In 2003, music was at a bit of a standstill. Radio was dominated by alternative pop acts like Avril Lavigne and Alanis Morissette. It was a year too early before Green Day’s American Idiot, catapulting punk rock back to the mainstream, and the mid-2000’s pop-punk and emo favourites had yet to make their breakthrough. If there were any rock bands out there being taken seriously, it was either too early, or too late.
But that year, four punk kids in a band called Billy Talent released their debut album. It’s been fifteen years since we went down into the River Below with a band that gave us an album that was a breath of fresh air. Raw, unique, and on the cusp of something great.
But what was so special about this record? How is it that after all this time Billy Talent’s debut has still managed to be so relevant? Why are people still talking about it? What makes fans gravitate to it still? For whatever the reason may be, it can go without saying that the eponymous album is as real as it gets. Each song is cohesive, giving a natural flow to the record. It’s polished, but still punk. It’s rough, but pleasant. Clean but gritty.
Whether it was the thrashing chords from Ian D’Sa, a tandem of thundering bass and drums from Jon Gallant and Aaron Solowoniuk respectively, or the pierced wail from Ben Kowalewicz, this quartet managed to created a distinctive sound that was so enticing you couldn’t stop listening.
Billy Talent was full of hits from start to finish, something that’s often challenging for a new band. The album erupted on the airwaves on the back of main singles Try Honesty, River Below, and Nothing to Lose, all of which received heavy rotation on rock radio. But it was tracks like This is How It Goes, Standing in the Rain, and The Ex, that still, to this day, carry the strength that an average single would. That’s a rare specialty.
Perhaps one of the best things about Billy Talent as a band was, and is, their no-bullshit attitude, and their debut album is no exception. The lyrics on this record are honest and genuine. There is no sugar coating, there is no skimming. As Kowalewicz screams in Line and Sinker “what you see is what you get.” And it doesn’t stop there. Some other examples from the album…
“Everybody is tired and poor and sick of trying,”
“Don’t you tell me what you think is right”
“Today I don’t feel pretty and I’m tired of trying to fit right in”
The lyrics created authentic story telling that listeners could grab on to. It wasn’t fluffy and fake. It was straight to the point, whether you liked it or not, a concept that the band still carries in their music to this day.
The screamo-punk style may have toned down over the years in exchange for a more rock approach, and the lyrics are a little less angsty and a little more political, but they haven’t lost the snarl that made them so recognizable, many years ago.
I’ve had the absolute pleasure of falling in love with a multitude of bands, but Billy Talent is one of the few that stick out for me. I discovered them during the summer of 2005, when I attended an arts camp that was shared with one of the local high schools. The space was shared by both campers and students enrolled in summer school. Because we used the portable classrooms, we had to go into the school if we needed to use any facilities. One time when I was passing by on my way to the water fountain, I saw a couple of teenagers walk in the opposite direction, one of them wearing a Billy Talent shirt. Nothing about it was particularly exciting, it was just the album art in a purple backsplash. But something compelled me to keep that band’s name in mind. I was 11 or 12 at the time, and was eager to start listening to new music. I went home that night, and it took off. I might not be able to pinpoint the exact song of theirs I first listened to, but it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. The music was fast and loud, packed with energy and emotion in every song, and I kept asking myself who was this guy screaming?! I didn’t know, but I needed to find out.
I received the album as a graduation gift in grade six. Faithful listening the year prior thanks to the likes of Much Music had me grow into a dedicated fan. I can confidently say that album lived in my CD player for the next year. When Billy Talent was released, I was a couple of years too young to properly appreciate it. I was only eight or nine years old, and hadn’t fully dipped my toes in punk rock music. That said, after receiving it, and listening to it, indulging in every aspect it had to offer, I felt like I was with this band from the beginning.
From there, it’s been over ten years in the making. I’ve quite literally grown up with this band. Each of their albums that followed have been there at significant points in my life. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of my best friends thanks to this band. I’ve also had the honour of seeing them live over ten times (the most from any band I’ve seen), with each show better than the last. It’s also thanks to Billy Talent that I went on to discover some of my favourite bands, including, but not limited to, Alexisonfire, Against Me! Death From Above 1979, and Anti-Flag. I even had the opportunity to interview Ben ahead of the release of Afraid of Heights. Talk about coming full circle.
When it comes to music, and falling in love with bands and singers, everyone should always have those few artists they really identify with. The ones that holds a special place in their heart, ones that carry memories and most of all, has music that will make your heart soar. I could not be more grateful for the fact that Billy Talent will always be one of those bands to me. Their music has been there through some of the best and worst times in my life, and I’m so pleased in knowing that it’ll likely stay that way. I don’t think I’d be half the fan I am today if it wasn’t for their debut album, that not only exposed me to them, but a whole new world of music I might not have otherwise known. It was as if my early teen years were detailed in the liner notes, all my emotions gathered in the music, spooled together to help create something that helped to make me feel. And for that, I am grateful.