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LIVE REVIEW: Slam Dunk Festival Midlands 2016

For many rock fans, one of the first dates in the festival calendar is Slam Dunk Festival. Now into its tenth year, the three-day travelling event has blossomed into a full-blown celebration of all things rock, metal, punk and ska. Distorted Sound Magazine sent writers Jack Fermor-Worrell and Dean Martin out to The NEC in Birmingham for Slam Dunk Midlands this weekend to check out what went down.

Kicking off Slam Dunk 2016 on the Solo & Acoustic Stage was SEAFOAL, showing off her impressive array of vocal skills with backing guitarist and keyboard player. Her voice developed from gentle singing to more husky tones, successfully paying homage to a range of different genres. There is an obvious pop influence to her songs, but she has taken and developed certain sounds and conventions to create something really special and individual. A good choice to start the festival, SEAFOAL delivered a gentle yet energetic performance which warmed people up for the day ahead, and one well-positioned in the middle of a large room, capturing the attention of punters walking around the outside. Certainly an act worth checking out.  (DM) 

Rating – 7/10

Seafoal performs on the Acoustic/Solo Stage
Seafoal performs on the Solo & Acoustic Stage

The first DJ set to play on the Uprawr stage was JACK & LEWIS, they played full songs from a range of bands, such as PARAMORE, A DAY TO REMEMBER, and MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE, showing an appreciation to those bands not playing, but that still help build the community we’ve come to know and love. The atmosphere was relaxed, with people dancing in the sun and others just sat chatting, singing along to all their favourites. They clearly were prepared for their audience and knew who they would want to hear. The DJ stage gave the festival another element, a change up from the live performances and the intimacy that inherently comes with that, whilst still being focused on the music. (DM)

Rating – 7/10

 

Over on the Key Club Stage, St. Albans five-piece TRASH BOAT kick things off with a fun and energetic performance. Their melodic pop-punk errs more towards the abrasive end, with enough punch to spawn the day’s first circle pits, but it remains packed with a strong sense of melody that really appeals to the already-sizeable crowd. As the band draw closer to the end of their set, vocalist Tobi Duncan takes a brief moment to commend the crowd for their enthusiasm, and then to preach the importance of inclusiveness of the LGBTQ community within the rock scene. Capping off their set with a mass attempt at crowd-surfing certainly adds another element of fun and the band leave, having raised the energy levels in the room considerably. (JFW)

Rating – 7/10

 

Next on Uprawr was Birmingham’s own DJ LEE BLACKFOX. His performance was slightly different in that he remixed a large variety of famous songs and riffs, to create a thoroughly enjoyable compilation. This produced an upbeat dance and R&B vibe perfect for dancing and grooving along to with friends, a style that may not appeal to everyone, but those who like it, will love this. (DM)

Rating – 6/10

Lee Blackfox performs on the Uprawr Stage
Lee Blackfox performs on the Uprawr Stage

Hailing from Arizona, the metalcore quintet THE WORD ALIVE played on the Atlas Stage, and immediately formed a relationship with the audience. All through the room fans were dancing and singing along. Frontman Tyler “Telle” Smith commented that he felt “at home” on that stage, having toured with every other band playing it over the last five years. Unfortunately, while the rest of the band sound technically good, Tyler’s singing isn’t as clear as it could have been, his lyrics sounding muddy from the audience’s position, but this didn’t deter any fans singing along and having a great time. The clear, easy to follow beat, allowed anyone in the room, whether a fan or first time listener, to tap along and get involved in the atmosphere.

