Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

A Decade of Degeneration: An A.F.I. Retrospective

Published in Blog, Culture Bully. Tags: .

The band’s decade-long history is actually closer to sixteen years, but it was with the 1997 release, Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes, and in particular the album’s single “Third Season,” which A Fire Inside’s sound began straying from that of typical punk. It may be suggested that it was with this album that the band began too straying from what many consider historical punk ethos. But as time wore on the band’s sound and message changed further, developing both spirit and theme far from what can be perceived as the band’s original motives. As history has shown, however, the band is far from the first to have changed artistic paths.

Last month alone saw the likes of former pop-ska queen Gwen Stefani fall into some sort of yodel-core pitfall as her turn further towards MTV culture failed to garner any solid attention outside of the fickle TRL crowd. It’s at times like these when age old questions begin coming to mind: does the music suffer because of the musician’s search for popularity and fame, does the music simply cater to the modern attentions of the band, or does the relationship between bad music and success simply have no correlation? Some may believe that A.F.I. have betrayed their fans and more importantly their music with its most recent shift towards a fashionably emo pretense. But instead of making a traditional assertion that the band’s music has come as simply an artistic progression rather than a blatant shift towards a commercial sound I suggest the opposite. With Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes and each subsequent release A.F.I. have alienated a fraction of its fan base in exchange for broader coverage and increased commercial success suggesting that its do not lay with its fans.

Despite moving from Wingnut to Nitro Records with the group’s second official release the band attempted to keep its music exciting and youthful, and despite doing so there were those who called the music was stale and suggested that the band had already sold out. Seemingly unwavered, the group moved on playing its form of punk while addressing its critics as unwavering purists. The band’s form of punk eventually evolved into Shut Your Mouth, the band’s third official release, and with it both critical acclaim and deflation became enhanced.

Each subsequent album attracted detractors decrying the band for hastily changing its sound and image. Through the three years following Shut Your Mouth A.F.I. released an album and three EPs, all of which, while discouraging to many fans, attracted an increasing following heading into its breakthrough 2000 release, The Art of Drowning.

From a musical standpoint the album was nothing like the band had ever released, it was the closest any band had come to commercial success, subsequently resulting from the band’s shift towards combining gothic and hardcore. The album gave the band its highest chart position, 174 on the Billboard 200, as the band’s following too reached an all-time high. Fan sites became flooded with pictures of tattoos, depicting logos, artwork and other pictures all coming as tributes to the now widely popular band. But as the group leaned towards its gothic themes its East Bay Hardcore fans completely disowned them and the one-time punk band now faced a crossroads. It’s future success would be based on the availability of its label to market and distribute any further albums and after extensive touring the band decided that it would be best suited if the band left Nitro records in favor of mainstream label Dreamworks, at the time a subsidiary of Universal.

It was with the band’s 2003 release Sing the Sorrow which mainstream radio and media took notice, but unfortunately this came at the cost of a softened sound. Though a solid album it became apparent that through the promotion of the album that the band was shifting well apart of a trend, one which utilized a decreased level of the band’s hardcore roots while taking on a more fashionable, accessible exterior.

With the band’s latest release, Decemberunderground, reaching the peak position on the Billboard 200 it was no surprise that the album received a negative response from many fans. The band’s video for its lead single “Miss Murder” was premiered not simply on MTV, but on its after-school countdown Total Request Live. It was over.

Many who had championed the band as one which respected itself with its once-empowering lyrical content now stopped doing so. Those who had submitted their bodies to the toils of body art tributes now found themselves questioning their decisions. Those who had once criticized the band for (lead singer) Davey Havoc’s devillock now craved nothing more. And the band who was once one of the greatest underground successes of the new millennium had completed what can only be considered its ultimate goal, indisputable commercial success.

A.F.I. recently made a few covers available, one through AOL’s Sessions and the other through a performance during MTV’s New Years program. After listening to them it’s fairly safe to say that there is in fact a relationship in this situation between bad music and success. The music has suffered due to the musicians’ search for popularity. The music may or may not cater to the current attentions of the band, but it most assuredly caters to the attentions of those with expandable incomes, to those who shop trends, to those who make music expendable. But none of that matters, nor do cliché suggestions implying that the band has sold out. Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes was good music. Black Sails in the Sunset was good music. The Art of Drowning was good music. Even Sing the Sorrow was good music. It comes down to making good music and if you’re doing that then critics be damned. However, A.F.I. is no longer creating good music.

[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]