Take a look at any current band that lists AFI as an influence, and becomes apparent that such inspiration stems almost exclusively from the band’s early 2000s work like The Art Of Drowning or Sing For Sorrow, be that musically in acts like Creeper or simply on an aesthetic level with Black Veil Brides. The reason that this is seems to be that, taking a look at their more recent efforts, it doesn’t even feel like AFI themselves knew what they wanted to be. Their sound has drifted drastically from Misfits-worshipping horror-punk to a much sleeker, gothic sound, albeit one that struggled to feel fully realised on their last effort Burials in 2013, and especially its predecessor, 2009’s Crash Love.
So from even a quick look at this self-titled tenth album – handily subtitled The Blood Album – it’s obvious that the gothic motif is being pushed to its natural peak, and to be fair, this is probably the most authentic and fully-formed permutation of the sound that AFI have pushed to date, though whether that actually makes for a great album is up for debate. Away from that for the time being though, where this album’s strengths lie are in its ability to create atmosphere, especially instrumentally in its sweeping, Depeche Mode-style goth-pop and frost-tipped alt-rock. The sonic canvas is painted almost entirely with reds, whites and blacks, achieving a very cold sounding album, but one where the gothic elements feel the most pronounced. The blocky, bluesy guitars of The Wind That Carries Me Away and the frigid synths of Above The Bridge and She Speaks The Language establish the bleakness, with the glossy, impenetrable production making it all the more evident.
AFI’s exploration of the gothic feels a lot more thorough on The Blood Album than mere icy darkness though, as it really feels as though elements of gothic literature are weaved in throughout for something with more substance to back the sound. The biggest feature is in Davey Havok’s portrayal as a frontman with an almost vampiric presence, demure and lustful as he mourns unrequited love on Still A Stranger, and gives off an elegant air on Snow Cats that subverts what can be seen as traditional masculinity, but with lithe sinisterness. A similar effect is achieved in the lyrics, especially by imagery; obviously blood plays a large role given its place in the album’s subtitle, but there’s also the implications of ghosts in Over The Bridge and wolves in Aurelia that formulate plenty of mental images pertaining to Angela Carter’s retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.
Unfortunately, for as fleshed out an atmosphere as AFI create with The Blood Album, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll translate well to the music itself, and that’s exactly the case here. The music itself is played well, but there’s relatively little that actually sticks for longer than maybe an hour; of the fourteen tracks on this album, it’s incredibly easy to pick out what tracks are bound to be positioned as singles and what ones with just stand as filler. The three lead-off singles are hard to argue with as some of the album’s standouts, particularly the supple patter of Snow Cats, and Still A Stranger and Hidden Knives are by far the most grounded in stable, memorable hooks. But beyond that, The Blood Album struggles to hold interest past these few examples, filling out its surprisingly lengthy runtime with padding that only really makes an impact while the track is running. It’s not even the fact that less than half of the album can really be considered high quality; for an album as long as this and colourless by design, it can be a tiring listen, especially when it really hits the doldrums at the three quarter mark with tracks like Dumb Kids and Feed From The Floor.
In terms of the bigger picture with this album, the masterful construction of vibe and atmosphere placed next to a tracklist severely lacking in real brilliance averages out to an album that just about falls above average. On a large scale, The Blood Album is AFI’s most cohesive venture into full-on goth territory to date, and thus the best, but one that falls short due to a lack of real quality. On the bright side, it looks as though AFI are, at last, coming to terms with how to make their goth-rock ambitions work in practice. But on the other hand, it still isn’t great, and shows that while AFI are advancing, they’re going at an unfortunately slow rate. Perhaps next time around they’ll fully nail it, though the time it’s taking for that to be the case leaves a question mark over whether it’s worth it or not.
For fans of: The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Cult
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘AFI (The Blood Album)’ by AFI is released on 20th January on Concord Music.