Billy Talent is going for it with big statement album ‘Crisis of Faith’
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/01/2022 (250 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Go big or go home, the saying goes. But as far as Toronto’s Billy Talent is concerned, being more or less stuck at home for the past two years only posed the band with the challenge it needed to go even bigger.
An uncharacteristic six years on from 2016’s “Afraid of Heights,” the battle-hardened hard-rock outfit finally unleashed its sixth album, “Crisis of Faith,” upon the world last Friday after threatening the record’s imminent arrival and then changing its mind numerous times amidst the constant, yo-yo-ing anxiety of a pandemic that’s basically left the past 20 months feeling like one long day on endless repeat.
The Streetsville-raised quartet — actually a quintet of sorts, since co-founding drummer Aaron Solowoniuk is still very much a part of Billy Talent operations despite stepping away in 2015 to concentrate on managing his multiple sclerosis and running the band’s Billy Talent Trust charity — didn’t spend all that in-between time moping about and twiddling its thumbs. Instead, with the promise of playing hockey rinks from coast to coast (and occasionally overseas) again nothing but a faint mirage on the distant horizon, the longtime friends and bandmates applied the same diligent work ethic that’s turned them into one of Canada’s most successful pop acts to making a very good album they thought was already finished much, much better.
“The whole recording process, looking back, just feels kind of spotty and patchy. It wasn’t like we went in for four or five months or whatever it was going to be to record the album. It was a lot of starting and stopping,” recalled guitarist, principal songwriter and resident producer Ian D’Sa via Zoom, with frontman Ben Kowalewicz nodding in agreement at screen left. “And then in May of 2020 my mom passed away and I just needed time completely away from the band, so that was another few months of just spending time with family. It would kind of pick up when I felt ready for it and then it would stop again when we were in ‘peak wave.’
“We were originally aiming for a summer-of-2020 release so it would be out in time for touring and festival season, but when the pandemic happened we were just, like, we don’t know when this is going to end — I mean, we still don’t — and we don’t even have a release date yet so let’s just keep making the songs better, I guess.”
The catalyst for “Crisis of Faith’s” growing grandeur? Walloping album opener “Forgiveness I & II,” a multi-staged metallo-prog epic that’s the most ambitious — and Rush-like — thing Billy Talent has recorded during its nearly 30-year existence.
It was the first song they completed for the LP. And once that beast was in the can, the rest of the record was necessarily going to be held to a newly high standard of perfection.
“It’s seven minutes long, it has various ‘movements,’ there’s a sax solo and all these things we’d never really done before with our music, which in itself was a starting point for us,” said D’Sa.
“It was ambitious as it was, so everything that came after it had to kind of match that level … And next thing you know, we were having an orchestra on ‘The Wolf’ and I’m watching David Campbell — Beck’s dad — conducting an orchestra in Nashville from Los Angeles while our engineer Eric (Ratz) and I oversee the whole thing from Toronto, and I’m playing a dozen 12-string guitars on ‘For You’ and adding synthesizers and Moog everywhere … We just wanted to go for it.
“We let our feelings guide us more than anything else. Instead of thinking about, ‘We’re Billy Talent and we have this sound and we have to make it sound like this,’ we stopped doing that for a bit and let our feelings and our guts kind of guide us.”
“Crisis of Faith’s” release was preceded by an unprecedented run of three No. 1 rock-radio hits: the scorching “Reckless Paradise” and the punchy, Police-esque “chin up” anthem “I Beg to Differ (This Will Get Better),” both released in 2020, as well as last year’s more-Weezer-than-Weezer keeper “End of Me,” featuring Rivers Cuomo himself on guest vocals. So it feels entirely appropriate that Billy Talent has made the sort of elaborate, sometimes symphonic Big Statement album that (three-)million-selling, arena-filling mainstream rock acts are expected to make at some point in their careers.
Kowalewicz, for his part, laughed at the suggestion Billy Talent has become a “legacy act.” But, after 29 years in the game — six of those as Pezz during the 1990s — these once-scrappy suburban punks are starting to move in the same royal Cancon orbit as such long-lived predecessors as the Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and, yes, Rush. They are indeed kind of a legacy act.
“I guess we are,” tittered Kowalewicz. “It’s funny. We’ve all become very insular, by force, during COVID but even within that I’ve felt this very strong disconnect from anything to do with the band. We weren’t able to go play shows. We weren’t able to really rehearse. I wasn’t able to see the guys for, like, a year and a half — at least all together in the same room.
“Ian and I would see each other on Zoom when we were working on lyrics, but even when I was recording it was just me and him in a room, you know what I mean? So it feels strange now to be doing press and talking about our record and talking about our past a bit because it feels like there’s been this two-year lull where we forgot what it is we did and how we fit in all of it. When people say we’ve been together for this long it’s like, ‘Wow. Yeah. It is that long.’”
A run of cross-Canada tour dates scheduled for early February in support of “Crisis of Faith” has, predictably, been popped back up in the air while various provincial governments grapple with yet another round of COVID-19 closings, reopenings and curfews.
The band does have some hope that some of the big-venue dates scheduled for early April in Quebec and Ontario — including a hometown date at the Scotiabank Arena originally set for April 6, as well as an April 4 gig at Ottawa’s TD Place and an April 7 show at London’s Budweiser Garden — might be salvaged somewhat close to when they were planned. Same goes for summer festival dates across the Atlantic, where Billy Talent now has No. 1 albums in Germany as often as it does at home.
As usual, everyone involved will have to wait and see. They played two shows in Halifax and St. John’s last year and, as Kowalewicz dryly puts it, “that’s pretty much been it for years.”
“It’s not easy. It’s a fish-out-of-water kind of feeling,” conceded D’Sa. “When you get used to doing this for so long — playing and touring and travelling, and the four of us getting together to rehearse and everything — and then you’re not able to do that, yeah, it’s been a weird experience.”
“I’ve been so proud of Ian, who worked so incredibly hard trying to navigate the ups and downs of the pandemic and losing his mom while still having the vision and the fortitude to get this thing finished,” said Kowalewicz.
“So I was hoping 2022 would be a new year and a new beginning and COVID would be behind us in the rearview mirror instead of on the windshield. But obviously that’s not the case — things are the worst they’ve ever been — and that’s the way it’s been from the beginning of this thing: it’s just an ever-changing landscape that you’re trying to navigate and nobody really knows what to do, so you just trust your instincts and the people around you, and hope for the best.”