LOUDER REVIEWS: 'Bodies' - AFI
Despite always retaining a gothic aura that has defined and shaped the sound of AFI throughout their eras, they have remained remarkably dynamic throughout their existence.
Starting off as a raucous and anarchic punk act, even then they leaned into a horror-inspired image, aping a Damned-esque sense of vaudeville in their music. Then, as the mid-2000s rolled around, a sorrowful yet inspiring sound came to define the act – it was influenced by the sounds at the time, but arguably just as impactful of an influence on those sounds as albums like ‘Sing the Sorrow’ sound tracked the solitude of millions. Then, in their third era – which, if you’ll forgive an unpopular opinion is this writer's favourite – they adopted a colourful sense of theatricality and sweeping compositions which leant into their flamboyant nature in a way that proved controversial, yet certainly made an impression. Perhaps more divisive now is the age of AFI which we now find ourselves in – continuing an experiment that started of 2017’s self-produced ‘Blood Album’. That adopted a moody, low-key kind of feel influenced by the post-punk of new wave acts in the vein of The Cure or even Joy Division.
In principle, this is a style that you would expect these musicians to master, as it marks a logical progression for an act who have always found ways to make dark textures beautiful. Practice is a very different aspect, however, and there’s a complicated relationship that the band's new album, ‘Bodies’, has between making its music brooding and engaging. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk for any act hoping to capture a sound that is both cerebral and highly emotive – that’s why your taste for this album might depend on how comfortable you are hearing AFI in this sound.
‘Twisted Tongues’ opens the experience on a mercurial though menacing note. The melodies are morose, yet the instrumentation is dense, with the rhythm section lending a powerful tension which pervades throughout the song, making this a great opener. Its in these sections of sinister atmospherics that the album is at its finest.
‘Dulceria’ owes its lush synths and crooning chorus to the new-romantics revolution, yet its given a dark, encircling quality through Havok’s smirking tone and the strutting bass line, courtesy of Hunter Burgan, who sounds just as dynamic here as he does on tracks like ‘Miss Murder’. Furthering the electronic experiment, ‘Escape from Los Angeles’ relies on a pulsating synth line which gives the piece the sense of urgency needed to contrast the bright vocal phrases with a raw and unbridled desperation. Fascinatingly, there’s a menacing quality, even underneath the memorable hooks and shimmering instrumentation.
‘Begging for Trouble’ beguiles with a strong guitar presence from Jade Puget and vivacious drumming from Adam Carson. It’s our frontman’s villainous persona which makes for an intriguing listen though – it's reassuring to know that the band's singer and chief songwriter still bears a flair for the dramatic.
‘Looking Tragic’ and ‘No Eyes’ are two examples of songs that excellently bridge an operatic feel with a chaotic sensibility. That’s the interesting aspect about this era - for all its faults - and we’ll get to them - the sound feels almost like a return to roots, showing the potential of more humble composition as a means to emphasise the strength of the writing on its own.
‘Tied to a Tree’ just might be a late-era classic for the way the ominous acoustics lurk in the background, lent yet more dramatic weight through the thundering drums, the otherworldly keys, and the strained, harrowing vocals. The song is like a dirge yet one that is chilling and even beautiful in a way. Its moments like these which make this sound make perfect sense within AFI’s career trajectory, while proving oddly reminiscent of why so many of us were enthralled by the bands music in the first place.
Where the sonic shift - and, as a result, ‘Bodies’ as a whole - has its failings is that too often the band abandon clever hook-crafting and sharp mood-setting to make for songs which are murky and inconsequential. ‘Far too Near’ begins on a ravenous and exhilarating note but soon loses its excitement as the chorus fails to inspire, and the guitars and keys blend into a dull void of superfluous sound. ‘On Your Back’ disappoints with a tedious sense of stagnation, giving the impression that this was written to kill time.
More admirable is the haunting and ethereal ‘Back from the Flesh’. Its chilling effect is significantly dulled though with the realisation that the piece does not progress, presenting no direction for the listeners emotions to travel in once they’ve comprehended that sense of solitude and isolation, very present in what’s initially presumed to be a ‘build up’. The most distracting misstep of all though might be ‘Death of A Party’. This is trying to be a ‘slow party anthem’ – a formula which has seen limited success across music, and certainly doesn’t work here. Nothing in the electronic background stands out as unique or interesting and contrary to his performance on other tracks, our frontman sounds lethargic here.
In attempting a retro sound with ‘Bodies’, AFI had the potential to craft a unique piece, and there are moments in the tracklist which demonstrate the bands love of the sound they're drawing on. However, it’s the overall lack of commitment to the idea which makes the album largely underwhelming. With writing that only occasionally makes an impression, there's a palpable knowledge that these musicians can do better, continuing a pervading sense of disappointment with the fourth act of AFI.
'Bodies' is out now via Rise Records - stream the record on Spotify here:
Watch the music video for 'Dulcería' below: