months in the studio with producers Butch Vig, the go-to producer of the grunge era, who’s best known for his work on Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Jerry Finn, who made his name with Green Day’s Dookie. The extra studio time allowed the band to indulge in some of their more experimental tendencies, adding strings, piano, and even techno elements to the album. That’s not to say that they completely abandoned their punk roots—several songs, like “Bleed Black,” are anchored by a galloping hardcore beat, and “Dancing Through Sunday” kind of rages in places like their earlier material—but for the most part, Sing the Sorrow is a darker, more anthemic take on the band’s sound.

In order to fully appreciate how much the band truly changed between The Art of Drowning and Sing the Sorrow, one need only consider how different the lead—and, in the case of The Art of Drowning, only—singles and videos sound and look. Musically, Drowning’s single “The Days of the Phoenix” bears a strong stylistic similarity to fellow Cali punks Face to Face, and the video has sort of a half-Misfits/half-The Crow aesthetic about it. “Girl’s Not Grey,” on the other hand, has a poppier feel to it overall, and its very pink, Alice in Wonderland­ inspired video ends with flower petals bursting from Davey Havok’s chest.

Then in the third video from the album, “Silver and Cold,” Havok transformed into a sad-eyed, tragic hero straight out of a gothic romance, contemplating suicide on the beautiful streets of Prague.

For the most part, critics received the album warmly, and it currently has a rating of 81 on Metacritic, which signifies “universal acclaim.” Spin magazine (somewhat bafflingly) called the album a hopeful take on the usually dour nü metal sound in a B+ review. Alternative Press gave the album a perfect 100 score. In a four-star review in Rolling Stone, Robert Cherry calls Sing the Sorrow “a dark planet that refracts various strains of rock, from punk to hardcore to metal to mope rock, and beckons everyone to twist and shout along as the whole shit house burns.” The New York Times called it a “ridiculously melodic and ambitious CD of goth-pop-punk that should have been received as the mainstream rock masterpiece it was,” and placed it an #10 on their year-end best of list for 2013.

However, not all critics were impressed. Jim Farber, writing for Entertainment Weekly, said “the songs combine the most pretentious and overworked elements of their influences. Worse, frontman Davey Havok owns the squeakiest voice in current rock. Think early Geddy Lee imitating a squirrel” and gave the album a D. Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune was equally unimpressed, claiming in a 2006 article entitled “AFI’s vampire fetish makes it hard to take band seriously” that Sing the Sorrow’s success was due largely to the band “recycling the dire melancholy of The Cure and leavening the punk rhythms with bombastic choruses.”

AFI at the 2003 MTV VMAs

It’s difficult finding fan responses online after fifteen years, but there are customer reviews on Amazon that date back to the album’s release. For the most part, they’re positive as well, and on the whole the album holds a 4.5 start rating based 1,150+ reviews. The anger of some of AFI’s fan base, however, can clearly be seen in the dozens of harsh early reviews with titles like “Not for the loyal,” “AFI is DONE,” “the great disappointment,” “sellout society,” and “Over produced garbage.” Given that AFI would move even further away from their punk roots on the follow-up to Sing the Sorrow, 2006’s Decemberunderground, it’s highly unlikely that they ever got those fans back. Since Decemberunderground also debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, which was a first for the band, they seemed to gain more fans than they lost with their shift in direction.

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One might not think that an album like Sing the Sorrow would have had much of an influence on metal; however, I put out a call for comment on social media and was surprised by the responses I got. And much like critics and fans in 2003, there was a bit of mixed response.

When Sing the Sorrow came out I was still figuring out what punk rock meant to me. I was already an AFI fan and with that album, I got my first taste of someone calling a band I cared about “sellouts” and knowing what it actually meant. I bought the record anyway and loved it. Still do. I defended it to the cool crowd and got in heated arguments on message boards about it. That all seems silly to me now. Since then, I’ve grown apart from AFI with their future releases, but I still listen to Sing the Sorrow today. Among MANY other things, it always reminds me that that punk rock means something different to everyone. That’s an incredibly important lesson to learn. – Michael Allen (Think Tank)

I think I did AFI incorrectly; in the wake of puberty, I was so far into the heartless wrath of “metal” proper that anything that smacked of so much as punk was totally unacceptable. Fortunately, by the time I was getting ready to redo puberty, I’d had years of teaching guitar and bass to high school kids pry apart all of that bullshit. Pretty soon Black Sails in the Sunset and Sing the Sorrow seemed like a decent solution to the shortage of d-beats on the first two Paramore albums–something catchy and sort of femme with enough darkness to take care of me.

Little did I realize what I was getting into. How does something so perfectly appeal both to that fragment of broken 14-year-old girl stuck in me and perfectly retrace personal experiences of the untouchable? I can’t even talk about this album without sounding like a complete idiot.

As an artist, I would gladly for a second touch the perfect merging of emotional vulnerability and seeing-the-hidden Davey poured through the pages of Sing the Sorrow. Much of the time, in occult work, we forget that the blood on the paper is the self given to the working–and it must contain us. Us all the way through.

I am ever enthralled. – Valarie Dorr/Ascaris (Ævangelist)

Davey Havok on stage, ca. 2003

I remember seeing Sing the Sorrow in a record store in Kansas City shortly after it came out. Black Sails and The Art of Drowning were already in my regular mix of CDs, and I was excited to see a new record. I picked it up and promptly put it into the CD player in the car and listened intently as I drove around, like I did with so much music then. It was different than what came before. I felt like it bridged a gap between the punk I knew and loved and the goth rock my weird high school self discovered and consumed constantly. It didn’t feel as angsty to me as some other releases of time. I don’t know if emo was a thing then, but I didn’t know what it was. This album was melodic and the drums felt driving in a way other things I was listening to at the time didn’t. It was like a hardcore album for kids in black who listened to darkwave and industrial in the 90s. At least it was to me. – Zak Giguere (Suicide Forest, Chronovorus, Hist)

Sing the Sorrow came out at a time in my life when I was just starting to form my own bands and seriously start writing music of my own. I hadn’t really heard AFI before I stumbled across Sing the Sorrow, but when I first heard it I was entranced by the mix of 80s pop sensibilities woven in amongst a more contemporary (at the time) and surprisingly progressive emo/post-hardcore sound. That album was perfect, start to finish, and ended up being a huge influence on me as both a musician and a music fan. It’s not something that you’d directly hear in Sojourner, for instance, but it’s there in the background. It always will be. AFI, along with Brand New and a few others, will always be some of my favourites and I still listen to them to this day! – Mike Lamb (Sojourner)

I started listening to death, thrash, and speed metal when I was three years old. When I was growing up, no one liked metal. I used to get made fun of constanstly by all the other kids for being “goth,” “satanic,” and later “emo” for my taste in music, black t-shirts, and my long hair. I would always try to get other people to appreciate the music I loved, but it never worked. Everybody was into country, rap, or boy bands. When pop punk got really popular, a lot of the kids started to change. Rock started to get more popular in my area. There were bands like Blink 182, Good Charlotte, Linkin Park, and Sugar Ray that kids started to get into. I started getting used to hearing statements like “metal? yeah, I love Limp Bizkit and Nickelback.” This really bothered me. I would hear nu-metal and alternative and be like “how is this supposed to be metal?” And I hated being associated with those bands.

Fast forward to 2003. My musical tastes had started to branch out into bands like Zao, Converge, and Norma Jean. I really loved these bands and the chaos that they created. I started to want to look like them (I was 14/15 at the time). So I started (emo) swooping my hair and wearing tight jeans. I didn’t know what emo was until my friends started to get into AFI. Sing the Sorrow was the first “emo” album that kids around me started to get into. Everyone suddenly was telling me that they were metalheads and that AFI was the best metal band ever. I hated it. I hated the vocals so much. People started telling me to go cut myself because that’s what emo kids do and called me homophobic slurs. I blamed AFI for this. Its totally not AFI’s fault, but I hated them for it. A couple years later, I was appreciating things like Underoath, My Chemical Romance, and Story of the Year. But I never got into AFI. To this day, my musical tastes have relaxed a lot since when I was younger, but I still cannot tolerate AFI. – Josh Thieler (Slaves BC, The Fear and the Void Recordings)

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4 comments

Val Dorr
Val Dorr March 14, 2018 at 10:55 am

For the record, Thorn from Ævangelist is a fan from back in the day, but his favorite is Art of Drowning. In case anyone wondered.

Reply
Brett Strohl
Brett Strohl March 14, 2018 at 10:57 am

When AFI sold out.

Reply
Indy Metal Vault
Indy Metal Vault March 14, 2018 at 11:23 am

A very common reaction…

Reply
Brett Strohl
Brett Strohl March 14, 2018 at 11:55 am

Common for a reason 😉

Reply

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