Four years on from their previous studio album, Billy Talent find themselves unfortunately short one member, yet still confident enough to strive forwards regardless. With drummer Aaron Solowoniuk out of commission due to a multiple sclerosis-related relapse, Alexisonfire’s Jordan Hastings took the drumming job and ensured Afraid of Heights was completed. Regardless of this change, however, Afraid of Heights doesn’t exactly come across as the triumphant return that listeners may have been expecting.
Musically, Afraid of Heights is very much what you would expect from Billy Talent, combining elements of punk and hardcore music and some angst ridden lyricism, on a much deeper level than their past few albums, to create the final package. In terms of overall quality, the album more often than not tends to come up lacking; the opening track Big Red Gun particularly falls flat, attempting to open the album with an energetic romp but failing to leave any impression, and the following few tracks fail to improve the image. Similarly, the album’s closing few tracks—barring the reprise of the title track, Afraid of Heights—come across as nothing more than filler, a little better than the opening tracks but not really doing anything to make the second half of the album pleasant, especially with the grating sub-electronics of Horses & Chariots spoiling the cohesiveness the album had until this point.
There are a few key moments that the album truly shines, and they all occur in the album’s middle section. Second single Louder Than the DJ bears more rock and roll references than hardcore, on top of an ample dose of punk, and the uptempo production mixed with Benjamin Kowalewicz’s rowdy vocals makes for a perfect mix. The album never really manages to match the genius of this particular track, but The Crutch thrives for similar reasons while Rabbit Down the Hole simply succeeds thanks to its solid mid-tempo rock ballad style. The album’s other main highlight, however, is the reprise of Afraid of Heights. The original version felt somewhat unsubstantial, especially coming after the unenjoyable Big Red Gun, and was forgotten fairly quickly. The extra flourishes and instrumentation that the reprise features makes it a much more palatable package, and ends the album on a much-needed high note.
But there’s no avoiding the fact that Afraid of Heights just isn’t a great album on a few levels. Whether it’s the differences in Hastings’ drumming style compared to Solowoniuk or just the general atmosphere of the album and its symbolism, the package nearly got away with being unremarkable but fell a few notches shorter in the second half. The redeeming factors of Afraid of Heights just aren’t enough to carry it in the long run.