After 2003's major-label debut, Sing The Sorrow, made AFI (short for A Fire Inside) a massive success, the group seemed in an artistic quandary. Rather than cranking out another album to capitalize on its newfound success, AFI spent two years crafting the follow-up, reportedly writing more than a hundred songs in the process. Big expectations inevitably coincide with such a lengthy buildup, suggesting Decemberunderground could be AFI's OK Computer.

It isn't. But it is an ambitious, enjoyable album that expands AFI's sound while retaining the bombastic, aggressive rock the band played throughout the '90s. Of course it isn't the same, but that works in AFI's favor‚ÄĒthe rigid template of its old melodic hardcore grew boring quickly. Producer Jerry Finn specializes in making punk more palatable‚ÄĒas he's done with Blink-182, Green Day, Alkaline Trio, and others‚ÄĒand Decemberunderground's measured attack reflects his influence.

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"Prelude 12/21" opens the album in suitably introductory fashion, with spooky keyboards, booming "We Will Rock You"-style percussion, strings, layers and layers of vocals… and no guitars. It's a striking deviation from AFI's style, and it lays the groundwork for later artier moments. As if to allay the fears of fans worried by the first song, the aptly titled "Kill Caustic" comes next, with guitars raging and singer Davey Havok switching from sing-songy crooning to shouting. However, Decemberunderground's focus remains melodic: Massively catchy choruses anchor "Miss Murder," "Summer Shudder," "Love Like Winter," "The Missing Frame," and "The Killing Lights," but all 12 songs have their share of obvious and surreptitious hooks.

AFI clearly wants to have both the art and the heart‚ÄĒi.e., cerebral exploration and gut-punching rock‚ÄĒand Decemberunderground finds the group progressing nicely. But if it spent two years writing an album that still sounds transitional, striking that perfect balance make take quite some time.