For reasons that seem to confuse a lot of Irish people, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving a full month and a half before their neighbours to the south. While Americans celebrate their own peculiar foundation myth – the coming together of English settlers and Native Americans for a spot of dinner at Plymouth – Canadians celebrate not being American. It’s why Canadians are sometimes perceived as being a little smug, but it’s a mindset we Irish should understand completely: time may be a great healer of colonial wounds, but we’ll always secretly hate the British for being bigger and stronger than us, no matter how many times we beat them at football. Canada suffers from a similar type of inferiority complex, and it’s inadvertently led it to nurture an extraordinarily tight-knit and self-supporting music scene, one that many in this country would do well to learn from.
This year, Canadian Thanksgiving fell on October 12th. Exactly a week later, as if it hadn’t given thanks enough, Canada unleashed upon Europe two of its most celebrated punk bands, Billy Talent and Cancer Bats, for an intensive six-week mini-tour. As the opening act, and the only one without an official release to their name (although their debut LP, Thank You, is available for free download online), UK band Canterbury were received with cautious optimism by the 70-or-so percent of the audience that couldn’t legally get into any of the venue’s four bars. Caution soon gave way to quiet enthusiasm, but it was hard to escape the sense that while Canterbury are able to write songs in the style of Fall Out Boy, Cobra Starship or even their hosts, Billy Talent, they rarely exhibit a consistent, original sound of their own.
It is probably a little unfair to hold them to such standards at such an early stage in their career, but the gap separating Canterbury and the band that followed them, Cancer Bats, was positively cavernous. Led by charismatic singer Liam Cormier, Cancer Bats owned every inch of the stage with a sound far bigger and more powerful than their simple guitar, bass and drums set-up would suggest. Sandwiched between two melodic pop-punk groups, there was always the danger that Cancer Bats’ brutal hardcore assault would turn the audience off completely, but the opposite came to pass. They had attracted a surprisingly large segment of the crowd on their own (generally men in their early 20s who looked like they spent a lot of time at the gym), and they won over plenty more besides.
Influenced in equal parts by crossover thrash merchants like Pantera and more traditional hardcore, much of Cancer Bats’ heaviness emanated from the bass guitar of Jaye Schwarzer (and his seemingly indestructible neck, such is the force with which he headbanged) and drummer Mike Peters. Guitarist Scott Midleton occasionally appeared to be out of sync with his bandmates, as some of his more flashy passages sounded inappropriate and misplaced, although some of this could be put down to dodgy mixing. The band’s face, though, is frontman Liam Cormier, who one feels would perform the songs with just as much verve and enthusiasm were his band mates to put down their instruments and leave the stage – if he’d even noticed they’d gone. He spent much of the band’s set thrusting his crotch in people’s faces for no apparent reason and, allied with the impossibly skinny jeans he wore around his knees, he could just as easily passed for a WWF (old school) wrestler, pacing up and down the stage in an attempt to call out Tugboat or the Texas Tornado for a good old-fashioned grudge match.
Cancer Bats finished with one of the first outings of a new song, -Darkness,’ from their forthcoming third album, but from that point on the night was reserved for Billy Talent. The headline act’s evening began on something of a bum note: -The Dead Can’t Testify’ is one of the better songs on the Toronto band’s fourth (third as Billy Talent) album Billy Talent III, but, as opening tracks go, it’s a little too slow to really excite the crowd, and relies too much upon lead singer Benjamin Kowalewicz’s clean vocals when he seems to need a couple of songs to fully warm up. Nevertheless, the band soon found their stride: drummer Aaron Solowoniuk was flawless on the giant podium that had been created for him to the rear of the stage, while guitarist/co-vocalist Ian D’Sa lent his considerable vocal weight to highlights like -Surrender’ and -Devil In A Midnight Mass.’
The make-up of the set was split fairly evenly between tracks from Billy Talent III and the two previous self-titled albums. Having been on tour more-or-less constantly since June, the band have had the opportunity to work in to the set more than half of the new album, but the biggest pop was still reserved for more instantly recognisable tracks like -Line & Sinker’ and -Fallen Leaves.’ For its part, the newer material is a little less aggressive and fast-paced than its predecessors, with more pronounced classic and progressive rock tendencies, tendencies that were first explored on 2006’s Billy Talent II, which mined territory very similar to that which System Of A Down had mined with the previous year’s Mezmerize/Hypnotize doublet.
For a band of their size, the scale of Billy Talent’s stage set-up was impressively ambitious. To close, they performed perennial favourite -Red Flag’ to the backdrop of a massive red curtain in what must surely rank among the clumsiest attempts at symbolism since… ever. The stage was littered with white lights, which were occasionally over-used to the collective detriment of the audience’s eyes. Cleverly, the rig was used to give, quite literally, moments in the spotlight to each member of the band, which is hopefully democratic enough a process to prevent Billy Talent going the way of Girls Aloud any time in the near future.
For his part, Kowalewicz doesn’t exactly present himself as the egomaniacal Axl Rose-type. In fact, he initially came across as a reluctant frontman: at first apprehensive and ever-so-slightly shy, he soon warmed to the audience and began to throw in the odd story between songs, including one anecdote involving Guinness that didn’t seem to have a plotline but nonetheless earned a few bars of ‘OlÃ©, OlÃ©, OlÃ©’ from the crowd. We may not have Thanksgiving in this country, but we do have a way of disarming foreigners with Spanish football chants. It’s an odd custom, but it’s ours.