Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh
Ten years ago, had I compiled a list of punk bands I wished to see before I died, it would have contained the following names: Alkaline Trio, BoySetsFire, Taking Back Sunday, Jimmy Eat World, Rise Against, Thrice, Green Day, The Ataris, AFI, Strung Out, Pennywise and NOFX.
As it happens, every band on that list was ticked off ages ago – at least eight years ago in fact – and yet I’m still here, very much alive. Why? Because I omitted an essential name from the list – Billy Talent. Until this evening, my life’s work was incomplete. Now that I’ve finally witnessed Billy Talent live, a decade after hypothetically compiling that non-existent list, my spirit is at peace. There is nothing left in this life for me to achieve.
Should I step out for a breakfast roll tomorrow and meet my untimely demise across the windscreen of the #16 bus, at least I’ll die happy. Sure, at first there’ll be screams and shattered glass and the spectacle of a perfectly good egg roll going to waste, but later, when an alternative bus service to Silverknowes has been laid on and I’ve checked in at the pearly gates, I’ll be feeling pretty smug. I may have fucked up every other aspect of my life, but at least I did it – I finally saw Billy Talent.
While some bands on that hastily-contrived list were ticked off long ago – I first saw AFI in 1999, which is so long ago it may as well have been last century – Billy Talent have been more elusive. The Canadian punk rockers came to prominence in 2003 with the release of their eponymous album – by which point they had already been playing together for a decade.
This is How it Goes and Try Honesty were the standout tracks on their debut album: packed with attitude and jagged punk rhythms, Billy Talent sounded different from their peers. Not so different as to cause the punk rock community to implode upon itself like an epically-failing black hole, but different enough to compel you to purchase their debut album at least (for this was 2003, back when people still bought CDs and even listened to them in their entirety. Weirdos.)
The singular quality that made Billy Talent so good – and which still defines their sound today – can be described in two words: Ian D’Sa. The eccentrically-quiffed guitarist has a unique playing style that fuses fast riffing with discordant rhythms. There are talents and then there are Billy Talents. Within the four-chord playground of punk rock, D’Sa is a unique talent – one whose distinctive axemanship reveals the provenance of every Billy Talent track within seconds of pressing play. Take new single Viking Death March, drawn from the band’s forthcoming album Dead Silence, which drops on September 10th. Long before Ben Kowalewicz snarls ‘Down, let’s take it down, raise up their heads on a stake…’, Billy Talent have unequivocally announced ownership of the track. Who else could that stop-start rhythm and descending bass line belong to? The band’s sound might not have evolved greatly since the release of Billy Talent, but then it’s not had to. Besides, this is punk rock, a genre hardly known for its innovation and reinvention. If you want triple concept albums based upon Homer’s Odyssey, go listen to prog. If you want fist-pumping fun, shut the hell up and put some Billy Talent on.
Earlier this evening at a sweat-drenched Liquid Rooms, Viking Death March sounded like a fully-fledged anthem – a sing-along behemoth of a song. Every soul squeezed inside the venue was hearing it live for the first time, but Viking Death March resonated like a time-served Billy Talent staple.
Punk gigs – like all live events – tend to be hit and miss. While the efforts of the band themselves can rarely be faulted, it takes more than sweat, anthemic hooks and meaty riffs to enthrall the expectant audience.
Alkaline Trio at HMV Picture House this year? Shit sound, forgettable gig. Jimmy Eat World playing Clarity in London last year? Passable sound, awesome gig. Billy Talent at Liquid Rooms this evening? Good sound, awesome gig. It shouldn’t be that hard to mic up four musicians and channel their fury through the in-house PA, but judging by the number of forgettable shows I’ve attended over the years, it’s easier to obtain uncensored Snooki nudes than it is to get the sound right at a punk gig.
Billy Talent – Live at Last
Tonight though, everything goes better than expected: the band sound fat and menacing, with Ian D’Sa’s riffs washing over the venue in an awesome way. The Canadian’s inimitable guitar-work is complemented by the tight rhythm section of Jon Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk. The double snare hit that underpins Red Flag resounds with military precision, while Gallant’s bass lines deliver a sonic punch straight to the abdominal region. Dressed in black, the foursome rattle through the finest moments from their inventively-titled back catalogue: Billy Talent, Billy Talent II and Billy Talent III. Forthcoming album Dead Silence marks a dramatic departure for the band – in name, if not in sound.
Every song in the 75-minute set sounds like a miniature anthem: three minutes of perfectly-crafted punk rock fury, followed by another and then another. Why can’t all punk gigs be this good? In fact, why can’t all gigs be this good? Music abounds in Edinburgh during August – you can’t even traverse the Meadows without encountering a funk band busking on the walk – but real music is in short supply.
‘Real’ is a subjective term, but in this context it can be taken to mean music that isn’t produced by any of the following: shoe-gazing students, dreadlocked hippies, aging folk musicians or emasculated indie wankers. During the Fringe, you’ll find plenty of tasteful music for discerning audiences to fap gently to, but sheer unadulterated punk fury is a rare commodity.
Oxygen may have been scarce within Liquid Rooms this evening, but make no mistake – Billy Talent were a breath of fresh air.
There – now I can die happy.