Still enfolding, still searching.
Like all Senses Fail releases, the band's music is fuelled by whatever emotions and life journeys that frontman James “Buddy” Neilsen has experienced during or in the lead up to the creation of any given record. And their new album, 'If There Is Light, It Will Find You' is absolutely no different.
For Buddy and the band's seventh record, the birth of his daughter was apparently complicated - it was a 58-hour long labour and not without other issues too. I’m not a father myself but I couldn’t even begin to understand the horror and anxiety that comes with just the mere possibility losing your child before you even get to meet them and hold them in your arms. The same goes for how that outcome would've affected his partner and that relationship afterwards. But just as this record’s name suggests, amid that fear and darkness, a light broke through, and for Buddy, light found both him and his family; the baby and his wife both turned out fine in the end, thank god. Hence this album’s front cover showing the band’s Mr. Skeleton mascot holding a baby, representing Buddy’s own child (Penelope, who this record is dedicated to and who he mentions and refers to throughout), a foreshadowing of what sadly could've been an awful reality.
Also no different to the rest of this band's incredibly consistent discography, this new 12-track release is yet another solid notch in Senses Fail's musical belt. Buddy still writes ear-worming melodies and he delivers as hooky vocal lines as ever before – songs here like ‘Gold Jacket, Green Jacket...’, 'Elevator To The Gallows', and ‘New Jersey Makes, The World Takes’ will be hanging around inside your head for fucking weeks after first exposure. Whilst Buddy still carries a tune with the best of them and still flexes his lyrical muscles when he can, he's backed up more than well-enough by tight OG drummer Dan Trapp, guitarists Gavin Caswell and Jason Millbank, and bassist Greg Styliades. With their help, this new record delivers all of the same heart, emotional highs, moving choruses, melodic leads, staccato riffs, overdriven power chords and driving rhythms that we all expect from Senses Fail. Even this deep into their 16-year career, the band's supercharged but poppy post-hardcore sound still works well. Even if it is a massive throwback nowadays.
For as any die-hard fan will notice immediately upon hearing 'If There Is Light, It Will Find You' is that musically, the band's seventh record sees the band forgo both the heavier, aggressive moments and beautifully lush, expansive melodies of ‘Renacer’ (2013) and the sensational ‘Pull The Thorns From Your Heart’ (2015). Both of those two albums pushed the extremes of the group's heavy and light duality further than ever before, and there's simply no songs here that are as brilliant as 'Closure Rebirth' or 'Carry The Weight' were. And while it'll probably make me look like an arsehole given the brutal personal tone and close-to-the-chest story behind this record, I’d be lying if I said I was completely happy with that sonic change. While still good nor a cynical cash-grab, we've had about three albums of this kind of early 2000’s pop-punk/post-hardcore/alternative sound from Senses Fail now, and it pains me to see them pull away from the killer trajectory their previous two albums jettisoned them into; albums that were taking Senses Fail in a bigger, bolder, better direction. Something which is then exacerbated by Buddy being the key songwriter and the fact that this record doesn't quite have the same dynamic as their last two albums.
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This is the one trickiest thing about ‘If There Is Light…’ for me. On one hand, there's a clear emotional progression and a genuine cathartic attempt from Buddy for the turbulent events he’s experienced over the past year or so. Yet, on the other hand, this (still solid) album is a slight musical regression back towards the band’s youth; before Trapp left the first time around and when Garrett Zablocki still manned the riff department. This is basically the 2018 updated version of 'Still Searching' (2006) or more accurately 'Let It Enfold You' (2004), just minus a lot of the screaming. Perhaps Buddy's work with Speak The Truth…Even If Your Voice Shakes echoed this older sound returning sooner, as that band's debut album was essentially just old Senses Fail, Finch without Nate Barcalow and Vagrant/Drive-Thru Records bands circa 2005. It's not the most drastic sonic change, but the difference is noticeable and it's the only one real knock I can level against 'If There Is Light...'. (Well, that and that 'Gold Jacket, Green Jacket...' feels kinda out of place what with it being a more externally focused, outspoken piece by Buddy waxing lyrical about the circus of American politics, financial debt, the failings of the American Dream, wayward youth, lack of economic equality, 9/11, among other topics. It should've been a separate singe from the record instead I feel).
