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.
The Ritualists – Painted People
The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music
After listening to Painted People by The Ritualists, I was very surprised to learn that this is their debut album. This band shows a maturity in their music that I would not expect from a first album and provides inspirational sounding tracks with ‘reach for the stars’ type of guitar riffs. I hear a modern version of U2 in The Ritualists, along with an influence of Radiohead. Their songs are full, wholehearted post-punk hooks with a lead singer that has a sizeable range.
“Rattles” opens the album, and it’s the type of song that shows their audience that they are here to stay. It has a great build-up of excitement and intensity. The band explains that this song is “A combination of dark, deep-pocketed verses juxtaposed with big, flashy choruses is a key element to tracks”.
“Ice Flower” and “Worthiest One” welcomes an electronic wave to the album and showcases just how impressive lead singer Christian Dryden’s range is. His ability to hit those high notes with such conviction puts my falsetto abilities to shame. “Worthiest One” brings this sort of nostalgic feeling- it’s a rock ballad with a floaty guitar riff.
“She’s The Sun” is a great follow-on from “Worthiest One” as it transfers the mood upwards and directs the music into more of a hypnotic vision, which conveys “the band’s inner Sixties Love Child”. “I’m With The Painted People” has a really relatable background to the song. Dryden felt a larger than life inspiration from people like David Bowie and Simon Le Bon, these artists felt like soulmates, which can be lonely at times. It wasn’t until he ventured out into the clubs of the lower east side of New York which helped him feel comfortable to express his creative vision freely. The song is all about finding like-minded people.
There are hooks galore and catchy choruses in pretty much every song. “With this record, I’ve specifically tried to be anthemic,” admits Dryden. “I’ve always loved going to shows, where immediately after the performance, and even on the ensuing days after, you just can’t help but remember and sing the songs you’ve just heard. It’s almost like a higher form of communication.” The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music and Painted People shows hints of variations with different genres explored throughout. They sound motivated and in return have produced motivating music for their listeners.
The Decline – Flash Gordon Ramsay Street
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk
It’s possible that since punk broke through to the mainstream in the mid to late ’90s, listeners outside of Australia think Frenzal Rhomb are the only band to have come from the lucky country. It’s true that during the rise of that Epitaph and Fat Wreck sound, Frenzal Rhomb became the namesake of the genre from Australia. However, Australian punks know that their history stretches long before the release of Survival of the Fattest. From the legendary sounds of The Saints to the rock n’ roll infused punk of Radio Birdman, Australia’s punk rock history is not only rich but very much precedes the genre’s mainstream explosion.
Frenzal Rhomb were another chapter in punk down under and for many, they opened a lot of doors. If not at the very least, proved that there were fertile grounds for new bands to emerge across the vast land. Western Australia’s The Decline formed in 2005 and quickly showed their talent for writing up-tempo melodicore that shred as much as it soared. From their 2010 debut, I’m Not Gonna Lie To You, it was clear that the band were equal parts snotty, urgent, funny, and melodic. Like the Frenzal Rhomb formula, they’ve got all of it in spades with a mean streak of Australianness that is both endearing and extremely relatable. Their latest album is no different.
From the title alone you can tell you’re in for a shedload of fun, and while it’s easy to think that Flash Gordon Ramsay Street is just goofy humor, it’s actually got a lot of pointed commentary too. From the animal-supportin’, veggie-lovin’, attack on meatlovers and meatheads (“Brovine”), to the real-estate market questioning “Smashed Avo”, there’s plenty of current talking points that The Decline run through. Sure, you also get vegan buffalo wing recipes (surprisingly, not the song titled “Bullet With Buffalo Wings”) and a love for The Legend of Zelda, but who says you can’t sing about Marxist theories while talking about your love for Nintendo?
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk; taking plenty of cues from the best of the NOFX / No Fun At All up-tempo, hardcore-derived brand of punk. The hooks on Flash Gordon Ramsey Street are as infectious as horny teens on spring break, highlighted by the endless harmonies on songs like the terrific “It Was Always You” and the call and response male-female vocal attack of “Verge Collection”. Brevity is also key, as the majority of the songs here never overstay their welcome with the longest clocking in at just 3:15 (the wistful closing of “Josh”).
Flash Gordon Ramsey Street is concise, to-the-point, and a furious medley of skate punk urgency that is relevant to young adult life as punks in Australia. Great production values to boot mean you can’t go wrong here.