On Sunday the 29th of May I grabbed an early morning flights to Birmingham, England for something I had been looking forward to for months, a day long alternative music festival with 3 dates that I had been trying to attend since 2013, Slam Dunk. In my humble opinion the lineup this year was insanely stacked, picking the bands I was going to see took a lot of effort, I had been waiting to see a few of the bands playing live since as early as 2006.
The queuing system seemed a bit intense this year with long ques for wristband collection for those who already had their tickets, luckily I had considered this beforehand and selected box office collection, as I knew that box office collection at an event like this means you get your wristband straight away instead of a ticket, this easily saved us a half an hour queuing as the que for collection was non-existent. By the time we got through the entrance que it was 12.55, perfect timing at the festival started at 1, I headed to the Atlas Stage for Japanese metalcore band Coldrain.
Sadly technical difficulties were prevalent during this year’s dates, Yellowcard had only managed to play half their set the day before in Leeds, and Birmingham was to be no different, Coldrain were unable to play due to the equipment Slam Dunk rented for the stage not being adequate (this is according to a statement released by the Festival apologizing and stating that they take full blame for this happening). After it was announced that Coldrain was not going to play I quickly took a look around the festival site, being particularly impressed by the various Record Labels who had stalls at the festival: for example Fearless Records, Rise Records and UNFD. I also managed to catch Moose Blood playing ‘Bukowski’, which I appreciated as I love the song, it’s easily my favourite by the band.
I made my way back to the Atlas Stage for a set that I expected to be a highlight of the trip, from a band I had been waiting to see live since 2010, American band, The Word Alive. The crowd was surprisingly large for a band that the UK has not quite fully embraced yet and for a band playing second. The Word Alive made the questionable choice to play mostly songs off their new album ‘Dark Matter’, which does not entirely make sense at a festival, where the crowd is less likely to be your dedicated fanbase, I knew the new songs as I think ‘Dark Matter’ is an incredibly strong album and a huge step in the right direction after their previous album did nothing but fall short of my expectations, but a lot of the crowd clearly did not know these songs. ‘Dreamer’ opened the set before they played recent single ‘Sellout’, their fastest music video to get a million views on Youtube, the crowds reaction to ‘Sellout’ was much larger than the one ‘Dreamer’ got. Another new song ‘Face to Face’ followed before they played ‘Lighthouse’ off their previous album, a catchy borderline pop punk song that had the crowd singing along, it works much better live than I expected as it is a song I normally can’t stand to listen to. Here is where the crowd got really confused, vocalist Telle said that they only had ‘3 more songs left’ then asked the crowd to put their horns up, which then did, declared that the next song was a heavy one, then stated that it was a song off the new album ‘Made This Way’. As soon as he said ‘off the new album’ a lot of the crowd put their hands down, Telle asked why they were doing this, but it was obvious that people expected ‘2012’ off their first album a staple of their live set, a song I had personally been waiting to hear live for years and it was the song I was most excited to hear live at Slam Dunk. ‘Trapped’, my favourite single of 2016 released so far, an incredibly powerful track that makes you think of Deftones, was played next before they finished with ‘Life Cycles’ the title track off their 2nd album. Playing five new songs was both very questionable and disappointing but The Word Alive are a very strong live band overall: 8/10.
I decided to head to the Kerrang Freshblood stage next to catch most of English rock band Dead!’s set. The sound during their first few songs was not great but by the time they played their stand out recent single ‘You’re So Cheap’ it was much better, on my way to the Impericon stage I managed to hear them finish their set with ‘Skin’ a song that makes me think of My Chemical Romance, a band they are regularly compared to. Dead are a band that show a tonne of promise and they already show a lot of that promise off live: 7.5/10.
The Impericon Stage was packed to capacity for French easycore band Chunk! No, Captain Chunk!, but I managed to get into catch the last three songs of their set. The crowd was absolutely mental and I was far more impressed than I thought I would be, they are clearly a band who sound better live than on record, their older songs like ‘Restart’ & ‘In Friends We Trust’ sounded way stronger live, just as strong as newer number ‘Pull You Under’ did: 9/10.
