When I decided to do Senses Fail for this week’s edition of Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, I spent a lot of time listening through their discography in the car with my partner. We were helping a friend move at the time, which gave us a lot of downtime in the car, and it turns out that Senses Fail are actually really fucking good. I mean, I’ve known that they were a pretty consistent band, and I’ve been particularly impressed with their newest records, but even their less iconic records are still pretty damn good. With a discography clocking in at seven full-length records, a warmly-regarded debut EP, and some scattered singles and compilation tracks and whatnot, I feel pretty confident in saying that almost all of Senses Fail’s material (save for a few songs here and there) is at the very least in the “damn fine” category. In fact, on nearly all terms– ethical concerns, musical consistency, lyrical competency– Senses Fail are genuinely contenders for the best band of their scene and era, though they never get brought up in those conversations, for reasons I can’t quite grasp.
By all rights, though, Senses Fail shouldn’t be that good, right? Their career trajectory makes zero sense– they were supposed to flame out after their sleeper hit debut and crossover success sophomore record, either plunged into the depths of an endless nostalgia-fueled touring circuit (looking at you, Hawthorne Heights– for the record, I saw them last night and they ruled) or dwelling in embarrassed semi-obscurity, opening for bands that are a fraction of the size they were at their peak (this is currently where, for example, Matchbook Romance resides).
Against all odds, though, Senses Fail have persevered and overcome, and I would say have even thrived in the current musical landscape (although, as erstwhile vocalist/stalwart center of the band Buddy Nielsen would tell you, they’re certainly not making bank or anything). Their set lists tend to be a respectable mixture of old and new, their fans actually seem to give a shit about material from all eras of the band’s career, and they’ve kind of become a shadow version of Paramore– vocalist-driven vehicles, constantly refining their sound and taking brave steps forward, but operating on vastly different sonic and commercial wavelengths (Buddy and Hayley Williams have more musical tastes in common than you’d probably expect, though). For any band to remain relevant and respected as long as Senses Fail has is an admirable feat, but to do so when you’re the dinky scream-pop outfit who fucked up shamefully hard on Conan O’Brien’s show in 2005 is pretty much unheard of.
To me, the answer is kinda complex, kinda not– Senses Fail, and Buddy Nielsen in particular, is extremely good at adapting to the times without sacrificing the core of what makes Senses Fail sound like Senses Fail. By the same token, no matter where Senses Fail goes, Buddy’s long-vaunted honesty, openness, and authenticity serves as a guide and an eye of the storm for fans. So sit down, settle in, and stretch your legs out to coffin length, kids, because today we’re biting to break skin on a career that’s been lost and found. This is Senses Fail.
In 2001, James “Buddy” Nielsen was an angry seventeen-year-old living in New Jersey by way of upstate New York. Born to parents who divorced when he was five and suffering from lifelong issues with panic disorders, he was reeling from the events of 9/11 and the death of a close friend. Seeking solace in Buddhism and the concept of nirvana, he was yearning for some sort of release in the form of music, and began writing lyrics influenced by beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Charles Bukowski (at 12, Buddy’s dad gave him a copy of Bukowski’s Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame). Despite some dalliances with Metallica and 90s hip-hop, he was drawn into the East Coast hardcore scene by the band/hoodie brand Bane and soon posted an ad on the internet looking for band members. It was answered by soon-to-be lead guitarist Garrett Zablocki, who soon recruited his friends in the form of rhythm guitarist Dave Miller and bassist James Gill. Eventually, they found 14-year-old wunderkind drummer Dan Trapp and settled on the name Senses Fail, based on the Buddhist concept of meditation-as-transcendence.
Senses Fail were part of the extremely vibrant and hyperactive New Jersey underground music scene, which also begat bands like My Chemical Romance and Armor for Sleep. At the time of their formation, though, they were just another DIY band playing skate parks, churches, and VFW halls, praying to be the next Saves the Day or Thursday, but willing to settle for being the next Lifetime. At some point, James Gill proved to be a point of friction for the band, who soon dismissed him and replaced him with former Tokyo Rose drummer Mike Glita. There’s some confusion over exactly which songs James Gill played on and which songs Mike Glita played on, but I’m pretty confident in saying this was the lineup of Senses Fail that recorded their earliest releases, a couple of rough demos that was eventually polished and reshaped into a proper EP, From the Depths of Dreams.
Depths is a bit of an odd beast. As an introduction to Senses Fail, it’s passable– the band’s early fascination with skate punk like MxPx and Pennywise was apparent in the extremely melodic punk riffs and their penchant for harmonies, but it’s hard to hear that when the songs are stretched out, Appleseed Cast-style, with lengthy bridges and guitar work that toes the line between amateurish and intricate.
Meanwhile, Buddy’s young voice was a marvel– he’d never really be able to sing this well at high registers ever again, and his screams had not yet developed the beastly quality that would define the band’s later work, but it was already clear that he had a talent for constructing cutesy Jimmy Eat World-esque vocal melodies, intercut with sparse but effective screams (sometimes assisted by Glita and Zablocki). On his Washed Up Emo appearance, Buddy would later credit screamo bands like Orchid and Saetia with influencing his initial decision to scream, but here it comes off like a more adolescent version of Thursday, or even a more emo-inflected Poison the Well.
There’s a lot to like about From the Depths of Dreams, whether it’s the clever, plunky guitar hook that kicks off “Bloody Romance” or the extremely infectious chorus to “The Ground Folds,” but I have some quibbles with it, too– neither “Free Fall Without A Parachute” nor “Dreaming A Reality” have any right to be as long as they are, and the lyrics to “One Eight Seven” are almost unforgivably early-2000s, what with the clunky poison-dart metaphor and the desire to murder whoever the vague woman is who has done Buddy wrong (lest we mention the “I’m insane” refrain, either).
And yet, there’s an undeniable spark to the EP’s best moments. They’re a band with lots of promise, an irrepressible ear for hooks, an interesting and varied sonic texture, and a seemingly never-ending well of energy. Opener “Steven,” a eulogy for Buddy’s aforementioned friend, is as potent and touching a song as they’d ever go on to write, and surprisingly mature considering the band’s collective ages. And I know I clowned on “One Eight Seven”‘s hammy lyrics, but on a musical level, the song is brilliant. The shimmery, chiming intro leads up to the bleeding-vocal climax with confidence and aplomb, and even early on Senses Fail were smart enough to include a gang vocal part that is sheer joy live (this performance of the song at the 2003 Skate and Surf fest is one of my favorite live videos ever– Buddy looks overjoyed at the love for the song pouring out of the crowd).