(DM)

Rating – 6/10

 

Meanwhile, at the Main Stage, YOUNG GUNS have an enormous crowd assembled. Luckily, they deliver a highly-polished set packed with huge anthems and great crowd interaction. Frontman Gustav Wood looks every inch a rockstar, leading his bandmates through the likes of Winter Kiss, Speaking In Tongues and the earth-shatteringly catchy Bones. There might not be a lot of punch to most of their material, but what they lack in heaviness, the band more than make up for in huge choruses. (JFW)

Rating – 7/10

 

For those who like their music a bit heavier, Ohio metalcore quintet MISS MAY I then take to the Atlas Stage for a ferocious performance. Mixing pummeling breakdowns and guttural roars with melodic vocals might not exactly be an original concept within this scene, but MISS MAY I are generally one of the better bands at doing so. Unfortunately, it appears that things don’t quite go to plan today. Frontman Levi Benton proves a fairly captivating frontman, with a near-feral roar of a voice, but he and his bandmates are let down somewhat by a disappointing mix that frequently leaves bassist Ryan Neff’s clean vocals buried under a wall of distortion. This means that everything from opener I.H.E. to closer Relentless Chaos feels somewhat muted. Despite the technical woes however, their set is still well-received, and Benton’s calls for circle-pits met with great enthusiasm. (JFW)

Rating – 6/10

 

Bringing things back to a lighter sound, MAYDAY PARADE seem like the polar opposite. The Tallahassee rockers took over Main Stage for their set and received a good crowd in response. Playing material from their older albums, such as Black Cat and I’d Hate To Be You When People Find Out What This Song Is About, as well as showcasing some from their newest album Black Lines ensured every person in the arena was accommodated for. Having grown from smaller venues to main stage at Slam Dunk, frontman Derek Sanders seemed completely at home in front of the crowds and displayed a huge amount of energy which carried the show. Guitarist Alex Garcia had his time in the spotlight time when he moved to the front of the stage to demonstrate his mastery of the band’s music through his guitar solos. Fans enthusiastically sang along all through the set, but particularly belting out every word to Jersey, the set’s closing number. (DM)

Rating – 9/10

 

There’s a fair amount of confusion and laughter from the audience at the Key Club Stage as the opening bars of GWEN STEFANI’s Hollaback Girl begin to blare out from the PA system, before AS IT IS soon emerge. You’d be hard-pushed to find a frontman on today’s bill who commands as much attention as Patty Walters. The Minneapolis-born vocalist seems to be made of nothing but pure charisma, and from the second he and his band burst onto the Key Club Stage they seem to have the entire room shouting along to almost every word. Opening with Concrete more or less sets the tone for the band’s set, with infectiously catchy choruses seemingly the order of the day for the Brighton quintet. By the time they close with fan-favourite Dial Tones, it seems as though the band may have even converted some new fans to their cause, and almost every punter leaves with a smile on their face. This is pop-punk at its most refined, and it just works so well. (JFW)

Rating – 8/10

 

AWAYS DAYS normally comprises of ex-BLITZ KIDS members Jono Yates, Matt Freer and Nic Montgomery, but today only Jono performed with a guitar on the Solo & Acoustic Stage. Matt and Nic were both in the audience and it’s unclear as to why they were not part of this performance. His set was as much a comedy show as a musical performance with a large amount of the time spent joking or talking to the audience and ending his set with the instruction “…go watch some f**king real bands!” Unfortunately, Jono’s voice wasn’t at its usual quality, sounding slightly out of tune, perhaps why much of the time was spent talking, but resulting in a somewhat disappointing, and thankfully short, set from the former BLITZ KIDS frontman. (DM)

Rating – 4/10

 

“You’re gonna have to help me so I don’t f*** up the words”, exclaims vocalist Ryan Key at the start of YELLOWCARD’s set. It’s a brave admission, but rather apt, given that the band are performing their seminal 2003 album Ocean Avenue in-full for the first time today. Of course, that means that its title-track (the band’s usual set closer) gets pushed up to third, and the result is near-deafening applause. Playing any album in-full can prove a daunting prospect, but when it’s your most popular release, that pressure can presumably get quite overwhelming. Luckily, YELLOWCARD show no such concern – the rest of their set passes without a hitch, and those present at the Main Stage are treated to a highly impressive hour of rock. (JFW)

Rating – 8/10

 