Next I headed over to the Forum Live to catch UK pop punk band As It Is, fronted by former Youtube celeb Patty Walters, who sounds far too American to be in a British band due to being half American. I had been trying to catch As It Is live for a while and the crowd they had gotten so early in the day was packed in like sardines. They opened with ‘Concrete’ into ‘Cheap Shots & Setbacks’ off their debut album ‘Never Happy, Ever After’ and followed them up with ‘I Can’t Save Myself’ which was originally on their ‘This Mind of Mine’ EP, before they played two more songs off the aforementioned EP that I was not overly familiar with, but the crowd ate them up. Recent single ‘Winter’s Weather’ fitted perfectly into their set. They finished up their set with the expected ‘Dial Tonnes’, the whole crowd singing along to its catchy chorus. The set was a bit bland, very by the numbers, and As It Is come across as a generic as possible pop punk band, which is not really a bad thing because they do it very well, Patty sounds overly friendly at times, but I somehow find him to be a charming frontman and as a whole they are a decent live band: 8/10.
I headed back to the Impericon Stage for UK progressive hardcore/metalcore band Heart of a Coward’s set, another band I had been waiting to see live since 2010, they played Dublin back in September but I was unable to attend, so I was pretty excited to see them live. Unlike The Word Alive they made the correct choice to play a balanced set composed of songs old and new. Hearing old songs like ‘Nightmare, ‘Shade’ and set closer ‘Deadweight’ live was simply perfect for me, I screamed, shouted and headbanged along like I was 4 or 5 years younger. This is not to say that new songs like ‘Miscreation’ and set opener ‘Hollow’ are not great live too, because they are. The crowd was intense, but friendly, the mosh pit did not get too crazy and those involved with it seemed to be looking out for each other. Frontman Jamie Graham is incredibly strong and got the crowd to chant along, mosh, circle pit and call out powerful breakdown lines like ‘Suffer, bitch!’ and ‘I don’t give a fuck’. Heart of a Coward may have gotten a smaller crowd than other bands playing the stage did but they are everything a live band should be and show just how powerful the UK live metal scene can be: 9.5/10.
In between sets I caught up with Irish alternative pop punk band Beware of You’s bassist Brian who was selling merch for Chunk! No Captain Chunk. Brian had the following to say about the festival: ‘Working behind the scenes I could see why the whole Slam Dunk festival tour is so popular. It’s definitely the go to festival tour in the UK for people who like pop-punk, metal and alternative music. The people you meet there are all amazing, friendly and up for a bit of banter. Plus where else would you be allowed to hang out with some of your favourite bands at their merch stand for hours!?’
Next up was UK progressive metal/grime outfit Hacktivist, a band I had previously seen support Enter Shikari in The Academy in May 2013. I thought Hacktivist was a relatively strong live band then but with plenty of new material off their debut album ‘Outside the Box’ they proved that opinion wrong with just how perfect they are live now. They got a pretty large crowd for their set and ‘Hate’ their recent single off their album made for a very strong opener. Their cover of ‘Niggas in Paris’ was a highlight of the set for me and the crowd went absolutely mental during it. Singles like ‘Deceive & Defy’ & ‘Elevate’ are bangers both on record and live. Hacktivist are a UK band doing something different to what everybody else is doing and over the last four years they have developed their own style into something that is incredibly strong, a sound and band that breaks barriers, a band who make new fans every single time they play a show, and it helps that they are now absolutely flawless live, I could not fault their set even if I tried to: 10/10. Perfect. Hacktivist need to get back to Ireland for a headlining show as soon as possible!
