The 49th parallel might be the bane of Billy Talent’s existence. The alt-rock quartet is undeniably massive in their homeland of Canada, with all four of their previous albums having been certified platinum or higher, and their past three LPs debuting at number one on the Canadian charts. Yet as soon as Billy Talent enters into the United States, their stock drops considerably, with the band slumming it in small-capacity club tours and peaking at No. 103 on Billboard’s Top 200. It has to be an odd feeling to know that an imaginary line has prevented your band from being all it can be, but that’s the boat in which Billy Talent has sat for 13 years.
Their fifth album, Afraid Of Heights, likely won’t help them make any huge inroads into the U.S. market—the 11 songs here (plus a reworked version of the title track tacked on at the end) are consistent with the band’s catalog to date, meaning if you already aren’t a fan of frontman Ben Kowalewicz’s powerful—some might say grating—tenor and guitarist Ian D’Sa’s treble-heavy tone and stabbing riffs, you probably won’t jump on the bandwagon now. Such is life as an established rock band: At some point, you’re making music for the fans you already have and stop trying to bring in new listeners.
No more is this evident than in “Louder Than The DJ,” a cringeworthy track about how rock ’n’ roll will never die, maaan. So many aging rock groups have written songs about this topic, and none of them come off as anything more than whining about the natural shift of popular music away from their bank accounts and into that of Skrillex or whoever. Luckily, that’s the only real clunker on Afraid Of Heights (although “Horses & Chariots” is a little too close to Muse’s “Knights Of Cydonia” for comfort).
The more interesting moments on Afraid Of Heights come when the band begins to face their own mortality. Not only are Billy Talent’s members hovering around the four-decade mark, drummer Aaron Solowoniuk—who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a decade ago—was forced to sit out recording sessions for this album due to his MS worsening. (Alexisonfire drummer Jordan Hastings filled in and is included in the band’s official promo alongside Solowoniuk, in the ultimate showing of Canadian politeness.) While there are no overt references to their bandmate’s declining condition on these songs, efforts like the title track and the six-minute “Rabbit Down The Hole” show off a matured sound and lyrics struggling with having to say goodbye to loved ones (and in the case of “Rabbit,” it’s due to drug abuse).
Kowalewicz also has no problem weighing in on the current U.S. political landscape with tracks like “Big Red Gun” and “This Is Our War,” the latter of which features the singer asking, “Where’s the compassion in the world today?” before hitting the prescient chorus, “Once there was a nation here / Now there is no more / Once we fought to change our fears / But now this is our war.” It’s a musical reminder that the U.S. is in the middle of an especially poisonous election year, and considering the complacency of most acts on the Billboard charts these days, at least someone is speaking out, even if they’re from north of the border.