From the Depths of Dreams was initially released in 2002 on local indie ECA (who are now mostly known for peddling the mathcore-derived chaos of fellow New Jersey natives The Number 12 Looks Like You), but only 300 copies were pressed and thanks to both Senses Fail’s fervent touring (with bands like the Used, Finch, and Millencolin) and the newly-minted Internet message board hype machine, it sold out pretty much immediately.
However, the EP was soon snapped up by the voracious maw of early-2000s pop-punk monolith Drive-Thru Records, known at the time as the home of squeaky-clean, almost-ready-for-prime-time players like New Found Glory, the Movielife, and the Starting Line (who Senses Fail toured with), all of which were experiencing massive amounts of success on MTV and the touring circuits. Senses Fail, while a bit more screamy and rough around the edges, fit right in, and Drive-Thru’s well-publicized distribution deal with MCA Records allowed Senses Fail to reach a previously unprecedented amount of people. Drive-Thru sweetened the pot by throwing in two bonus tracks on the From the Depths of Dreams reissue, the short and punchy “Handguns and Second Chances” and an acoustic version of “The Ground Folds.” I believe that this is also around the time they recorded the fan-favorite B-side “Bastard Son,” but I could be wrong.
With From the Depths of Dreams somehow hitting 2003’s Billboard Top 200, Senses Fail were sitting pretty, ready to drop their debut record. Choosing Steve Evetts based on his work on Saves the Day’s Through Being Cool, they started tracking their first LP in April of 2003. The sessions would be extremely fruitful, producing eleven stellar, fully realized tracks with a cohesive musical style, despite the band’s frequent partying in the studio. Excited to release their first record, they brought it to the record label, and a very confusing mess ensued.
The aforementioned distribution deal with MCA had one slightly odd stipulation: MCA was allowed to poach whatever artists they wanted from Drive-Thru’s roster, whenever they wanted, in a kind of bizarro version of the deal that Fall Out Boy struck with Fueled By Ramen and Island. However, soon after the record was finished, MCA got swallowed by Geffen, who shelved the record for eight months, while simultaneously pressuring Senses Fail to get back in the studio and write a more obvious “hit.” The band begrudgingly complied, recording “Buried A Lie” and “Rum Is for Drinking, Not Burning” in October of 2003; those ended up becoming the hits from the record, so it worked out for both parties.
However, the band was becoming uncomfortable with the culture of Geffen, a record label that boasted the success of, well, Limp Bizkit and Drowning Pool, who Senses Fail imagined themselves to be in defiance of. Things came to a head when Senses Fail met with the president of Geffen, who didn’t even know their names (referring to Buddy as “Bubby” the entire time).
Enter Vagrant Records. If you’re reading this, under the age of 40, and have heard the word “emo” before, I can pretty much guarantee that’s because of Vagrant, who successfully broke the Get-Up Kids in 1999 with Something to Write Home About and proceeded to release more extremely popular albums from the likes of Alkaline Trio, Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day, the Anniversary, From Autumn to Ashes, and Thrice, among many, many others. Point being, they were uniquely equipped to promote Senses Fail, who slot fairly well into their “plaintive, desperate pop-punk” ouvre, despite the dash of hardcore vocals– the hooks were there, the band members were cute, and the spiked belts, tight jeans, and flat-ironed hair were in full effect. To make things even easier, Vagrant was owned by Interscope, and therefore was part of the same messy network of labels as Geffen and Drive-Thru. After some negotiation and contractual hoo-ha (the result of which was that Drive-Thru and Vagrant’s logos were both displayed prominently on the packaging of the band’s next two records), in September 2004, Let It Enfold You was unleashed upon the world.
YOU’RE CUTE WHEN YOU SCREAM
Let It Enfold You struggles with a unique form of dissonance, in that it’s the band’s most enduring and beloved release, and it’s also the album that critics were the most lukewarm towards when it came out. On the one hand, I want to agree with the critics– the lyrics can be insultingly juvenile and misogynist, from the “I’ll leave you like your father did” throwaway in “Tie Her Down,” to the murder fantasy of “You’re Cute When You Scream,” to the playing-doctor conceit in the chorus of “Buried A Lie.” The band were also benefiting from the success of the Used and Thursday, who in 2004 had reached their respective peaks of popularity and brought screaming and post-hardcore song structure to the masses.
On a songwriting and performance level, however, Let It Enfold You is more than a touch above the glut of similar releases that year. This is a record full of moments built to grip your heart, a kind of thrillingly permanent immaturity bolstered by effervescent musicianship and Buddy’s bubbly vocals. The guitar hook in “Bite to Break Skin”? Perfect. The bridge of “Choke On This”? Irresistible. The way Buddy pushes his voice from clean and cute to a disgusting scream in the first verse of “The Irony of Dying On Your Birthday”? Endlessly endearing. The choruses are here on the record, with “Buried A Lie” and “NJ Falls Into the Atlantic” leading the pack, their kinetic energy practically threatening to leap from the stereo to your living room.
This record is like the synthesis of Through Being Cool and Full Collapse, or maybe a more violent and turbulent version of Tell All Your Friends– a perfect fusion of pop-punk’s catchiness, emo’s melodrama, and post-hardcore’s urgency and anger. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the bridge of the title track, a classic twinkly breakdown with lyrics that are simultaneously fantastic and terrible. Remember the shockingly poignant life-as-a-movie metaphor from blink-182’s “Apple Shampoo”? Imagine that pushed to its breaking point, in the context of the New Jersey basement scene. Given that the song and album’s name are derived from a Charles Bukowski poem, it’s no surprise that the band was already showing off their more literary bent before it would properly come to fruition.
