July 28, 2022 Senses Fail – Hell Is in Your Head (Album Review)
There is a certain amount of respect that should be afforded to musicians who have managed to sustain a two-decade-long career that continues to burn in the brightest blues. There’s no tired gimmick or recycled schtick for Senses Fail, one of the few Post-Hardcore/Screamo bands to survive to today. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, there’s no denying Frontman Buddy Nielsen’s soul-letting when songwriting. His latest, Hell Is in Your Head, is a bold undertaking that arrived on July 15, 2022, via Pure Noise Records.
Since the arrival of the self-penned If There Is Light, It Will Find You, in 2018, to know Senses Fail has become synonymous with receiving a glance into the heart of its creator. The only remaining founding member of the then New Jersey band, Nielsen has managed to usher in a new era with seamless ease. “The band has now become me and vice-versa,“ he explains. “. . . As a touring entity, we are still five people but when it comes down to the writing, it’s a solo vision as far as where I want to take it.”
It has certainly been an interesting journey, one that officially began in 2002 with the release of the band’s debut EP, From the Depths of Dreams. Attention followed with 2004’s Let It Enfold You and 2006’s Still Searching, but the trio of albums that followed over the next seven years—starting with 2008’s Life Is A Waiting Room—fully realized a vision that went far beyond the controversial categorization of ‘Emo.’
Now four years out from their last release, Nielsen—along with Guitarists Gavin Caswell and Jason Milbank, Bassist Greg Styliades, and Drummer Steve Carey (The Color Morale)—returns with his eighth full-length record. Produced with the help of longtime collaborator Beau Burchell, of Saosin, the 11-song Hell Is in Your Head is an intense study in existentialism and beyond.
Exploring themes of mortality through the philosophical as well as abstract, the album is structured like an old cassette with (figurative) Sides A and B. Unified through their titular influence, the songs of Side A draw ideation from the works of T.S. Eliot, particularly the modernist poem, “The Waste Land.” But don’t expect a lengthy detour into post-WWI disillusionment. Rather, Hell Is In Your Head is intended to sound immediately familiar, drawing on elements of the band’s past.
So, in some ways picking up where “The Priest and The Matador” left off, the album opener “The Burial of the Dead” introduces us to the conundrum of our own mortality. While considered a continuation, it stands on its own with its superb clean vocal performance, delivering a reckoning on grief. Exploring the frustrating agony of having to say goodbye may seem a somewhat morbid note to begin an album on, but we are only dragged further into an emotional quagmire with “End of the World/A Game of Chess.” A look at the pain that can be buried deep within the roots of a family tree, with the help of SeeYouSpaceCowboy’s Connie Sgarbossa, the track searches for a means of breaking the trauma cycle to spare our offspring.
In fact, the idea of making life better for our children weighs heavy throughout Hell Is in Your Head. From the bittersweet aspects of parenthood (“The Fire Sermon”) to the idea that only love can save us (“I Am Error”), there’s a complexity and a beauty to finally discovering ourselves in the eyes of a child. And yet, existence is pain. “Death By Water,” featuring guest vocals from Spencer Charnas of Ice Nine Kills, is the quandary one must face when a mentor or hero is lost. It is that moment when we ask ourselves how if a seemingly supernatural being was unable to survive the undertow, how are we, plebeians, meant to make it to the shore?
The epiphany that life must go on, that there are many snowy travails still to come, ends the album’s first half with the powerful “What the Thunder Said.” This carries into the Robert Frost-inspired “Miles To Go,” which, as with many of the tracks throughout, there’s an ironically upbeat sense to the music. It’s a dichotomy that carries Nielsen through the construct of time—in our personal lives as well as in the environmental sense, but, ultimately, as a harbinger of the end of all things.
With its obvious parallels to “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” its bittersweetness shifts to something (or someone) toxic on “Lush Rimbaugh.” A poisonous elegy for a right-wing extremist who chose to use religion as a partial smokescreen for his blatant hate speech, the song is meant, not as a political piece, but rather as a karmic statement on reaping what we sow. And although the album’s namesake, “Hell Is In Your Head,” is a personal reflection, one that sees hypochondria, OCD, and anxiety dancing to a steady beat, it is a similar look at the consequences of our actions. Here, there’s an element of self-mockery, Nielsen rolling his eyes at himself for the time wasted in chasing the frivolous.
This shift to the personal sets the stage for “I’m Sorry I’m Leaving,” a touring musician confronting the double-edged sword of his lifestyle. Providing some of the collection’s heaviest moments, sonically speaking, the track is a weighty confession from father to daughter. It sits perfectly beside closer “Grow Away From Me,” a six-plus minute ode to the impossibility of forever. Accompanied by his wife, for the first time on record, Nielsen drafts a love letter to his daughter, the light of his life, who will one day grow up and move on to face her own obstacles. If you’re a daughter to a loving man, chances are hearing “I want to walk you down any aisle anywhere” will bring tears to your eyes.
Of course, this vicious sincerity is part and parcel of Senses Fail and has been for many years now. And so it is that, yet again, Nielsen performs a Y-incision on his flesh, allowing listeners an unobstructed view of his heart. Unafraid to spill blood and truth, he authors a gorgeous eulogy to mortality; dissecting the anxiety and fear that come with living life, as well as creating it. A somber ode to life and its lover, death, Hell Is in Your Head maps out the road most traveled while reminding us why we should never take a single step for granted. For this, Cryptic Rock gives Senses Fail’s latest 5 out of 5 stars. (Potential alternate title for the record: What We Talk About When We Talk About Life & Death.)