Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Billy Talent: 'Afraid of Heights' - A Track-by-Track Review

Billy Talent have been on top of their game for years, performing their own modern formula of punk rock to arenas around the world. Now with the release of their fifth full length album under the moniker of Billy Talent, which has already reached number 1 in the Canadian and German album charts, are the band continuing to write the hits that they were famous for, a decade ago?

Before I dig deeper into Afraid of Heights, I should probably let you all know my own preference towards the band, as this obviously effects my personal opinion of the album. For the last ten years, if anyone had asked me for my favourite band, without even having to think, Billy Talent would roll off the tongue. The band’s first three, self-titled releases are usually cited among my top ten favourite albums, with III being a personal favourite since its 2009 release. My Facebook name was even ‘Billy Talented’ for a long time. You get the idea, I like this band a lot. You can understand, then, my excitement when, at the start of the year, Billy Talent begin to upload teaser videos of their return into the studio.

It had seemed like a prolonged wait since Billy Talent’s last full length, the critically acclaimed Dead Silence (and the first album to not be self-titled since the band’s earliest release, Watoosh! back in the late 90s, whilst they were still performing under the name Pezz, before a lawsuit forced them to change this to Billy Talent). Dead Silence was received well but critiqued for being stylistically diverse from the niche sound that has provided a formula for early Billy Talent material, for example, the introduction of piano on tracks like Swallowed Up by The Ocean was something that the band had not tried before.

Perhaps the wait for the new album was extended due to the release of the Hits compilation, which was released as a reflection of everything the band had released to date, and included two new songs. This Hits collection was remarked by many to be an ‘end of an era’, particularly with the inclusion of the new track, Chasing the Sun, an acoustic ballad very much unlike anything the band had done previously. This not so sudden change still sat uncomfortably with the fans that were adamant that the band should return to their raw, punk rock roots. Nevertheless, fans eagerly anticipated the forthcoming 2016 release.

However, early on in the year more disaster struck the Billy Talent camp, as drummer Aaron Solowoniuk broke the news that he would be unable to perform on the new record. The drummer has fought his MS since his diagnosis around the time that the band was beginning to gain major recognition, and even set up his own charity for the disease, F.U.MS, which the band have often raised money towards. However, Solowoniuk’s relapse meant that for the first time, Billy Talent would undergo a line-up change. The band had spent nearly the last two decades performing with the same four core members, and a sudden change to this would disrupt the very heart of the band. The drumsticks could therefore only be passed on to close friend of the band and member of local Toronto acts such as Alexisonfire, Jordan Hastings, whilst Solowoniuk stayed with the band to oversee production of the album and document its creation. The news that the drumming duties were staying ‘within the family’, so to speak, eased many of the concerned fans.

Despite these setbacks, the long awaited fifth studio album, titled Afraid of Heights, dropped on the 29th of July and the reaction was always going to be a mixed one. Although critically very highly rated, and ranking high up in the album charts internationally, many fans took to social media to proclaim that the new album was missing something; the charge of the angry punk rock that the band used to play, or even the talent of Solowoniuk himself. In honestly, I too felt somewhat disappointed after my first full play through of the album. However, after countless plays in the car, I feel I am ready for an honest and justified review of exactly what I think of Afraid of Heights.

The album opens with a classic Billy Talent toned guitar riff, as Big Red Gun, one of the heavier songs of the album, slowly builds up to a big, powerful chorus, using the same song writing formula of classic songs like Devil in a Midnight Mass. Singer Ben Kowalewcz had already stated in interviews that this was his favourite new song, and the tune had already made its way into their live set, debuted in Moscow, perhaps as a big, political, middle finger towards recent events. This is certainly a perfect way to open an album, to show the fans that they are still sticking to their roots, even if they are also trying new methods, something which because very apparent later in the album.

The title track, Afraid of Heights, makes an appearance next. This was the first song to be released and although many feel it wasn’t the catchy crowd-pleaser a first single should be; I feel it is a great song in other ways. The song immediately showcases guitarist Ian D’Sa’s unusual chord structures which he has become famous for, as the leading riff echoes that of Billy Talent II classics such as Fallen Leaves and even Perfect World. The song itself once again seems to follow a similar song writing style to older tunes by the band, with a catchy chorus that also exhibits the importance of back-in vocals to Billy Talent’s music. I have heard many complain that these songs are simply ‘playing it safe’, referring back to old methods to create something that is rather underwhelming. However, I would have to disagree. Although the song features the same call-and-response style as many others, and a similar structure, a close listen highlights elements that have never been used before by the band in this way. There is piano deep in the mix, giving a depth to the tracks that was never there before. Although Ben’s vocals may seem to be lacking in some places, D’Sa’s backing makes the vocals as rich as they have always been.

When I first got all the mp3s for this record downloaded onto my computer, the first thing I did was flick through each track, to see if anything caught my ear. I remember the massive yell I gave out when I first heard The Crutch’s opening riff. I was dancing about my living room. I was so excited. That riff really is the kind of the that gets people really moving live, and I was so excited to hear it live. The Crutch probably is the best track on the album, and in my opinion probably would have been received better as a first single. The song is fast, it’s upbeat, Ben Kowalewicz finally seems to let go and get shouting like he used to. This is what I was waiting for. The song, which going by the artwork, seems to be about some kind of BDSM relationship, is a sexy, rock n’ roll love song. As well as badass guitar work, rocking solos and excellent drumming from stand-in Hastings, I feel like what sold me on this song was the cool back-in vocals which often divulge on their own little melodies, reminiscent of the obscure indie rock of Watoosh!. In my mind, the only thing I could critique this song on are the seeming overproduction-factor on the chorus echoes, which almost takes away the honest, raw vibes that the song initially goes for. I love this track, a real head banger.