The record’s popularity was bolstered by the success of “Buried A Lie,” which boasted a video shot on the set of Guiding Light (a soap opera that Buddy’s mother had actually acted on). If you remember the time when Fuse would designate certain videos to be “Oven Fresh,” then you probably remember the video for “Buried A Lie” being an enormous hit. Senses Fail were also early adopters of PureVolume, which was a masterful form of self-promotion that paid off beautifully for them. Throw in some strategic touring (with bands like From Autumn to Ashes, Boys Night Out, Moneen, My Chemical Romance, the Bled, Silverstein, Name Taken, and Midtown), and it was no surprise that Let It Enfold You became as successful as it was. It was the edgy, more fucked up and anguished little brother of Saves the Day, released just as that band had given in to more adult pop influences with In Reverie, and it was literal candy to the skinny-jean-wearing youth.
However, the peak of the band’s success coincided with constant internal tension. Buddy would later go on record as becoming an extreme alcoholic and sex addict during this time in order to cope with the return of his panic attacks, but he was hiding it beneath the ruse of being a college-age boy who was enamored with the rock star lifestyle. That didn’t stop him from ruining a lot of opportunities for the band– not trusting his voice for “Buried A Lie,” he elected for the band to perform “Rum Is for Drinking, Not for Burning” on Conan and ended up being suffering so badly from dissociative anxiety that he forgot the words.
Buddy was far from the only member who engaged in risky and obnoxious behavior, and the barely-out-of-their-teens band conjured a lot of rumors pretty much everywhere they went. A famous 2005 Alternative Press cover story dispelled some of the more outlandish stories about the band– one member having a glass eye, Buddy getting a girl pregnant on Warped Tour and having a drug dealer dad in Florida, every member of the band dating porn stars– and contributed to new rumors, such as the claim that Let It Enfold You was recorded in a strip club owned by the Russian mafia, as well as a story about the band getting into a fight on Warped Tour because someone took issue with a shirt that Dave Miller was wearing that said “Girls have pussies” and proudly displayed an enormous, hard dick.
Additionally, Dave was dealing with a lot of his own issues and left the band, but the band’s extremely incompetent lawyer told them that because Dave wouldn’t sign the contract forfeiting his share in the band, they were to withhold his mechanical royalties until he did (for anyone reading this who doesn’t know anything about entertainment law, that’s not only immoral, but highly illegal and would result in a protracted lawsuit in 2011, only solved when Buddy himself took over the band’s finances and paid Dave all the back royalties he was owed).
Heath Saraceno, former vocalist and guitarist of Senses Fail tour-mates Midtown (who had broken up in 2005), stepped in to fill Dave’s shoes. Midtown, despite also being New Jersey hardcore kids, had a much poppier aesthetic than Senses Fail, and Heath’s knack for catchy, layered songwriting added a lot more pop sophistication to the band’s sound. Buddy, in the midst of the most emotionally turbulent moment of his life, turned inward instead of outward for his newer lyrics, exploring the most fractured and tortured parts of his psyche. Additionally, while on tour with Silverstein in late 2004, Buddy’s grandmother– someone who was a major part of his life growing up and provided him with maternal support during his often fractious and tumultuous childhood– passed away, and Buddy was unable to leave the tour to bury her. The resultant panic attacks and Buddy’s self-described “downward spiral” formed much of the impetus for the lyrical introspection on Still Searching. For this reason, I believe that this moment is when Senses Fail really became Senses Fail. Despite Let It Enfold You being their most popular release, Senses Fail were never meant to be just another band screaming about the girls who broke their heart, and with their next record, they finally fulfilled that promise and eked out their own niche within their world– existential pop-punk.
Writing some 40 songs and cutting it down to 13, the band recruited producer Brian McTernan (who would stay with the band for their next three albums), and cut 2006’s Still Searching, which would become not just their best-selling album but also their first true masterpiece.
In my article about the Used, I made a point to compare Lies for the Liars to My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, a Queen-inspired concept album about death that incorporated elements from the critically-respected rock canon and launched My Chem into the greater heights of true acclaim. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Still Searching did not do the same for Senses Fail. Maybe it was because even just listening to it betrays the instability within the band (Buddy’s personal problems momentarily caused the rest of the band to consider kicking him out), or maybe it’s because Senses Fail never gave up their screaming streak (overt hardcore influence in a nominally non-hardcore band will always be poison to rock critics), but Still Searching is the band’s most cohesive and memorable set of songs, a record that explores the concept of suicidal tendencies (shout out to Senses Fail’s absolutely stellar cover of “Institutionalized”) with more grace and authenticity than almost any band in their genre had done before. Other bands would make performative gestures towards mental health; Senses Fail ended Still Searching with a three-song suite that documents a fictional account of Buddy leaping from a building and succumbing to his injuries with unflinching detail and passion.
Still Searching is, true to the roots of the band’s moniker, a study in finding balance– the heaviest moments of their career so far careen alongside the most powerful moments of melody they’d constructed yet, choruses and breakdowns existing alongside each other in a manner that feels wholly organic. Kicking things off with the spacious, airy, and ethereal opener “The Rapture,” the band contrasts an ostensibly uplifting musical atmosphere with the declarations that “the good book was wrong” and “we’re destined to all die alone,” before sliding headlong into “Bonecrusher,” a song about alcoholism that makes no promises to improve and boasts an actual bonecrusher of a riff.
The heaviness continues with “Sick Or Sane (Fifty for a Twenty)”. It’s interesting that Buddy’s addiction to sex only became common knowledge in recent years, given that this song is as literal and non-metaphorical as it gets– “Take me to a hotel room,” “Kiss me like I paid for this,” and “I’m paying you to suck out all my faith” are nakedly confessional lines about the sex workers that Buddy would reveal that he’d spent thousands of dollars on over the years. The chorus is a sarcastic and vitriolic screed against a narrative that would portray him as a tortured artist– “I know the white coats just don’t get it/I’m a genius with a headache”– and the song caps off with a phenomenal guitar solo before returning to the chorus with an even heavier, noodly groove that cements the song’s gritty theme.
“Can’t Be Saved” and “Calling All Cars” are interesting case studies, being much more accessible than the rest of the record and correspondingly being the most successful tracks of the band’s career, thanks to strategic radio play and placement on the soundtracks of games like Guitar Hero 3. Catchy as they may be, they’re not nearly as desperate and introspective as the rest of the record– it’s fitting that they’re immediately followed on the record by the hardcore-tinged assault of “Shark Attack,” which signals that the band was using them as a way to lull the listener into a false sense of security.
