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It’s surprising to me that Senses Fail is still even around. Now, don’t get me wrong; Out of the plethora of bands that the early 2000’s emo movement birthed Senses Fail was definitely special. Not nearly whiney enough to be paired with the likes of Hawthorne Heights or Fall Out Boy, but not nearly heavy enough to really bring them up in a conversation featuring Underoath and From Autumn To Ashes. They were this weird, grey area band, a band that incorporated punk into their sound far more often (and effectively) as their contemporaries. Hell, Let It Enfold You is still a decent album in my opinion. However, they briefly disappeared and resurfaced with a slight line up change and wrote the schizophrenic Still Searching which saw the band experimenting with a far heavier sound as well as playing with new found pop sensibilities. In less than a year they went through another line-up change (Jason Black of Hot Water Music on bass, seriously?) and released the even more bizarre Life Is Not A Waiting Room; which featured even heavier songs (“Wolves At My Door”) as well as even more pop-rock styled numbers (“Map The Streets”). If anything can be said for Senses Fail through the years is that they have stayed consistently true to their sound; forever blurring the line between hardcore and pop-rock far better than the likes of recent acts. Another year down the line and we find ourselves here, with their newest release The Fire, (still on long-time label, Vagrant Records) and I can’t shake a slight sense of disappointment.
If Senses Fail is expanding their sound at all it has definitely been in baby steps. One has to look no further than the combination of the cathartic “New Year’s Eve” followed by the bouncy “Safe House” to assure the listener that this is a tried and true Senses Fail album. Maybe the heavy songs are a bit heavier and the catchier numbers a little more layered but the foundations stay the same, this is a comfort zone for them and they would benefit greatly if they broke the habit. For example, “New Year’s Eve”, “Coward” and “Lifeboats” are great examples of the great melodic hardcore band that Senses Fail could be. Neilsen definitely has a powerful and angry yell and the band definitely has the chops to write a whole album composed of these more hardcore influenced songs. Or let’s look at the other side of the spectrum, “Safe House”, “Irish Eyes” and “Headed West”, with a bit more work these could be very catchy and intelligent rock/punk numbers ala early Boys Night Out. However, instead Senses Fail seems caught in the same rut they’ve fallen in since Still Searching. It’s not that they do it bad either; I’d be lying if I didn’t find myself singing along to most of the songs or slightly head banging to the brilliant break ending in “Coward”. But that’s the thing, it’s almost frustrating listening to these songs because the few glimpses Senses Fail does give the listener of the band (or bands) they could become are blurred between the comfortable grey of their sound. The Fire suffers from confusing versatility with inconsistency; and thus I often find that it spreads itself out too thin.
However, it’s not all ugly in the Senses Fail camp. It’s undeniable that these dudes put their hearts and soul into this band, especially front man Buddy Neilsen. His lyrics can sometimes come off as a bit whiny but his delivery has only bettered with age, especially seeing the great leaps forward he’s taken from the prepubescent screams in Let It Enfold You to the anguished yells we have now become so familiar with. Seriously, when this dude screams he really lets you have it. As far as his more melodic singing it’s hard to defeat his naturally high singing style but it’s become less and less annoying with each release, which is good to hear. Lyrically The Fire finds itself revisiting feelings of abandonment, hopelessness, loneliness, hope and revival that the past two predecessors were about, but here we find a far more blunt and confident Neilsen no longer wasting so much of his time in metaphors and writing far more direct words. As previously mentioned, musically the album is very tight and manages to add a level of coherence and togetherness to an otherwise bipolar release.
You know, it’s not terrible, nothing they’ve done has even been bad; but it’s taken them 3 tries now to hit the nail on the head and even though they’re getting closer and closer they’re still missing ever so slightly with The Fire. It might be down to flipping a coin for them, really it might make all the difference. We’ll see.