Toronto band Billy Talent showed up to the music scene at the perfect time in 2003—their mix of aggressive post-hardcore and emo was the prevailing trend that year (think Brand New’s Deja Entendu or AFI’s Sing The Sorrow). Of course, in the intervening 1000 days or so, the landscape has shifted again, with the pop-punk of Fall Out Boy first in the hearts and minds of many of America’s teenagers. Billy Talent (like Jethro Tull, the band isn’t one guy) may not be trying to keep up with the Joneses, but their attempts to go their own way with their sophomore album, Billy Talent II, only leave them looking dated.
The band members waste no time dancing with what brung them. Opener “Devil in a Midnight Mass” is a glammed-up slice of rumbling hard rock, with frontman Ben Kowalewicz’s whisper-to-a-scream vox. On that track and throughout, guitarist Ian D’sa turns in clean, metallic guitar lines reminiscent of classic post-punk. They may be on the Vans Warped Tour this summer, but they’ve toured with the Buzzcocks, too. Tunes like “Red Flag” and “Worker Bees” are fist-pumping anthems with big hooks and lyrics like the former’s “the kids of tomorrow don’t need today when they live in the sins of yesterday.” I’m not sure what that means, but Kowalewicz delivers it with a convincing punk sneer.
But really, the above combos are the only cards Billy Talent play. There’s only so many ways a band can rail against the system (“Worker Bees”) or lose a girl (“Pins and Needles,”). They never turn in a cheesy ballad—which would be death to their target audience—but they rarely change gears, either.
Of course, gear shifts are the album’s standouts. “Where Is the Line” takes a new conceit—“urban hipster is the new gangster”—and sets it to a pop metal guitar line. Kowalewicz’s lyrics can run to obscurantism, so it’s hard to decipher the entire song (fave zinger: “They trade in their hearts for indie rock charts to tell them what is real”), but there’s no mistaking the vitriol aimed at the hipster crowd with the closing lyric “Here today but forgotten tomorrow.” Maybe it’s a bit of tilting at windmills, but at least it’s interesting, and they sound like they’re having fun romping through the song. And “In the Fall” may be a typical lose-the-girl song (“I gave my life to save her”), but the band turns it into what can best be described as a rollicking Irish/emo drinking song. A few more of these moments, and Billy Talent would’ve had a solid sophomore album, one that continued on the foundation built with their self-titled debut, while expanding on their vision.
At the end of the day, Billy Talent II is the kind of album that will play well on the Vans Warped Tour circuit, which is exactly what it is designed to do. They may sound dated to the jaded rock critic whose job it is to find the Next Big Sound (of which post-hardcore and emo were never strongly considered, the votes of the nation’s teenagers gone uncounted). Billy Talent II is a well-produced album—really, it sounds great—played with heart, and it rocks hard. But a little variety could do a world of good, as would an acknowledgement that it is currently 2006, not 2003.