The title track, while not the heaviest song musically on the album by a long shot, certainly comes close with the lyrics– a song about the failure of therapy to help Buddy solve his problems, its towering bridge section features gang vocals moaning “Oh my god, I’ve lost control,” an excellent example of the band’s ability to make the personal communal. The record stalls for a minute with the enjoyable but formulaic “To All the Crowded Rooms” before showcasing the band at its most vulnerable with the gorgeous ballad “Lost and Found,” which honestly should have been a successful single in its own right, layered acoustic guitars, mountainous chorus and all.
“Every Day Is A Struggle” is just as intense other moments on the record, with its infectious “So long to the past year, I poured it down the drain” refrain functioning as a paean to Buddy’s alcoholism, but it’s most useful when viewed as a mood-setter for the bombastic finale of the record. “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” is stunning, a vaguely industrial intro setting the tone for a song that lays out Buddy’s issues with an absentee father and a mother he is unable to conjure up feelings for before climaxing with a monstrous bridge section that both nods to the record’s themes of substance abuse and establishes the conclusion of the psychodrama that’s been accumulating throughout the record– the narrator’s decision to commit suicide (“I know my body is ready to fly/I start the countdown backwards from ten/When I reach one my family name will end”). Far from being melodramatic, the intense intimacy of the record allows this moment to have the gravitas it deserves.
“Daddy Issues” segues into “Negative Space,” an extremely pretty and even somewhat Appleseed Cast-esque instrumental that symbolizes the silence and clarity of the narrator’s tumble to the ground– when the big kick drum hits, the song ends and so too does the narrator’s flight, hitting the ground with a hard thud.
The last song on Still Searching is “The Priest and the Matador.” Full disclosure, this is my absolute favorite Senses Fail song, and I will defend it with my dying breath. Neither a glorification of suicide nor a condemnation of those who make that choice, “The Priest and the Matador” is a deceptively simple storytelling song about the final moments of the narrator’s life after he hits the ground, but is the apex of Buddy’s lyrical talent. The running theme of loss of faith is finally given the full attention it deserves, as Buddy compares his dying body “kissing the ground” to a cross turned upside down before telling onlookers trying to save his soul with religion to “please get the fuck away.” Musically, the song might be the band’s peak achievement, sailing right past their hardcore roots and embracing a collision of guitar-heavy power pop and acoustic sensitivity. The record ends on a serene moment– the band fades out and all we are left is the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The time of death is half past six.
It’s worth giving a listen to the deluxe edition of Still Searching, because there are some secret treasures that merit a close listen, especially the unflappable banger “Stretch Your Legs to Coffin Length” and the no-fat, driving cover of the Cranberries’ “Salvation.” It makes me wonder what Still Searching might have been like as a double album, although at the end of the day I think that a single album will always be a better distillation of what that band was trying to accomplish.
The release cycle for Still Searching is also representative of the band’s success during this time period, as the band performed on Taste of Chaos and Warped Tour alongside extremely successful peers like Saosin, Bleeding Through, and Alexisonfire, as well as the rising star of likeminded hardcore-gone-pop-punk misfits Set Your Goals (whose album Mutiny would lay the groundwork for the more hardcore-inflected pop-punk scene that would rekindle Senses Fail’s relevance in later years).
Given Still Searching‘s massive commercial success, it’s unsurprising that Senses Fail attempted to recreate it track-by-track with 2008’s Life Is Not A Waiting Room, another album that explores the themes of mental anguish and substance dependency. Granted, there are some differences. Buddy seems to move towards a malleable vocal approach that owes a strong debt to Anthony Green of Saosin and Circa Survive, and his harsh vocals have finally reached the depth and pain that would be the greatest asset of their later work. Bassist Mike Glita is replaced by former Hot Water Music bassist Jason Black, who adds a session-musician level of competency and a pro’s sense of intricacy to the proceedings. Still, it’s hard to ignore that ethereal opener “Fireworks at Dawn” and thunderous follow-up “Lungs Like Gallows” seem to follow the playbook of “The Rapture” and “Bonecrusher” to a tee (the riff of “Lungs Like Gallows” is even a near dead-ringer for “Bonecrusher”). The title itself is also an obscured reference to Charles Bukowski’s Pulp, echoing Let It Enfold You. Self-plagiarism isn’t a great look.
That’s not to say that Life Is Not A Waiting Room is a bad album; on the contrary, I don’t think Senses Fail have ever made an album that falls below an above-average level of quality. Waiting Room is probably the band’s best production, for one, completely absent of compression as well as exceedingly bright and clear. “Garden State” is an astonishingly good single, an extremely agile guitar lead dancing around a propulsive chorus that gets the gang vocal accompaniment it deserves. “Wolves At the Door” is an appropriately heavy addition to the proceedings, and it’s accordingly become a fan-favorite and mainstay of the band’s setlist. However, there seems to be cracks showing, like the rote and predictable (though nonetheless enjoyable) “Family Tradition” and the forgettable “Ali for Cody.”
There’s also a certain level of monotony that begins to set in– placing “Hair of the Dog” and “Four Years” next to each other was a bit of a sequencing error, as both songs are meditations on Buddy’s alcoholism and that well is beginning to run dry for inspiration. Buddy has gone on record as being ultimately disappointed that Life Is Not A Waiting Room didn’t move the band forward commercially or creatively, and these songs are the best arguments in that direction.
Still, the record is salvaged by Buddy’s trademark honesty and empathy. Deciding to end a longterm relationship and striking up a close friendship with a terminally ill fan named Marcel, his life was getting no less chaotic, which informs this record’s strongest moment, the beautiful and relentlessly emotional and life-affirming “Yellow Angels.” The stop-start rhythm and vocal intensity of “Chandelier” is another standout, especially once the keyboard-inflected bridge kicks in. And of course, “Map the Streets” and “Blackout” are a perfect one-two punch of closers, showing this iteration at the height of its powers before it would inevitably implode.
And implode it did, as Garrett Zablocki decided to leave the band and was replaced by Zack Roach (although Garrett did still play guitar on 2010’s The Fire). Heath Saraceno left as well– Buddy describes this era of Senses Fail’s career as a “sinking ship,” and Heath, who had already experienced a band trying and failing to break big with Midtown, left to focus on career and family. With the absence of the twin jets propelling the band’s songwriting, I feel like The Fire– though still an engaging and solid record– falls squarely into “safe” territory.
