One of the key divides in British punk is fashion vs passion.
The Sex Pistols, ostensibly the “inventors” of punk rock, were in fact human billboards hired out to sell leather jackets perforated with safety pins; true innovators like the U.K. Subs seized working-class sentiment to craft memorable songs that exude solidarity.
The Chisel fall into the latter camp, but they found themselves as flag bearers of modern British street punk by accident.
The band wasn’t supposed to be more than a pandemic project for bored and listless UK punks. Through luck and sheer force of aggression, they built a following that awaited them when lockdown restrictions began to lift. “It just took off, really. I wish there was more to it,” says guitarist Charlie Walker Manning matter-of-factly. “If I knew how to do that again, I would do it again!”
Their debut full-length, Retaliation, is a furious record. Guitars thrash against the chains of capitalism while vocalist Cal Graham harnesses the anger and disillusionment of the working class into explosive confrontation, unafraid to take direct aim at murderous cops, the politicians who enable them, or even the guy at the pub who won’t stop running his mouth. Retaliation boasts 14 tracks, the cumulative effect of which is a whirlwind of bludgeoning riffs and proletarian hostility.
Never ones to slow down, The Chisel boys began work on their sophomore album almost immediately after the release of Retaliation.
What a Fucking Nightmare builds on that momentum by opening with the eerie sound of jackboots marching over guitar feedback crescendos. Graham recites “What a fucking nightmare” repeatedly, dialing up the intensity before the opening riff of track two erupts. “No Gimmicks” is about as close as The Chisel get to publishing a mission statement.
No lofty lyrics or fancy guitar flourishes, just unrelenting drums that pummel their message into you, coupled with some delightfully crass lyricism (“performative piece for the working class/you can fucking shove it up your arse”) as Graham attacks feckless political operatives who fail to address poverty he sees all around him.
Graham’s snarl cuts like a buzzsaw dragging across concrete on “Cry Your Eyes Out,” in which he turns an unsympathetic ear to a hard-drinking day laborer whose wife finally left him. While he demands accountability from the man, the chorus employs use of the uniquely British insult “mug,” a small detail that gives a distinct “flavour” to the record.
Jonah Falco (who plays in Fucked Up and provided backup vocals on UK post-punks High Vis’s much-lauded second album last year) uses his production skills to help channel their righteous anger into a classic street punk sound.
Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of punk, Falco helped the band to refine all the best parts of the British punk tradition into something new. “I’m 33, I missed the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Manning admits. “The beauty is that I can look back on all of it and take the best bits of it. Like this bit’s gonna sound like it’s from ‘77, this bit’s gonna sound like summer ‘82, you can just take the best.” The Chisel are able to pay homage to all that came before them without ever sounding like copycats, a true feat in a genre that’s well into its fifth decade.
Much like Retaliation, What a Fucking Nightmare gestures towards politics, mostly by raising double middle fingers to elected officials. “Nice to Meet Ya” uses an iron grip to crush the outstretched hands double-speaking careerists who can’t deliver change and “Evil By Evil” invites the listener into a shout-along chorus directed at people who claim the system still works.
While not particularly nuanced or articulated, these observations are still accurate—wealth disparity, wage stagnation, and politicians openly cozying up to the far right seem awfully familiar to a student of punk history like Manning.
“You think about the ‘70s and what spawned punk and all that, all the social unrest, you’re not far off now. I’d say we’re basically in the same position. Things never really changed. Not that The Chisel’s a protest band, but we definitely dislike politicians. Now’s a good time to think politicians are cunts.”
Foul-mouthed as they are, The Chisel maintain their working class bona fides with direct rhetoric that reflects how people actually talk. There’s only so much politeness a person can maintain after they’ve been beaten down for so long. Manning jokes he can’t wait to hear the radio edit of the lead single “Fuck ‘Em” with half the chorus missing.
This method of straight talk also leads to some moments where Graham candidly recounts his troubled teenage years, and he’s able to express the pain of struggling to pay bills and putting one’s body on the line to make a living without losing the breakneck pace set earlier in the record.
The album has flashes of genuine optimism, seen best on the closing track “What I See.” Graham once again rages against people who only care about “their money, their mansions, and their suits,” and recalls things have always been this way in England.
Rather than despair, he calls for unity and counterattacks against an enemy who tries to divide and conquer them. In classic Chisel fashion, it hits hard and leaves a gnarly bruise; a lingering reminder of the undying British punk legacy.
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