Afraid of Heights

Billy Talent

(LP - Music On Vinyl #6201935)

Review by Neil Z. Yeung

Thirteen years after their breakthrough debut, Billy Talent are hungrier than ever on their fifth album, Afraid of Heights. Produced by guitarist Ian D'Sa and written by D'Sa and frontman Ben Kowalewicz, Afraid of Heights captures the best parts of the Canadian quartet's legacy, executing a perfect balance between the catchy anthems of Billy Talent I and II and the gravity of Dead Silence. Heights also marks the first album without drummer Aaron Solowoniuk, who was forced to the sidelines after a flare-up of his multiple sclerosis. With Solowoniuk's blessing, Jordan Hastings of Alexisonfire filled in, both in the studio and on the road. The symbolic hole created by the absence of their founding member and the topically charged content combine to create an incredibly urgent experience. The loose concept of fear and the different reactions to it loom ominously over Heights, with the band tackling a number of global issues: "Big Red Gun" takes aim at America's trigger-happy love of firearms and the subsequent toll those freedoms have taken on society, while the wonderfully titled "Ghost Ship of Cannibal Rats" foresees an impending catastrophe wrought by the reckless destruction of the environment. Meanwhile, the open-road epic "Rabbit Down the Hole" is a cautionary tale that entwines drug addiction and religious zealotry, recalling the dusty weariness of Seger's "Turn the Page" or Metallica's "The Unforgiven." Their most obviously political salvo is "This Is Our War," a unifying call-to-arms against the hatred spread by demagogues, written in response to the United States political landscape in 2016. All the while, they surge forward without pause, even getting a bit funky on the bouncy "February Winds" and the Muse-meets-Depeche Mode "Horses & Chariots." Even when they're rallying for (relatively) less pressing matters -- like the future of the soul of rock & roll on "Louder Than the DJ," the pressures of modern society on "Time-Bomb Ticking Away," or the dangers of toxic relationships on "The Crutch" -- Billy Talent make it sound like a matter of life and death. This is not, however, a completely grim and fearful journey. The heart and centerpiece of the album is the two-part "Afraid of Heights." The single version is a melodic pop/rock bomb, the central thesis of the entire record: conquering fear and taking a step into the unknown. Hatred, destruction, addiction, heartbreak: these are just hurdles to overcome through unity. On the patient reprise -- punctuated with an uplifting guitar solo -- the lyrics of the original change, replacing uncertainty and hesitation with hope and security. It's a beautiful end to an emotional album, one that surges with relevance. Afraid of Heights is their most overtly political statement yet, a highlight in the Billy Talent catalog and perhaps their best to date.