The band had supported the release of Life Is Not A Waiting Room with a tour alongside rising post-hardcore acts like Dance Gavin Dance and Foxy Shazam, as well as longtime mathcore stalwarts The Number 12 Looks Like You. You would think that would contribute to a more adventurous songwriting style, but instead The Fire is an album that can’t decide which side of Senses Fail it wants to land on. There’s songs like “Coward,” which features the heaviest and most savage breakdown of the band’s career so far, as well as songs like “New Year’s Eve,” “Lifeboats,” and “Ghost Town” that benefit greatly from the added aggressive edge. There’s also songs like “Saint Anthony” and “Landslide,” which are pitch-perfect pop-punk songs with anthemic choruses and layered composition that communicate the same message found on the album’s opening title track– it’s okay to feel lost. Beyond that, though, the record veers between forgettable and genuinely kind of bad; penultimate song “Hold On” is the worst offender, sounding exactly like the type of latter-day inauthentic tripe made by bands who took cues from Senses Fail’s aesthetic without grasping the true heart of their sound. “Nero” doesn’t fare much better, being perhaps the least memorable song of the band’s catalog.
Production-wise, The Fire is also kind of muddled, being markedly muddier and more clipped and tinny than the crystal clear, punchy production that defined Still Searching and Life Is Not A Waiting Room, sounding somewhat like Brian McTernan was beginning to tire of the band’s musical stagnation.
I’m not saying that this is even a bad record– songs like “Headed West” and “Irish Eyes” are catchy enough without being as cloying as “Hold On”– but it’s also so clearly the worst Senses Fail record. While Life Is Not A Waiting Room elicits disappointment from Buddy, The Fire seems to evoke resignation and borderline embarrassment. 2012’s best-of collection, Follow Your Bliss, only includes two songs from The Fire (the title track and “New Year’s Eve”), seemingly more out of obligation to their more recent material than an attempt to showcase the best of what this record has to offer.
Still, something interesting was percolating in the Senses Fail camp. I keep returning to the tour-mates that Senses Fail select throughout their careers, because I think who you tour with is usually indicative of the culture that you choose to align yourself with. In this case, Senses Fail did a co-headlining tour with Bayside where they hand-picked Title Fight and Balance & Composure as support, two of the rising stars within the sadboi pop-punk world (for further illumination on this subject, my friend Finn made this excellent video about that era). Following that, they went on two similar tours– one with melodic hardcore saviors The Ghost Inside as well as Man Overboard and Transit, two of the unquestioned commercial titans of early 2010s pop-punk, and another one with Make Do and Mend (proponents of the post-hardcore/nu-screamo “Wave” that also included Touché Amoré, Defeater, La Dispute, and Pianos Become the Teeth), Stick To Your Guns (purveyors of Strife-esque metallic hardcore), and the Story So Far, who would soon become the definitive band of that wave of pop-punk. Hitching their wagon to the Story So Far during this time (right before they released their classic debut, Under Soil and Dirt), was a wise move– Buddy even managed them for a period of time.
While Senses Fail were entrenching themselves in the current wave of semi-underground music, their record label, Vagrant, was moving in a different direction. Enamored with the faux-indie sounds that were beginning to explode in both word-of-mouth popularity and radio airplay, Vagrant began to sign acts like the 1975, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, and Blitzen Trapper. It was clear that they were focusing on a different zeitgeist, one that had no room for Senses Fail. Vagrant did their due diligence by allowing Senses Fail to release Follow Your Bliss in 2012; a best-of album that interestingly organizes the band’s biggest hits like a proper album sequence or an abbreviated setlist, rather than simply playing them in chronological order, Follow Your Bliss also includes a bonus EP of entirely new tracks, showing that the band took their music more seriously than the typical band of their era, who would maybe throw in one half-hearted new song in an attempt to appeal to collectors.
Still, Vagrant seemed to have lost faith in the commercial viability of Senses Fail, and consigned them to a new imprint, Staple, which was reserved for Get-Up Kids reissues and the few bands from their early years who were still making music. Adding to the stress of Buddy’s everyday struggles of substance abuse, anxiety, and the lawsuit between him and Dave Miller, Staple also placed him in charge of marketing and managing the imprint. At this point, it seemed like Buddy should have taken the hint and broken up Senses Fail, who were pretty much a shell of rotating session and touring musicians at this point aside from longtime drummer Dan Trapp. Instead, Buddy bared his teeth, buckled down, and kickstarted a renaissance in the band’s career.
THE COURAGE OF AN OPEN HEART
In Spanish, Renacer means to be reborn (hella Catholic, ain’t it?). According to the Spotify commentary for Renacer, Buddy wasn’t very familiar with Spanish prior to the recording of this album, but was struck with inspiration while writing the song “Mi Amor,” which is sung mostly in the language, while the band would later adopt a mascot that deliberately echoes Día de Muertos masks. Accusations of cultural appropriation aside, Renacer is a more than accurate moniker for this record, which pushes Senses Fail into the heaviest sound of their career. It wasn’t entirely unexpected– in 2011, Buddy had released a self-titled EP with the band Bayonet, which also featured members of the Banner, Suburban Scum, and Fit for An Autopsy, and is an extremely satisfying and punishing piece of hardcore with varied influences. Accordingly, Bayonet disbanded when the band was going through the writing process of Renacer— according to Buddy, Bayonet didn’t need to exist as an outlet for his hardcore side anymore, since Senses Fail adopted those sounds for themselves (and Nate from the Banner was assisting with the songwriting on Renacer anyway).
Although a bit of a studio project– Jason Black was busy with commitments to Hot Water Music at the time, so Zack Roach pulled double duty on guitar and bass– Renacer is a refreshingly organic and warm-sounding album in comparison to The Fire, and benefits greatly from the claustrophobic mixing (check the deeply-distorted bass and pained-vocal combo that opens standout “The Path”). It helps that the band had picked Shaun Lopez– famous for working with heavier and more adventurous acts like Deftones and Far– to helm the production on this effort.
With Garrett Zablocki firmly outside the fold, the band brought in Matt Smith from the highly political and equally melodic punk group Strike Anywhere to join in on second guitar, and the result feels extremely full and realized. The band’s penchant for melody hasn’t completely disappeared– the chorus of “Mi Amor” and the extremely catchy late-album standout “Snake Bite” both hearken back to their earlier days– but this is a record with a nearly single-minded focus on heaviness, from the skull-cracking breakdown that finishes out “Closure/Rebirth” to the Isis-gone-pop-punk sludgy post-metal tactics on the closer “Between the Mountains and the Sea.”
This record is full of great and surprisingly inventive moments. The Deftones influence is out in full force on “Frost Flower,” at its heart a gorgeous dream pop song but drenched in disgustingly heavy guitar tones, while “Glass” is maybe the hardest love song ever written. My personal favorite moment on this record is the denouement, “Courage of the Knife,” which intersperses thunderous verses with the almost mocking chorus of “I believe your god is dead,” while simultaneously managing to sound uplifting and hopeful rather than cruel or pessimistic.
Taken as a musical effort, Renacer is a remarkable achievement for a band at the point of their career that Senses Fail were at. Being able to reinvent your sound is one thing, but being able to do it successfully after a full decade of consistent records in another genre is an entirely different matter. I remember when this record came out, it was a Big Deal that Senses Fail had retooled in this way. While Renacer might not have quite reached the commercial highs of Let It Enfold You or Still Searching, it absolutely started a word-of-mouth campaign that signaled Senses Fail didn’t deserve to be placed in the faceless pile of nostalgia acts that were polluting the scene in 2013. The band fearlessly played on the cross-section of pop-punk and hardcore fans that was de riguer at the time, touring with bands like Major League, Real Friends, and Such Gold one month, and then with For the Fallen Dreams, Expire, and Being As An Ocean the next (I saw them on the latter tour– the fucking Acacia Strain also played two stops on that one). The band fully leaned into their new “hardcore kid” image at this time– Buddy could often be seen wearing Backtrack and Infest shirts in press pictures, and they released a tour EP with covers of Pantera, Bad Religion, and American Nightmare songs.
2014 was a transitional year for the band, as Jason Black made a full exit and was replaced by Gavin Caswell, who toured with them on their 2014 10th anniversary tour for Let It Enfold You, which was supported by soon-to-be-superstars Knuckle Puck. Despite engaging in the nostalgia tour circuit, Buddy utilized the band’s newfound Cool Kid Points and his standing relationships with the Story So Far and Man Overboard to sign with Pure Noise Records, which was becoming (and still remains) the most vital and exciting label for new music within the hardcore and pop-punk spheres. Dan Trapp finally left the band, having spent his entire formative years in the band and wanting to explore new avenues in his life (they are still on good terms– Dan came back to record drums on the most recent Senses Fail LP). Excitingly, Dan’s replacement was none other than Chris Hornbrook, the restlessly creative and energetic drummer for experimental metalcore weirdos Poison the Well. With Hornbrook in place and Shaun Lopez returning as producer, it seemed like Senses Fail were on track to write an album even heavier than Renacer, and they did.
If you can find it, it’s worth taking a listen to the split single that Senses Fail did with labelmates Man Overboard in advance of this record– it includes a particularly good outtake, “All You Need Is Already Within You,” and showcases the band giving a pretty thorough hardcore makeover to Manny O’s “Real Talk” (which was already that band’s most aggressive– and best– song). Tours with new-school hardcore bands like Counterparts, Hundredth, and Capsize ensued (all bands who shared the sensibility of Senses Fail’s new records), as well as a tour with Silverstein, who had also curiously performed the same death-defying trick as Senses Fail themselves, appealing to a modern audience without losing their old audience.
Pull the Thorns From Your Heart is an unflinchingly, uncomfortably honest and open album, even by Buddy Nielsen’s standards. There are more exact details that I’ll go into later, but Buddy had become an unfailingly transparent voice in the public sphere, and his commitment to growth and self-improvement is palpable throughout Pull the Thorns from Your Heart, an album structured around Buddhist concepts (a spiritual return to the band’s roots and namesake). Questioned about the album’s concept and the band’s commitment to their abrasive sound, Buddy stated “Friction is what helps spur action.”
If there are any words that describe Pull the Thorns from Your Heart, they’re friction and action. Opener “The Three Marks of Existence” is a galloping punisher that leads into more face-punching numbers like “Carry the Weight,” “The Courage of an Open Heart,” and “Wounds,” all of which contrast their heart-grabbing heaviness with the most hopeful and yearning lyrics of the band’s career thus far. Album standout “Take Refuge” volleys between its lumbering, stoner-sludge main riff and a shockingly vulnerable and soft bridge section, while “Surrender” leans full-force into dreamy, borderline shoegaze atmospheres and layers screams far below the muck of the crescendo, as Buddy intones on top of everything, “There is a way out.”
Never a band to commit to one mood throughout a record, the hazy calm of “Surrender” is simply the eye of a hurricane that comes back in full force with “Dying Words,” which is a straight-up metalcore song (Will Putney, famed producer, guitarist of Fit for An Autopsy, and a former member of Bayonet with Buddy, contributed to the writing of this song and the title track). The breakdown of “Dying Words” is almost hilarious in its dissonance– guitar chugs and atmospherics that wouldn’t be out of place in a Knocked Loose song collide with gang vocals that scream, “There’s so much beauty/There’s so much love/If you’re willing to/Give up.” The overall effect isn’t laughable as much as it is vindicating. “The Importance of the Moment of Death” takes the foot off the gas for a moment, playing with a scuzzy, post-punky groove that churns below Buddy’s most pained vocal performance on the album and flows into a grungy bridge that recalls the most desperate moments on Alice In Chains’ Dirt.
The title track is another standout on the album, with the thickest low end and the most anthemic chorus on the album (its competition is definitely stiff). It also features perhaps my favorite line on the record, “I fucking hated myself, so I abused/My soul, my heart, my body/For a sexuality I didn’t choose.” The song surges upwards into a misty bridge section that alternates with screaming, almost recalling a more polished and poppy version of Deafheaven, before collapsing into a punishing, droning breakdown that would put many more “authentically” hardcore bands to shame. We’re not given a chance to rest before the record plunges us into “We Are All Returning Home,” a song that features some absolutely incredible drumming (the intro fill into the breakneck verse sends me reeling every time) and sonically recalls the skramz-revival aesthetic and soaring ambition of Touché Amoré. Once again, the song collapses into a gorgeous, clean vocal-laden bridge, but I’m ultimately a sucker for this formula, so I can forgive it, especially since the first half of the song is filled with such heart-pounding intensity.
