My experience as a Billy Talent fan leads me to believe that most people assume Billy Talent found their trademark sound with their first album and then stopped evolving. But I also believe that anyone who takes the time to dive in and closely listen will hear what I hear: the subtle, yet markedly different, signs of how the band’s music has evolved from their start in 1993 to last year’s “Forgiveness I + II” single.
Billy Talent started out (and still are) very punk rock. All of their songs have heavy riffs, boisterous (messy, even) vocals, and they like to challenge their listeners to think harder about what they see in their day-to-day life. Their first three albums, all self-titled, are prime examples of their signature sound. Their hits from those albums (“Red Flag,” “This Suffering,” “Devil on my Shoulder,” etc.) reinforce the idea that the band hasn’t evolved, and honestly, they didn’t change much in those early years.
The real change is when they drift away from self-titled albums to Dead Silence. Released in 2012, Dead Silence was noticeably different right from the first song. “Lonely Road to Absolution” is the shortest song Billy Talent have released, running at just one minute and fifteen seconds, and it’s the first one to feature different instrumentation by adding in cello, focused harmonies, and the sound of a ticking clock for some reason? Unfortunately, the singles they chose from this album continued to feature their signature sound, which relegated their slightly more experimental songs to the back burner. One notable song is “Swallowed Up By the Ocean,” which actually flew under my radar for a few years — it’s a hybrid that fuses their usual sound with post-rock structure. I’ll skip over their Hits album and the two accompanying singles and go straight to 2016’s Afraid of Heights. While the album tracks expand on the experimentation they started on Dead Silence, Billy Talent still end up going with same-samey singles “Louder than the DJ” and “Afraid of Heights”.
Is all the talk of singles sounding the same starting to sound like a broken record yet?
Billy Talent has been relatively quiet since Afraid of Heights – mostly dealing with drummer Aaron Solowoniuk’s MS, working on other projects, and doing a cover of “A Passage to Bangkok” (which they killed, it was epic). But then, last year, they started releasing singles again, which brings us to “Forgiveness I + II” (which was comparably more jarring upon first listen than “Reckless Paradise” and “I Beg to Differ”). Again, the song starts in classic Billy Talent style. It’s punchy, the vocals are melodic, and the mood is tense, but then, suddenly, we’re in part two. It’s like a whole other song – they’ve included synths (which is not new, but still rare) and… a horn section? And a saxophone solo?! It sounds like Billy Talent, but they really outdid themselves in the second half. Like “Lonely Road to Absolution” before it, “Forgiveness II” indulges Billy Talent’s occasional proggy experimental side with a commitment that hasn’t been there before.
Honestly, I want to believe Billy Talent will continue on this prog-ish path. With “Forgiveness I + II” and “A Passage to Bangkok,” the whole band has stepped up and shown what’s possible. Continually building off their “signature sound”might suggest Billy Talent are not evolving as musicians, but being identifiable while experimenting is also a good thing. Using “Forgiveness I + II” as a single (off a potential new album) showcases something different, something unexpected to fans and critics alike. If that’s not musical evolution, then I don’t know what is.