When Ridgewood, New Jersey, band Senses Fail started working on their second full-length album in January, their initial instinct was to stray from the screamy, metal-tinged, heart-on-sleeve hard rock of their 2004 disc, Let It Enfold You.
Since the success of that LP, which sold more than 300,000 copies, scores of bands have emerged mixing angry power chords with melodic, pain-saturated vocals, and angst has become a tool for making it big. But the further Senses Fail got from their core sound, the more out of place they felt.
"Finally we were like, 'Why should we change what we've always done just because other people are doing it now too? Why don't we just make the music better?' " frontman Buddy Nielsen said.
Judging from the songs on the band's new album, Still Searching (which drops Tuesday), Senses Fail's decision to stick to what they know was the right one. The first single, "Calling All Cars," starts with a muted electric guitar over Nielsen's vocals, bounds into a jagged riff layered with spindly guitar lines and blossoms into an anthemic chorus. "Can't Be Saved" combines stab-and-slash guitars, longing single-picked notes and rolling drums with harmonized vocals.
Frustration, depression and helplessness are still central themes for Senses Fail, and Nielsen had no trouble making his vocals convincing — mainly because he went through hell while working on the record. The singer, who had just quit taking antidepressants, was suffering major anxiety attacks.
"It was really tough to get off the medication and have to relive a lot of the things I had intentionally prevented myself from feeling," he said. "When we were recording, I had to stop a whole bunch. I'd be like, 'I'm kind of freaking out and having an anxiety attack while I'm singing.' But it was good because that emotion came across on the record, and that's what I wanted."
The death of Nielsen's grandmother, who helped raise him, triggered Nielsen's emotional instability. Memories he had stifled since his parents' divorce, when he was 5 years old, flooded back.
"I used to have major panic attacks up until I was 10, and I learned to shut my emotions down as a defense mechanism," he said. "So I hadn't really felt too much since that point. But without warning, the anxiety came back really hard. I didn't want to leave the house, I lost 20 pounds because I couldn't eat, I didn't sleep and I felt like I was going insane."
He thought being on the road might distract him, so Nielsen flew to Europe to tour, but his condition quickly worsened. He had panic attacks onstage and hid in the tour bus when he wasn't performing. He didn't feel any better after the band returned home, so he saw a doctor, who prescribed a drug for depression and anxiety. While the medication calmed his nerves, it also prevented him from being excited, leaving him in a middle zone between despair and elation. It was during this hazy period that Nielsen contemplated his regrets and goals and decided to write songs based on both.
"The title of the album kind of sums it up," Nielsen said. "I wrote a lot about my family, and starting to see my dad again, and the anger towards him because he wasn't around, and the anger I had when I started to grow up and realize why I am the way I am. You start to see where you came from, and maybe you don't like that so much. That can lead to the feeling that you've lost control. But I think I'm somewhat optimistic because I'm really still searching for some sort of happiness or resolution to the things I've gone through."
Senses Fail wrote Still Searching between November 2005 and May 2006, then recorded the album in six weeks in Bearsville, New York, with producer Brian McTernan (Thrice, Cave In). "He didn't come in and try to take over the record at all," Nielsen said. "He worked with us and said, 'I want this to be great and I think it can be,' and he put his heart and soul into it."
While Still Searching is clearly Senses Fail, many of the guitar melodies sound sharper and better executed than those on Let It Enfold You. Credit new guitarist Heath Saraceno (ex-Midtown), who replaced Dave Miller in mid-2005.
"Heath is an amazing musician," Nielsen said. "He's that guy who can hear a chord and tell you exactly what it is and how it's played. He can hear a song once and then play it on guitar. He really helped shape a lot of these songs."
With Still Searching completed and a U.S. tour kicking off November 24 in Boston, a prescription-drug-free Nielsen is now looking forward to the next phase of Senses Fail's evolution. He hasn't exactly made peace with his demons, but he's learned to distract himself by making music, playing golf and hanging with his friends. And while it's still too painful for him to sit down and listen to Still Searching, he enjoys performing the new material.
"Dealing with these songs live is different because I'm focused so hard on the actual singing," he said. "I'm working on putting on a good show and being entertaining and having a good time, so that's really an escape from anything in my life that's hard to deal with. For those 60 or so minutes, I'm living in the moment, and I don't have to think about the past."