If Renacer‘s closer played with the dynamics of post-metal, “My Fear of An Unlived Life,” the finale of Pull the Thorns from Your Heart, delves into them full-force. Running just shy of six minutes, the song could be viewed as basic crescendo-core, but its ebbs and flows are so organic and the payoff is so relentless and immense that comparing it to other bands is near pointless. Senses Fail had redefined itself, and this song was the new Senses Fail.
FOLLOW YOUR BLISS
So why did Senses Fail survive when so many other bands didn’t? To expand on the points I made in the intro, consider Buddy Nielsen as a human. In 2014, he went on the podcast 100 Words Or Less and spent about an hour and a half spilling his guts about his personal history and the various untold secrets about the story of Senses Fail, including his longstanding alcoholism (he has been clean since early 2014). Most notably, he came clean about his sex addiction and his attraction to people all across the gender spectrum. I think those two things are key to the turnaround on Senses Fail in recent years, in ways that might not be immediately visible.
Off top, I just want to brush the cynics aside and say that by no means am I accusing Buddy of faking his sexuality, nor am I saying that choosing to come forward with it when he did was a shrewd marketing ploy. For as open and forthcoming as Buddy has historically been in interviews, it makes zero sense for him to pull some bullshit like that, and every time I’ve seen this theory come up I find it insulting.
However, the early-mid 2010s were a big turning point for identity politics in the DIY sphere. Conversations about sexuality and gender identity were coming to the forefront, and it meant so much to see an elder statesman and musical icon like Buddy be so proud of who he was, making fans everywhere feel vindicated and less alone. His open acceptance and championing of transgender people felt extremely validating to me, and the Senses Fail: Queer Hardcore shirt that they sold during their 2015 tour was fucking sick. There was also the famous feud between Buddy and Chris Fronzak of Attila on Warped Tour, where Buddy actually tried to fistfight Fronz over his use of the word “faggot,” and it gained massive respect for Buddy in my eyes.
Furthermore, when Buddy goes in-depth on his habits of spending mountains of money on sex workers during the podcast, pay close attention when Ray Harken asks him why he didn’t sleep with Senses Fail fans, who surely would have been champing at the bit for him. Buddy says that made him feel predatory and like he was taking advantage of his fans– a far cry from people like Jesse Lacey of Brand New (who Buddy famously blasted after the allegations against Lacey came out). There was also the epic Twitter thread that Buddy posted in 2015, taking the scene to task for its complacency in the epidemic of sexual abuse of teenage girls. I’ve always loved the last line of this screed: “I love that people think us talking about issues is to gain more fans. I can guarantee you we lose fans every time I open my mouth. It’s not popular to give a shit about racism, homophobia or sexism. People would rather me shut the fuck up.” Buddy never shut the fuck up, and I love him for it.
STAY WHAT YOU ARE
In 2017, Senses Fail tentatively started to step back from their newfound hardcore aesthetic with the release of an acoustic EP, In Your Absence. With production and songwriting help from Beau Burchell, the mastermind behind Saosin, In Your Absence feels less like a cowardly return to formula and more like a band stretching its legs in its original genre after proving it could move beyond it, with newfound lyrical poignancy. The title track in particular is an absolute monster:
How the fuck am I supposed to care
About what’s happening out there?
How the hell am I supposed to get used to all this death?
I wish I could forget
But no matter what I know how it ends
I swear I’ll start drinking again
I wish I could pretend
That we’ll hold each other close in heaven
But I lost my faith when I was seven
The EP also memorably includes acoustic re-workings of “Family Tradition” (which makes the track better, in my opinion) and “Lost and Found” (a stellar song no matter which format it’s presented in).
Also in 2017, Buddy stepped in to do vocals for a supergroup featuring members of Finch, Speak the Truth… Even If Your Voice Shakes. If you’re into over-produced scenecore (the drum sound on their LP is disgustingly processed), it’s worth checking out their full-length, but I prefer to think of it as a dry run for the sounds that Buddy explored with the next Senses Fail record.
With these baby steps back into pop-punk established, it should come as no surprise that Senses Fail’s most recent full-length effort, 2018’s If There Is Light, It Will Find You, is a full-throttle pop-punk record, with Burchell returning as producer. Again, rather than being a tepid retreat, it’s a bold and engaging step forward for the band, informed by the aggression of their past two records but with a renewed excitement for the song structure and hooks of pop-punk. The bouncy lead guitar that announces the record’s arrival in “Double Cross,” a tribute to Buddy’s refusal to quit music, tempered by a brief scream of “This is the only thing worth my breath.” With Trapp returning for drum duties, the record is rounded out by Gavin Caswell’s move to guitar and the addition of Greg Styliades on bass and Jason Milbank on second guitar. This newest iteration of Senses Fail boils over with chemistry on the barn-burner second track, “Elevator to the Gallows,” which includes a crushing throwback breakdown before launching back into its chorus, brimming with energy and emotion.
“Elevator” immediately leads into “New Jersey Makes, the World Takes,” an early contender for the newest Senses Fail fan favorite, a meditation on Buddy’s friends’ struggles with addiction buoyed by bitter and cynical lines “I heard you’re drinking, don’t lie to me” and balanced out by yearningly positive ones like “Everyone I love needs to be safe,” ultimately being a love letter to anyone who is in the midst of their own issues with substances. It’s followed by another new fan favorite, “Gold Jacket, Green Jacket…” (the full Happy Gilmore quote ends with “Who gives a shit?”), a shockingly angry indictment of the American government (“It’s an embarrassment, we’re all gonna die in debt”) that reflects on religious corruption (“Don’t you know that Jesus Christ loves America?”) and the paranoid style in American politics (“You got to defend yourself/Against anyone who doesn’t think the same”). While it could come across heavy-handed and as if Senses Fail is grasping for relevance, the conviction with which Buddy spits the lyrics and the brightly charming guitar solo convince me otherwise.
