My Blog

My WordPress Blog


‘Sing the Sorrow’ at 20 – the LP that took AFI from hardcore to generation-defining rock band

At the end of March of 2003, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ sat atop the Billboard album chart for its fourth week. Right below it were three other recent chart-toppers it had dethroned: Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, R. Kelly’s Chocolate Factory, and Dixie Chicks’ Home. And coming in at No. 5 was a surprise hit from a band that had never been seen around these parts before, AFI, with their major label debut Sing the Sorrow. The album had come out on March 11, following the success of its lead single “Girl’s Not Grey” on rock radio. The song’s surrealistic, David Slade-directed music video–which went on to win a VMA–showed off the band and their eyeliner-wearing frontman Davey Havok, whose aesthetic would get AFI grouped with burgeoning bands like The Used and My Chemical Romance as mainstream media began conflating the words “goth” and “emo.” But those comparisons were surface-level, and AFI were already seasoned vets compared to most of the bands they were getting compared to. Sing the Sorrow served as so many people’s introduction to AFI, but it was an album they’d been working towards for over a decade.
Formed in 1991 in Ukiah, California when the members were still in their teens, AFI started out as a snotty young band taking influence from West Coast hardcore and skate punk. With Davey on vocals, Mark Stopholese on guitar, Geoff Kresge on bass, and Adam Carson on drums, they put out their first release, Dork, a 1993 split with Loose Change, whose guitarist was a talented kid named Jade Puget. AFI eventually relocated to Berkeley, where they began catching the attention of established punks like Tim Armstrong and Brett Reed of Rancid, both of whom then co-produced AFI’s 1995 debut album Answer That and Stay Fashionable. The Offspring’s Dexter Holland and Greg K took interest too, signing the band to their label Nitro Records, on which they made their debut with 1996’s Very Proud of Ya, an album that featured some contributions from their friend Jade. It’s the band’s first truly great album, a fast, hard-hitting take on West Coast hardcore that proved AFI were more than a product of their early influences. After touring in support of the album, Geoff Kresge parted ways with the band, and his role was filled by Hunter Burgan of the short-lived band The Force, who made his recorded debut with AFI on 1997’s Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes. Once again featuring some backing contributions from Jade, the album began pushing AFI in a darker, heavier direction, and songs like “A Single Second” found them getting a little more tuneful too. AFI’s influences were expanding, and they made this especially clear on their 1998 EP A Fire Inside. Released on Adeline Records, which had been co-founded by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong the year prior, the EP featured covers of horror punk pioneers the Misfits and gothy post-punk pioneers The Cure, both of whom would hugely inform the direction of AFI going forward.
After the release of A Fire Inside, Jade officially replaced guitarist Markus Stopholese, solidifying the four-piece lineup that AFI still have today. With Jade in tow, AFI released 1999’s Black Sails in the Sunset, marking a massive step forward for the band. The band’s interest in hardcore, horror punk, goth, metal, and pop all came together on Black Sails. Davey had expanded his vocal range to go from aggressive screams to soaring cleans, Jade brought a more complex style of guitar work to the band that pushed them far beyond their simplistic punk roots, Hunter and Adam made for a uniquely hard-hitting rhythm section, and the new lineup’s knack for shouted backing vocals quickly became a hallmark of AFI’s sound. The album had no lack of fast-paced horror punk, but it also had sludgier and more ballad-driven songs that suggested AFI were on their way to becoming more than just a punk band. The following year’s The Art of Drowning doubled down. It’s like the other side of Black Sails’ coin, with some of the best punk songs of AFI’s career but an even greater amount of songs that explored slower tempos and melodic hooks. One of those songs, “The Days of the Phoenix,” became a minor breakthrough for AFI. The album became AFI’s first to enter the Billboard 200, landing at No. 174.
The Art of Drowning would be AFI’s last for Nitro Records, and with the momentum it created mixed with the increasing interest in punk from major labels, AFI inked a deal with DreamWorks, the same major that helped finally give Jimmy Eat World their big break with 2001’s Bleed American. With a bigger budget and a bigger platform, AFI took full advantage of their moment. They put together a production dream team with Jerry Finn, who helped elevate blink-182 out of the underground with Enema of the State, and Butch Vig, who helped do the same for Nirvana with Nevermind. They were the perfect two people for the task; like Nirvana and even more directly like blink, AFI were in a position to make full-on pop music without abandoning their punk roots. It’s a move that Jerry Finn–who sadly passed away in 2008–was better-equipped to assist with than just about any other producer in the world. He knew exactly how to guide bands towards music that could compete with the most popular artists on the planet and still incite mosh pits. With an established background in hardcore and an open mind towards so many other styles of music, AFI were uniquely primed to be the next band to do it.
When Sing the Sorrow finally did land on March 11, 2003, nothing–not even the supremely catchy “The Days of the Phoenix”–could have prepared the world for what they were about to hear. Some longtime AFI fans hit them with sellout accusations, but selling out implies compromising your integrity and AFI were doing the opposite. They spent more time on Sing the Sorrow than they had on any prior album, and it wasn’t just the cleanest-sounding, most accessible thing they’d ever done; it was also their most musically varied and experimental. You can draw a direct parallel between Sing the Sorrow and what Turnstile did nearly two decades later with Glow On; both cases found hardcore bands getting poppier and more adventurous at once, and sounding like no other band in the process.
As far as gaining AFI mainstream success, releasing “Girl’s Not Grey” as the first single was a very savvy move. It’s one of AFI’s most perfect pop songs, and the closest Sing the Sorrow comes to “pop punk.” Kicking off with a three-note drum intro that feels like a jolt to the heart every time you hear it, “Girl’s Not Grey” launches into the kind of punchy chords that made “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Self Esteem” such enduring songs. But Jade’s unique chord voicings gave it a flavor that separated AFI from their power chord-hungry forebears, and the song’s uniqueness continues into its verses, where Adam’s sprightly drum beat puts a hop in AFI’s step that deviates it from what could’ve been a typical alt-rock formula. Sealing the deal is the chorus, where the soaring gang vocal “WHAT FOLLOOOOOOOWS!” is set against the most sugar-coated delivery Davey had given up to that point. From the welcoming tone of his voice and the production to the genuinely irresistible hook, “Girl’s Not Grey” was an obvious hit, and it was almost impossible to believe this was the same band who had made The Art of Drowning just three years earlier. But at the same time, it was a natural progression in many ways, and there were so many other moments of Sing the Sorrow that pushed AFI in different directions.
The album’s second single and first proper song, “The Leaving Song Pt. II,” finds Davey hopping seamlessly between singing and screaming, as Jade weaves a patchwork quilt of goth-punk lead guitars. The sing/screaming approach rivaled all the pop-screamo that was blowing up at the time, and the song’s mosh-filled music video probably marked the first time that many of AFI’s young new fans had ever seen a pit. The album’s push and pull of catchy and aggressive parts came through perfectly on “Bleed Black,” a song that seesaws between metal riffs, clean guitars, harsh screams, and pop hooks and sounds way more natural in execution than it does on paper. “Dancing Through Sunday” is a fast-paced, scream-centric song, and it manages to resolve into a goth-pop chorus and a hair metal solo without losing sight of AFI’s hardcore roots. “Death of Seasons” showed off the band’s love of industrial in a way they never had before, fusing elements of hardcore punk, goth rock, and synth-fueled EBM into one devilish banger. “This Celluloid Dream” is the addictive deep cut that could’ve been a single, a pop-fueled punk song that probably could’ve rivaled “Girl’s Not Grey” on the radio if given the chance. “Silver and Cold” and “The Great Disappointment” are power ballads that take the slower songs from Black Sails and Art of Drowning to new levels. “The Leaving Song” is an actual ballad that finds Davey softly singing over crystal-clear guitar and no drums, and it remains one of the most purely beautiful things they’ve ever done. On the album’s hidden track, they bring in piano, string arrangements, and spoken word, before reaching one last heavy rock climax. Sing the Sorrow is one of those albums that, even if you’ve heard all of its singles, will still find multiple ways to surprise you. Its masterful sequence has a clear beginning, middle, and end, with no lulls in between. As songwriters, AFI were truly firing on all cylinders at this point in their career–all the bonus tracks and B-sides are just about as good as anything on the proper album, but they whittled it down to a 12-song, hour-long journey that’s nearly flawless.
For many people, Sing the Sorrow was a direct gateway to multiple worlds. If you discovered AFI when this album became an unlikely hit, you were immediately also treated to their incredibly rewarding back catalog. 20 years on from its release, it’s not unusual to spot AFI shirts or hear people speaking highly of AFI at underground hardcore shows or goth nights, and that’s because so many people found those genres through this album too. It influenced countless bands immediately after its release and it continues to do so today. AFI never really made an album quite like it since, and no other band really has either–and it’s not like others haven’t tried. Sing the Sorrow remains a relative anomaly in modern rock music–it’s hard to think of many other albums from the past two decades that are simultaneously this adventurous, this pop-friendly, and this rooted in punk. And of the ones that do exist, none of them sound a thing like Sing the Sorrow.
AFI are playing Sing the Sorrow in its entirety for the “first and last time ever” at LA’s The Kia Forum this Saturday (3/11) with Jawbreaker, Chelsea Wolfe, and Choir Boy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *