'Billy Talent II,' the Crowning Achievement from the Unfairly Maligned Alt-Rockers, Turns 15
Hindsight has proved all those "Billy No-Talent" jokes wrong
Published Jun 24, 2021When Billy Talent achieved CanCon fame in 2003, they had finally found a formula that worked for them. The Mississauga band had toiled away under their former name of Pezz for close to 10 years, trying out a mostly awkward, occasionally awesome and very '90s mix of ska, rap-rock, power-pop, grunge and weirdo punk. Then they got slapped with a legal claim over their name, rebranded themselves after a character from Hard Core Logo, and were reinvented as purveyors of ferocious, spunky alt-rock inspired by the likes of Fugazi, Refused and At the Drive-In. They landed a contract with Atlantic and Warner and their self-titled debut album was a success. Billy Talent reached No. 6 on the Canadian albums chart, led by the explosive single "Try Honesty."
Over the next two years, they toured extensively in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, charted in the U.S., Germany, Austria and the UK, and won three Juno Awards. But while the album was a commercial success, the band had plenty of critics, skeptics and outright haters. Punks despised them. Hipsters scoffed at them. To fans, their big, brash and frantic brand of punk rock was just the right mix of aggro and angsty. To detractors, they were sellouts and poseurs, an overly self-serious, made-for-radio rock band with a cartoonishly snotty singer.
So when it came time to deliver their sophomore album, Billy Talent had something to prove. Was this a group of artists with a real future, or a fleeting flash that got swept up in a mainstream feeding frenzy of rock, punk and emo groups to be dumped when the industry was ready to move on? With Billy Talent II, the answer was clear.
By most measures, Billy Talent's second album is their greatest achievement. Released on June 27, 2006, the record quickly hit No. 1 in Canada (and also in Germany, an enduring stronghold of Billy Talent fandom). It yielded five successful singles: the sinister, metallic "Devil in a Midnight Mass," the youthfully anthemic "Red Flag," the punchy "Fallen Leaves," the power ballad "Surrender," and the choppy, propulsive "This Suffering." For an extra boost, "Red Flag" appeared in several video games, including EA Sports' NHL 06. The album has since been certified four times platinum with an estimated 1.2 million in worldwide sales. Billy Talent II firmly set the band's trajectory for years to come. Fifteen years later, it's a fascinatingly idiosyncratic piece of Canadian rock and youth culture in the mid-2000s.
With the band returning to producer Gavin Brown in Vancouver, singer Ben Kowalewicz's voice got considerably stronger, guitarist Ian D'Sa's innovative and dextrous style became even more prominent, bassist Jon Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk had an extra punch, and the band's sound was altogether more refined and in sync. In sound and approach, Billy Talent II was effectively a midway point between sneering '90s punk, millennial post-grunge and angsty '00s mallcore that, today, makes it feel like both a product of its time and a rejection of its tropes. Like it or hate it, Billy Talent had one of the most distinctive sounds in rock music at the time. To this day, not many singers sound like Ben Kowalewicz, and nobody — nobody — plays the guitar like Ian D'Sa.
But even as Billy Talent's audience grew, they still struggled to gain respect. In those days, the youthful rebellion of "mall punk" bands clashed with the artsy seriousness of the Arcade Fires and Broken Social Scenes. Billy Talent were too popular to be authentic punks and too loudly earnest for the indie-rock set. This was schoolyard shit for suburban teens of the MuchMusic generation, not real art for grownups. "NOW Magazine has never supported us," Kowalewicz said in a 2007 interview with PunkNews. "If you go into the indie clubs, people look down their noses at us." This is why they ended up writing "Where is the Line," an unusually peppy song lambasting "urban hipsters" and "art aficionados." (This is the song that Fucked Up thought was about them, unintentionally starting a short-lived feud between the two bands.)
Many critics already didn't believe in Billy Talent, and II's turn away from their punk roots and toward a more mainstream rock sound was enough to validate their skepticism. Exclaim!'s own review was mostly dismissive; the record had been "polished down" to a "radio-friendly sheen" that led our critic to assert that "Canada already has one Sum 41." (Our review of 2009's III was not any kinder, either.)
A lot of Billy Talent's peers were seen the same way. Alexisonfire's Crisis and My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade were both released later in 2006. Previous years had yielded other like-minded releases like Good Charlotte's The Young and the Hopeless, Rise Against's Siren Song of the Counter Culture, Fall Out Boy's From Under the Cork Tree, Green Day's American Idiot and blink-182's untitled fifth album. These were records that became massively popular because kids loved them. Those kids are now in or nearing their 30s, and they have more authority to decide what was and wasn't cool. While Billy Talent haven't enjoyed the same level of nostalgic reappraisal as, say, Taking Back Sunday or My Chemical Romance — likely because they never quite cracked the U.S. market in a big way — much of their early work holds up just as well all these years later.
For one thing, the big, muscular sound of Billy Talent II easily qualifies it as "hard rock," a genre term normally reserved for widely despised "butt rock" bands like Nickelback, Creed and Theory of a Deadman. Here, Billy Talent showed that a straight-up rock band — albeit one with a lingering punk ethos — could still be intelligent, creative and unique. The music and lyrical themes frequently complement each other. The dark, evil sound of "Devil in a Midnight Mass" pairs with its subject of sexual abuse in the Catholic church; "Worker Bees" has a thumping rhythm section that makes its satirical criticism of labour exploitation sound like actual marching workers; on "Pins and Needles," D'sa's crackling, single-coil guitar tone prickles at your brain; "The Navy Song" is basically a rock'n'roll sea shanty.
The album also saw the band writing less about themselves and more about the world around them. They weren't a Rage Against the Machine or a System of a Down, but they had something to say about power structures and societal dysfunction. "Red Flag" advocates for youth as a united force of social upheaval; "Worker Bees" basically stages an anti-war rally at an apiary; "Covered in Cowardice" appears to call out the growing problem of cyberbullying; "Burn the Evidence," effectively a sequel to "River Below," speaks to the false promises of consumerist middle-class suburbia. It was a more allegorical approach than the Bush-era, post-9/11 political sloganeering of their tourmates Rise Against and Anti-Flag, but it was certainly overt enough for the kids to understand.
Billy Talent had already made a name for themselves, but this album defined them. On their first record, you could listen to "Try Honesty" and hear the sonic imprint of At the Drive-In's "One-Armed Scissor" right away; here, they had carved out a sound rightfully their own. From this point onward, they were a bona fide rock band with the legs for longevity. Each of their next three albums — 2009's Billy Talent III, 2012's Dead Silence and 2016's Afraid of Heights — peaked at No. 1 on the Canadian album charts and earned them multiple Juno nominations.
Granted, the band's formula barely changed that whole time, and they have rarely if ever matched the high-powered frenzy of their early years. But for a moment in time, Billy Talent were one of the most exciting — and divisive — bands in Canada. With the release of Billy Talent II, they established themselves as a powerful force that was here to stay. Fifteen years later, that much remains true.