Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Live: AFI - Brixton Academy, London, 6/4/10

Sometimes, there are gigs that just seem to feel right. AFI at the Brixton Academy? It's as if they were made for each other. The classical, gothic architecture and theatrical feel of the interior of this great venue should fit like a glove around AFI's look and sound, which is...well, gothic and often theatrical. I'm actually really intrigued as to how AFI perform here; I've discussed before that I'm a great admirer of them, and how they have managed to break out of the hardcore straight-jacket and craft a unique rock sound that really doesn't sound quite like anything else you're likely to hear, and considering how many cheap knockoff clone guitar bands are stagnating the airwaves concurrently, that's some achievement in itself, and one which deserves congratulation. However, it's all well and good delicately weaving layers upon layers of guitars, pianos, choral backing vocals and strings into their aural patchworks in the studio, but the true acid test of a band is the live arena. Many have flopped before them in this trap (I'm looking at you, Fall Out Boy), so it will be interesting to see how AFI go, especially in a venue known for often dodgy acoustics.

More on that later, but first, it's time for The Dear and Departed (5/10), a band I was ready to callously dismiss as a cheap 30 Seconds to Mars clone, and whilst my cynicism wasn't completely sent packing for the exits, they were better than initially expected, and managed to hold my attention well enough with some fairly decent and slick tunes. Much like Canterbury opening for Billy Talent last November, they didn't appear suited to this size of venue or crowd, or at least weren't experienced with it; unlike Canterbury, they didn't appear to even try to make an effort in it. They may well sound like they've been listening to various AFI records and scribbling notes, but they forgot to crib down the most crucial aspects - i.e. genuinely memorable hooks and tunes, and charisma and energy in performance. The frustrating aspect about this is that it looks like such traits could easily be within their powers, but they seem disinterested in achieving that goal. Maybe they're happy cruising at this level (and why not, there are many bands that don't achieve half of what TD&D have achieved in their career), maybe they're simply suffering jet lag, but whatever, it's a disappointing set, but not without promise.

If I was cynical about TD&D, I was downright pessimistic about Sick of It All (8/10), largely because I really don't have much time for hardcore music. I'd heard of SOIA before, but try as I might, I couldn't get into them, just like I couldn't get into Walls of Jericho, Gallows, The Ghost of a Thousand, the Cro-Mags, and even legends of the scene like Black Flag. I can always respect the energy, passion and anger of hardcore music, as well as it's straight-edge values, but respecting something is not the same as liking it, and I hold my hands up and say that the sheer aural bludgeoning of hardcore has never been for me. All of that said, that doesn't stop me being blown away by SOIA tonight. Maybe I was approaching it the wrong way - maybe the only way to appreciate this kind of music is in a live context, with the sweat and spittle of the lead singer's roars and barks and the guitarist's jumping and thrashing mingling with the ravenous crowd in the pit. Speaking as a stunned onlooker watching on from the sidelines as the carnage erupted, it was a treat to watch.

Brothers Lou (vocals) and Pete (guitar) Koller mesh with the supremely tight rythm section of Craig Setari (bass) and Armand Majidi (drums) to create a furiously kinetic fireball of rage and cathartic power, and even in a relatively large venue for them like this (let's face it, this lot playing Wembley Stadium would be as out-of-place as Muse playing a pub car park), their powerful message and musical punch isn't diluted, as much as certain factors try; indeed, a partial power-cut brings their set to a shuddering halt at one point, but even this doesn't stop the rollercoaster of mayhem. In between songs, Lou is warm and genuine, urging his audience with a message of hope that never strays into hackneyed territory, which all adds to this great sense of uplifting power that emanates throughout. It's still unlikely I'll go out tomorrow and buy their entire back catalogue, and I'm still not sold on the genre, but that doesn't stop me admiring the unbridled assault that is SOIA live. Excellent.

So, with my pessimism successfully clubbed to death and thrown out onto the street in tatters, it's time to regain our composure and welcome AFI (8/10) to the show. With a gorgeous light show setting the scene, guitarist Jade Puget strides atop a monitor, rips out the lead-off notes to 'Medicate' and we're underway in some style. Anthem after anthem comes ripping out of the speakers amidst the myriad of glittering lighting effects and singer Davey Havok's flamboyant delivery, with the awesome 'Girls Not Grey' being disposed of two songs in, 'The Leaving Song Part II' following soon afterwards and the spectacular one-two punch of 'Kill Caustic' and 'End Transmission' whizzing by barely over 15 minutes into the show.

Whilst most of the set deals in the highlights of the three most recent records, of which there are many, it's refreshing to see the band so willing to acknowledge their early days - given their dramatic change of style and tone since around the turn of the millennium, and the fact that a fair few of the fans here tonight are probably oblivious to anything before 2003's 'Sing the Sorrow', they could easily choose to ignore the first decade or so of their existance, but they are happy to dive into the dusty vaults, and more importantly, the oldies slot nicely into the set without feeling like obviously telegraphed nods to the past; they just get on with the art of being kick-ass songs. I most hold my hand up and admit to having never heard of songs like 'File 13' or 'Love is a Many Splendored Thing', but the fact that they didn't feel out of place considering their age is an achievement on the band's part.

However, it's their post-1999 output upon which this set hangs it's hat on, and in that area AFI have an embarressment of riches. Along with the opening salvo I already described, 'Dancing Through Sunday' rips and roars, as does 'Death of Seasons', and newies 'Too Shy To Scream' and 'Beautiful Theives' augment the attack with a dash of confident swagger, before 'Miss Murder' brings the regular set to a bouncing and thrilling close. And even then they still have time in the encore to break out the blistering 'The Days of the Phoenix' and the sublime 'Love Like Winter', although 'Silver and Cold' seems like an odd choice to end the night on.

That combined with a few other factors prevents them gaining top score, with the most glaring issue being that of sound quality. Simply put, someone needed to whack Jade's guitar up to 11 - too many times when his lead lines or riffs were supposed to be soaring into the ether, they were being lost in the melee. The erstwhile Brixton sound problems also reared their ugly head, with some songs sounding mushy and muddled instead of razor-sharp and shimmering. These problems would be enough to cripple lesser bands, but the strength of their back catalogue combined with high musicianship shown between the four as a collective unit and a frontman oozing charisma and easy chemistry with his fellow bandmates, means that AFI save this evening's set from being a total disaster, and instead turns it into a memorable and breathless experiance for all.

Overall Rating: 8/10.

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