I headed back to the Atlas Stage for another band I was insanely excited to see live, a band I have been waiting to hear live since 2012, a band that features vocalists I have been following since late 2010, Issues. I had a ticket to see Issues in 2014 with Of Mice & Men & Beartooth but due to complications at the time my plans to attend fell through, since then I have managed to catch Beartooth live as part of the Kerrang Tour in 2015 but Issues had to cancel the one time they were meant to play Ireland. The intro to ‘Flojo’ signalled the start of their set, before a funky pop track ‘Coma’ off their new album ‘Headspace’ and they followed it up with ‘Stingray Affliction’ one of the strongest tracks off their self-titled album. Issues easily had the Atlas stages biggest crowd of the day with people packed the entire way back, their catchy but sometimes equally as heavy tunes being an obvious reason for the giant fanbase they seem to have amassed during the few years they have been a band. Surprisingly they followed ‘The Realest’, one of the strongest tracks off their new album, with ‘Love. Sex. Riot.’ off their first release the ‘Black Diamonds’ EP, a song that originally started out as a purely RnB track that clean vocalist Tyler Carter played while touring as a solo artist, unclean (and now some cleans on newer tracks) vocalist Michael Bohn did a great job of mimicking Fronz’s(of Attila) rap screamed guest vocals. Another surprise came in the form of the incredibly catchy ‘Life of a Nine’ off their debut self-titled album, as both of these were not singles I expected them to be rotated out of the set for newer material, particularly as their set was not as long as a headlining one. ‘Blue Wall’, my favourite off their new album, was the heaviest track of their set, with them calling out corrupt cops before playing it. Even the more chilled and emotional ‘Slow Me Down’ off ‘Headspace’ got played. ‘Mad At Myself’ rounded out their set before they finished off their set with ‘Hooligans’. Issues are a band who set out to become the biggest band in the scene and they are well on their way to achieving that goal if their set at Slam Dunk is anything to go by, strong crowd interaction and reaction, and a flawless performance from every member of the band: 10/10. This band really needs to finally get to Ireland sooner rather than late(r).
I headed back to the Kerrang Freshblood Stage to catch some of the headlining set from New Years Day. I had caught the band back in January with Motionless in White (the belated review for which is coming soon, it has been basically written since a week after the show but it has just been forgotten about due to how busy I have been with college and events I volunteer at), and they were surprisingly strong that night, vocalist Ashley really knows how to work a crowd and they perfectly capture the spirit of 80s LA Strip Glam Rock, just in an updated form. The industrial tinged sound of ‘Kill or Be Killed’ off 2015’s ‘Malevolence’ opened their set followed by the ever catchy ‘No Good’ off 2013’s ‘Victim to Villain’ which hints at the fact that they used to be a much more pop punk sounding band, at that point I had to go in to watch Memphis May Fire. I managed to make it back out for the title track off ‘Malevolence’ with Ashley asking fans to crowd surf towards the stage to hi-5 her, it was a touching thing to watch as multiple short and young females were carried over by the crowd to do so. Ashley’s vocals sounded a lot stronger than they had in Dublin. Post set Ashley even treated the fans to a meet and greet next to their merch tent. Ashley and New Years Day come across as one of those genuine bands you rarely ever see in the scene they are a part of and it works for them, they have been a band for years and have tried hard to make it, they still have work to do, but now that they are starting to make it I wish them all the best. Stupidly catchy industrial tinged songs played perfectly live: 8.5/10.
As I walked back into the Atlas Stage Memphis May Fire had started playing ‘Prove Me Right’, yet another song I had been waiting to hear live for years. Plenty of other cuts off ‘Challenger’ made appearances including ‘Legacy’ and ‘Alive in the Lights’, they even played ‘Miles Away’, a song they said was normally too chilled to play at festivals, Kellin Quinn’s guest vocals being played over the backtracking annoyed me, as sampled guest vocals always do, but it was fine, the crowd clearly knew the words well enough to sing them back. Very few songs were played off their not so well received newest album 2014’s ‘Unconditional’, they played ‘No Ordinary Love’ and ‘Stay the Course’ off the Deluxe Edition re-release of the album, ‘Stay the Course’ is a song I have a huge dislike of so I headed back out to the Kerrang Freshblood Stage during it, coming back in for the end of it, during songs like ‘Stay the Course’ it is worth noting that vocalist Mattie got a little bit too preachy, which I honestly feel takes away from the set, at least for those of us who are not Christian. They played ‘The Sinner’ off ‘The Hollow’, the crowd singing along to its catchy chorus of ‘keep me close, keep me close, keep my head above water, I need to hear your voice, I can’t do this on my own’ being possibly the catchiest thing Mattie will ever write. They finished their set up with one last song off ‘Challenger’: ‘Vices’. Memphis May Fire due to a lacklustre album and by being too preachy live have gone from being the shining example of their scene at its best to just another band playing their hits with much less enthusiasm than they once had, regardless those hits are still incredibly strong live, hopefully their next album brings some new ones that they can reinvigorate their live set with: 8/10.
