It was never going to be easy for the emo kings and pop punks of the 1990s and 2000s to grow old gracefully, adult brattiness being unbecoming.
Their music was dismissed as a whiny subgenre of harmless rebellion, made by mostly male artists prone to formulaic chord progressions, questionable fashion choices and eccentric pronunciations of vowels. Green Day had mud thrown at them at Woodstock ‘94. Bottles of warm bodily fluids were hurled toward My Chemical Romance during the Reading Festival in 2006.
Bad as those incidents were, critics treated the bands and their fast, hard, radio-friendly bursts of melancholia even worse. One British music magazine reviewing the third album from Canada’s Billy Talent suggested the band should have “bigger ambitions.” And, yet, the London-based Observer newspaper lambasted My Chemical Romance’s ambitious LP The Black Parade, saying it “reeks of a band with ideas above their station.”
Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t – but damn if some of the smarter, better bands of the era managed to survive anyway.
“We’ve travelled and we’ve got some miles behind us,” says Billy Talent lead singer Benjamin Kowalewicz. “We’re flirting with our 30th year of playing together. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve finally had the opportunity to look back.”
The group formed in 1993 as Pezz, out of Mississauga, a sprawling city that crowds Toronto’s western flank on Lake Ontario. Ten years later, they put out their first record as Billy Talent. The band with seven Juno Awards has a new album, Crisis of Faith, the sixth of its career and first in six years.
The album’s first track, Forgiveness I + II, was released way back in November 2019, when “jab” was only a boxing term and the current coronavirus was just a twinkle in a bat’s eye. The plan was to drop a series of songs, rather than an album right away.
“We have to be realistic about how people are consuming music these days,” says Kowalewicz, referring to single-hungry streaming services.
The big gap between Crisis of Faith and 2016′s Afraid of Heights was caused in part by a death of guitarist Ian D’Sa’s mother, and by the various stops and starts caused by the pandemic. “The band wasn’t in the same room for a year and a half,” Kowalewicz says. “The timing of the album’s release was beyond our control.”
The band has always worn its influences on its sleeves and has never been tied down to only punk music inspirations. The 2009 song Diamond on a Landmine, for example, is an unabashed homage to the Police. On the new record, the band moves into prog-rock territory on Forgiveness I + II, a salute of sorts to an iconic Canadian rock trio.
“Ian had this Rush-like guitar riff and the band just went with it,” says Kowalewicz, adding that D’Sa, bassist Jonathan Gallant and drummer Jordan Hastings are all Rush fans. (Hastings, the drummer for Ontario’s Alexisonfire, is filling in for Billy Talent timekeeper Aaron Solowoniuk, who suffers from multiple sclerosis).
Forgiveness I + II, which unexpectedly segues into a spacey saxophone solo, finds Billy Talent in a reflective and existential mood, with the 46-year-old Kowalewicz screaming at the stars and singing about the journey, not the destination: “The secret’s in the distance ... when you’re begging for forgiveness.”
Elsewhere, Judged rages like the Beastie Boys having a bad day. The Wolf is slow-moving, brooding and apocalyptic. Reckless Paradise pummels home its despair: “Crooks and deceivers, misled believers, a world where decency is gone.”
It’s quite dark overall. Yet Kowalewicz, who co-writes lyrics with D’Sa, sees light at the end of the tunnel. “There’s always an element of hope, and that’s the soul of this record. We’re saying that you’re not alone. We’re asking for compassion.”
When it comes to the bad reputation of pop punk and emo rock, Kowalewicz has little time for detractors. He shoots down the thinking that the punk ethos is at odds with commercial triumphs: “We in the band write songs collectively that we like to hear. We like being successful.”
What about the polarizing effect of pop punk as a genre? “I don’t need to be beloved by everybody.”
Bully for Billy Talent, a band that has clearly kept its fan base. The three promotional singles released in advance of the new album (including End of Me, featuring Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo) all reached No. 1 on the Canadian rock chart.
Billy Talent not only survived but has lived long enough to see the recent pop punk revival. On more than one of her songs, the teen-pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo has the angst of a thousand Green Day fans. Rap-rocker Machine Gun Kelly’s album Tickets To My Downfall has roots in 2003. And bands such as Meet Me at the Altar worship the Warped Tours of the past.
And Billy Talent isn’t the only artist of the earlier pop-punk wave to be releasing new music. The Hayley Williams-led Paramore is back from hiatus and in the studio to record its first album in five years. Canadian singer Avril Lavigne returned to her roots in 2021 with the bratty single Bite Me. Her upcoming album Love Sux will be released on DTA Records, a boutique label run by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker.
To top it all off, the inaugural When We Were Young festival was announced this week. Performers at the emo jamboree scheduled for this fall in Las Vegas include Paramore, Lavigne, Jimmy Eat World and My Chemical Romance, which reunited in 2019 after a seven-year break.
Kowalewicz doesn’t define music in genre terms. He’s more interested in the music industry as it attempts to survive what he calls the “dark ages” of the past two years.
“We need to be more of a community,” he says. “We need to rely on each other, because, god knows, nobody else is helping us.”
I ask Kowalewicz if there is room for the cynicism of jaded rock critics in the compassionate music coalition he envisions.
“Well, yeah, I suppose,” he answers. “I mean, what else do you guys got?”
Touché. The pop punk edge hasn’t dulled.
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