Review Summary: F**k first impressions!
While I cannot recall the specific song, I distinctly remember the first time I ever heard Toronto punk quartet Billy Talent. It was on an overnight music video show that I had video-taped, and on replaying the particular clip, I found myself hitting the fast-forward button about 30 seconds into it. While half of you wonder what video-tape is and the other half are surprised someone can be so narrow-minded, I just felt that it would be near impossible to overcome such negative first impressions. Months later, I found out how wrong I would be!
“What was the cause of these negative first impressions?” I hear you ask. Well, quite simply put, lead vocalist Ben Kowalewicz has a voice that will be despised much more than it is liked. During a recent live set, one attendee disparagingly described the sound of Kowalewicz’s singing as akin to the noise which is made when a bird is being choked. How this sound would be known is beyond me, yet the description probably isn’t too far off the mark. It is an under-statement to suggest the vocals take a little while getting used to.
Yet, it is even more of an under-statement to suggest that one is in for a rewarding listen once those vocals become accustomed to. Want proof? Look no further than track 4, the aptly titled ‘Line & Sinker’, which begins with Kowalewicz exaggeratingly screaming “What you see is what you get”, before the backing vocals come in with the catchy line of “fishing for the answer with a line and sinker”. In then settling down and building back up to its chorus, the piece literally reels you in hook, like and sinker. Vocally similar is opener ‘How It Goes’, which after an ominously effective beginning explodes aggressively to belie the poppy melodies which are still interspersed throughout it.
As a testament to the depth and lack of filler on this debut LP, one could reasonably consider either or both of these strong cuts to not be included amongst the album’s strongest half of tracks. Lead single ‘Try Honesty’ is clearly a highlight, with its fantastically layered and varied guitar-work building up to a super infectious call and response chorus. 3rd single ‘River Below’ then uses those same call and response vocals during the verses, while 2nd single ‘The Ex’ delivers a superb sing-along chorus that any pop artist would kill to perform.
Presuming the vocals can be overcome, searching out weaknesses on ‘Billy Talent’ is a difficult task. One could argue that most songs are variations on the same theme, yet the band does add subtle and sufficient variation. ‘Lies’ and ‘Standing in the Rain’ contain more of an alt-rock feel, while ‘Voices of Violence’ fittingly increases the pace to make for one hell of a satisfying closer. Meanwhile, the closest thing to a ballad is penultimate track and 4th single ‘Nothing To Lose’, which works a treat since Kowalewicz delivers his lines concerning childhood ostracism so convincingly. For the most part, the often relatable lyrics are indeed strong, with overcoming personal adversity clearly a common theme.
For what is basically a punk band, Billy Talent is one tight unit musically. The rhythm section of Jon Gallant and Aaron Solowoniuk consistently provide a strong back-bone, while lone guitarist Ian D’Sa often sounds as if he is doing the work of at least two men. Tracks such as ‘Living in the Shadows’ and ‘Prisoner of Today’ constantly shift tempos and use varying techniques throughout to keep them interesting, while ‘Cut The Curtains’ proves that he can also handle a thick crunching riff and a neat little solo. When all this is combined with fantastic backing vocals (on every song) by D’Sa and bassist Gallant, it really does make for an accomplished package overall.
So f**k first impressions. Do whatever you need to do to overcome Ben Kowalewicz’s vocals and put aside your distaste for any kind of music which leans towards the poppy side. There is simply too much on offer here throughout Billy Talent’s self-titled debut LP to miss out. As a famous Australian music reviewer used to say; “Do yourself a favour” and allow yourself to get hooked. Whether it is by the catchy choruses, relatable lyrics, fist-pumping sing-alongs, tight musicianship or all of the above, you won’t regret it.
Recommended Tracks: Try Honesty, The Ex, Nothing To Lose, River Below & Line and Sinker.