Whether you were stockpiling canned food in preparation for Y2K or dancing your ass off to Prince, 1999 was a hell of a year. Twenty years later, End Of The Century looks back at some of the most iconic albums to drop right before the new millennium…
Few punk bands have had AFI’s staying power. Even fewer have taken similar creative risks over the course of their career. Since forming in Ukiah, Calif. in 1991, the ever-evolving four-piece have grown from a scrappy DIY punk unit into a global phenomenon, progressing from basement floors to stadium stages. That growth has long been fueled by pushing their own boundaries regardless of outside pressure, inviting the downtrodden and disenfranchised to join them in building more than just a fanbase, but a worldwide movement for outcasts everywhere.
AFI’s transformation from suburban skate-punk to goth-influenced dark rock heroes arguably began on 1999’s Black Sails in the Sunset, the band’s fourth full-length album. While they had hinted at exploring more morose themes on its 1997 predecessor Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes, Black Sails in the Sunset was the record where they went all in that aesthetic, a move that could have alienated kids expecting more of the familiar hardcore-tinged pop-punk they’d released across three previous albums on Dexter Holland’s Nitro Records.
Instead, it helped them stand out from the homogeneity of late 90’s pop-punk. Kids browsing record store aisles would have had to look no further than the album art on Black Sails in the Sunset to know something had changed with AFI (although it’s more likely this was the first AFI record to grab their attention). The charcoal-colored silhouettes of sailing ships set against a burnt orange sky invoked a subtle comic book-style, Halloween-inspired vibe, suggesting something that shared more in common with The Misfits than typical Warped Tour fare.
Bringing comic book-style horror influences to punk wasn’t anything new at the time. Neither was calling listeners into something bigger than themselves; hell, the Misfits themselves checked both boxes throughout their catalog and with the Fiend Club. But no one had transformed from a more ordinary suburban punk kid aesthetic to black-clad crusaders showing a way out of the drudgery of uninspired cookie-cutter culture quite like this. While not a perfect comparison, the next nearest reference point might actually be The Damned’s goth evolution in the late 1970s and 1980s.
In other words, AFI had zero peers following a similar path. If the lyric sheet is anything to go by though, it’s clear they had no intention of going on that journey alone. From the first notes on album opener “Strength Through Wounding,” AFI issued a clear statement of intent, leading listeners on a repeated chant of “Through our bleeding / we are one.” It’s a fairly typical slow opener that leads into its full-bore follow-up “Porphyria Cutanea Tarda,” which continues that bleak yet uplifting lyrical theme with, “In darkness together, we’re bringing the light / In darkness together, we are forming.” If AFI was going to venture out into grim territory, they were going to invite disenfranchised kids to rally right behind them.
Their metamorphosis wasn’t confined to looks or lyrical themes, either. Vocalist Davey Havok’s darkly impassioned calls for unity were given a breathless sense of urgency by drummer Adam Carson and bassist Hunter Bergan while new guitarist Jade Puget found ways to weave textured melodies between buzzsaw riffs. Blistering cuts like “Narrative of Soul Against Soul” and “No Poetic Device” rip with blazing hardcore dynamics, while the mid-record slow-burn of “Clove Smoke Catharsis” proved they could play with tension and release just as effectively as straight-line speed. This is a tightly constructed record from start to finish, and one that shows remarkable confidence for a band taking some creative gambles.
In fact, trying to find any trace of the record’s critical reception when it was released isn’t the easiest task, and nor is tracking down any kind of interviews or press clippings. In a 2010 review for Alternative Press, writer Jason Heller opined that “calling the disc goth punk is selling it short; in truth, Davey Havok and co. crafted their first epic.” Meanwhile, a 2002 review from Punknews.org user god_called_in_sick (a screen name that references the record’s closing track” says (with an endearing lack of eloquence), “It was sort of a Misfits, Nerve Agents evil sound, but there was something else. Something that made AFI good and set them apart from the rest.”
That something else likely wasn’t any one particular thing, but rather a unique confluence of circumstances and creative decisions that made AFI the ideal band to bridge gaps between scenes, becoming more than just a band to tens of thousands of diehard fans in the process. They’d gotten better four records into their career, as Puget elevated their guitar work and Havok stepped into his role as a frontman with self-assuredness. Their look and sound developed into something more interesting than just another punk band and people started taking notice.
Those obvious surface-level observations may be accurate, but they don’t tell the whole story.
What brings everything together and gives the record its otherworldly pull might ultimately be its impassioned rallying cries for kids on the margins looking for somewhere to belong. That essentially describes a large part of punk’s appeal, but few bands have made such a concerted effort to build a community around themselves with the level of success AFI would attain.
Those seemingly simple lyrics might not have sounded like anything noteworthy at the time. Looking back though, they almost read like a statement of intent, as if they were on a mission to bring together outcast kids and give them something to rally behind. While it’d be presumptuous to say this was some sort of predictor of what would come a few years later in 2002 with The Despair Faction, a massive worldwide fan club with no equal amongst contemporaries, in retrospect it sounds like the idea may have been a jet-black twinkle in their eye at the very least.
Ultimately, that community is probably responsible for why we’re still talking about AFI in 2019, and the impact this specific record had on their creative trajectory 20 years later. There aren’t many punk bands that have made stylistic changes as drastic as AFI because there aren’t many bands that could do so without risking their careers. This is a band that never needed to worry about that. By inviting fans into something bigger than themselves, they built a devoted following committed to sticking with them for the long haul.
While Black Sails in the Sunset is considered the turning point where the band’s sound matured, it might not be credited enough for laying the initial groundwork that made building that kind of fanbase possible. For evidence, it’s worth considering where the record fits in context with the rest of their discography. While its direct follow-up The Art of Drowning continued with a similar (if more mid-tempo) style, 2003’s Sing the Sorrow both brought the band fully into rock’s mainstream while drawing accusations of selling out. Subsequent records would continue pushing in a more radio-friendly direction while maintaining a sound that was distinctly AFI.
And if there’s a single through-line that connects the band’s past to its present, Black Sails in the Sunset is the record that rests right at that intersection. They’d never sound exactly the same from one record to the next ever again, and yet they’d retain an identity as rock superheroes leading a worldwide cabal of outcasts through their personal darkness. This is more than just an iconic punk record; it was a subtle portent of what was to come, and a warning that the only thing anyone should have ever expected from AFI would be to never expect anything at all.