Decemberunderground is the polarizing album AFI fans will either love or love to hate. It is the album where the band will find out it’s impossible to keep fans old and new satisfied. It is also the record that will make AFI huge (for a primetime-shy mascara wearing goth-punk quartet anyway). Whether they’re aware of it or not is debatable, but this is the sound of a band entering the next level. And for listeners of discerning tastes, that sound is like when your cat is coughing up a whopper of a hairball, or when the local high school band played Europe’s “Final Countdown” at your brother’s graduation. But for young teenagers in bondage pants and devastatingly un-funny Happy Bunny t-shirts, that sound is irresistible. This might as well be Jesus covering God’s greatest hits, because to misunderstood high school freshmen, this is divine. It is a phenomenon that I will never understand, for I am a mere mortal. Besides, at 20, I am much too old.
The album starts off the way any Sisters of Mercy worshipping band would want it to: with a creepy prelude. In “Prelude 12/21,” singer Davey Havok (if that even is his real name…) half sings, half speaks about being “laid to sleep” to over a stumbling industrial beat and choral “whoa-ohs.” Spine-chilling. But then the haunted house theme music unexpectedly gives way to one of the year’s most gripping, badass, heavy songs. Second track “Kill Caustic” is classic AFI- Havok’s manic screams mingle with an excellent metal guitar riff, calling to mind a more sophisticated and pissed-off “Total Immortal.” Radio hit “Miss Murder” shifts the focus to the band’s pop sensibilities, and it’s sing-songy good. Three tracks in, AFI has you firmly gripped by the throat.
Then they slowly relinquish control and lose the listener’s attention with four whimpering minutes of organ-laced boring. The offending pop ballad, “The Interview,” probably made the label very happy, but where are the cojones? This is a question that follows AFI throughout the rest of the disc, from one dark pop anthem to the next. “Love Like Winter” then sets a precedent for most of the tracks that follow by relying too heavily on Havok’s reedy singing voice and not enough on the band’s assets: powerful, inventive guitar riffs, well-constructed choruses, aggressive drumming and loud, screaming vocals. “Affliction” and “Endlessly, She Said” are more centered on these strengths, but AFI too often forget what they do best.
Simply, Decemberunderground proves that AFI is a mediocre pop rock band and a fabulous punk/hardcore band. With the band in the middle of a troubling existential crisis, they have simultaneously accomplished a career highlight and established a new genre: medio-core.
Hatchie – Keepsake
Keepsake, the debut album by Brisbane dream pop artist Hatchie is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars
Brisbane indie-pop artist Hatchie (known to her friends and family as Harriette Pilbeam) is in the envious position of being a pop artist unspoiled by the many trappings of what it is to be a modern pop artist. Unlike some of her contemporaries who craft music by committee or with Sheeran-like self-importance, Hatchie is as of now, unsullied by the pressures of the cookie-cutter pop machine. Hatchie’s debut full length is a showcase for a talent who is supremely confident and composed in her abilities, and Keepsake is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars. The album is also a wonderful throwback to pop’s dreamy 60s influences that shuffle in and out of this delirium while working alongside distinctly more current musical touches.
There is the lush dream pop sounds of “Without a Blush”, taking cues from the best of what Stars and Goldfrapp conjure but heaping a tonne of Pilbeam’s charisma on it. Like her vocals, “Without a Blush” has this elegance that has the ability to elevate songs from being beautiful to grand. It is the kind of vocal elegance that really shines through on songs like the skittering, beat-driven “Obsessed” and the alternative, guitar-fuelled (yay!) “When I Get Out”. Indie/electronic closer “Keep” is a wonderful end to proceedings.
However, the great strength of Keepsake is not just its composure in how all the songs have been put together. It is also this genuine, natural-sounding quality that permeates the album- nothing overly written, overly produced or put together by research groups or music analysts. It just sounds like talent. We can argue that much of pop music is constructed to appease the moment- designed to grab as much attention as possible in an A.D.D. world. And sure, that can be said about almost any kind of music, but the resulting aural tone of Keepsake is anything but transient or transparent.
The best way to combat tepid chart-topping music is to write better pop songs. Songs like “Her Own Heart” and the disco-toned “Stay” are examples of pop music that come across as timeless. We are moved by the songs found on Keepsake when we listen to them today. And I suspect that in 10 years time, or in 20, we will most likely feel the same. It is rare to find the sort of ageless beauty you find on Keepsake.