The Art of Drowning, released in 2002, is by no means the most recent effort of Californian rock quartet AFI, but it is most definitely one of their finest. AFI, or A Fire Inside, unquestionably lives up to their name on this record. Their music has a rough and aggressive feel, yet is emotional and beautiful under the obvious grit. Their fifth full length album, The Art of Drowning features the old AFI style of breakneck speed and energy combined with epic ballads, and even a little softer material not typically seen from them in earlier releases.
Judging from their recent changes in sound, it’s hard for most new fans of AFI to believe that they started out as a small hardcore-punk band from Ukiah, California. Emerging out of their small scene, AFI’s musical style has changed drastically over the 17 years they’ve been together, probably due to the few lineup changes that occurred.
Over the course of those years, many have tried and failed to stick a specific label on the band; descriptions of their musical genre range anywhere from hardcore to horror punk, from alternative rock to emo. With each new release we see a new transformation of AFI, and The Art of Drowning was a key record in their process of recreating themselves.
The album opens with a foreboding 30 second instrumental, dubbed “Initiation”. An eerie wind howls in the background as a sinister guitar builds up into a snarling crescendo, and then fades out, transitioning seamlessly into Track 2.
Here begins the real journey through the album. Dark lyrically but strangely upbeat, AFI creates a perfect balance between harsh, powerful guitar chords and the fragile, more delicate melodies intertwined with them. The feelings of the individual songs are diverse throughout the album, so it never gets monotonous. “Smile” and “Catch a Hot One” seem to symbolize disgust with humanity and the apparent disregard our race has for others. Angry and bitter in tone, they are both perfect songs for when you are sick of the world and just need to vent. “A Story at Three” is straight out of a childhood nightmare, telling tales of creatures who inhabit the night. “Wester”, however, one of my personal favorites, seems to convey feelings of excitement and anticipation in its energetic guitar chords. The Days of the Phoenix reminisces on the band’s younger days, painting pictures of their many performances at the Phoenix Theater, a venue they frequented. 6 to 8 pays homage to all the fans who have supported AFI through touring, thanking them with the words “On the way, I saw five hours of sleep, but your fire makes it all worth while”. “The Despair Factor”, one of the best tracks in my opinion, would be a good song to pick if you wanted one track that would sum up the whole album. It features everything that makes the record great; fast guitars and lyrics in the beginning that decline into a bittersweet melody of lament. This is AFI’s first song to feature use of electronics in their music, an element that would frequent their music in the future. The line “My whole life is a dark room” from the film “Beetlejuice” is featured in the lyrics, and it is from this song that AFI’s fan club, the Despair Faction, derives its name. Finally, The Art of Drowning goes out with a bang with “Morningstar”, which ends dramatically but satisfyingly. The hidden track “Battled” isn’t really worth the ten minutes waited after the ending of “Morningstar” to hear it, but the rest of the album compensates for the disappointment multiple times.
The Art of Drowning is a significant step forward in the journey AFI has made over the years to the success they enjoy today; the single “The Days of the Phoenix” gained notable airplay on rock radio stations around the country, and the video likewise received attention from stations such as MTV 2. At that point in time, AFI no longer retained all of the homogenous hardcore sound of their earlier albums, yet they hadn’t fully transformed into the alternative rock band they are at present. The Art of Drowning is only the second album to feature the lineup we see today; Davey Havok as vocalist and lyricist, Adam Carson as drummer, Jade Puget as guitarist, and Hunter Burgan on bass. Puget became the main songwriter after he joined the band, which probably contributed to the noticeable change in style of the band, especially on The Art of Drowning.
In short, The Art of Drowning can be compared to a certain type of person; one who appears rough and gritty at first glance, but once you get to know them, you discover the warmer, softer version that lies beneath the harder shell. It is definitely an essential for any AFI fan or one who is interested in checking out their music.
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