Formulaic AFI heavy on bombast, monotony


July 9, 2006


As heartwarmingly idealistic as John Hughes' vision is, we all know that high school, much less real life, is never actually like "The Breakfast Club."

Molly Ringwald's Good Girl would never really fall for Judd Nelson's Bad Boy, and Anthony Michael Hall's Uber-Geek would never really win the respect of his classmates at Saturday-morning detention. Yet AFI is a platinum-selling band based on the dubious premise that Ally Sheedy's Freakish Outsider can harmoniously merge with Emilio Estevez's Boneheaded Jock.

Hyper-romantic gothic melodrama and "oh-uh-oh" soccer-chant arena-punk may both be great tastes on their own, on occasion. But they definitely don't taste great together, regardless of the blind allegiance the legions of late-teen/early-twentysomething fans in the self-proclaimed "Despair Faction" show for the formulaic Ukiah, Calif., quartet AFI, short for "A Fire Inside."

No. 1 album

After more than a decade as an underground phenomenon, AFI solidified the mainstream breakthrough that began with 2003's "Sing the Sorrow" by debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart with its seventh album, the pretentiously titled "December Underground," released on the portentous date of 6/6/06. It ratchets down the third ingredient in the group's calculated mix -- the emotional brand of thrash-metal that some call "screamo" -- while upping both the moody poetry and tortured artist posing (heavy on the Cure and Depeche Mode) and the sweaty, shopping-mall-punk singalongs.

During Friday's show at the Vic Theater, the first of a two-night stand, the result was a sold-out crowd waving its fists in the air while lovingly and unironically shouting out ponderous lyrics such as those from "Love Like Winter": "She exhales vanilla lace / I barely dreamt her, yesterday / Read the lines in the mirror through the lipstick trace / Por siempre / She said, 'It seems you're somewhere, far away' to his face / It's in the blood, it's in the blood."

Shelley and Byron must have been turning over in their graves.

Led by specter-thin yet oddly muscular and heavily tattooed frontman Davey Havok, whose heavy orange eye shadow and garish false lashes would have made Tammy Faye Bakker blush, AFI carried their all-white equipment onto an all-white stage while dressed all in white a la the droogies in "A Clockwork Orange."

Bright lights, dark shadows

This was, no doubt, intended as some sort of comment on or counterpart to the dark shadows that so thoroughly dominated the lyrics, but it was a cool look nonetheless, especially since the band also trucked in enough extra lighting gear to power several runways at O'Hare.

Looks aren't everything, though, and long before the end of the 50-minute set, pre-encores, the hollow bombast and empty contrivance of older material such as 'The Leaving Song" and ''Dancing Through Sunday" and newer hits such as "Miss Murder" had reduced the proceedings to loud, showy monotony, with bassist Hunter Burgan, drummer Adam Carson (who was often overshadowed by the supplementary canned rhythms) and the non-presence of guitarist Jade Puget doing little to distinguish themselves as Havok screamed, whispered, dropped to his knees and urged his adoring fans to chant along with frequent, flamboyant waves of his lace-gloved hands.

The headliners were easily upstaged by the middle band on the bill, New Jersey's grinding metal-punk Dillinger Escape Plan, whose onstage chaos mirrored the out-of-control fury of the music. But even AFI seem original compared to the Hamburger Helper-like recipe of openers Nightmare of You: Take one pound of pop-punk, add an ounce of hard core and season liberally with U2 and the Police.