The Canadian rockers of Billy Talent started their collective lifespan as Pezz — musically scattered, fun-loving, a bit of ska here, a bit of rap there — until copyright forced a name change, while evolution tightened performances into a pleasantly abrasive, treble-laden sonic swirl. A fleeting glance and you might mistake Billy Talent for another emo addition to the hardcore scene, but Billy Talent’s discography touches upon everything from pedophilic priesthood (“Devil in a Midnight Mass”), bullying (“Nothing to Lose”), toxic relationships (“This Suffering”), keeping your enemies closer (“Covered in Cowardice”), and simply accepting your place as a scapegoat (“The Dead Can’t Testify”).
It might be more apt to consider Billy Talent a less obliquely political Anti-Flag, an act with whom they’ve collaborated. Vocalist Benjamin Kowalewicz is even audibly comparable to Justin Sane, in certain respects. Billy Talent have embraced their punk/hardcore roots, more often than not beneficially. They’re sharp, fast, and angry, with vicious guitar and high-pitched screaming across the board — save for occasional gasps of moody introspection. They have stuck to their guns even as their audience begins to age, surpassing angst in search of more adult fare. (Even if that means buying Dillinger Escape Plan vinyl to flaunt on Instagram). Afraid of Heights takes this hint, addressing a terrifying-yet-necessary theme that nearly every maturing listener has to contend with eventually: commitment.
Despite functionally inelegant song choices (“Big Red Gun”) and filler (“February Winds”), a good deal of Afraid of Heights trades in rapid-fire aggression for a calculated barrage of justified fear (the title track, “Ghost Ship of Cannibal Rats”). The ominous and oddly synth-driven “Horses & Chariots” sounds somehow like Muse, and there’s even a dose of some much-deserved fun in “Louder Than the DJ”. Billy Talent remain punk in the way that The Offspring were punk circa Americana: sardonic, sarcastic, a bit too old to keep bitching, yet too young to not try on a few other sounds to complete their picture.
Afraid of Heights succeeds where its predecessor, 2012’s abysmal Dead Silence, failed: branching out without completely abandoning the rhythms or chaos that was the band’s signature. Ian D’sa remains as voracious on guitar and harmonies as ever. Bassist Jon Gallant has steadily becomes a more prominent presence from Billy Talent II onward. Drummer Aaron Solowoniuk sadly took a hiatus during this record due to exacerbations of multiple sclerosis, so his characteristic thrashing was temporarily traded in for the heavier-handed, sludgier pummeling of Alexisonfire’s Jordan Hastings.
Afraid of Heights is more cohesive than the band’s previous two LPs, deeper, more lyrically consistent, and committed to being its own entity while also remaining faithful as a Billy Talent product. While Billy Talent still label themselves punk and this feels like a punk record, they no longer sound inherently punk, or at least not the stereotype you’d usually conjure. Afraid of Heights is punk for the fans who grew up, took on a little student loan debt, but want to prove that they can still go hard and go home at a reasonable hour. And if this is what leaving adolescence sounds like, they can deal.
Essential Tracks: “Ghost Ship Of Cannibal Rats,” “The Crutch,” “This Is Our War,” “Rabbit Down The Hole”