I am undeniably a child of the 80s. The proof goes beyond my saved Care Bears, my love of classic NES video games, or that I can remember the excitement of getting a VCR so we could switch our Betamax movies over to VHS. The visceral happiness that blooms in my brain upon hearing any synth-heavy new wave-inflected pop song is deeply woven into my DNA–along with the coding that makes me prone to nosebleeds in winter and leaves a brown piece of genetic shrapnel in my right blue eye.
This love of electronic pop has guided many of my musical choices. From the bouncy joyful sorrow songs of the 80s to the sugary techno rush of 90s dance music onto the harsh loveliness of darkwave in the early 00s, I have chased that familiar sound that makes me giddy. (Think of a playlist that includes The Cure, Real McCoy and KMFDM.) And at the end of that chase, there is Blaqk Audio’s CexCells.
Some background: Blaqk Audio is the side project for AFI’s Davey Havok & Jade Puget. AFI’s last album decemberunderground had come out in 2006 & while I loved it, the first time I heard the song “Miss Murder” I knew my love for the band was waning. The shout-along choruses and the dense lyrics were typical but the sound was. . . I don’t know. . . too pretty and pat? In any case, a long way from Black Sails in the Sunset. When CexCells came out in 2007 and was touted as electronica, I thought that it would be a perfect convergence of a beloved band & a sound that I obsessed over.
For awhile, it was. The first song “Stiff Kittens” seems like a perfect bridge for the AFI faithful. The tempo, sing along choruses and the mysterious lyrics aren’t that far from something like “Miss Murder.” (Although the repeated ‘Sanctuaries’ remind me of cartoon parodies of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.) “Snuff On Digital” is another great track, where the contrast between the throbbing beat and the ethereal keyboard set a dramatic stage for Havok’s insistent ending, “This is a breakthrough/You’ll forget me not.”
Unfortunately, many of the songs meander. One, “The Fear of Being Found”, sounds like someone figured it would be great to have a glass armonica sound but then didn’t really know what else to add to the song. “On A Friday” sounds like the template of any techno song you’ve ever heard ever, down to the delicate shuddery synths that tease the pressure of your eardrums. (In fact, those sounds are used without much variation in most of the songs.) And finally, Havok’s impenetrable lyrics are not best served by the electronica genre. For example, “Where Would You Like Them Left?” has a catchy chorus: Strip for me as I have stripped for you/We’ve got nothing to hide and even less to lose. The words sound clear and defiant over a playful piano. Then, Havok hisses the rest of the song & when you actually read the lyrics, their meaning becomes even murkier.
But, for these faults, there are choice songs on CexCells that aspire to that perfect mix of pop/techno nirvana. “Semiotic Love” is blissful ecstasy at an arcade-themed rave & should be a staple at every goth karoke party. The song shows off Havok’s high register and singing along will make you feel dizzy. Or maybe that’s just me as I gasp for air trying to sustain the high notes.
I have kept from getting rid of this CD mainly because it is a mixed bag. There are a few songs that I truly love & satisfy that inborn craving of mine for synths, synths & more synths. But reviewing the CD now, there isn’t enough to keep me totally satisfied. CexCells also marks the last CD I bought associated with AFI. By the time Crash Love came out in 2009, my interest in the band had subsided & I gave that CD a pass. With that, I think I’ll let Blaqk Audio go as a symbol of my waning joy in the band. After I burn “Semiotic Love” to my hard drive of course.