Over on the Kerrang! Fresh Blood Stage, Houston pop-punk trio WATERPARKS are clearly enjoying their half-hour in the Birmingham sun. “Holy s***, you guys actually know who we are!”, frontman Awsten Knight exclaims early-on into their set, and the joy is clear on his face. The band’s cheerful synth-tinged pop-punk might not exactly be the most groundbreaking thing in the world, but it’s certainly carried by the band members’ sheer personality and enthusiasm. That’s not to say that WATERPARKS lack strong material though – the likes of Silver and No Capes putting to rest those fears. Based on today’s showing, this is definitely a band worth keeping an eye on, and one who may well be destined for much bigger things in future. (JFW)

 

Rating – 6/10

 

Heading back over to the Solo & Acoustic Stage, it’s time for a performance from Jack Bennett – better known as singer-songwriter GRUMBLE BEE. If you’ve never heard or seen GRUMBLE BEE before then you’ll be surprised by the sounds Bennett can make, in the best way possible. His voice is very gruff and soulful in a pleasing way that encourages passes by to stop and listen, which is what happened, causing his audience to grow all through the set. GRUMBLE BEE is primarily Jack Bennett and a guitar which puts a lot of pressure on his voice but he delivered, confidently singing in a range of styles, softer where appropriate, creating a thoroughly enjoyable and very professional set. Jack showed himself to be a very personable character, interacting with the sound desk, a photographer, and the fans. He was evidently surprised and pleased when the audience began singing along with him. Certainly an act to give a listen and one who perhaps deserves a higher slot on the bill. (DM)

Rating – 7/10

Grumble Bee performs on the Solo/Acoustic Stage
Grumble Bee performs on the Solo & Acoustic Stage

Playing indoors in a pavillion to a relatively-full Impericon Stage, rap-metal collective HACKTIVIST have the unfortunate luck of delivering one of the day’s most disappointing sets. Whilst the band’s inventive mix of rap, grime and nu-metal works relatively well on record, here it just falls flat on its face, with a never-ending torrent of seemingly identi-kit chugging riffs that do little of interest. Vocally at least, the band are fairly impressive, with MCs J Hurley and Ben Marvin creating a vaguely interesting interplay with clean vocals provided by guitarist Timfy James. The one impressive moment comes midway through the band’s set though, as their now-infamous cover of JAY-Z & KANYE WEST’s mega-hit Niggas In Paris drops, to massive chaos. Fans soon start scaling the pavilion’s support poles (much to the amusement of the band), and it’s a fun moment, but not really enough to save an on-the-whole disappointing performance. (JFW)

Rating – 3/10

 

Performing on the Key Club Stage at the same time were a Slam Dunk exclusive booking – San Francisco melodic hardcore outfit SET YOUR GOALS. Having recently taken some time away from performing, Slam Dunk are their first shows back, and this one went off with a bang. The intense energy and crowd surfing began from the very first song, the two vocalists, Jordan Brown and Matt Wilson, stole Mario and Luigi hats from audience members, and the set made good use of confetti cannons. It was a performance no one will be forgetting in the near future. Unfortunately, the sound wasn’t quite as clean as perhaps it could have been with notes bleeding into one another and riffs being difficult to distinguish, but that didn’t stop any of the fans having a good time and making security work for their pay check. (DM)

Rating – 7/10

 

There are many things that can be said about ZEBRAHEAD, that they are a serious band is not one of them. Their performance outfits are the first give away as two of them appeared in onesies (Pikachu and Despicable Me’s Minions). Not only this, the public bar was clearly too far away for their liking, and so a personal bar on stage was clearly the only solution. This playful attitude, however, was exactly what the crowd wanted. The outside Desperados Stage was the right place for them as the sun shining down on the audience complemented both the music and the wonderful atmosphere with fans dancing and singing along. Frontman Ali Tabatabaee had complete control of the crowd when he ordered everyone sat down, to then jump and regularly encouraged crowd surfing throughout the set. (DM)

Rating – 6/10

Zebrahead perform on the Desperados Stage
Zebrahead perform on the Desperados Stage

