AFI’s Davey Havok and Jade Puget appear to be putting more time into their techno-pop side project these days. Beneath the Black Palms marks Blaqk Audio’s second album in the past 18 months while it’s been nearly two years since AFI’s last release with The Missing Man EP.
If you’re not aware, AFI is the emo/goth-rock band most-known for their 2006 hit “Miss Murder.” That was when I caught onto them and it was the next year that frontman Davey and guitarist/keyboardist Jade introduced their first album as Blaqk Audio with 2007’s CexCells.
They created a totally new music environment for Davey’s weighty vocals, full of shimmering synths, pounding house beats, and thick electronic textures. Over their four albums as Blaqk Audio they’ve given me favourites with “On A Friday,” “Let’s Be Honest,” “First to Love” (pretty much the only good song from Material), and “Matrimony And Dust.”
They made a surprisingly quick return after last year’s Only Things We Love, an album I found to be very solid but ultimately a little flat (“Matrimony And Dust” being the only truly stunning song). And I find myself feeling pretty similarily about this group of songs.
I love the crisp production; the focused melodies and tight beats are easy to grasp, and the overall atmosphere is generally quite dazzling and flashy. It’s not exactly a repeat of their last album but it does feel like these songs were written in the same period. Looking now, I see that Davey said in an interview ahead of the last album, that they had written 69 songs to choose from. So, I can only assume that these are leftovers.
It’s still good music though. There are only a few songs that I don’t find much replay value in. “Zipper Don’t Work” has a big, pulsing stomp to it and an easily catchy hook that just rattles my brain a bit too much. It’s always catchy with these guys and I can sing to any one of these, but I am always looking for that emotional element. I find the forceful “Bird Sister” and the vibrant-but-standard “Tired Eyes” to be a little shy of that exciting melodic feeling I know they’re capable of.
The devilishly promiscuous opener “Consort” lands middle-of-the-road for me with its dancing synths and hectic arrangement. The chorus hits hard but it is again lacking a little bit of that emotional flavour and I find the pounding club beat can be a bit much on not just this song, but the entire album.
Other middle-of-the-road tracks include the cute and bouncy “Burnt Babies Fear the Fire,” the brooding and sparse “1948,” and the short and punchy “Hiss.”
That leaves me with four favourites. These are the examples of what Blaqk Audio has been able to do for me time and time again with melodies that just rip into me.
“Distant Light” moves at an easy jogging pace over frantic synths and opens into an off-your-feet chorus with this bell cymbal effect on the percussion that adds a more organic feel to the mix. Some of the best songs I know are the one’s that make me want to run and I find this one has that effect.
I originally was turned off from the repetitive pre-chorus in “Fish Bite” but the song moves into one of the album’s strongest emotional refrains. It’s a much more gentle and glittery song compared to the majority and it has the most overtly important message to it. Davey’s sexuality has always been a mystery to fans. This song has him reaching a hand out to people in the LGBTQ+ community who may be living in oppressive families or communities. He invites them to “come out” and experience a place where, “the fish may bite/But they never hurt me,” referencing Los Angeles’ tolerance with the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’m Coming Over” holds one of my favourite moments of the album in its two-part chorus. If the chorus was just the, “I’m coming over/I, I’m coming over,” of the first eight bars, it would be a dud. But they do what they do best and switch it up halfway through the 16-bar chorus, Davey dropping his vocals a notch and just completely altering the mood for this fantastic moment.
Just like their last album where closing track “Matrimony And Dust” was far and away my favourite song, I immediately found there to be an extra amount of emotional power to this album’s closer “It’s Not Going Well.” Unfortunately, it’s not quite as special as “Matrimony And Dust,” but damn, does it ever pack some feeling. It’s a more subdued arrangement and the most delicate and impassioned performance from Davey. It seems to be a look at a relationship that is struggling to get on the same page or perhaps has lost some sexual chemistry. A witty line like, “You wrote ‘talk dirty’/But he can’t spell,” is so tastefully executed.
So, another well-done job from Davey and Jade who seem to be pulling from their writing session from their last album. But hey, I’m glad they’re getting these songs out in their own package instead of a deluxe album or a bunch of stand-alone singles. It’s not a step forward from their last but I could hardly call it a step back. Who knows, maybe they’ll have another album next year with songs from that writing session. Gotta say though, I think it’s about time for a new AFI album. Here’s hoping.