Monday, 2 November 2009

Live: Billy Talent - Brixton Academy, London, 1/11/09

I outlined in my review of AFI's 'Crash Love' how there are precious few bands out there, let alone rock bands, who seem to have a unique sound, and far too many are happy to copy, note-for-note and riff-for-riff in some cases, other artists' sounds and styles. It can get quite depressing, but I assure you, there are bands out there willing to put their name on a style that you cannot mistake for anyone else. AFI are one, and tonight, I'm about to see another - Billy Talent.

The Brixton Academy is a fine venue, and I've no qualms with returning here after enjoying a brilliant debut here seeing The Offspring in August. Proceedings start tonight with Canterbury (6/10), and as first impressions go, it's not a good one. Basically, the first thing one sees are five rather floppy-fringed youths with a keyboard and some guitars and lots of neon colours. Oh dear, one thinks, haven't we seen this before? This rather haphazard mix of Decaydance fashion and attempts at heaviosity? Thankfully, I keep my inner cynic quiet long enough into their set for me to realise that, actually, though they may shamelessly steal fashion tips from All Time Low and synth styles from Motion City Soundtrack, they are actually a half-decent band. They have that feeling of groping their way through that most young bands do when they start out, and to be fair, if what the dual vocalists Mike Sparks (guitar) and Luke Prebble (keyboards) says is anything to go by, this is by far and away their biggest gig, and they do have a slight sense of rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights about them, but I defy anybody to not be. Given the circumstances and the style of music they operate in, they craft some very deft tunes and leave this author much more impressed than he thought he would be.

The real honour of 'biggest disappointment of the evening' are for the next band up, the Cancer Bats (3/10), and it's a deserving award. Now look, I'm well aware they are rather well hyped, and they've also been given the accolade of 'most exciting punk band' a numerous amount of times, but I'm sorry, the hour-odd of brainless sludge I see tonight is not punk. It's not even hardcore punk. It's not even anything that punk has ever been associated with, ever. It's just...I don't know what it is, really. It veers from quite bad Motorhead-esque beer metal to just plain metal to sludge to just random headbanging without ever making any sense. While the contingent of their crowd who are CB fans gleefully (and quite possibly drunkenly in some cases) whip shirts off and headbang, I just spend the entirety of their set trying to work out what they're about. And I can't. I do try to be open-minded about them, but my good mate and fellow gig-goer Jacob Peeling summed it up rather nicely in the following exchange:
Myself: "They're not too bad, are they?"
Jacob: "No, they're complete shite."
I'm sorry, but he's right. Rumours abound from their fanbase present that the sound setup is atrocious and not a good reflection on them at all, so it may be a case of digging up their recorded output and giving a second opinion, but for now I'm filing them in the same drawer as Gallows - the one labelled 'bands I've been told are amazing punk bands but in fact are overrated tosh'.

So it's not going completely to plan so far. Though Canterbury were better than I expected, they still weren't brilliant, and with only the headliners to go, the onus is now on them to turn this night into something truly memorable. And you know what? They do exactly that. Haunting background music and mood lighting herald their entrance, before guitarist Ian D'Sa rips out the opening notes to 'The Dead Can't Testify' and the crowd raise as one to acknowledge the entrance of Billy Talent (9/10) to the stage, and the band respond by tearing into a high-octane, razor-sharp set of high musicianship, high energy, and low flab. Starting on a brand-new song which hasn't even been released as any sort of single prior to the show is often a big gamble, but one of BT's strengths has always been their consistency - across their back catalogue of three LPs, there are very few complete duds in their armoury. The fact that they back this opening salvo up with the classic 'Devil in a Midnight Mass' makes the opening eight-odd minutes one of the most impressive openings to a rock 'n' roll concert I've seen in quite a while. As I mentioned, consistency is their forte, which means that, by picking and choosing the best bits of their three records so far, they are left with a setlist which is an exercise in scalpel-sharp precision and pounding rock 'n' roll. Their unique take on rock 'n' roll is driven along by a pounding rhythm section in the shape of bassist Jon Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk, and led at the front by the imaginative fretboard dexterity of D'Sa and the equal parts yowling and serenading vocals of Ben Kowalewicz. Kowalewicz's vocal parts mesh brilliant with D'Sa's backing yelps to create a vocal tour de force which, when overlaid over D'Sa's quite brilliant guitar lines and melodies, forms a fabulous sonic assault. Indeed, D'Sa is the first guitarist I've ever heard who manages to sound like he's playing guitar parts which were supposed to be played by two different people.

With this potent level of musicianship and energy, great songs are almost inevitable, and boy do they come thick and fast tonight - 'Line And Sinker' wallops out four songs in, the criminally underrated and soulful 'Surrender' makes an appearance, and the new songs slot in so smoothly you'd be hard-pressed to work out which ones are new songs and which ones are songs played a thousand times before. With perhaps the exception of 'Turn Your Back', which I've always found to fall on the wrong side of overly preachy, the final five songs of the regular set are all complete belters, and when they end the regular set with the fan favourite 'Try Honesty', you swear that that must be that - there's no way that they can top that with any sort of encore. But no, they do, with the destructive one-two gut punch of 'Fallen Leaves' and the rousing call-to-arms anthem 'Red Flag' finishing the evening with an almost exhaustive delirium sweeping through the Academy. Throw into the whole show Ben's light-hearted, almost matey stage banter with the crowd, and you have a night which started out unexpectedly okay, descended badly down the toilet, before recovering to screen-burn itself onto your mind's eye for a good while, and etch itself successfully into the memory banks for future recollection, for all the right reasons.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Headliner's Setlist (taken from

The Dead Can't Testify

Devil in a Midnight Mass

This Suffering

Line & Sinker

Rusted From the Rain

Saint Veronika


River Below

Diamond on a Landmine

This Is How It Goes

The Ex

Devil on My Shoulder

Turn Your Back

Try Honesty

Fallen Leaves
Red Flag

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