Sound — 8
Sometimes, it surprises me that Billy Talent is still around. After showing much promise with their self-titled debut album, it seemed as if the band's break through to the mainstream was poised to get a lot bigger, but with the changing times of music video distribution, record labels being what they are, and the changing landscape of punk-based music, it seems like Billy Talent has never gotten much more popular than they were in the days of "Try Honesty" and "River Below."
Despite the seeming quietness of the band from my point of view, it appears the band has not only continued releasing albums, most of which of reasonably good quality, but they have also managed to do so without a single lineup change, a rarity in the industry these days. Their sound has definitely softened since their early days, lacking the harsher vocal styles that Benjamin Kowalewicz employed on their debut. Ian D'Sa's guitar riffs are still treble-heavy, and not dripping in the same kind of high gain you'd expect from such a riffy band. And the riffs on this album occasionally have some impressive surprises, like the great ones throughout "Ghost Ship of Cannibal Rats," a tune punctuated by punk-like gang chant shouts. "Louder Than the DJ" features some very "traditional rock-and-roll" sounds from Ian, something which he's used a bit more frequently on the past couple albums. Bassist Jonathan Gallant's presence on the album is quite big on the album, with the bass shining through the mix quite clearly (probably a result of Ian's guitar being a little less gain-heavy and bass-heavy than a lot of guitarists in the genre), and I especially like the bass lines he plays on "Rabbit Down the Hole." Now, about that bit where I mentioned no lineup changes... sadly, drummer Aaron Solowoniuk had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis back in 2006, and due to complications from it, has taken a hiatus from the band, leaving the throne to Jordan Hastings (a name whom you might recognize as the drummer of acclaimed post-hardcore legends Alexisonfire), who treats his position in Billy Talent with a great deal of respect, laying down excellent, but tasteful, beats and fills.
Songwriting-wise, while I have to admit to missing the sharp, angular style of their debut album, and find this more "mainstream made-for-radio rock" format a bit less enthralling, there are still some great songs on this record. "Time Bomb Ticking Away" is kind of the answer to the question "how would U2 covering Alexisonfire sound?," but it's actually a really good, fast-paced song with some beautiful chords and vocal harmonies, and overall, is just a very well-written song. "Leave Them All Behind" is about the only song that really worried me, starting with a very soft sort of "Green Day circa 'American Idiot' playing country" kind of opening, before morphing into a rather decent power-pop tune. "Horses and Chariots" has moments that almost remind me of Serj Tankian's solo albums, possibly because of the vaguely middle-eastern vocal melodies over pulsing eighth-note riffs and the vaguely political lyrics. "Afraid of Heights (Reprise)" and "Horses and Chariots" both have very prominent synth parts, a bit of an oddity for this band, as well. The production of this album, ably handled by guitarist Ian D'Sa, is crisp and modern, not too overly loud, and allows a lot of headroom between the instruments, to the point where every nuance of the instrumental playing, including pick attacks, can be heard.
Lyrics — 8
Benjamin Kowalewicz's lyrics, like a lot of derivatives of punk rock, are often quite political in nature, shooting straight from the hip with the opening song "Big Red Gun," seemingly a rumination on the USA's fascination with guns and gun violence (and to be honest, I'm not sure whether it's anti-gun or pro-gun). The politics also continues on "Horses and Chariots," a song which seems to be about how divided our world is, and "This Is Our War," which seems to be about getting past political and racial divisions to stand unified. But there are also more personal songs, if political discourse is not your thing, such as the album's title track, which describes Benjamin's thoughts on fear and phobias. "Louder Than the DJ" has a very generic "rock and roll will never die" feel to it, and maybe a hint of apprehension toward technology ("Little miss Selfie and lonely boy Slick/it's time you got a brand new fix"). Lyrically speaking, a lot of this album is nothing unexpected from a band like this, and they don't really waste any time on surprising lyrical topics. "Louder Than the DJ" is about the only lyrical misstep on the album, as far as I'm concerned.
Benjamin's vocal style has changed very little over the years, except that there are far fewer sort of hardcore punk "shouts" on their more recent albums. This one is no exception, but there are still a few good hardcore gang chants on songs like "Ghost Ship of Cannibal Rats," but most of the rest of the album features Benjamin's melodic vocal style. His voice, like a few other famous Canadian vocalists, can tend to be a bit of an acquired taste, but I found very little to complain about on this record.
Overall Impression — 8
Even though time has softened Billy Talent a bit, the band's formula has remained quite successful for them, and they exemplify these traits on "Afraid of Heights." Between the witty songwriting, the excellent musicianship, the tight production, and the band's long-running unity, this album is a rather excellent piece from them. While it won't directly compare to the band's past works in too many meaningful ways, there is still quite a bit to like about this new record, and it definitely gets a recommendation from me. While there may be some things this band is afraid of (heights spring to mind), success is not one of them. This is a pretty damn good record.