The distinction between US and UK ska-punk is one that’s often made, though it’s one that’s hard to avoid. Where the former primarily relies on big, brassy melodies to cultivate huge feelings of exuberance, homegrown efforts tend to be a lot more street-level, refusing to shy away from the grit and grime that comes in the modern, urban British setting. For an offshoot of punk, it’s the only branch of the two that’s really retained the sense of realism and weight that definitely goes appreciated.
On the other hand though, it’s also prone to falling into the genre’s typical trappings of not having that wide a breadth of subject matter, or ways to say it, and for a band like Popes Of Chillitown with an album called Work Hard, Play Hard, See You In The Graveyard, all thought processes directly aim at ideas of social commentary in the vein of so many before them. Sure, the intentions are there, whether that’s taking aim at toxic online cultures on Vexed or Mr. Piotr, or feelings of apathy and ignorance to what’s going on in the world on Upside Down, but they’re particular perspectives that have become crucially worn down at this point, and beyond some clever lines (of which there are admittedly a fair few), it’s all just flatlined a bit too often for a genre that’s proven to be as adept as possible with this sort of thing.
That’s not to say it’s bad though, and with a broader musical canvas than ska-punk’s more average fair, there are conscious efforts to knock Work Hard, Play Hard… up a couple of notches that do pay off. The likes of No Manners In Ireland and Inner Peace see Matt Conner’s smoother, more tacticle vocal work taking centre stage, something that’s extrapolated to its fullest extent on the sharp reggae-rap of Graveyard. That track also shows the diversity in sound here, accompanying a more traditional, jagged punk core with splashes of dub and hip-hop on No Manners In Ireland and What A Guy, and even leaning more towards hardcore on Lego Prisoners. As for the horns, they too act as more of a garnish, popping at the edges for an extra hit of intensity that rarely goes amiss. Granted, the default ska-punk bounce seems to be what Popes Of Chillitown are most comfortable with, and for a thirteen-track album that can feel like a bit much, but the fact that those flashes of diversity do break through is an unequivocal positive all the same.
With all of that in mind then, Work Hard, Play Hard… is an odd album to evaluate. It’s definitely decent and earmarks Popes Of Chillitown as being worthy additions to a rather stagnant ska-punk roster, but their approach is more a case of sprucing up an existing theme than really building on it or subverting expectations. And for the time being, that’s fine; they’ve got decent instincts of how to do it and it ends up as fairly solid across the board. But for all the stigma that surrounds ska-punk as it is, Popes Of Chillitown still need to work on how they’ll get past that, because right now, it doesn’t feel like they’re quite there yet.
For fans of: Capdown, King Prawn, Random Hand
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Work Hard, Play Hard, See You In The Graveyard’ by Popes Of Chillitown is released on 4th May.