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THE CHISEL • Retaliation • LP/Tape

THE CHISEL • Retaliation • LP/Tape

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The Chisel — no relation to Ted Leo’s old band Chisel — got together in London early in 2020. The members of the band all come from different cities around the UK, and plenty of them have done serious time in other bands. Guitarist Charlie Manning Walker, for instance, is the Chubby Charles who leads Chubby And The Gang. Along with a couple of his Chisel bandmates, Walker also spent played influential grassroots UK hardcore bands like Violent Reaction and Arms Race. The Chisel’s sound draws on some of the same pub-rock influences as Chubby And The Gang, and it’s got plenty of the rudimentary old-school hardcore DNA of Violent Reaction and Arms Race. But the Chisel’s backbone is the knuckle-to-jaw brawler music of the oi and street-punk bands that came out of the UK in the late ’70s and early ’80s. That music always explicitly presented itself as hooligan fare, and the Chisel are deeply entrenched in all of it. In the steady stream of EPs that they’ve been cranking out since last year, the Chisel have covered oi anthems from the Criminal Crew and the Business. They’re about that life.

Street-punk is sweaty gang-chant music, music for mass communal gatherings. But the Chisel didn’t have the option to forge their sound in that environment. Instead, the Chisel are a pandemic band, and they already had records out before they played their first live show. Even without shows, though, those records hit a nerve in international punk circles. Like Chubby And The Gang before them, the Chisel tap into a deep affection for the sweaty, straightforward singalong power of this defiantly unpretentious strain of punk rock. That music was always political, but the Chisel make it even more explicitly about class conflict. Frontman Cal Graham is a fierce, devoted leftist, and the Chisel’s best songs are all about feeling trapped in a capitalist panopticon, raging against exploitation. In the Chisel’s hands, that anger becomes a tool for catharsis and solidarity — the kind of thing that can get your heart rate going.

After three EPs, the Chisel recorded Retaliation, their full-length debut, with Fucked Up drummer Jonah Falco, who’s become an important figure in the UK punk world and who also produced those previous EPs. The sound of Retaliation is raw and cheap and trebly, and it suits the band’s urgency. A few of the songs on the album appeared on those EPs, which gives the album a sort of greatest-hits feel, even if the band itself hasn’t even been around for two years yet. But those songs are great, so it never feels redundant. Retaliation has a feverish sense of purpose to it, and the 14 songs go by in a 28-minute blur. The Chisel play so fast that they always sound like they’re about to fall apart, but there’s just enough rigor to their sound that their structures always maintain integrity.

Cal Graham sounds like he’s chanting even when he’s singing. His accent is thick and heavy, and he steers into it, the way the best street-punk bands always have. In Graham’s voice, I hear some combination of rage and joy, or maybe it’s the joy in getting to express this rage as plainly and forcefully as possible. A song like “So Do I” is literally just an offer to go fight somebody, set to music. The music fits the message. Chubby And The Gang, the band most closely associated with the Chisel, draw on glam and power-pop and other forms of populist British guitar music from decades past. The Chisel aren’t like that. The Chisel never show any desire to be anything other than a beautifully straightforward punk band. They stick within the boundaries of their chosen genre, and they do it with flair and determination — at least up until the very end of Retaliation.

Retaliation ends with “Will I Ever See You Again,” a slow country-folk lament about missing someone. Over clean harmonica strums and harmonica-honks, Cal Graham brays about the loss of an old friend, reminiscing on old haunts and savoring memories. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability on an album that’s more about projecting fearsome strength, and it hits just as hard as anything else on Retaliation. Even tough guys need to shed a tear sometimes. Just ask Elijah Wood.
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