Sing The Sorrow at 20: the album that turned AFI from cult punk heroes into gothic rock superstars

AFI's Davey Havok in the Girl's Not Grey video
(Image credit: AFI Youtube)

The 90s and early 2000s may have been the period in which alternative music took over, but not all subgenres were initially welcome. My Chemical Romance rightly get much of the credit for making emo and post-hardcore a truly mainstream concern in the mid-00s, but truthfully, it's fair to say that AFI walked so that MCR could run. Twenty years ago this week, the Ukiah, California quartet released their sixth studio album: Sing the Sorrow. It was a record that would elevate them from cult hero horror punks to boundary-busting megastars.

Formed in 1991 when its members were still at High School, A Fire Inside were initially inspired by the Cali hardcore of Black Flag and TSOL, something their early albums clearly reflected. Between the release of their Answer That And Stay Fashionable debut in 1995, its follow up Very Proud of Ya in 1996 and 1997’s Shut Your Mouth And Open Your Eyes, they were a perfectly decent hardcore punk band, but not much more.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1998’s Black Sails In The Sunset that the real AFI began to show themselves. This was where the classic line-up of the band was established, guitarist Jade Puget joining vocalist Davey Havok, drummer Adam Carson and bassist Hunter Burgan for the first time, and the moment at which the more gothic and melancholic influences within the camp began enveloping them. It was especially clear on the closing God Called In Sick Today, a full-blown, Bauhaus-style, pitch black and deeply bleak ballad that was unlike any of their previous material.

Nowhere was this change more obvious than in Havok. The band's magnetic frontman had swapped the classic punk look of vests, mohawks and tartan trousers from AFI's early days for nigh-on full bondage gear, thick eyeliner and long black tussles of hair. In a scene full of Dickies t-shirts and skate wear, he stood out a mile.

When 2000’s The Art of Drowning came along, AFI were now considered one of the most exciting and unique bands in the punk underground. The album improved on what Black Sails... had aimed for; the songs were bigger and catchier, the production beefier and the gothic aesthetic even more pronounced. The album managed to reach number 174 on the US Billboard top 200, and its lead single, Days Of The Phoenix, became a minor but much adored crossover hit. 

True, The Art of Drowning arrived at a time where post-hardcore and early emo was starting to gather momentum; At The Drive-In, Glassjaw and Jimmy Eat World all experienced some success, and the likes of Thursday, Poison The Well and Boysetsfire were about to sign major label deals. But none of those bands shared any obvious DNA with AFI, who were taking inspiration from The Misfits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned, Christian Death and Joy Division, rather than Fugazi, Quicksand or Sunny Day Real Estate. 

It appeared that AFI were happy that way. Still under contract with Nitro, the label owned by Dexter Holland, the band were finishing up the touring cycle for The Art of Drowning when they were visited by the Offspring frontman, who suggested that they should be looking onwards and upwards. 

“A couple of months ago, Dexter came to our show in Ventura and sat us down to talk,” read the band's official statement announcing their departure from the label. “He told us that he believed we were at a point where we were outgrowing Nitro's resources and he thought it was a good time for us to move on. As you can imagine, we were quite taken aback; we owed him another record and were very happy on Nitro, but he went on to explain that a different label could offer us things he felt we needed.” 

Incredibly, this odd little horror punk band had caught the eye of major label affiliate Dreamworks, who wanted to sign them. Almost immediately, AFI were working on their major label debut. You’d think that this would have caused outrage amongst the bands underground, punk rock fanbase, bu  as it happens, the change wasn’t considered a big deal.

“We weren't confronted with any backlash from the fans,” Havok told Revolver in 2021. “Because at that point no one cared about that anymore. Once Green Day had broken punk again in 1993, there was that wave of bands, Samiam and Jawbreaker, people just became used to it, and really started to recognize, 'I don't really care what label this band is on, I just care if they make music that I like.' The AFI fans were already listening to a band that didn't fit anywhere, that really didn't have a home or a specific genre. I think if we'd been playing hardcore like we were when we were kids, then the hardcore kids would have thought it a little strange. But, in 2003, I don't think so.”

And so, in late 2002, AFI entered Cello Studios in LA to record an album which, backed by the major label machine, was full of alien experiences for the formerly DIY punk band.

“We were afforded much more time than we ever have before,” Havok told Umusic Grazia at the time, “which resulted in us being able to reach the end product we’ve never been able to achieve before”. 

Another change was the use of superstar producers such as Green Day collaborator Jerry Finn and Butch Vig, famous for his work with Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. A far cry from the self-produced work the band had been putting out up until that point.

“We’re used to producing our records ourselves, but we were really interested in having that outside creative input,” said Havok to Umusic Grazia. “With Butch Vig and Jerry Finn, it’s really obvious what their skills are, their expertise and history really speaks for them.”

By early 2003, Sing The Sorrow was all but completed, but Puget wasn’t' quite finished. Keen to get into a different headspace, he isolated himself in Toronto to squeeze one last burst of creativity out, telling Alternative Press: “We had basically finished writing the record, but at the very end, we decided we would try to write one more song.”

The song he emerged with from those final  sessions was lead single Girl's Not Grey.

“Being the first single, we wanted the song to showcase everything that AFI is and was at the time,” Adam Carson told Alternative Press. “It’s a melodic, anthemic chorus with the gang vocals, and it’s an up-tempo song that has a pacing that was probably a little bit faster than a lot of stuff on the radio at the time.”

Released on January 12 2003, two months prior to the arrival of Sing The Sorrow, Girl's Not Grey blew up, becoming omnipresent on MTV and rock radio and just missing the top 20 of the UK singles chart when it peaked at number 22. Its driving riff, two-step drums and Havok’s anthemic call of “What follows!” carried the song to becoming one of the first ever emo crossover anthems - and it still sounds superhumanly massive two decades down the line. With AFI's career trajectory now rocket-boosted, even the band found themselves getting caught up in the excitement of finally achieving mainstream success.

“Since they’ve been playing our song on the radio, I keep the radio on at all times,” grinned Havok to Umusic Grazia. “Because it excites me when I hear it. Every time.”

Sing the Sorrow was released on March 11 2003, peaking at number 53 on the UK album chart and, amazingly, scoring AFI a top five placing on the US Billboard 200, eventually going on to be certified Platinum and selling over a million copies in their homeland. It was an outcome even their staunchest supporters could surely never have imagined even a year prior.

Twenty years later, Sing the Sorrow still sounds incredible. The bleak, chiming chant of opening track Miseria Cantare giving way to the post-punk melancholy of The Leaving Song Pt. II is a hell of a start, and the record rarely drops from that remarkable opening. Silver And Cold merges krautrock riffs and arena rock choruses perfectly, The Great Disappointment sounds like Glen Danzig fronting The Cure, Paper Airplanes (Makeshift Wings) brings back that classic hardcore bark and This Celluloid Dream turns classic post-hardcore crunch into a hook filled, alt-rock banger. 

Sure, there was the occasional sneering punk purist (popular underground fanzine Fracture infamously called the band “the Bon Jovi of emo” at the time), but in the main the reception was frothingly complimentary. That a band this singularly minded had made a record that had connected so strongly with such a large audience, without sacrificing the thing that made them such underground darlings in the first place, was as uplifting as it was deserved. The idea that bands like AFI wouldn’t be able to cross over to the mainstream felt absurd once you heard how easy they had made it.

Of course, a year later, with the release of Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, My Chemical Romance would completely change the game. But never let it be forgotten that the door was already halfway off its hinges thanks to AFI. Put plainly, alternative music just wouldn't look the same in 2023 without Sing The Sorrow.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.