A few months prior to the album’s release, the band leaked the track listing and, for most, the name that really stood out on the list was Ghost Ship of Cannibal Rats. Billy Talent are known for unusual song names, with Viking Death March and even the Superman inspired Kingdom of Zod appearing on previous releases. I don’t think anyone ever thought that Kowalewicz could sing the words Ghost Ship of Cannibal Rats in a song, but he does! Plus, it sounds good! There is something similar to This Suffering in the chord structure of this song, a slower song in comparison to the first few, and one that really draws its attention to the overall theme of the album, of our place in nature, and what we are doing to the world. This theme can clearly be seen in the cover art of the album, where a two-headed demon-man uses his many arms to shoot guns, pour oil and create the apocalyptic landscape that lays behind him. Ghost Ship of Cannibal Rats is another great song that plays on Billy Talent’s strong political and economic stance, and sonically fits in among older Billy Talent works. 

Louder Than The DJ kicks in next, the second single from that album which is another fast and powerful punk rock song, reminiscent to me of classic tunes from bands like The Ramones. The song’s premise is that punk rock is not dead and that it will survive much longer than the electronic stuff on the airwaves right now. It feels to me like the band were trying to build an anthem for all lovers of rock could stand behind, but the song perhaps falls short of this, becoming a little bit repetitive and maybe even ironically radio-friendly. Despite this, the tune is sure to get the crowd singing as a stadium anthem.

It’s really at this point, midway through the album that Afraid of Heights shifts in style. Whilst the first five tracks seemed like a reprise of old themes and styles, almost as a crowd-pleasing technique, Rabbit Down the Hole begins the album’s descent into experimental work. The track, Billy Talent longest to date, starts with an acoustic, and plods slowly on into a ballad that isn’t dissimilar to Guns and Roses’ November Rain or other classic rock and roll ballads. D’sa has another solo which yearns for the days of hair metal. Although this is an interesting move and something that definitely was not expected, I feel that, lyrically, this is one of the weaker song on the album, using poorly written and honestly, overused metaphors in a repetitive way to describe another tale of abusing ‘mother nature’. In fact, I feel like it was an unusual choice to have a longer track in the centre of the album, dissecting it clean in two. Perhaps it would have worked better as a closing death rattle for the album.

Time Bomb Ticking Away follows this power ballad, bringing the album back to a fast paced, punk rock style that really is Billy Talent at their finest. The song really allows the return of the band’s classic call-and-response vocal style which works so well in this, and of course, older songs. The song rises and falls, is aggressive at times and melodic at others, even including a piano in the mix in the bridge, creating a brilliantly diverse song that once again feels like it would slot in perfectly in the Billy Talent II era. The only thing that I personally find troubling about this song is the uncomfortable start of the track with Ben’s isolated vocals.

Time Bomb Ticking Away flows fluidly into Leave Them All Behind, an upbeat song about moving on to achieve great things. Musically, the track features really intricate guitar work, with D’sa moving constantly moving between fine plucked notes to big chords with ease and crisp drumming from Hastings, as he truly takes this song into his own. The inclusion of an organ sound impacts the song in a great way, setting it apart from other tracks, both on the album and in the band’s back catalogue.

Ian D’Sa stated in interviews that the band used this album to experiment with instruments and sounds that they had never used before, and whilst some of these experiments, like the organ in Leave Them All Behind worked well, it could be argued that others did not. Horses and Chariots is certainly the most experimental track on the album, led by a synthetic bassline, which stylistically sounds much more like the work of Muse than of Billy Talent. The band’s first venture into ‘space-rock’ suspiciously sounds a lot more like a poor cover of Knights of Cydonia than an experimental achievement.

As Afraid of Heights draws to a close, the final few songs really draw on the political themes that Billy Talent are known for. This is Our War obviously talks about our own place within the current state of affairs in the Middle East, whilst February Winds is a song about the current refugee crisis. In this way, the band are showing us how they are still relevant, as a voice for our generation in a time of chaos and unrest. Whilst February Winds’ intro riff sounds very similar to Horses and Chariots, the track unfolds to become another personal favourite, with a great acoustic interlude, showing that the band can do new things without it sounding out of place or cliché.

It is a shame, therefore, that February Winds does not close the album, but is instead followed but a rather rushed sounding and extremely out of place reprise of Afraid of Heights, something that simply did not need to be included and adds nothing to the original song except an extended solo and a synth lead. Ian D’sa stated that the choice to include this track in the final cut was based upon the band’s love for old school albums that often included reprises at the end, and although it is interesting to hear a completely reworked version of the original song, I feel like this is could have been a bonus track, disassociated from the main album, which, as a whole, was not as bad as the fans initially complained, or as experimental as the band first stated. With moments that sound exactly like the older albums, and others where the band bring entirely new and brilliant ideas to the table, ‘Afraid of Heights’ is a good addition to the Billy Talent back catalogue. However, perhaps the album in its entirety is slightly underwhelming. I remember the excitement of The Crutch’s opening riff draining from me as I first listened to the record, as nothing else really caught my attention as much as that first riff. It feels like this album is lacking something. Perhaps it is Ben Kowalewicz’ signature scream, perhaps it is the exclusion of the Woolley Mammoth fuzz pedal that has become a signature tone of Ian D’Sa, or perhaps it is the fact that this is the first album recorded without Aaron Solowoniuk. Despite this, Afraid of Heights is a solid offering from a now aging band that is still managing to bring new things to the table.

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