Slam Dunk North 2019 Review!

Temple Newsam, Leeds, 25th May 2019: Never will you find a more wretched hive of snapbacks and Vans. As the fans begin entering the festival grounds, the day is bright and warm… sadly it won’t last, but rain, thunder or snow wouldn’t have kept the legions away from Leeds today.

We begin the day over on the Dickies stage with Milk Teeth. It’s been a turbulent 12 months for the Stroud-based punks. They lost long-time guitarists Chris Webb and Billy Hutton in swift succession, but rather than replacing them both, they brought in Em Foster of Nervus (and every other band for that matter) and have become a three-piece. It works.

From the moment they take to the stage the energy is brilliant, and there is a palpable sense of fun among the three members, with song introductions like “this song is about eating pussy” from Becky Blomfield.

The introduction of Em is an inspired one, she is the perfect fit for the band with a guitar tone straight out of the 90s and on songs like Fight Skirt and Driveway Birthday, her raw vocals fit brilliantly. All the fat feels like it’s been trimmed from the show and what we saw here was 30 minutes of fast paced, purely distilled punk.

A quick few steps over to the Impericon Stage is where we find ourselves next for Knocked Loose. After the release of their debut album Laughter Tracks in 2016, Knocked Loose have become one of the hottest properties in an ever expanding hardcore scene. Across this time they’ve garnered a reputation as must-see live band.  That reputation is a cheque they go far beyond cashing today.

The tent in which the Impericon and Jagermeister stages are housed is packed as Knocked Loose take to the stage and they waste absolutely no time turning the amassed crowd into a maelstrom of flailing limbs. Their style of hardcore might not be particularly clever, but the power that radiates from the stage is undeniable, something akin perhaps to having your face smashed against a wall repeatedly.

Vocalist Bryan Garris is full of energy bounding across the stage with endless enthusiasm, his voice is shrill and juxtaposes perfectly with the grinding chugging guitars behind him, but there is an undeniable strength, both in his vocal delivery and his presence on stage.

Next up are Tiny Moving Parts. There is no doubt in the musical ability of this emo three piece, or the passion with which they attack their songs. One look at how vocalist and guitarist Dylan Mattheisen manages to juggle twisting guitar lines and soaring melodic vocals with a few bars of excellent tapping thrown in for good measure, and there is no questioning the skill on display.

However, there is something of a disconnect between the band on stage and the audience, with the excitement and verve of the band not quite reflected in the audience. They aren’t helped by a poor sound which, unless you are in the first few rows, is being blown around by the wind. Ultimately, it feels like they never quite connect in the way you would hope.

There comes a point at every festival, usually between about three and five, when the initial joy and thrill of arriving has begun to ebb away and perhaps the energy levels in a crowd can begin to drop. The perfect band for this moment are the mother-fucking Cancer Bats. Four fifths of the band walk on stage. The other fifth, Liam Cormier, bounds on stage with all the exuberance and energy of Duracell bunny on cocaine.

They kick things off with Brightest Day, the opening song from their latest record The Spark That Moves and it is greeted like an old favourite by the crowd. This is a perfectly balanced festival set, with a smattering of new songs, but the lions share are classic fan favourites like Bricks and Mortar, Lucifers Rocking Chair (introduced modestly as “a real heavy metal banger”) and a rendition of Pneumonia Hawk featuring a brief but nonetheless wonderful cameo by Nikki Brumen of Pagan. Other than her appearance, this is just another Cancer Bats set. And that’s a good thing.

After her guest appearance, it’s now time for Nikki Brumen to resume her day job as she takes to the stage with Pagan. There’s no shortage of people crowding into the Key Stage tent, but this could have as much to do with the ever increasing deluge of rain as it does with the band on the stage.

The Australian death disco crew released their debut album in 2018 and this is only their second stint in the UK, but they make damn sure we’ll want them back soon.  Nikki is magnetic as a front woman, high kicking and dancing her way through their set and, towards the end, dismounting the stage all together to come and scream in the faces of the audience.

