Slam Dunk Festival, Midlands, UK (27th May 2017)

Pop-punk, pizza, and pits. It can only mean one thing? It’s Slam Dunk Festival. In its 12th year, the touring festival brings the vibes of the Warped Tour to the UK in one of its strongest line-ups yet, with electro-rockers Enter Shikari performing their debut album Take To The Skies in full, alongside a genre-crossing line-up of legends, upstarts, and journeymen. We hit the Midlands edition on the 27th May at the NEC Birmingham and here’s what went down.

Known for singing songs about punk rock princesses and hiding under the guise of a mannequin, Andrew McMahon’s In The Wilderness project is perhaps on paper a proper fit for kicking off proceedings on the Jagermeister stage. In reality, it’s a mood-dropping half-band slew of strictly-piano pop-punk gone late-nineties emo. Considering this stage’s line-up is to feature the likes of electro post-hardcore party-starters Crossfaith and Enter Shikari, it’s a weird way to start the Slam Dunk Party.

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Things are a little louder over on the Key Club stage with alt-rockers and Mallory Knox-supporting Fort Knox, who’ve been slowly and surely building themselves up as an all-important live band. Whilst the energy is up a few notches, and the early-birds are as up for it as two pigeons on a roof, and yet there’s something special slipping away somewhere from this set, as if Fort Hope haven’t quite found what they’re looking for.

Outside at the Signature Brew stage, emo-rockers Sorority Noise find themselves fighting against bouts of wind, trains passing-by, and the earliest and only signs of rain the festival sees and whilst their crowd is as sparse as Donald Trump’s inauguration, they play a scorching set that slides evenly through their last two albums. Whilst 2015’s ‘Joy, Departed’ hits hard with an early dosage of Nolsey sparking things up, it’s the choice cuts from this year’s ‘You’re Not As ___ As You Think’ such as opener ‘No Halo’ and the harrowing ‘A Portrait Of’ which highlight the importance of Sorority Noise in 2017 in the emo-grunge scene.

Picking up the pieces from the pessimistic musings of Andrew McMahon, Japan’s post-hardcore electro-partiers Crossfaith load up, take aim, and fire themselves head-first into the half-arena-strong crowd gathering around them. Opener Xeno gets the feet tapping and the heads banging, but it’s classic-cut ‘Monolith’ that takes their set to the next level once and for all with pits exploding into action, lyrics being screamed front-to-back, and bottles flying already. Beartooth’s Caleb Shomo joins them for ‘Ghost In The Mirror’ before they bring things full circle with their fan-favourite cover of the Prodigy’s ‘Omen’.

Slam Dunk 2017 – Photo Credit : Slam Dunk Facebook Page

Birmingham locals Shvpes may have members cut from the same cloth as heavy metal royalty in way of NWOBHM-pioneers Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, but they’re so far removed from such royalty that its almost like watching a peasant parody everything that has come in the time since Maiden made their names. Since Griffin Dickinson took the reins vocally they’ve been on an upward trajectory commercially, but critically and live, it feels as if their best days are behind them. Whilst their metalcore-by-numbers is above average in the over-flowing coffee-pot scene they find themselves in, you know you should be worried when your between-song banter is better than your songs.

Back on the Signature Brew stage, the wind is still blowing and the trains are still passing and the sound is still battling but grunge-punk quartet Milk Teeth ride the waves of their recent Brit-Rock Kerrang! cover, channelling energy like a power plant and delivering a slam dunk of a set. ‘Crows Feet’ and ‘No Fun’ feel ferocious, and fan-favourite ‘Swear Jar’ spawns one of the day’s biggest sing-alongs. Guitarist Billy Hutton charmingly leads the crowd through a semi-cover of Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’, a sure-fire sign to show these guys are as fun as their music.  Forgotten words forgiven, double-whammy closer ‘Brickwork’ and ‘Vitamins’ sparks perilous pits and headline-worthy crowd chanting.

Inside on the Key Club Stage, pop-punk alt-rockers Boston Manor spark a party with their alt-rock-for-dummies pop-punk infused noise, and despite frontman Henry Cox’s best efforts at building themselves a rapport, there’s a lack of crowd participating that brings this set down a notch or two despite the band being as on form as ever.

Special guests Bury Tomorrow are by now a British institution, their melodic metalcore catapulting themselves to spots in the charts the majority of their contemporaries dream of and fail to ever reach. Elevating their music to ferocious new heights live, Bury Tomorrow could easily command the half-filled arena they’ve gathered and yet today they seem off-pace, their late-start courtesy of technical issues plaguing them far more than it should. Whilst fan-favourites ‘Man On Fire’ and ‘Lionheart’ fire them out of the gate, heavier material such as the harsh-vocal-focused ‘Sceptres’ loses its edge amongst the sea of Slam Dunk faithful’s, many of whom unfamiliar with the deeper cuts of their catalogue. Starting late means finishing early, and the Jagermeister stage empties quicker than a room on fire as the band promise to apologise to everyone by meeting them right away at the merch stand.

