Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Album Review: Senses Fail - Renacer

Album Grade: B
For me, the essential Senses Fail lyrics are heard on their song “Lifeboats.” Over a sustained guitar riff, singer Buddy Nielsen half-screams, half-speaks “I’m so pathetic, it makes me sick.” To that point, Senses Fail had just been an outlet for Buddy’s personal discontent and vices; tales of alcoholism, visits to the therapist, substance abuse, loneliness and suicidal visions ran rampant. He had always strived to change himself, but with each album came a new set of failures and mistakes that Nielsen seemed almost too ready to share. That moment on The Fire represented him reaching rock bottom. He had always been willing to acknowledge that he screwed up but never before did he say it so bluntly.

When listening to Renacer, a verb that anyone with an elementary knowledge of Spanish will recognize as meaning “to be reborn,” it’s obvious that Nielsen is no longer the pathetic man he saw in himself two years ago. His voice is more aggressive, more confident, and the album’s tone follows suit. On “Holy Mountain,” they incorporate a bass-heavy breakdown; the title track has no clean vocals whatsoever. The group had dabbled in this style before, but it never seemed like it would become their main focus. But, after hearing Renacer, one questions why they didn’t make this album immediately after Still Searching because this style fits them like a glove. It’s tempting to deride Renacer as mall-core, especially since this kind of blend of pop-punk and post-hardcore was popularized by A Day to Remember, but it’s definitely different: louder and heavier than McKinnon and co. would ever dare to be.   

It would be keenly poetic to call this the flight of Nielsen’s phoenix; ‘renacido’ from the ashes of The Fire and rising triumphantly to write his magnum opus, but it wasn’t meant to be. A problem that plagued Senses Fail in the past was their verse writing. The musicianship was always bland, more often than not restricted to palm-muted chords and simple hi-hat rhythms, and the lyrics were often just glorified segues that would lead into the inevitably excellent chorus. Renacer encounters an opposite problem. The verses tend to fall into the ‘adequate’ spectrum, with Nielsen’s visceral bark occasionally becoming grating due to its lack of tone, but the choruses are, on the whole, uninspiring. Were this a conventional post-hardcore album, this might not be a huge issue, but it proves to drag Renacer down only because, on “Glass” and “Ancient Tombs,” the hooks are incredible. These tracks, as good as they are, represent the moments where Senses Fail seem to waver on their current identity. Yes, Nielsen still screams, the bass still pounds, but they sound no different than they did years ago.

This lack of big choruses also means that the songs are somewhat difficult to differentiate. This is both a compliment and a critique. On one hand, it exemplifies Senses Fail’s unwavering consistency. There are a few obvious highlights on Renacer, but none of the songs are duds. It’s a marvel that this album has no tracks that stand out as easily skippable- it’s strangely cohesive. On the other hand, songs tend to blend together, especially on the first half of the album. Were it not for the Google Translate-aided lyrics on “Mi Amor” or the fast-paced intro of “Canine,” there would no defining characteristics to these songs. Renacer is an extremely cohesive effort, with only “Frost Flower” sounding solidly out-of-place, but it also doesn’t feature a lot of musical or structural variety.

The biggest takeaway from Renacer is that the band that always ‘drove without headlights’ now seems to have a solid direction to go in. Losing their guitarist Garrett Zablocki after releasing The Fire could have been a death sentence for the band, but they chose to take his departure as a sign to move on. This was clearly the right move. Nielsen sounds firmly committed to his craft and no longer wallows in his past failures; his lyrics are now strangely mature and, at times, optimistic. The music is still straightforward, but it has a certain amount of force that it lacked in the past. The arrangements never enfold you, but their punchiness and grit are certainly obvious. Although Renacer showcases a band still in the tinkering phase, it also shows that they can pull it off.   
1. Renacer
2. Holy Mountain
3. Mi Amor
4. Closure/Rebirth
5. The Path
6. Canine
7. Glass
8. Ancient Tombs
9. Frost Flower
10. Snake Bite
11. Courage of the Knife
12. Between the Mountains and the Sea

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