AFI: Rock of Love
Originally published in Guitar World, January 2010
Jade Puget tells how goth-punkers AFI discovered the power of pure rock on their new album, Crash Love.
A straight-up rock record is probably the last thing anyone would expect from post-hardcore goth-punk icons like AFI, but it’s exactly what the group has produced with Crash Love, their new full-length studio album. The disc certainly lives up to its title. You feel the crash in slash-and-burn rockers like the lead single, “Medicate,” but you also feel the love in songs like the anthemic, stadium-levitating closing track, “It Was Mine.” Crash Love is AFI’s most hard-hitting and direct album, but it’s also their most infectiously tuneful and hooky release, with just the right ratio of muscle to heart.
AFI guitarist Jade Puget says, “Early on, I came up with the idea of doing a rock record, ’cause we had never done just a straight-up rock record before. It went against what everyone was expecting us to do. But doing what everyone wants us to has no attraction for me. I don’t ever want to do what’s predictable.”
Stylistic upheavals are integral to the AFI aesthetic. Although the band was spawned in the hardcore thrash of the early Nineties Northern California punk scene, it shed those sonic trappings and developed the doomy, elegiac sound heard on massively successful albums like 2003’s Sing the Sorrow and 2006’s decemberunderground. Puget became a master at building dense, evocative guitar textures that curl like an autumn fog around singer Davey Havok’s introspective lyrics and haunted vocals.
But by the conclusion of decemberunderground, Puget felt like he’d ventured as far into the realm of electronics and plug-in manipulations as he wanted to go. In addition, the songs weren’t coming as easily as they once did for Puget and Havok, who share responsibility for all the writing in AFI. It was clearly time for a new way forward.
An important stepping-stone in that new direction arrived in the unlikely form of Cex Cells, the 2007 album of Eighties-inflected electronica by Havok and Puget’s side project, Blaqk Audio. “It’s possible that there are fewer electronic layers on Crash Love because there are so many of them on the Blaqk Audio record,” Puget says. “But I don’t think that’s really it. It’s just that Blaqk Audio was so casual and easy to do. There was no pressure involved in writing and putting out that record. It was all fun. That’s why Davey and I were in a relaxed and creative state when we started writing Crash Love.”
This relaxed mood enabled Puget and Havok to give AFI bassist Hunter Burgan and drummer Adam Carson more of a share in shaping the arrangements on Crash Love. “Everything was very extensively demoed in the past,” Puget says. “This time, Davey and I still wrote the songs, but we wanted to work them out together as a band. So there’s more of a vibe of the four us playing together on this album.”
But to call Crash Love “stripped-down” is to speak in very relative terms. Puget remains an obsessive studio craftsman. His guitar tracks on Crash Love are as precise as they are passionate, and meticulously layered, but he relies less on electronics and digital manipulations and more on organic, if bizarre, sources of beautiful guitar noise. He was aided in this by producer Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M., Snow Patrol, Block Party), a newcomer to the AFI camp, who worked on roughly half of the album’s tracks. Puget says, “Jacknife has a great ability to know what a song needs sonically.”
The producer’s introduction to the band came about through misfortune. In the interim between decemberunderground and Crash Love, longtime AFI producer Jerry Finn passed away. Finn, who had produced records by Green Day, Blink-182 and Sum 41, among others, died August 21, 2008, from the effects of a cerebral hemorrhage. The bulk of Crash Love was produced by Joe McGrath, who had worked with Finn as the engineer of previous AFI discs, but the band brought Jacknife in to record an additional four tracks. The presence of both producers imbues the new record with continuity as well as freshness. AFI’s unique sensibility comes through loud and clear, but it’s put across with a new sense of urgency and rock and roll panache.