By Mark Guarino
White is the new black. For goth punk band AFI, that’s a radical statement. At the Vic Friday, the first of two sold-out nights, the Bay Area quartet dressed to match the snow-white stage. Considering that their fans — appropriately known as the Despair Faction — was clad in doom black and the band sang songs of suicide, despair and torturous love, AFI’s choice to brighten things up was amusing if not a little subversive.
AFI is currently riding high thanks to a recent album, “Decemberunderground” (Interscope) that is the sleeper hit of the summer. When the album was released in early June (on 6/6/06, naturally) the band ended the media blitz conducted by The Dixie Chicks, knocking the country trio out of the number one album position and selling 182,000 copies instantly. That number is growing. Considering that their success is happening without a Time magazine cover and a readymade controversy involving President Bush is evidence of the band’s natural connection with an audience that may be transparent but not to be ignored.
From here, it’s anyone’s guess what happens next. AFI has been at this since 1991 but it took until 2003 for the band to make its breakthrough. Unlike My Chemical Romance and Chicago’s Alkaline Trio, two other bands that translate punk alienation according to the right shade of eyeliner, AFI is unabashedly pop. At the Vic, songs like “Love Like Winter” boast mega hooks not unlike the original goth rockers from the 1980’s, The Cure and Depeche Mode. Lead singer Davey Havok frequently surrendered the vocals to the audience. On songs like “Summer Shudder,” they knew every word, making it a singalong where the campfire was the entire forest.
The band kept insisting it was harder than it was. Owing a tired allegiance to its hardcore roots, AFI played little variations of the same thrash-metal formula — galloping drumbeats, chunky bass lines, spidery guitar patterns and Havok’s guttural screams topping the melodrama. A gutter diva in elbow-length lace gloves, suspenders, sleeveless T-shirt and day-glo eye shadow, he wanted to be as majestic as Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, but never seemed as confident or as grand.
Instead, his rotating choices of mannerisms — knee drops, microphone twirls, a stage dive — were choreographed and routine. If this is what a tortuous soul is supposed to look like, maybe things aren’t that bad after all.