Although still a band in their infancy, Pagan are already beginning to work out what works best in their shows, and that seems to be just putting their heads down and playing punk infused ragers one after another. Songs like Death Before Disco have everyone dancing, while Imitate Me inspires a mass song along. Yet another band with a wildly promising future, Pagan leave the stage having continued to cement their reputation on British soil.

There comes a point in a bands career, when you can begin to stop being impressed by even the best of their live performances. After the fourth or fifth time you just get used to watching certain bands obliterate whatever stage they stride out on to. Three albums in and Employed To Serve have not reached that point, they just get better, and they do not appear to have reached the peak of their live performance. That is a terrifying prospect.

They take to the stage in matching windbreakers, a true gang aesthetic, and launch into the title track of the brand new album Eternal Forward Motion. The chorus of this song swells to a size that could fill an arena let alone the small tent they find themselves in, and this feels truly grand and sweeping. But grandiosity is only one arrow in a packed quiver.  The speed and extremity in riffs on songs like Good For Nothing and Void Ambition turn the crowd into a huge mosh pit, and the moment when the full power of Harsh Truth comes swinging in after it’s build up is crushingly brilliant.

Even when technical problems take Sammy Irwin’s guitar out of action he puts it down and launches himself into the crowd with his microphone for the trading vocals with Justine Jones at the end of Force Fed. Having started a little late, the set is cut short after this and it’s definitely the biggest shame of the day that they don’t get to finish in the manner they may have wanted.

The British hardcore scene that has birthed Employed To Serve owes it’s existence in the form and health which it now exists in no small part to Gallows. When Frank Carter departed in 2011, a lot of fans probably feared the worst. Since then however they have released two excellent albums fronted by Wade McNeill, and are now back after a two-year hiatus. Where Liam Cormier had an infectious energy and joy, Wade seems no less energetic,  but the fuel for this fire seems to come from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. He stops opening song Misery after 15 seconds, bemoans the lack of crowd participation and proceeds to get into the crowd, throw himself around and create the atmosphere he desires, and remains in the crowd for the majority of the song.

The whole band seem possessed by a desire to push and fast as they can, with bassist Stuart Gill-Ross spending most of the show teetering on the edge of the stage staring angrily at the audience. This is another band who have so much festival experience and a back catalogue of such brilliance, these performances must feel like a walk in the park.

Highlights include a fantastic rendition of London Is The Reason (adjusted for the day to Yorkshire Is The Reason), the above mentioned Liam Cormier joining them for Last June and closing on Orchestra of Wolves. Gallows are back, and you’d better believe they’re still as fired up as ever.

The last band we see today are Menzingers, a band more associated with American sunsets on evenings spent with a beer on the bonnet of a car, the sort you’d see in a coming-of-age film, than they are with waterlogged northern fields and gathering storm clouds over drenched festival goers. But they take to the stage and their emo-drenched punk rock soon raises weather standards and spirits.

They open with a run of Tellin’ Lies, Good Things, Thick as Thieves and The Obituaries, and it’s hard to think of a better way to start the final act of a festival. The joy in the crowd is palpable, with every person screaming back every word to the stage, strangers drunkenly hugging each other and yelling snatches of songs about youth and living free into each other’s faces.

The Menzingers have transitioned away from their more emo -influenced material and further embraced  the American Heartland sound on most recent album After The Party, but both new material and old material are treated with the same rapturous response. By the time they play their last song, the rain has stopped and there are glimpses of bright blue sky overhead, and you have to believe that it’s not a coincidence.

So another year, another Slam Dunk festival over, it continues to grow and expand into new exciting territories and bring in new audiences. This edition has been varied in genre, but not so much in quality, it’s pretty much been brilliant.

Tom Butterworth

June 4, 2019

Hi, I'm Tom Butterworth. Born and raised in Northampton, resident in Liverpool for six years now. I've been obsessive about music for over ten years. My favourite bands include Nightwish, The Beatles, Letlive, Slipknot, Pink Floyd, The Menzingers and Biffy Clyro among others. \m/

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