Vancouver’s Black Halos want you to know they have a discriminating taste in their musical influences… which is all well and good in theory, but the band talks about them to the point of distracting and sells themselves short in the process with their new disc, Alive Without Control. On this, their third album, and the first since re-forming after a 2002 breakup, the band—lead singer Billy Hopeless, guitarist/singer Adam Becvare, guitarist Jay Millette, bassist Denyss McKnight and drummer Rob Zgaljic—prove they have the look (black), the sound (big and fuzzed-out) and attitude (snotty) down cold; they’re an established entity. So why do they spend the bulk of the press kit pledging allegiance to Johnny Thunders, the Dictators, the Ramones, the Dead Boys, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, Hanoi Rocks, the New York Dolls and the Stooges? No band could possibly live up to the legacies of those legends; the Halos’ inviting comparisons to those acts is only asking to weaken their album—and it’s a shame, because Alive Without Control is a solid, unabashed rock and roll album.
The funny thing about the Black Halos is that they don’t sound much like any of those great aforementioned bands. So, those comparisons are unfair, distracting and unnecessary. Sure, there’s a few familiar moments: a bit of Dolls piano on the title track; song titles like “Burning Trash” and “Third World USA” that could pass for Dolls tunes; lead singer Hopeless’ vocals are similar to the nasal vox of the late Stiv Bators (and guitarist Becvare played with the post-Bators Lords of the New Church in 2003). But beyond those instances, the Black Halos sounds like no one so much as themselves. They lean more towards punk and metal than glam and garage, and that’s cool. Really, no band is better than when the band members sound like themselves.
In the words of any English Composition teacher: Show, don’t tell. When the Halos keep the hero worship to a minimum and just show they’ve got the chops, good things happen. Opener “Three Sheets to the Wind” is a heavy riff-fest, with Hopeless’ vocals both guttural and nasal. And tunes like “Tight”, with its “whoa oh oh oh” callback and the clean, metalesque “Darkest Corners” rival the rock ‘n’ roll coming out of the Scandinavian countries.
There are a few clunkers on the disc. “Studio Suffering” is one of the best-sounding tracks, all lean, mean and snarling, but it gets docked a point because it’s about the banality of reality TV—not a worthy target for a punk band. And a cover of Tom Petty’s “I Need to Know” is an inspired choice from TP’s catalog for the band, but the Halos’ execution only serves to remind listeners how urgent and punk the original already is; the Halos add nothing to the tune. “Broken”, at four-and-a-half minutes, is too long to be effective, and throughout the album, Hopeless’ voice is an acquired taste, nasal, to be sure, but at times too mannered.
These guys aren’t saviors; they’re more about image than imparting any important message. But they know how to craft the kind of rock and roll that American mainstream rock and roll fans, who have only the likes of, say, Velvet Revolver to listen to, should salivate over.