Thursday, December 15, 2011

AFI Reinvents Itself As Depeche Mode With Blaqk Audio's Cex Cells!

The Good: Some memorable lyrics, General sound, Decent singing
The Bad: REPETITIVE and derivative sound, Some of the lyrics
The Basics: Blaqk Audio's debut album is a synthesizer and vocal-driven album that gives the band a good start worthy of anyone open to more experimental pop.

Someone I cared quite a bit about is a huge fan of the band AFI, so in reviewing Blaqk Audio's debut album Cex Cells, I shall only reference AFI enough to say that two of the members of AFI make up Blaqk Audio and given that one of them is the lead singer and primary lyricist of both AFI and Blaqk Audio, I'm not quite sure what the point of this new band is. AFI, for those like me who were until recently uninformed about this band, is frequently classified as alternative and/or punk rock. It has had some success in the circles where punk is popular for a decade and a half as (usually) a quartet. A few years back, the group appeared on Saturday Night Live.

Blaqk Audio is an electronica spin-off featuring Davey Havok and Jade Puget of AFI. I guess either the other members of the band didn't want to do the experimental synths that this album delves into or else the group didn't want this to be an AFI album. My point here is that the outside story of Blaqk Audio seems somewhat ridiculous and the existence of Cex Cells as an album from this offshoot band begs the question "Why wasn't this just released as an AFI album?" Did they think the fans would not follow them? All evidence to the contrary, based on my friend's reaction to this album.

So, I sat down and gave Cex Cells a fair listen. And another. I'm now on my fifth listen through the disc and honestly, it's not bad. With twelve tracks, clocking in at just over fifty-one minutes, Cex Cells is a decent debut, despite its problems and conceits. As soon as one understands that Blaqk Audio's debut is largely programmed and produced as opposed to played, Cex Cells becomes easily listenable and enjoyable.

Actually, it became easy for me to hear the appeal of Cex Cells when the lyrics began to remind me of tracks from Depeche Mode's Playing The Angel. Indeed, if there were to be a logical successor to Depeche Mode, Blaqk Audio might well be it. The duet of Havok and Puget makes some music that is musical and interesting, if not terribly complex or sophisticated.

Opening with the strong beats and synthesizers of "Stiff Kittens," Cex Cells immediately establishes a definitive sound that is carried through the entire album. This is an album that sounds like a dance album on many of its tracks with basslines, beats and synthesizers dominating and attempting to get the listener to move. Were it not for the lyrics, the music would fall within a dance-pop range as an experimental and overproduced kind. The lyrics and more subtle instrumental push it into electronica and pop. For those who are not fans of punk, Blaqk Audio's AFI punk roots do appear to be stripped away with more of an emphasis on electronica and pop. The sound is not angry or defiant.

Indeed, Cex Cells is obsessed with questions in the lyrics. These are not angry - question authority - questions, but rather emotive and soulful questions like, "Who could just resist distant beauty" ("Semiotic Love")? Indeed, it seems many of the lines end with question marks, save - ironically - on the song "Where Would You Like Them Left?" which is the only song on the album with a question in the title. Far from making the album seem wishy-washy or uncertain, Cex Cells is captivated with a sense of yearning that unifies the entire album. Despite going from the almost gothic sounding "Stiff Kittens" into an almost archetypal 70's pop ballad (I kid you not, it could have been . . .) with "The Fear Of Being Found" the lyrics almost all contain a sense of yearning and an underlying sense of loss and abandonment. I suppose if they had entitled the album "Music To Cry Yourself To Sleep With," it might not have sold as many copies.

Havok and Puget are surprisingly able lyricists on Cex Cells. The pair gets surprisingly deep for a group marketed toward angsty teens. On "Bitter For Sweet," they beg to be saved by exploring the numbness which pervades our society, with lines like, "Can you tell me what stops the pain? / Self medication? / Science, saviors, tragedy? / How deep must we cut to reach sensation? / Find it. Bring it back to me / Where the void remains." This is far more poetic than most lines I've heard featured by artists at Hot Topic - which is one of the stores promoting Blaqk Audio. And, for the most part, it works.

Except that Cex Cells is a remarkably repetitive album. Arguably the best track on the album, "The Fear Of Being Found" is dragged down by its repetition. The song, which is almost five minutes long, is a surprisingly soft ballad understating the synthesizers and focusing heavily on Havok's vocals. This is only a problem because the song repeats the refrain of "Could I change one thing? / Could I change your mind? / Shall we burn it just like the last time? / I can't change a thing, can't explain why I never felt it / Not even the first time" ("The Fear Of Being Found") five times with only two other stanzas of lines and a bridge in between. Now I like the lines and the performance, but it gets old and the album is consumed with similar repetitions throughout. The album drags on as Blaqk Audio simply repeats itself.

Add to that, there is a derivative quality to Cex Cells. The album does sound a lot like Depeche Mode, which I've never been all that fond of. Perhaps what bothers me about the comparison is that I often hear Depeche Mode lines that have very predictable rhyme schemes and on Blaqk Audio songs like "Where Would You Like Them Left?" the group uses such obvious and overused rhymes like fine/mine, know/so and rhyming you with itself and lose with itself. In addition to the rhymes, the sense of the synth domination is reminiscent of Depeche Mode. The significant difference between the groups comes with the lyrics and the lead vocals.

Lead singer Davey Havok is articulate and expressive with most of the lines he sings. To his credit, the group does not often produce over his voice so from the beginning, his melodic tones are carried with the sense of a human voice instead of an overbearing synthesizer or the production elements that sometimes drown the lead singer, especially of younger bands. But Havok seems to be determined to have his actual voice heard and that works to the benefit of Black Audio. Havok has a wonderful range that takes him from tenor to the upper ranges of bass and he remains articulate and clear through everything. Cex Cells is populated by songs where the lyrics are prioritized, thus the vocals are crisp and important and that works. Instead of covering their poetry with yelling or production elements, the vocals are put forth.

And that works wonderfully and it worthy of some praise. Despite the album's problems with repetition and its difficulties finding its own musical voice, Cex Cells is surprisingly worthwhile. When I listen to more experimental music, I tend to pop in my copy of Moby's Play (reviewed here!), though Cex Cells is more like Play: The B-Sides (reviewed here!) without the use of sampling. In this way, Blaqk Audio is innovative and artistic and the endeavor challenges the artists to create their own art. For a while, I'm sure when I'm in the mood for something different, it will be Cex Cells I pop into my players.

The group might not be "there" yet, but it's a good start and the endeavor ought to be supported. Both Best Buy and Hot Topic stores have versions of Cex Cells that include a bonus track (a different one for each of those stores), though the album is fine in its prime form. The best track is the surprisingly slow and sensual "The Fear Of Being Found" and the weak link is the utterly unmemorable "Again, Again, and Again," which after five listens still has not left any genuine impression on me.

For other intriguing artists, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Actually (2-disc version) – Pet Shop Boys
Fire - Electric Six
Century Child - Nightwish


For other music reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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