Today more than ever, a band doesn’t survive nearly 10 years in the volatile music business without overcoming their share of adversity. Yet for Ridgewood, NJ-based Senses Fail—now about to release their fourth full-length—weathering the storm of recent years has been an empowering journey of self-discovery, that’s only left the group in a stronger, more confident place. The end result of that voyage is The Fire, an album that captures Senses Fail at the absolute top of their game, playing as if their lives depended on it.
Packed from front to back with explosive, high-energy riffs, thundering rhythms and singer Buddy Nielsen’s introspective, unflinchingly honest lyrics, The Fire is yet another milestone for a band with a truly impressive discography of post-hardcore scene staples. Although the group once again chose to head to Baltimore, Md., to team up with longtime collaborator/producer Brian McTernan (Thrice, Circa Survive, Cave In) at his famous Salad Days studio, there’s a perceptible intensity to The Fire that sets it apart from Senses Fail’s past works.
“The main goal was to make the record feel exciting overall,” says Nielsen. “It’s all live drums, and it’s got a loose feeling and very natural vibe. There’s no bullshit; there are no samples on this record, no filler. When you start adding layers and layers of sounds, that’s when it starts getting harder to sound natural. There’s space in between the instruments that a lot of bands in this genre don’t necessarily have, because loud guitars and drums are fighting with each other all the time.”
The end result is an offering with an urgency that’s fairly uncharacteristic for a band so far along in their career. The group formed in 2001 and released their debut EP, From the Depths of Dreams, in 2002; next came 2004’s Let It Enfold You—their first full-length—followed by Still Searching, which debuted at #15 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. Then the band’s next release, Life Is Not A Waiting Room, came in 2008, marking the entrance of bassist Jason Black (formerly with Hot Water Music). To date, Senses Fail have performed multiple worldwide tours and their catalog sales have reached over 850,000, but for Nielsen, the band’s best work is right here and now.
After the release of Life, the group was forced to endure an extremely trying period punctuated by further lineup changes (guitarist Heath Saraceno exited, to be replaced by newcomer Zack Roach), an ugly legal battle with a former band member and the harsh realities of making music amid a recession, yet they’ve emerged from it all with a heartfelt resolve that permeates every second of The Fire’s 11 tracks. The album plays more like a victory march than a funeral dirge, and for Nielsen much of that positivity stems from his own personal maturation and perpetual self-analysis.
“It’s been a really weird two years, and this record was kind of letting go of a lot of that shit, and a lot of personal anger and pain, and actively stepping forward and deciding to face and accept that in order to move forward in life, you have to look at things from a different viewpoint,” Nielsen says. “Every record had been leading up into the next record, lyrically, and on this one it broke through. Instead of just being about negative things, this time it’s about being able to work out and break through those negative things, to find a way to get rid of things you’ve held onto for years.”
That theme is best reflected by the album’s title and accompanying track, which uses the metaphor of walking through fire to paint Nielsen’s recent trials. Set to a backdrop of shuddering guitars and drums, Nielsen reassures listeners that “It’s okay to feel lost”; after mustering up the courage to walk through the cleansing flames, all you’re left with on the other side are the things you really need. “You’ll go through so many things in life, and I think ultimately it’s for a purpose,” Nielsen says. “You’re always right where you need to be, no matter how hard it seems at times to understand that. You bury so many things and so many aspects of your life, once you’ve really cleared the bullshit out you can examine those things, and learn why you’re pre-disposed to feeling this way about yourself.”
Another gripping moment of self-reflection is found on the track “Saint Anthony,” named after the patron saint of lost causes, lost items and shipwrecks. The chorus uses the idea of a sunken vessel to relate Nielsen’s feelings of doubt and despair, yet just as one prays to the saint for help finding lost keys or jewelry, Nielsen beseeches his canonized muse to help him regain the parts of himself that have slipped away amid the rigors of time.
“Sometimes you just look at yourself in the mirror and go, ‘Oh, shit—I don’t know if I can make it through this.’ That song’s a reflection of that self-doubt,” explains Nielsen. “That’s something that everybody feels, but I definitely wanted to address that on this record and rid myself of it, and get my confidence back that I used to have.”
Another lesson learned and subsequently reflected can be found in “Headed West,” where Nielsen comes to the realization that the adage “no matter where you go, there you are,” rings undeniably true. Over ringing open guitar lines and chugging crunch, Nielsen comes to the conclusion that no amount of miles, or drinks, can distance him from the demons he must inevitably face.
“It’s about getting the idea in my head that moving away from where I live will solve problems. It’ll be new and exciting, or I can start fresh or I can get a different viewpoint on life, but ultimately you can’t run from any of that shit,” he says. “It’s also a metaphor about the Old West and heading West to a different, new experience, but I’m just wasting my time trying to plan something that’s not even gonna fix what I’m looking for.”
Thematic continuity from Life to the new release is unforgettably created by another standout, the epic “Landslide,” which reiterates Nielsen’s resolve to live his life now, not in a distant, seemingly perfect future. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not living or appreciating what I have enough, and that partially is because I don’t take the time to let it affect me, to enjoy life and what I have,” he says. “I try to rush through things, instead of being happy with where I am. I think that’s a universal message.”
It’s a reassuring sentiment, especially considering Nielsen and Co. have a bold new album to share with the masses, and an accompanying fall tour with Long Island heroes Bayside coming to a packed house near you. The Atticus-sponsored run, dubbed the “Out With The In Crowd Tour,” reflects both the band’s growing alienation from current scene fads, as well as their own artistic rediscovery, which The Fire captures so compellingly.
“It doesn’t sound like we’re trying to compete with what’s out there now, and it doesn’t sound like we regressed,” says Nielsen. “It just sounds like what I think people want Senses Fail to sound like. Being able to play music doesn’t last, so you better fucking enjoy it while you have it. I needed to do this album personally, and I gained more from this than any record I’ve ever done. That’s enough for me.”