Billy Talent II Turns 15
While Billy Talent’s debut album was a commercial success, the band had plenty of critics, skeptics and outright haters. To fans, their big, brash and frantic brand of punk rock was just the right mix of aggro and angsty. To detractors, they were sell-outs and poseurs, an overly self-serious, made-forradio rock band with a cartoonishly snotty singer. Was this a group of artists with a real future, or a fleeting flash that got swept up in a mainstream feeding frenzy? With Billy Talent II, the answer was clear.
WITH THE BAND RETURNING TO PRODUCER GAVIN BROWN IN VANCOUVER, SINGER BEN KOWALEWICZ’S voice got considerably stronger, guitarist Ian D’Sa’s innovative and dextrous style became even more prominent, bassist Jon Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk had an extra punch, and the band’s sound was altogether more refined and in sync. In sound and approach, Billy Talent II was effectively a midway point between sneering ’90s punk, millennial post-grunge and mid-aughts mallcore that, today, makes it feel like both a product of its time and a rejection of its tropes. To this day, not many singers sound like Kowalewicz, and nobody — nobody — plays the guitar like D’Sa.
HERE, BILLY TALENT SHOWED THAT A STRAIGHT-UP ROCK BAND — ALBEIT ONE WITH A LINGERING PUNK ETHOS — could still be intelligent, creative and unique. They weren’t a Rage Against the Machine or a System of a Down, but they had something to say about power structures and societal dysfunction. “Red Flag” advocates for youth as a united force of social upheaval, “Worker Bees” basically stages a Communist revolution at an apiary, “Covered in Cowardice” appears to call out the growing problem of cyberbullying, and “Burn the Evidence” speaks to the false promises of consumerist middle-class suburbia. It was a more allegorical approach than the Bush-era, post-9/11 political sloganeering of Rise Against and Anti-Flag, but it was certainly overt enough for the kids to understand.
EVEN AS BILLY TALENT’S AUDIENCE GREW, THEY STILL STRUGGLED TO GAIN RESPECT.
In those days, the youthful rebellion of “mall punk” bands clashed with the artsy seriousness of the Arcade Fires and Broken Social Scenes. Billy Talent were too popular to be authentic punks and too loudly earnest for the indie-rock set. Exclaim!’s own reviews were mostly dismissive; the record had been “polished down” to a “radio-friendly sheen” that led our critic to assert that “Canada already has one Sum 41.” While Billy Talent haven’t enjoyed the same level of nostalgic reappraisal as, say, Taking Back Sunday or My Chemical Romance — likely because they never quite cracked the U.S. market in a big way — much of their early work holds up arguably just as well all these years later.
“They’ll Show Us a Thing or Two”
BILLY TALENT HAD ALREADY MADE A NAME FOR THEMSELVES, BUT THIS ALBUM DEFINED THEM.
From this point onward, they were a bona-fide rock band with the legs for longevity, having carved out a sound rightfully their own. Each of their next three peaked at No. 1 on the Canadian album charts and earned them multiple Juno nominations. In the past year, they’ve released a few singles and appear to be working toward another record. While much of their more recent output hasn’t quite matched the high-powered frenzy of their early years, the band has remained committed to their strengths. For a moment in time, Billy Talent were one of the most exciting — and divisive — bands in Canada. With the release of Billy Talent II, they established themselves as a powerful force that was here to stay. Fifteen years later, that much remains true.