“First Breath, Last Breath” is a slower, more meditative track, an exercise in creative fiction that imagines Buddy’s life if his wife had died during childbirth in 2017 (she is happy and healthy, in case anyone is worried). Despite its more measured pace, it’s still explosive, flowing in and out of the rage and desperation inherent to its central conceit. I know it seems like I’m gushing over every track on the record so far, but the fact is that almost every track is a standout, and as far as returns to form go, it’s hard to top this record for sheer enthusiasm and talent.
“Ancient Gods” is another slow-burn of a track, and is one of the few moments that the band almost succumbs to sugary-sweet over-sentimentality, only rescued by the soul-baring intimacy of the lyrics. It seems that Buddy is constantly on a mission to make each Senses Fail record more personal and open than the last, and “Everyone in my life has left me/Every day is another test/To see if I can take this stress/Without it driving me to drink” is such a starkly confessional moment in a record that could have easily hidden behind metaphor to get its points across. Buddy isn’t trying for sympathy, he’s trying for empathy, and it works.
This confessional tone prevails throughout the next song, “Is It Gonna Be the Year?”, a song that nakedly confronts the possibility that Senses Fail is the washed-up nostalgia act they always aimed to never be (Buddy has long said that the band makes decisions based on the models of NOFX and Bad Religion, bands who have managed to last for 30-40 years and continue to be extremely successful touring acts while continuously pumping out new material). “When I was younger, I was a mess I must admit/I said and did a lot of stupid and selfish things” shows a much greater degree of self-awareness than pretty much anyone else who has been in Buddy’s position. The Queen-inspired solo that catapults the song over the top is the icing on the cake before the chorus (more subtle and subdued than many others on the record) returns and caps the song off on a triumphant note.
Senses Fail throw in another nod to the past with “You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense,” which completes the trifecta of Charles Bukowski nods throughout the band’s discography. The lyrics themselves are idiosyncratic as ever, starting with a bold and frank description of Buddy’s past suicidal thoughts before moving on to a refreshingly earnest love letter, and it still manages to find time for a gnarly bass fill and one of the few moments of levity on the record: “I’m the singer in a fuckin’ band and I’m still neurotic as shit.” The track includes a New Found Glory-esque lite-breakdown and an ascendant bridge that flows into yet another transcendent finale, closed out with one of the sparse moments on this record that Buddy chooses to employ his screams: “I won’t lie.”
That honesty informs “Orlando and a Miscarriage,” potentially the most lyrically brutal song on the album, a true-to-life account of Buddy’s wife’s miscarriage. It’s also one of the faster and more hardcore-indebted songs on If There Is Light, clocking in at 2:10 and sacrificing no time for fluff. The song closes with a tribute to Buddy’s unborn child: “I wish I could see your face, but life I guess had other plans.” It’s one of the truest gut-punches this band has ever produced.
As the record heads into its homestretch, the band throws us a curveball with “Shaking Hands.” While the chorus is in line with the rest of the record, the verse section breaks the mold with a dizzy, borderline-twinkly groove that almost recalls the more subdued moments of Mineral or Christie Front Drive. It’s yet another love song, and one can’t help but notice how much this record is informed by Buddy’s marriage. This running theme is carried to its conclusion with the next song, “Stay What You Are.” Named after the Saves the Day album, the song also hews close to the structure and sound of an early Saves the Day track– in fact, the lyrics are about Buddy’s first date with his wife, when they went to a Saves the Day show. When Buddy croons that “Stay What You Are will always be our eulogy,” he accomplishes something pretty special. It’s one thing to be nostalgic for a band, but it’s quite another for a different band that you’re nostalgic for taps into your nostalgic spirit for the first band. It would be an insufferable ouroboros if it weren’t so relatable and touching.
Proving that the band didn’t fully forget the lessons they learned on Renacer and Pull the Thorns from Your Heart, the title track that closes out If There Is Light, It Will Find You is a six-minute post-hardcore epic that lives in the same world as “First Breath, Last Breath,” focusing on Buddy raising his daughter alone, without his wife. It’s a breathtaking and heartbreaking accomplishment, one that could have easily been trite in a lesser band’s hands, but here it tugs at my throat with its emotion and commitment. It’s rare that a song by itself can make me choke up, but when Buddy unleashes his screams in this track, it sounds like he’s only barely keeping from crying, and the music itself matches his mood, a crushing blend of atmosphere and physicality, awash in guitar flourishes and the most tasteful drum work of Dan Trapp’s career. The album closes with a lone guitar and Buddy’s voice pleading “Don’t be afraid.” If there is justice in this world, If There Is Light, It Will Find You will go down as one of the definitive documents of Senses Fail’s career.
This morning, Senses Fail released a rerecording of From the Depths of Dreams, one which edits the lyrics of songs like “Handguns and Second Chances” and “Bastard Son” to remove words like “bitch” and “whore.” While I have some minor quibbles with the new versions– I think Buddy pitch-corrected his voice too noticeably on some tracks, and for some reason the drum sound veers between organic and insufferably processed– ultimately I think the new versions serve the songs themselves much better than the old versions, especially since having Buddy’s voice pushed up in the mix and making the guitar tone sharper foregrounds the song’s structures and makes them feel more accomplished than the original EP; songs like “Free Fall Without A Parachute” and “Dreaming A Reality” honestly sound a lot more urgent and deserving of their length on the rerecording. I’m also surprised that the mixes on the new versions don’t bury the bass work, and we still get the creative, bubbly little bass fills that defined songs like “Bloody Romance” (which sounds remarkably heavier this time around). And, ultimately, I am glad that we get to hear songs like “One Eight Seven” again live (the band had previously retired it), the new version of “Steven” rips, and it’s nice that Buddy can edit his original vision to more accurately fit who he is as a person now. After all, we still have the OG versions if we really really need to hear the line “stupid little teenage whore” in its unedited glory.
So, after all is said and done, am I ashamed to be a Senses Fail fan? Absolutely not, and if you are, you’re a fool. Senses Fail lives on forever, on record, onstage, and in our hearts.
NEXT WEEK: We talk about my favorite hardcore kid-turned-superstar, Hayley Williams. Paramore article up on September 16th, and that’s a promise.