Album Review :
Flatfoot 56 - Black Thorn

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Band: Flatfoot 56

Title: Black Thorn

Label: Old Shoe Records

Release Date: March 30, 2010

Reviewer: Sam

Tracklisting: 

  1. The Escape (Intro)
  2. Black Thorn
  3. Born For This
  4. Courage
  5. Smoke Blower
  6. The Hourglass
  7. Shiny Eyes
  8. We Grow Stronger
  9. Son of Shame
  10. Stampede
  11. You Won Me Over
  12. Way of the Sun
  13. Hot Head

When someone talks about a punk rock band, they usually get one of two responses:  either  “punk’s not really my thing” or “that band’s not really punk.”  Enter the record that laughs at both objections while it bludgeons the perpetrator over the head with a mandolin.  Flatfoot 56 has built a career on playing true punk rock with a  Scottish/Celtic feel and Black Thorn is a huge step in their already high-adrenaline career.

The band has formerly released two albums for Flicker Records.  The first, Knuckles Up, was a fast paced, full-force punk record that really showcased their ability to effectively weave bagpipes and mandolins into in-your-face punk rock.  Knuckles Up, while held as a great record for die-hard fans of the genre and the band, ended up feeling very repetitive toward the end for a lot of listeners leaving some a bit bored.

Jungle of the Midwest Sea was their sophomore release for Flicker and managed to blow away the sophomore slump.  This record showed a band that was maturing while staying true to its punk roots and presented listeners with more variety with some moving around of rhythms and even toning down the distortion to put out a couple of mandolin-based ballads in the middle and at the end of the record.

Now, having been dropped by a struggling Flicker Records and picked up by Old Shoe records, Flatfoot 56 is back to bring you Black Thorn which easily their best offering to date.  With Black Thorn you’re going to find an even more matured Flatfoot 56 that still stays very much punk while adding a somewhat catchy pop element to many of their songs without sliding into the pop punk sound that so many other bands tend to hit.

The record opens up with a darker sounding intro called “The Escape” that brings you into the album with an epic tone.  “Black Thorn” and “Born for This” follow and you start to notice two things about this record:  First, as said before, the band has clearly progressed quite a bit in their sound already and the second is the blatant lack of bagpipes in favor for the mandolin.  Lyrically, these two songs deal with issues of a friend wavering in his faith (Black Thorn) and living with passion while ditching the “American Dream” (Born for This).

Up next is the “single” from the record, “Courage.”  I call it the “single” because it’s what they made their music video out of, not so much that it’s on the radio.  It plays like a sort of punk anthem celebrating, you guessed it:   courage.  It’s a story of an ordinary man who was a soldier in WWII and a father at home fighting to provide for his kids. As the song goes “Not because of a movie or a magazine, but because you’re your example you inspired me.”  Musically, it’s a song that will stick you because in the chorus the background vocals are provided by what I think might be a boys’ choir, giving it a sort of “transcendent” feel.

In “Smoke Blower,” you catch the first use of bagpipes, more as a background sound and less of a lead (like they did in previous records).  In this song, Tobin’s brother Kyle takes over the lead vocals and lyrically it’s basically an allegory about a liar using the story of the big bad wolf. 

“The Hourglass” is a somewhat unique song. They use the mandolin in such a way that it gives it a Middle Eastern feel. It’s a song about time and how it can slip away from you if you let it.  It’s a great song and really does have a sound that you don’t expect.

“Shiny Eyes” is the ballad of the record.  Musically it’s fairly simple focusing on an acoustic guitar, mandolin, and even an accordion.  Lyrically it’s a love song.  This is an enjoyable break from the fast pace of the first half of the record and serves as a bit of a half-way breather-point for the record.

With “We Grow Stronger” the Celtic punk comes right back full force.  It’s actually a song speaking of redemption in Christ singing about “Through our weakness we grow stronger.”  It never mentions Jesus directly, but you can hear the undertones in lines like “I believe something great lies ahead.  Though we’re alive, we should be dead.  Born to people as a curse, now been made something of worth.” The lead vocals are done by a voice I don’t recognize and I think it might be the drummer Justin.  It’s a rhythmically driving song with a pretty interesting mandolin line if you listen hard enough behind the guitars and shouted vocals.

“Son of Shame” is up next with a quasi-ballad, it starts off with a ballad sound before bringing in the distorted guitars, but it stays a little more toned down.  Here is the second and last time you hear the bagpipes, again used more as a backup sound. It’s another great song that adds to the overall variety of sounds in the record.  Lyrically it talks about a man who goes through life feeling like no one understands him and is a “son of shame” until the end when it speaks of the man remembering God the Father loves the “sons of shame.”

“Stampede,” with its beat and chugging guitars, sounds EXACTLY like its title: a stampede.  It kind of makes you feel like you should take off running wherever you are.  Kyle once again picks of the lead vocal role.  Lyrically, I’m not sure whether or not it has a specific purpose, it mostly sounds like some guy desperately trying to run down everyone around him to keep on top.  If you were of a mind, you could probably draw lines to an allegory of a man in the corporate American rat race trying to run down everyone around him to stay ahead of the pack.

“You Won Me Over” is another song that’s punk with a bit of a slower beat using the mandolin to play an interesting hook in the chorus.  It’s a song about being won over with real love not “the fallacy that today’s love brings through all the mire of lust’s filthy streams.”

“Way of the Sun” is a pretty standard fare song if you were a fan of “Jungle of the Midwest Sea.”  However, at this point in the record, it doesn’t feel at all derivative or boring due to the variety of songs you’ve already been exposed to.  Lyrically it’s talking about going the “way of the sun” which seems to be a way that few else choose that “believe[s] in a foreign land better than we know.”

“Hot Head” is the high speed conclusion to the record with Kyle shouting out the vocals. The song is shouting against guys with anger and responsibility issues.  It’s an interesting way to close a record, but a good one nonetheless.

Overall:  Black Thorn is an extremely mature record for Flatfoot 56 both lyrically and musically.  It manages to solve the problem Knuckles Up had with repetitiveness for good and offers a much more accessible sound to those who aren’t necessarily a fan of the genre while still remaining true to its punk roots.  This is a record that I could easily recommend to the die-hard punk fan as well as the melody-loving indie rocker.  The only real complaint I really have with the record is that they didn’t use their bagpipes anywhere near as much as they used to, which detracted a bit from the Celtic feel.

Black Thorn is easily the best record Flatfoot 56 has put out to date and if they keep following this trend of improvement and maturity over each previous record, they have the chops to become a major musical force to be reckoned with.

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