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Celtic folklore cites the Black Thorn as being the most sinister and evil of all trees. When its’ leaves fall off nothing remains but a dark, twisted skeleton. On top of that, it is also the main ingredient found in the construction of the traditional Irish weapon, the shillelagh. Although, it may not be the reason they went with the title it is certainly a fitting description for the latest release from Chicago’s finest Celtic band, Flatfoot 56.
I was first introduced to this ragged, rabble-rousing crew when I heard their last album, “Jungle of the Midwest Sea”. From the haunting drums and bellowing sea shanties of the intro, ‘The Galley Slave’ you were launched directly into a punk-rock assault they entitled, ‘Carry ‘Em Out’. They had my number, I was hooked. How could you possibly top that?
Fast-forward a few years and with ‘The Galley Slave’ sitting high-atop my favorite album intros, across my plate comes, “Black Thorn”, an album that is promptly being released on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th) of this year. Here we go… let’s see what they have in store.
This intro starts with the same emotion and darkness as the last but this time the haunting drums are replaced with a chilling mandolin and a few simple questions being asked, “Tired of the everyday grind? Want to get away from it all? Dream of a life of romantic adventure? And the answer is a strong response… ’We offer you The Escape’. From there you are thrown straight into the knuckles-up title-track, “Black Thorn”.
I firmly believe that this band needs an album strictly composed of intros. These are so intense at times it makes your hair stand up on end.
After you start to come down from the opening, “Black Thorn” continues to solider on like any good album should. The title-track is a hard and honest song with the harsh line, “If you forget…I’ll forget you”. Soon to be followed by the song prominently featured in the album’s teaser-trailer released online, “Hourglass”. An infectious fist-pumping mandolin-heavy song that talks about the struggle between finding the time for everything important in your life and all the while trying to escape the world’s hourglass. A feeling I am sure anyone who is trying to make ends meet can relate with.
The tone is brought down to a more heartfelt level with, “Courage”. Much like the Street Dogs one-time show closer, “Fighter”… “Courage” is a passionate homage to a beloved individual who has greatly affected your life in a positive and unbelievable way. When front man, Tobin Bawinkel states, “…because of your example, you inspired me!”… We can all relate to that courage that has been bestowed on us from a loved one at some point in our lives. Myself included. This song confirmed to me why they decided to work with Street Dogs’ member, Johnny Rioux at his legendary, Compound. A very wise decision that has, lucky for us listeners, resulted in an outstanding album. Not only by sound-quality but by content as well.
After you’re done drying your eyes from listening to “Courage” you’re pulled back into the ‘Braveheart’ circle-pit that the Ollie Mob (Flatfoot 56’ followers) use to destroy the enemy. The song, “Smoke Blower”. It’s fast, quick and straight to the neck. “House of Cards, House of Sticks…you’ll never shake my House of Bricks!” is routinely chanted by this relentless chorus of fire.
The bagpipes, although an important factor in their sound, aren’t as widely used in this album. They have instead opted to highlight the mandolin, which is a good choice. Why not mix it up a little? It’s refreshing to hear an album that isn’t entirely bagpipe intros, heavy guitars and a Pogues or Dubliners cover every second song.
By this point, we scally-cap sporting hooligans are in our glory but if you’re strictly into the street-punk sound, you’re probably feeling left out. Have no worries my angst-ridden friend, a short mandolin intro and your turn has now come with, “We Grow Stronger”. It has the speed, the ‘whoa-ohs” and the unity inspired lyrics you were waiting for. You’re welcome.
Following this assault, we are eased-into a soon to be pub classic, “Son of Shame”. No other song on this album could sound more Irish. The toil and troubles of the world all compiled into one mandolin & bagpipe laced little ditty. No sooner to be followed by my favorite track from the album, “Way of the Sun”. Catchy, upbeat, well-written and with one of the greatest musical creations the world has ever heard, rolling drums!
Every song on this album is different than the next in some way, shape or form and coming from a Celtic-punk band that is refreshing. It is no wonder that FLATFOOT 56 has risen above the rest and gained the notoriety they so rightfully deserve. “Shiny Eyes” a love song that features female vocals (name unknown… sorry, I don’t have the liner notes) shows that this band has much more in them than just speed and pipes.
Directly after saying that, my foot goes straight into my mouth with, “Stampede”. Ever wonder what it would feel like to literally be standing in the middle of a stampede with nothing but a wave of noise and pressure standing between you & your fate? This song places you there.
“Won Me Over” the second of the new love-infused songs boasts the powerful line, “through your steady hand, I breathe new hope”. As a man of recent marriage and one who is madly in love with his wife, I completely understand. Soon thereafter, “Born for This” reminds us all why we got into this music in the first place. Straight-up punk rock.
The album ends off with the fast & furious, “Hot Head”. A proper conclusion to a solid album from start to finish. I expected a great listen from these Chicago boys and they gave me exactly what I asked for and more. What else could a guy want? Maybe that cheesy 80s’ band was right… every rose does have its’ thorn, but if Flatfoot 56 has anything to do with it, this time they’ll be black!