Two albums into their career, energetic Canadian modern rock purveyors Billy Talent already find themselves with little to prove in their home country. The group is unerringly popular, with two multiplatinum records, many successful rock radio singles, and multiple Juno Awards. Like so many popular Canuck acts, this success has not translated into the US market, and perhaps it’s not worth expending too much effort considering the reasons for this. The band’s style — melodic earnestness, polished viscerality, lyrics at once familiar and subtly, cleverly confessional — might skew too closely to contemporary Green Day for mainstream American comfort, but they’ve carved out their niche and settled in for the long haul nevertheless.
Though Billy Talent (named after the iconoclastic guitarist from Bruce McDonald’s cult rock film Hard Core Logo) tend to be associated with the emo and pop-punk genres, Billy Talent III fleshes out some of their more established influences. Led Zeppelin is an unavoidable reference point, and not merely due to the borrowed album-naming convention (the last record was called Billy Talent II). Singer Ben Kowalewicz’s screechy style is superficially derived from the prevailing wisdom of the punk and screamo scenes, but his vocal instincts share many features with Robert Plant’s mystical blues approach. Ian D’Sa’s lead riffs are descended from Jimmy Page’s in the way that all radio-rock architecture tends to be, although the filtering through grunge traditions is also key.
The latter influence is perhaps amplified by the presence of legendary grunge rock producer Brendan O’Brien behind the desk for III. Though Billy Talent’s sound has always had a formidable bottom, their previous highlights were distinguished by a charmingly lithe quality. The debut single, “Try Honesty”, was heavy and relentless and wracked with forbidding integrity, but it was also light on its feet; the same was especially true of their skipping singles from II. It’s entirely possible that the tempos on III are equivalent to those of these previous tracks, but O’Brien’s production makes them feel more plodding and clubfooted than usual.
Indeed, III seems generally mired in the muck of mediocrity, more predictable crunch and lurch than the surprising slyness that has marked the band’s best work. The album-opening duo of singles are shockingly weak; “Devil on My Shoulder” is full of the sort of cornball rock demonology that even Ozzy Osbourne had little time for, and “Rusted from the Rain” stretches its central metaphor over wretched grandiosity. At the album’s end, “Sudden Movements” and “Definition of Destiny” grind their clichés to a meaty pulp. “The Dead Can’t Testify” sees Kowalewicz teasing out some striking tableaus from witch-hunt lore before making an eye-rolling connection to suburban outcasts that goes down like, well, a zeppelin made of lead. The most bizarre misfire is “Diamond on a Landmine”, which features white-boy reggae guitar rhythms borrowed from the Police and a chorus commencement melody that is bafflingly reminiscent of Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer”. Considering that this may be the one moment where the band is truly stretching their sound, it’s particularly disappointing that it doesn’t quite work.
It’s hardly all lamentable, to be fair. “Saint Veronika” recaptures both the alienated narratives and nimble progressions that made much of Billy Talent’s past work so tolerable, and “Turn Your Back” (a demo version of which featured members of punk legends Anti-Flag) is resplendent in its grimy swagger (“kiss your ass goodbye, mate”). But the overall tone of Billy Talent III is, at best, one of stagnation and, at worst, one of regression. After three albums and a decade and a half as a band, there ought to be more visible growth in this band. There isn’t, and considering their potential, that’s really too bad.