There was a time, around the initial success of bands like Sum 41 and Simple Plan, that mainstream Canadian punk seemed about to fully descend into emo whinging and the brattier melodies of Avril Lavigne.
But in front of more than 10,200 fans at the Bell Centre, Mississauga’s Billy Talent showed why all was not lost to bubblegum pop run through a distortion pedal. With St. Catharines’s Alexisonfire and Toronto’s Cancer Bats, Wednesday’s concert presented a look Canada’s punk scene from various angles, with a solid performance from Florida’s Against Me! thrown in for good measure.
Initially called Pezz, Billy Talent formed in 1993, releasing the album Watoosh! under their original name in 1999. But it wasn’t until 2003’s eponymous album – and its breakout single “Try Honesty” – that the band found mainstream success with their unique brand of alt-punk, going multi-platinum with that record and 2006’s Billy Talent II. Their latest album, 2009’s Billy Talent III, continues to showcase their unique modern sound, which balances catchy but angular melodies with an inventive musicality that avoids the math-nerd complexities of post-hardcore.
Starting the show with the fuzzed-out intro to “Devil in a Midnight Mass”, the band came out with enough energy to match the frenzied crowd. Initially, the guitar tone seemed worryingly processed and buzzing, like a Nintendo rocking out through a broken bass amp. But thankfully, the mix cleaned up by the second song, “This Suffering”. The sound was near-flawless after that, allowing vocalist Ben Kowalewicz to cleanly deliver infectious choruses with his trademark nasal urgency; effective, despite occasionally evoking Fran Drescher calling for help.
Next, bassist Jonathan Gallant and guitarist Ian D’Sa traded off notes in a doomy, menacing intro before launching into “Line & Sinker”, from their 2003 album. Then, new song “Rusted from the Rain” and recent single “Saint Veronika”. An early highlight came when 2004’s “River Below” kicked off with its antagonistic, catchy guitar riff.
That song perhaps best encapsulates Billy Talent’s appeal. Mixing menace with pathos, Kowalewicz’s lyrics perfectly blend with the mid-paced aggression of D’Sa, Gallant, and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk. The result is less the self-absorbed moaning of teenage angst than it is the soundtrack to a tortured neurotic wringing his hands and pacing. Full of pent-up emotion, songs like “Nothing To Lose” and “The Ex” clearly struck a chord with the crowd, as did “Surrender” and “Turn Your Back”, which featured guest vocals by Alexisonfire’s Dallas Green and Tom Gabel from Against Me!, respectively.
Grimacing while spitting background vocals, guitarist D’Sa, with a vertical pillar of hair resembling either a Dick Tracy villain or startled cartoon character, maintained a strong presence, even as Kowalewicz prowled the stage. Anchored by Solowoniuk, Gallant laid down a solid low end, rumbling the crowd in darker songs like “Tears into Wine”. By the time impossibly catchy single “Devil on My Shoulder” kicked off the encore, the band had the crowd entranced, and fully believing in the future of Canadian punk.
Starting off the show was Toronto’s Cancer Bats. Their crushing performance of crusty, metal-influenced punk bruised from brawling with New Orleans sludge bands cemented their status as one of the best Canadian punk bands to crawl from the underground in the past few years. They were followed by Florida’s Against Me! and their catchy, straight-forward pop punk, and Alexisonfire’s complex, layered, and warmly received post-hardcore spasming.
The Montreal Gazette
March 26, 2010