Within the punk rock kingdom, there are many different styles and sub-genres. It can be overwhelming to sort the good from the bad and great from the mediocre in a field so vast. But sometimes, artists make it a bit easier by transcending the confines of genre. Chicago-based Celtic punk band Flatfoot 56 has done just this with Toil, an album that not only rises above cliche but rises above even the seminal records that originated the concept of a punk band including instruments like bag pipes and mandolins.
Flatfoot 56 has taken the basic formula of adding Celtic instrumentation to rollicking punk and mated it with equally strong songwriting. But it would be remiss to say that the twinkling of the mandolin or the cry of the bagpipes doesn’t add something special to the album’s sound, which is based in open, aggressive punk guitars, acoustics strummed with abandon, drums that pound away like a beckoning to arms, and lead singer Tobin Bawinkel’s inimitable voice. The latter bears the load of Toil’s anthemic lyrics, which are centered around relatable topics, specifically the working class.
Though the album features a strong set of Christian undertones, the lyrics aren’t preachy, and the Christian foundation of the band does not impede the record’s somewhat liberal message. The title track, for example, decries the life of the “wage slave” while simultaneously accepting that it is hard work that shapes us as individuals. Album starter “Brother Brother” is an uptempo appeal to a friend on a downward spiral, featuring a chant-ready chorus crafted with the sweaty masses of a punk-rock show in mind. “I Believe It” is another early winner, and again, while the song’s lyrical content could be easily chalked up as a sonic affirmation of Bawinkel’s faith, the messages in the lyrics can be applied universally–and without any direct or specific religious referencing.
Sonically, the mandolin and bagpipes are instruments that can often grow cloying; however, Toil’s songwriting is varied and developed enough to make for an easy listen straight through. And though the lyrics tackle some heavy subjects, the record is an uplifting listen. Toil is a step in the direction of a broader appeal, away from the pub fodder and jigs about drinking that Flatfoot 56’s peers have built careers on– and a refreshing reminder of what made this sub-genre so popular in the first place.
Essential Tracks: “Brother Brother”, “Toil”