CREEPER are an act for whom hype has been building for a while now, and if their performance today is anything to go by, then they fully deserve the attention – if not more. The Kerrang! Fresh Blood Stage is absolutely packed long before the band make their entrance, and most of the audience seem to be decked out in the Southampton goth-punks’ merch or wearing jackets emblazoned with their signature ‘Callous Heart’ patch. Of course, it helps that the band themselves are musically stunning today – despite not having recorded a full-length album yet, the likes of Black Mass and The Honeymoon Suite already proving themselves to be bona-fide anthems in the making. There’s far more to the band than gothic punk-rock though, as proven with the massive reaction to brooding ballad Misery, which provokes a mass of raised lighters and waving arms. Frontman Will Gould sounds near note-perfect here – the sheer emotion in his voice proving more than many bands can muster in a full set. The band soon pick things up again, with Astral Projection and Lie Awake quickening the pace back up to a gallop, before keyboard player Hannah Hermione gets another chance to shine on mournful closing ballad Henley’s Ghost. Arguably the set of the day, this feels like a truly special performance that will be remembered for a long time by all in attendance. (JFW)

Rating- 10/10

 

Sub-headlining the Main Stage, Florida pop-punk titans NEW FOUND GLORY begin their set with obvious intent. Opening with Hit or Miss, the first track from their debut album, the band then proceed to play what amounts to a somewhat brief-feeling, but highly fun set that spans almost their entire career. Frontman Jordan Pundik and guitarist Chad Gilbert have a very clear comedic rapport, which frequently shines through in their inter-song crowd banter (one particular moment leading to bassist Ian Grushka going shirtless after a punchline aimed at Pundik). There’s much more than comedy though with this quartet – all of their material, from the early Dressed to Kill to the slightly more recent Listen To Your Friends hits hard, with Pundik and Gilbert’s intertwining melodies creating one of the brightest sounds of the day. Realistically though, there’s only one way that NFG were ever going to finish – a colossal run-through of My Friends Over You sees literally the whole room shouting along to its chorus, and the applause as the band exit is almost fever-pitch. (JFW)

Rating – 8/10

 

Tonight’s headliners PANIC! AT THE DISCO have already played one show so far today as they take to the Main Stage. The Las Vegas pop-punks played a set earlier in the day at BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Exeter, before heading straight to Birmingham. Not that you’d be able to tell of course – the band’s own exhaustion only revealed by frontman Brendan Urie in random monologues between songs. Kicking off with Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time, the band seem to do just that to the crowd, inciting hysterical screaming from some audience members at virtually the drop of a hat. Musically, the set pulls mostly from their two most recent albums Death Of A Bachelor and Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die!, and the result is nothing short of spectacular. Songs like Hallelujah take on an entirely new life, with Urie adding ever-increasing amounts of impressive vocal improvisations to the songs. The Ballad Of Mona Lisa takes on a much darker sound as a result of this experimental delivery, and Victorious manages to somehow sound even more huge than on record, mostly due to the addition of several thousand extra voices singing its chorus line. Later on, the band seem to step up the staging somewhat – Crazy = Genius sees columns of pyro fire off from each side of the stage in time to the track’s beat. Perhaps the most intriguing moment however, comes as Urie takes to the piano to lead his bandmates through a cover of the classic QUEEN anthem Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a brave move, but one that ultimately pays off – in no small part thanks to his ridiculously impressive vocal range. The atmosphere then finally explodes again as Urie dives into the band’s most popular track I Write Sins Not Tragedies and the entire arena goes suitably wild. Easily the loudest response of their set, it’s also the best moment of a set that proves just how strong a vocalist and how entertaining a performer Brendan Urie is. Finishing off the evening with This Is Gospel and Emperor’s New Clothes ensures that the atmosphere never once sours, and the crowd continues to scream along to every word. By the time the confetti cannons signal the ending of the latter, the Main Stage is a sweaty torrent of utterly ecstatic music fans, and Slam Dunk 2016 is capped off with one hell of a finish. (JFW)

Rating – 9/10

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