Slam Dunk 2017 – Photo Credit : Slam Dunk Facebook Page

Drawing the line between alternative rock and pop-punk on a stage defined by bands floating on either one genre or the other, Canada’s The Maine deliver a sun-awakening set on the Monster Energy stage. Playing through a career-best set in eight simple songs, older cuts like ‘My Heroine’ sit hand-in-hand with newer tracks like ‘Black Butterflies & Déjà vu’. Frontman John O’Callaghan is perhaps the most charismatic man you’ll ever meet, strutting across the stage, embossed in a suit of glamorous proportions, engaging in a war of minds with a crowd member all-too-happy to remain cross-armed and unwilling to dance – that is, until he’s dragged up on stage and semi-forced to sing wolf-baitingly along to ‘Girls Do What They Want’. If you were looking for a pick-me-up, you got it twice over.

Following up on the Monster Energy stage are We The Kings, another noughties-famous band riding off of the coattails of nostalgia on an all-too-rare trip to our shores performing a set tailored to their self-titled debut on its tenth anniversary. Super-hit ‘Check Yes Juliet’ and fan-made single ‘Skyway Avenue’ remain as relevant to pop-punk’s progression from Blink-182 and Sum 41 into As It Is and Neck Deep as they in 2007, when the changing of the guard began, ready and awaiting the hand-over of their own generation. A set made for singing along too, the sun remains shining and the crowd dancing as a second airing of ‘Check Yes Juliet’ closes the show.

Over on the Jagermeister stage, Deaf Havana frontman James Veck-Gilodi is battling tooth-and-nail with anxiety in the wake of the realisation of just how mammoth their early-evening crowd is, a rare sight for the band in recent years who’ve gone to war and almost didn’t make it out together before releasing this year’s commercially and critically successful ‘All These Countless Nights’. Jokes about literally shitting themselves aside, the set borrows the majority of its material from their most recent effort which whilst all the cuts from opener ‘Ashes, Ashes’ to the heart-breaking harrowing sing-along of ‘Happiness’ show-off the sheer sonic progression they’ve made since 2013’s ‘Old Souls’, its lack of festival-friendly classics leaves them a little high-and-dry. When they do opt to explore their back catalogue, they go in for true-fan cuts like ‘Youth In Retrospect’ and ‘Speeding Cars’ which whilst wonderful to see get an airing, unfortunate for those in the audience unacquainted with them.

The Key Club stage has been a straight-line of discouragingly dispersing numbers as the day goes on and the dwindling crowd gathered to see Set It Off set it off (pardon our all-too-intentional pun) dissipate one-by-one in a lacklustre set where despite frontman Cody Carson’s best efforts, they struggle with the curse of the Key Club stage to make the magic happen.

Making the magic happen is something Los Angeles hardcore-punk legends The Bronx do naturally, pulverising and pummelling their way through a set designed to cause chaos on the Signature Brew stage. This is a set that needs few words, just the acknowledgement that it doesn’t matter where they are, what they’re doing, or who they’re doing it with, The Bronx are the undisputed kings of hardcore punk.

Australia’s Tonight Alive have climbed the ladders well and truly here in the UK, having gone from headlining semi-full backrooms of pubs to fifty people to selling out 1000-capacity venues in the space of a mere five years and tonight caps off another milestone, headlining the Key Club stage at Slam Dunk. Unfortunately, they suffer under the weight of the curse of the stage with a pea-sized crowd less-than-enthusiastic for their pop-punk-turned-alt-rock. Top-ending the set with the hits, the second half diddles on dutifully, losing the character these Australians have held for so long. Closing on new single ‘World Away’, it’s a wonder what world these rockers are on.

Enter Shikari are a force to be reckoned with, an indestructible wall of noise and authority, taking their experimental electro-post-hardcore to the masses providing those of us with voices the platform we need. Hot off the heels of a sold-out Alexandra Palace headline-set and in preparation for their upcoming arena-tour takeover, Shikari dig out the history books and play their seminal debut album Take To The Skies in full, throwing in some era-relevant cuts like ‘Juggernaut’ in for good measure. The self-titled opener and Mothership remaining as relevant and as god damn hard-hitting as they were ten years ago, kicking off the set in orderly fashion. Throwing the rulebook out the window, the party-starting ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Sorry You’re Not A Winner’ absolutely set the arena on fire, the sardine-like crowd exploding into pits as grown men sail across the crowd on inflatable unicorns. It’s madness, a madness only Enter Shikari could pull off. As they close the books on their past and usher in their next chapter, this is a clear showing that whatever is to come from Shikari, it will be era-defining.