I headed to the main stage in the NEC Arena for the first time that day to catch some of Panic! At The Disco’s headlining set. The room is massive but not wide enough in my opinion, we were half way back but could barely see the band on stage, the lack of screens being utilized like at normal arena shows made the view even worse. Panic kicked off their set with their new single ‘Don’t Threaten Me With A Goodtime’, one of my favourites off their latest album ‘Death Of A Bachelor’, they followed it with ‘Time to Dance’ off their debut album ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’. At this point I had to leave to go catch The King Blues but I managed to make it back for the end of ‘This is Gospel’ and their last song ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, during which the full stage production was on display with pyro and confetti cannons, the air above the stage being covered in confetti during the last few minutes of their set, a big finish for a great a day filled with both nostalgia and an amazing lineup for one of the UK’s best alternative festivals. Frontman (and only remaining member) Brendan Urie was as strong live as I expected him to be, being the real driving force behind their live set, what I caught of their set was perfect and I doubt the rest of it was any different: 10/10.
For my final full set of the day I headed outside to the NEC carpark to catch the recently reformed UK ska punk band The King Blues, a band I have been listening to since about 2009 and who I never thought I would get to see live due to their breakup. They opened their set with ‘Let’s Hang The Landlord’, off 2008’s ‘Save the World, Get the Girl’, a song I had been looking forward to screaming along to live since I first started listening to the band, and I did, as did the entire crowd assembled in the carpark for their set. They followed it up with ‘Set The World On Fire’, off 2011’s ‘Punk & Poetry’, a surprisingly strong song live for something so repetitive. They played songs spanning their entire career including ‘Off With Their Heads’ the title track off their latest EP, a heavier song attacking UK politicians, in my opinion the newer songs fitted just as well in their set as the old ones did. Songs off their debut album ‘Under the Fog’ showcasing just how much of a ska band they can be. Songs off ‘Save the World, Get the Girl’ being the largest chunk of their set with both ‘My Boulder’ and ‘I Got Love’ being perfect live numbers. ‘Headbutt’ was yet another song I was stupidly excited to hear live and it was everything I thought it would be, just like the entire set as a whole. They finished their set up with the catchy ‘The Future’s Not What It Used To Be’ into the expected ‘Save The World, Get The Girl’, a song well-known for lines like ‘Well I believe in the people of America but I still can’t believe the terminator is the governor’, and thanked their Birmingham fans for all the support they have shown the band over the years. Itch is simply an enthusiastic frontman live, he perfectly engaged with the crowd, encouraged them to move up throughout the entire set and encouraged them to sing along to every word of every single catchy song they played, which just happened to be all of them. The King Blues are a band worth waiting to see live, and a band the UK music scene is hopefully thankful to have back: 10/10.
The NEC is the perfect venue to host the festival, the individual venues for the stages are perfect, large rooms. One of the only real issues was how tight one of the walkways between the Impericon Stage and The Kerrang Freshblood Stage was, the crowd constantly came to almost a stand still there, but it was the first year in the venue so there was surely still kinks to work out. If the festival is still in the NEC next year I will be back, but after hearing about the capacity and queuing issues the other smaller venues for the two other dates had, and because of the amazing transport links, I really hope it stays in Birmingham instead of going back to Wolves.
All in all Slam Dunk was a great event, this year’s festival had an amazing lineup and one I am very glad I went over to Birmingham for, I am looking forward to next year already!