You might remember Smile Empty Soul from way back, in ’03, where songs like Bottom Of A Bottle and Nowhere Kids dominated the radio and Fuse TV. The band played to the beat of rebellious-for-the-sake-of-contradiction teens. To SES’ credit, they did put out at least a few solid tunes.
Skipping three years of tumultuous history, SES released their (technically) 3rd full-length album entitled Vultures. At this point, the buzz surrounding this emo/grunge/hard rock (whatever you want to call it) band had all but vanished. Vultures has sold only a small fraction of what SES’ debut album sold. The addition of Mike Booth as the second guitarist (who would later split with SES in ’07) vastly improved the balance of melody and harmony. Conversely, the new drummer, Jake Kilmer, is perhaps the biggest dead-weight of the album.
The consistency of this album is non-existent. There’s no comfort zone, no theme, and a noticeable lack of direction. It seemed only fitting to analyze this collection of misshapen jigsaw puzzle pieces by its parts.
The album lifts off with Out to Sea, which was the first track that even made me consider purchasing Vultures. The lyrics and vocals complement each other well: not too overbearing (which has been the case in other SES songs), but still ripe with vigor. The song is angry, bleak, and yet, still up-tempo. A solid beginning that should have you, at the very least, thinking, “Hmm. I’ve got time to kill. Let’s give a shot.” However, what follows after Out to Sea is a mixed bag of mediocrity, horror, and hope.
Jesus Is The Manager At Wal-Mart is yet another attack on Christendom (specifically contemporary American Christianity) by SES, joining the likes of Every Sunday, Holes, God’s Army, and the successive track, The Freaks Are Coming. The lyrics are transparent and blunt (such is the case for most SES songs), comparing Wal-Mart employees to followers of Christ, in the sense that they must “close [their] minds with the door,” and “shut their little mouths.” Interesting analogy, though even I think it is foolhardy to assume that all Christians behave in such a manner. Furthermore, Sean (lead singer) might be linking consumerism with American Christianity, though it honestly doesn’t matter, so long as he gets a rise out of all the pre-teens who’d rather sleep in than go to church Sunday morning. However, you can actually feel a little bit of effort and passion (though not necessarily talent), and in all honesty, it might be a fun little track of pseudo-head-banging rock for people who are easily amused (such as I). Keep in mind that one requires a base tolerance level of this band to even live through this track.
As previously alluded, the next song, The Freaks Are Coming mocks overprotective Christians who shelter themselves and their children, advising them not to “let the evil of this world in your mind,” and reminding them that “those Freaks are wrong and you know that you’re right.” While the song is minutely humorous, you likely can’t help but save four minutes of your life by pressing “skip” on your player, as the song seems grows stale after two minutes. Fortunately, the softer Morning Light comes in and helps us crawl away from this over-beaten anti-Christian jargon. This is easily the most, if not, the only, optimistic song that SES has ever released. The vocals, the lyrics, and the flow are all great, easily a high-point of Vultures. The placement of this song is poor, though, as they should put this after one of the more depressing tracks.
There are some glaring gaffs (as expected from the band that has sung about poor parenting [oh no!], alcoholism, and self-mutilation), most noticeably Better Off Alone, which has a grueling pre-chorus in which Sean dips into his stash of whiny-articulation when he sings: “to try and numb the paaaaaain!!” The noise is equivalent to scraping one’s fingernails across the inside wall of an over-frosted freezer. The best part is the line that precedes it: “So I swallow this bottle of Listerine.” Why not Scope? Or would you consider eating paint chips off a condemned building? It’s honestly some of the worst lyrics I have heard since the song Love Hurts off of Light Grenades. In addition to the cons of Vultures, The Hit does not fulfill the promise of its name. Once again, SES uses one of its weakest tracks for a single, having used Don’t Need You from Anxiety (which you probably don’t remember, because it, along with The Hit, was a half-assed track). The song is a nothing more than an “F U” track to their previous record label, Lava, with whom SES had numerous disputes of the legal and creative varieties. The drumming is poorest on this here, and there’s an overwhelming sensation of garage-band generic 90’s rock.
Mediocre tracks continue to lower the stock of this album. Although the lyrics from Loser (the anthem of the poor fool who traps himself in his self-fulfilling prophecies) are solid enough, there’s a lack of enthusiasm in all facets of the song. Simply put, it’s kind of a bore. Here’s To Another is all about alcohol abuse, and its predictable lyrics made me impatient, as I kept hoping something in this song would actually happen. But it just runs in circles, and feels like a filler track. Adjustments (more popular among younger SES fans) is particularly unmemorable. Sure, it’s attempting to empower who feel pressured to change (“I know you think I could be great with just a few adjustments […] I'm only me and I don't care if you don't like it”), but other than the fact that personal changes are often necessary in life (and therefore, this song could promote introversion and arrogance), the vocals seems very forced and lethargic.
Attempting to end on a more positive note, Disease is perhaps the best song on the album. The vocals are much more within Sean’s range in during the verses and pre-chorus (which has great harmonizing), though I will fully admit he nearly breaches his limits during the chorus during his more coarse singing. Maybe it’s the ambiguity of their lyrics that makes Disease a respectable track, a sort of [insert your issue here] emo/grunge/rock ballad. Even Kilmer the drummer shows brief signs of life here. Live Forever is a fun little track that provides a break from the frequent “woe is me” lamentations that often hinder each of Smile Empty Soul’s albums. The title-track is a very soft, desolate acoustic concoction. The guitar play is well-executed, and the vocals and lyrics fit perfectly to create an aura of misery and defiance; an effective way to end an album which was often on the brink of flat-lining.
I can’t say that a casual listener would enjoy this album. Bluntly, a previous interest in Smile Empty Soul is practically a prerequisite to seeking this album. Although I view this album as an improvement compared to their self-titled debut album, Vultures is unlikely to impress the population. Long-time SES fans would likely enjoy it well enough, and that’s just about the only subculture I would recommend for this album.