Sean Danielsen (guitar/vocals)
Ryan Martin (bass)
Jake Kilmer (drums)
After everything Smile Empty Soul have been through over the past several years, you’d have to forgive them for coming out of the blocks with a chip on their shoulders. But instead of an attitude, they’ve returned with Consciousness, an album that bleeds with the guitar-driven urgency that their fans have grown accustomed to, and bristles with a lyrical intensity born of the depths from which the Los Angeles-bred band have risen.
Consciousness is the band’s third album, but the first release for a new joint partnership between the F.O.F. Label Group and EMI Music. The new label marks the dawning of a new era for Smile Empty Soul, one where their creative fires can burn as bright as the path they’ve blazed since the release of their self-titled debut in 2003. Driven by the breakthrough success of their smash single “Bottom Of A Bottle,” the album was certified Gold by the RIAA, heightening expectations for the band’s sophomore release.
But far be it for great hard rock to thrive without a fight. Enter the corporate censors, who in the midst of sweeping major label acquisitions and mergers were afraid that a line from the song “Holes” – “Just admit that Jesus died for me, take your bibles and go home” – would be found offensive. When asked to edit the track, which was the lead single from their completed second album, Anxiety, Smile Empty Soul refused. The ensuing struggle, combined with an upheaval of top label brass, led to a parting of ways between the band and Lava/Atlantic Records, and the finished album was never formally released.
The drama spurred their productivity, and the ensuing effort Vultures, their “official” sophomore release (though technically their third album, since copies of Anxiety have made their way into the hands of hard core fans and collectors alike). “We were pretty much all just pissed off, and the Vultures album was really angry in a lot of ways,” explained Sean Danielsen, the trio’s guitarist and vocalist, and Smile Empty Soul’s principal songwriter. “After the struggles and tribulations that we’d gone through with people in the industry turning their backs and the label bailing, we thought we had earned the right to at least put the second record out, but we were never given the chance. So Vultures was a reaction to everything we’d gone through with the debut, the process of making the second record and going through the emotional roller coaster of the single not going out, then the album not coming out after working so hard.”
In terms of Smile Empty Soul’s development as a band, a critical element of the Vultures album cycle was the addition of a fourth band member, a short-lived experiment that actually ended up making Danielsen, bassist Ryan Martin and drummer Jake Kilmer stronger by subtraction. “I joined the band right when they hired the second guitarist, and it was interesting coming into the band and knowing that they were originally a three piece, because it just never really felt like it was gelling as a four-piece,” says drummer Jake Kilmer. Adds Danielsen, “We wanted the ambience and vibe that you could get by adding a second guitarist, but as soon as you add that second person, you’ve got to add their personality, too, and it just never felt right. He left in the middle of a tour and we haven’t looked back since. Being a three piece is what works for us, it’s where we really feel the chemistry.”
That chemistry is evident throughout Consciousness, where Smile Empty Soul re-emerge like a phoenix, spreading their wings and stoking the sparks of their brief history into full-fledged flames once again. “We’re all in a much more comfortable, positive space, and we were from the start of this album process – it shows,” says bassist Ryan Martin. “We definitely weren’t angry anymore,” agrees Danielsen. “The whole mess that went down with the second record is such a distant memory, there’s just no point in being angry about it anymore. We just wanted to enjoy the process and enjoy the music, and that’s exactly what we did.”
While they speak with the wisdom of industry veterans, the irony is, the members of Smile Empty Soul are all only 27 years old. That young age, coupled with nearly a decade of band experience, helps cast the band’s future in an even brighter light. “We’ve just become so much more confident in how we want this band to be, and we have matured so much over the past couple of years, that it’s been the smoothest recording process we’ve ever been a part of,” continues the frontman of the new release. Adds Martin, “this album really captures the raw energy of us pulling ourselves back together as a band.”
The album’s lead single, “Don’t Ever Leave” bounces with a contagious rhythm and wide open, jangling verse that builds into a driving chorus. It is Smile Empty Soul just as their fans love them, but with the added depth and texture of a band that’s not afraid to build on their past to ensure a more engaging future. Standout tracks on Consciousness include the pining strains of “Compromise,” the grinding propulsion that builds “Ban Nuys” into a twisting and scaling progressive musical peak, and the acoustic strains and emotive pleas of “O’Lord,” the heart-on-your-sleeve closing track that Danielsen describes as a “call for help from a dark place,” inspired by his battles with alcohol.
Lyrically, the singer says that Consciousness is set apart from previous Smile Empty Soul lyrics by the more open nature and interpretation of his vocals. “In the past, a lot of our stuff has been specifically about events or stories, and on this record a lot of the songs are about a particular feeling, mood, or place you’re in emotionally. They’re not as specific, and you can let them take you wherever you want.” The band’s musical approach was similarly open-ended. “This album is more progressive than anything we’ve ever done. There are more tripped-out weird parts, and good little parts for stoners to drool all over themselves and veg out and listen to. We’ve come a long away,” Danielsen sums up of the new release. “We’re always playing music, and we are always progressing and developing as musicians, and I think that musicianship really shows on this record.”
Consciousness comes from a good place for Smile Empty Soul. And they hope it brings listeners to one, as well.