Pumpehuset, Copenhagen, DEN - 13/3
Billy TalentPrevious Next
support Young Guns + Say Yes
author TL date 02/11/16 venue Pumpehuset, Copenhagen, DEN
Full disclosure: Our forays into the newest album by Toronto punk-rock veterans Billy Talent have not left us too convinced, but that isn't enough to keep us away from their return to Copenhagen, considering that they were among the best bands we saw perform at this year's Riot Fest in Chicago. Of course, the prospect of checking the pulse on England's Young Guns isn't uninteresting either, despite similar reservations towards their material of late, so off into the Autumn rain we go, only to arrive at Pumpehuset and find a substantial queue of anxious looking fans already waiting to get in and get a bit of a midweek party started.
From Billy Talent's hometown comes Say Yes, a trio normally, yet they're short a drummer tonight and have thus enlisted Alexisonfire drummer Jordan Hastings, who is also filling in for Billy Talent's illness-struck Aaron Solowoniuk on this tour. They're supposed to start at 8:45, yet have already started when we arrive at 8:35, and while this would normally be cause for some annoyance, to be quite honest, one soon feels like only wishing they would end sooner. It feels like a while since we had some not so great things to say about a band we've reviewed in the normal concert setting, but there's just no way around that Say Yes are far from great, or even decent tonight. Their guitarist and bassist both sing, and the difference between their voices - one a half-shouted rock'n'roll style the other a wavering almost power metal type - feels like the most descriptive thing one can say about a collection of rock tunes they play that feel neither here nor there.
Listening is the type of experience where you struggle to think of things the band reminds you of, not because they're unique but on the contrary because their sound is so plain and uncharacteristic. A bluesy/punkish type of hard rock/rock & roll you could call it perhaps, where the standout element is the seemingly skilled guitar playing. Yet while the band lays into their music with their movements, their facial expressions have the furthest from confidence or charisma, and something partly in their mix and partly in the way they force their vocals, makes it feel like they've made a conscious decision to try and overcome their shortcomings by just being extra loud and energetic. It soon grates on the ears, as it feels like they're overcompensating for a lack of faith in their own material, or perhaps for the discomfort from being a long way away from anything resembling their home audience. But that's not really the way to win new fans over, especially when their sound is so direly in need of anything resembling a distinct sonic identity. If the internet wasn't there to make you wise to the fact that Say Yes is an actual band, you could easily be fooled into thinking the other bands had just let the roadies play their work-in-progress material before the actual show, to the majority of tonight's guests almost complete disinterest.
If Say Yes failed to take to the stage with confidence, Young Guns - who have already had considerable success as a headlining act in their thriving home scene in England - they succeed in strikingly contrasting fashion. Frontman Gustav Wood, whose hair is slicked back, making him look a bit like a mix of Mike Patton and Niklas Bendtner, is bouncing from the first instance, and whether or not the audience knows of his band or not, it's clear that he expects them to follow simple commands such as "put your hands in the air" or "jump", and soon the crowd is both doubled in density and activity. His band mates brandish their instruments actively, and particularly bassist Simon Mitchell wears a confident smile that makes you want to listen closer to what his band is doing, which someone close by in the audience describes somewhat accurately to a friend like "a darker version of Thirty Seconds To Mars".
In terms of performance then, Young Guns do an exemplary job, taking the show by its balls and repeating often that their demands for interaction are all in obligation to getting us all ready for Billy Talent. Never mind, though, that they play entirely newer - and thus, sorry for the cliché, worse - material of theirs. This would probably be okay if they just sounded as convincing as they look. Sadly, Wood's dark voice, which highlights the band's expression on record, frequently drop out of the mix when he goes for his higher parts. It's as if he's just bought a new wireless mic and hasn't worked out how far from his mouth he should hold it. Add to the fact that the band relegates their backing choirs lazily to the backtrack instead of having the other members sing them (you don't need that much vocal coaching to sing some whoa-ohs guys, cmon) - and well, Young Guns overall are a lot less impressive than they were in their headlining capacity four years ago. So while the guys could probably find employment anywhere teaching other bands how to act on stage and engage an audience, they seem to have gotten away from some rather essential aspects of band life, namely a) writing some worthwhile songs and b) playing them in a way that actually sounds as impressive as the band acts on stage.
Having started the evening with not much to write home about, then improved with at least some quality showmanship, it's now time for Billy Talent to come on and add the missing ingredient, namely some undeniably worthwhile actual songs. In their traditional bright red shirts, the band make a striking (and active!) sight on stage, but one wonders how necessary it even is, considering their catalogue of movement-inducing, instantly recognizable tracks. "Devil In A Midnight Mass" kicks off, and instantly the combination of vivid beats and interplay between Ian D'Sa's dynamic guitar playing and Ben Kowalewicz' unmistakably sharp vocals engages the full length of Pumpehuset. "This Suffering" and "Big Red Gun" follow and the party feels equally good at the bar in the rear as it looks up front.
Ironically, it feels like there's a lot less to say about a band like Billy Talent who are so clearly just good. D'sa's expert switching back and forth between lead riffs and chord shredding is not rocket science but its timed with devilish efficiency and conjures an energy that goes in with the drinks and straight into the feet. Of course, it helps that the band has been around for over a decade, giving people time to get to know them, and giving themselves time to refine their setlist as each album has added some gold nuggets for them to pick from. Speaking of which, how good is the verse in "Surprise, Surprise" from album four, "Dead Silence"? Really fucking good is how good.
Okay, okay, so down the stretch, there's no denying that Billy Talent's expression is not the widest ranging around, and the tendency for D'Sa to fire off a solo for a bridge can get a little repetitive. And while there is a lot of hit quality to work through on the band's rampaging through this evening, there's also a song like "Louder Than The DJ", which provides an opportunity to perhaps visit the restroom and get a refill. But you're inclined to forgive Billy Talent for such trifles because they're just so totally in control of their show, steering it seamlessly and ensuring a good pace and a sense of near constant entertainment - not via gimmicks or excessive crowd manipulation, but just by tightly playing songs that rock and moving and gesturing like they're into it.
We thus enter the kind of zone where time just passes with no need to glance at one's watch, and stay there with Billy Talent, busting moves and singing refrains back, until eventually it's time for the encore with caps the night off with the old highlight "Try Honesty", as well as fan favourite "Fallen Leaves" and "Viking Death March". And then it's time to leave, carrying out the refortified knowledge that while Billy Talent will never be the world's most innovative rock band, they do the basics of the craft with such tightness and expertise that they exude a rare sense of timelessness: Like you can see them every time they play and they'll be this good each time pretty much without fail.