Album Review: Senses Fail – Hell Is In Your Head

When Senses Fail first hit the scene twenty years ago, their brand of hardcore-inspired emo and punk flirted with the more macabre elements of the genre, writing songs about murderous dreams and suicidal thoughts, but with a element of very dark tongue-in-cheek satire blanketing the songs. On their latest album Hell is In Your Head, the band sheds any false veils and embraces the personal, digging deep into songs addressing generational trauma, mental health and fatherhood in songs that burn with the brutality and melodic hooks fans have come to expect from the group.

Most noticeable on this album is an element of growth and maturity in the songwriting. Though often on the nose with its themes, it’s refreshing to hear Senses Fail write songs about embracing life (Opener “The Burial of the Dead”, with lines like “We only have so much time left. You never know when you take your last breath” delivered in epic, dramatic fashion), love (“I Am Error”, with it’s sing-along “Only love can save us. Only love can change us” chorus) and tearing apart the late Rush Limbaugh (the raging punk ripper “Lush Rimbaugh”). Okay, so that last one may not be a sign of maturity, but it’s still dark, devilish fun.

Musically, there’s also signs of the band expanding their pallet. “What the Thunder Said” dives into post-punk territory, with a glowing chorus that may be as close as this band ever comes to a gospel music. They also venture into hard rock with the heavy “Death by Water”, with it wilting vocals and pummeling guitars echoing 90’s grunge and 2000’s nu-metal. And even when the band returns to more formulaic emo/screamo sounds, it’s never without a sharp melodic hook (the high-energy “The Fire Sermon”, or the climate change depression pop of “Miles to Go”). This last one is possibly the most relatable song here, as it addresses the anxiety and anguish caused by the feeling of helplessness from our world’s many problems. Not to say that listeners won’t hear echoes of their own life in singer Buddy Nielsen’s confessional bangers.

Current single “End of the World / A Game of Chess” most directly addresses the trauma in Nielsen’s family, mentioning a cousin that hung himself, his uncle drinking himself to death and his father’s alcoholism. Yet through this history of tragedy, Nielsen retains a glimmer of hope for his offspring, “Even when I’m gone, I’ll always be near”, sharing his vision of ending the cycle of trauma. And like many of the band’s best songs, this one has the familiar soft/loud dynamic, with a pounding anthemic chorus. While the storm of guitars and drums does get a little busy and overshadows the vocals at times (the general album mix could be a bit crisper all-around), it doesn’t detract from the track’s power.

This song feels like part of a trilogy on the album, followed by earlier single “I’m Sorry I’m Leaving” and stripped-down ballad “Grow Away From Me”. The former is an apology to his daughter for the mental health issues that keep him away, with a self-aware acknowledgement that “It’s not my child’s problem to clean up my mess”. The maturity of the songwriting here is a great example of how emo bands can grow-up gracefully without losing the fury and sorrow in their songs.

Senses Fail know who they are and what their audience expects from them (and occasionally have fun with that, such as the self-aware title track), but they admirably still seek to use their music for both self-healing and communal catharsis. Listen to the pre-released tracks below, and hear the whole album on Friday, July 15th!

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