Lonesome Crowded Jest 

AFI claims the black crown of mainstream alienation

Alienation is a vocabulary word most kids learn in middle school, around the time they're beginning to sprout pubes and hate life. It's a time when your parents suck, your school sucks, your friends suck, and the world sucks.

Then along comes the new word that sums it all up for you.

I'm turning 26 this year, but that old hate again burns in my stomach on this late night in April. I've entered Slim's, that dark warehouse-like San Francisco club, and realized I'm completely ill dressed for the hardcore show going on. High schools sophomores seriously look like they want to kick my ass.

I've come to see the platinum-selling hardcore quartet AFI, which releases its second big album on Dreamworks June 6. They're also scheduled to headline BFD, the Bay Area's first big rock concert of the summer, at the Shoreline Amphitheater on June 10, putting them on par with Green Day and Rancid in the Bay Area punk pantheon.

In anticipation of their hot new album, the Dreamworks public relations people decided to host a secret show at 333 11th St. for a few members of the press and about 250 misanthropes from AFI's fan club, The Despair Faction, who apparently think I stink of balls.

Amid the sea of tattoo sleeves, copious eyebrow, nose, and lip piercings, and choppy, mangled hairdos, I get the occasional hate stare. "Is this guy wearing business casual to a hardcore show?" it says.

Onstage, AFI, fronted by Oakland resident and glam-goth Davey Havok, thrashes through another of its old songs as people sing along, fists pumping metal signs in the air. Havok wears all black with heavy eye make-up, thinner lipstick and a diagonally chopped haircut that swishes in his face as he screams.

Between songs, Despair Faction mohawks and fauxhawks turn toward me and then away. "Is that a baby blue, button-down, short-sleeve, collared shirt? And gray slacks by Hurley?" the looks say. "Should we kick his ass now or later?" Potential Suicide Girls (SuicideGirls.com) dismiss any possible sexual interest. "What a square."

I mill about awkwardly toward the center of the crowd and someone pushes me from behind — not a bump, a push — toward the mosh pit. I may have to fight my way out of here tonight and I suddenly hate all these little clones. Ahh, alienation. It's been too long.

The phenomenon known as AFI (officially short for A Fire Inside) has been around since the early '90s and has traded earnestly on alienation the whole time. The Ukiah-raised singer Havok and drummer Adam Carson's first high school EP was titled "Dork," and AFI became a staple of the East Bay hardcore "anti-everything" scene in the mid-'90s, as part of Havok's unfinished stint at UC Berkeley.

AFI then signed to Nitro Records, owned by the Offspring's Dexter Holland, and released several punky, aggressive albums between 1996 and 2002. In 2003 the band's first album on Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks label, Sing the Sorrow, with its hit "Girl's Not Grey," turned AFI's anomie to gold, then platinum. It sold more than a million records with its mordant mix of obscurely depressing lyrics, heavy thrash anthems, and the band's look — which could be described as Brandon Lee in The Crow.

Now thirty, Havok has an squad of corporate publicists, wears makeup by Mac, gets his hair cut in Los Angeles every three weeks, and yet continues to howl about loneliness, loss, and depression. The new album, titled Decemberunderground, is about "a place where the cold can huddle together in darkness and isolation," Havok states.

This one-dimensional, overproduced album came in past deadline and over budget, and will likely estrange hardcore AFI fans with its dance-pop single "Miss Murder." It's a competent yet odd mix of whispering, screaming, and falsetto. Havok does everything but actually sing, because, as he admits, "every time I go for a C, I cross my fingers. It's pretty much a gamble."

So Havok can't sing too well, and the music's murk hides its shallowness, but none of this detracts from AFI's success. Its members are superb professionals who play a bowel-shaking live show, and display an expert knowledge of their fan base. The band is a triumph of perspiration over inspiration.

Chris Robinson, AFI's tour manager for six years while it was on Nitro, sings the band's praises. "AFI was always my favorite band to work for. I call them my kids. They put 110 percent into everything they do. They always have," he said.

Havok is widely known as straightedge, which means no drinking, no smoking, and no promiscuity. The thin, good-looking dude does cardio and aerobics each day, and is a practicing vegan. The band has a great attitude, gets up early for press interviews, and gives candid answers without creating any PR liabilities. The album wasn't adrift, Havok says. They were just taking time to perfect it.

Such savvy helps AFI defend a key niche in the high-school hardcore demographic that demands slamming shows. And they do slam. Back at Slim's, ten sophomores from a local high school keep the mosh pit swirling as others crowd surf and attempt to get on stage for a dive. The band builds big, instantly recognizable choruses into its wall of thrash, and camera phones snap little pics of Havok mugging, pulling his hair back from his made-up face and posing like David Bowie.

It's a very loud, pounding, light-and-sound extravaganza, and at the height of it, I leave to go to my car to grab the one thing that might earn me a little sympathy from this crowd. In my trunk I find a wrinkled black windbreaker with silver stars on the elbows and a skateboard shop logo stenciled in the "Distressed" font. My collar still peeks out from the top, but I'm camouflaged enough as I wade back into the mosh pit for a closer look at the end of the set.

The band destroys "Girl's Not Grey," and I'm one with this crowd of individuals. They accept my black windbreaker into their steaming mass, and although wearing it is incredibly hot and sweaty, I leave it on. Each of us is now a unique snowflake of pain and loss, united by our love of bad hardcore and hatred of the world.

Together, we are all alienated individuals, screaming "woooo!" at the most successfully managed group of mainstream outcasts to grace the stage this year.

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