So while this is a very nostalgic sonic journey through old records like 'Let It Enfold You' and 'Still Searching', 'If There Is Light, It Will Find You' still works well enough; it's still catchy, and most importantly, it's still enjoyable. Of course, what really bolsters this record's lasting appeal and impact like every other Senses Fail release, is the sheer level of personal input and emotional value that can be extracted from it.
This is a record about the embracing and acceptance of death, and the fear and heartache that comes with it (‘Ancient Gods’). It’s a record about living with isolation at our loneliest, darkest moments where we peer right over the edge into oblivion (album standout, ‘You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense’). It’s a record about the courage of being able to push through self-doubt and wonder whether or not this might be the end of your life as it currently exists, band or not (‘Is it Gonna Be The Year?’). It's a record about when that "light" is still yet to find you and you don't know what to do or where to go next (the subdued tempo and melancholic chords of ‘Shaking Hands’). It's a record about moving on from the lows and suicidal times that have defined one's own life and mental health (‘Elevator To The Gallows’: “Don’t try to rescue me, I’m swinging from the attic beam”). And it's a eulogy for those we love more than anything else in this world ('Stay What You Are', which doubles as an awesome meta-reference to the best Saves The Day record of the same name). ‘If There Is Light, It Will Find You’ is a record about all of these things, about finding the light in those moments of distress and in finding it again upon later reflection, whether in chronological order or all at chaotically once. Just as the closing six-minute title track of fatherhood culminates to in this therapeutic record’s final moments; "a father meant nothing to me, but I hope I mean something to you".
Two other strong emotional focal points come with the initial choking feeling of potential loss detailed in the crushing ‘First Breath, Last Breath’ and the galloping, melodic punk rock sound of ‘Orlando And A Miscarriage’; a bright and upbeat track juxtaposed by the dark lyrical subject matter of a couple dealing with a miscarriage. Beyond that, this is also a pretty self-aware record of Buddy's main passion in his life. On opener ‘Double Cross’, which announces right away the band’s intent of recapturing their debut's sound, we get nostalgic and reflective lyrics like: “While you were at the window waiting, I was spilling my guts out on the stage/I spent the best years of my life drinking myself to sleep at night” and “Where is the passion that you used to have, when music was the only thing that you had?”, as well as “Cause all I got, all I really got is this music that’s left of me/And all I want, all I really want is a reason to believe”. Then seven songs later on, in ‘You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense’, Buddy openly acknowledges that he’s just “...a singer in a fucking band” and that he's "still neurotic as shit”. And I'd expect nothing less from Buddy at this point - this is what I and so many others love about the guy. That biting and unflinching honesty from Buddy regarding himself, the world around him, and the passion he has for both his family and music is still one of Senses Fail's strongest and most endearing aspects, and here it's as palpable and as surgical as ever.
Of course, as any most long-time Senses Fail fans will tell, the sometimes frustrating thing about the band is that it can be quite hard to tell which exact songs and which exact lyrics are literal and which ones are metaphorical for Buddy. Admittedly, that's half the fun with this band's music - pawning over the lyrics and uncovering the intent and story of the words, real or otherwise. And honestly, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. Just as Buddy said in the interview portions of 'The Fire' DVD, once the band write and release a song, it's no longer his or the band's to own, but rather the fans and the listeners that embrace it into their own lives. Which is exactly what will happen with this new collection of honest, heartfelt tunes.
Still catchy, still moving, still fun, and still as heart on the sleeve as ever, Senses Fail have yet another solid, honest and consistent record on their hands with 'If There Is Light, It Will Find You'. While this new record does wallow in the sound of the band's early releases a little bit too much, and while it lacks the powerful dynamic that 'Renacer' and 'Pull The Thorns From Your Heart' had, the intense emotional value and deeply personal thoughts and experiences found in the lyrics is what really makes this album. So, as long as Buddy is being fully honest with both himself and with us all as an audience, I don't think Senses Fail will ever have a bad album to their name. And I do not expect Buddy and co. to phone it in anytime soon.
'If There Is Light, It Will Find You' is out this Friday, February 16th. Check out 'Double Cross' below: