Words & pics by Eleanor Sutcliffe
Ah, Slam Dunk… I arrive at the NEC camera in hand, with a carefully curated list of who I want to see. In 2017 I left the festival absolutely knackered from running in between stages, having seen maybe a third of the bands I planned to, and I vowed one year I would be better prepared. 2018 is not that year.
First is Nottingham based four-piece As December Falls, who were voted by members of the public to open the Rock Sound Breakout stage at Slam Dunk’s Birmingham date. I’m no stranger to the band’s material, having played their debut EP A Home in Your Head on repeat following its release; however it’s the first time I’ve managed to see them live and in color so to say.
Their set is short but energetic, with singer Bethany Curtis pacing back and forth across the stage to ‘Capture’ and my personal favorite ‘Don’t Say a Word’. For a genre that is predominantly fronted by male singers, I’m happy to see a woman performing – but at the same time, I’m uncomfortable at the fact that it’s a defining feature of the band. They’re brilliant. Why should it matter that they’re female fronted? I mentally pocket the subject Stage openers Knuckle Puck – one of the handful of bands to attend Slam Dunk following the European touring festival Galaxy Camp. And I’m only in the photo pit for a few minutes until I’m taken out WWE style by a rogue crowd surfer; being kicked in the head while the band thrashed out ‘Pretense’ was not planned, but serves as a rather brash (and painful) reminder for me to be a little more cautious in the pit.
I run back to the Rock Sound Breakout Stage to catch Dream State perform. Having met them on a recent acoustic tour supporting As It Is, I’ve more used to hearing their material stripped back to its bare bones and I’m eager to see how the full band would compare today. Heavier than what I had anticipated, Dream State are one of the more energetic bands of the day, with singer Charlotte Gilpin flinging herself into the crowd on more than one occasion. Stand out tracks include their single ‘In This Hell’, which sends the festival audience into a state of fury and has since made itself at home on my Spotify.
The Impericon Stage is housing a stellar lineup for the day; myself and some other photographers decide to head over to see Astroid Boys. Having performed numerous shows in Birmingham, I’m interested in seeing the and perform in front of a crowd of this size – the last time they did that in Birmingham was supporting Enter Shikari last November.
Benji emerges with a child on his shoulders, who stares in what looks like bewildered fear at the crowd before racing to the side and being scooped up by who I presume is his father. Strangely, co-front man Traxx is nowhere to be seen, and we find out later that he has left the band. Nevertheless, the remaining members bring their fusion of hardcore and grime to the foyer of Genting Arena in full force, despite Benji’s vocal range being slightly stinted due to the band’s antics the night before in Leeds.
I retreat to the foyer balcony to catch the rest of Astroid Boys’ set and I am overjoyed when they play ‘Foreigners’. From this safer distance I spot a few of my friends throwing themselves into mosh pits below and question the overall safety of the day’s proceedings; this becomes a more serious matter after I am flattened for a second time in the photo pit while shooting The Devil Wears Prada by a crowd surfing fan, despite the efforts of security to catch him.
I’m given a quick once over and when they’re happy no bones are broken, I’m bundled back out and forced to watch the rest of their set from the sound desk while nursing a rather impressive bump on my shin. And while as energetic as some of the other bands I have seen today, I feel The Devil Wears Prada’s set falls slightly flat due to parts of it sounding slightly out of time. However, this doesn’t put off the hoards of fans screaming along to tracks such as ‘Born to Lose’.
I decide to give hardcore a break and make my way to the Signature Brew Stage to watch Broadside. A friend of mine recently came off tour with the band and recommended I see them, and I’m pleasantly surprised. Their set is bouncy and fun, with singer Ollie Baxxter extending the mic out to the crowd numerous times to allow them to sing along.
The Signature Brew Stage delivers some of the best shows at Slam Dunk 2018 – whether it’s ROAM flinging inflatable pineapples onto the crowd to encourage crowd surfers and back flipping on stage, or Trash Boat descending into the masses for tracks like ‘Strangers’, the performances here are strong throughout the day.
Headliners As It Is deliver one of their best shows to date later on in the evening too, debuting their new darker aesthetic much to the joy of their fans. Their latest release, ‘Wounded World’, taken from their upcoming album The Great Depression, shows an exciting development in their sound and is a far cry from the pop-punk tones we grew accustomed to on their previous albums. It even features a breakdown and screaming, much to my inner angsty 14 year old’s delight.
Although the band’s new direction has caused somewhat of a rift in their fan base, with some keyboard warriors claiming it mirrors My Chemical Romance’s look that we all fell in love with back in 2006. Personally, I’m sold; I love the nostalgia of it. Give me a month and I’ll be backcombing my hair and smearing black eyeliner on my face all over again.
But let’s not forget our home talent, bought to Slam Dunk by Birmingham based acoustic artist Luke Rainsford. I try to be unbiased here as I work with Luke regularly, but he’s fucking brilliant. His music is not for the faint of heart, with harrowing lyrics relating to sensitive subjects such as death, depression and anxiety, but that doesn’t put off the crowd gathered for his set on the Key Club Acoustic Stage. Watching the audience sing along in unison to tracks such as ‘Frame’, it’s heartwarming that the young artist I met supporting This Wild Life back in 2016 has garnered such a large local following.
Live, it’s a simple set up – no band or backing, just Rainsford with his guitar, which makes his performance all the more powerful. It’s the type of music you listen to alone, late at night, while contemplating your purpose in life. It’s gut-wrenching at times, but there’s comfort to be found in its honesty. Listen to ‘Sweet Briar’ if you don’t believe me.
By now it’s early evening and the crowds are starting to accumulate at the larger stages. I head back into the belly of the beast to see State Champs, who I last saw cause absolute carnage at their headline show at O2 Institute. The crowd they’ve gathered at Slam Dunk shows their fan base is still growing, and again I dodge bodies that pour over the safety barrier while snapping photos of singer Derek DiScanio pacing across the stage with seemingly boundless energy.
Their old material is, as expected, wonderful – however their newer tracks feel slightly flat. I desperately want to like ‘Crystal Ball’, but I can’t help but feel it lacks the punch and angsty atmosphere that we were introduced to when the band dropped ‘Around the World and Back’. Musically, State Champs are nearly faultless today, but they pale in comparison to the subsequent performance by Sleeping with Sirens. Call me a sucker for showmanship, but if your guitarist can balance his instrument on a single hand then I’m sold.
Realising I should probably eat something before I pass-out, I head outside to the Fireball Stage in search of sustenance. I’m not a fan of this stage usually, however I find myself bobbing along to the likes of The Skints and Goldfinger with a group of fans in the arena. This is one of the beautiful parts of festivals – you can literally stumble across new music and fall in love instantly. Even if you have to trek for what feels like miles between stages. Which, on this somewhat spread out festival site, it probably is.
In case you haven’t gathered, I’m a sucker for bands with female artists in this genre. They’re few and far between, especially on the bigger stages, which is why I am hell-bent on seeing PVRIS perform back on the Jägermeister Stage during the evening line up. And despite what looks like some technical difficulties involving Lynn Gunn’s in-ears, their performance was everything you’d expect and a definite improvement on their last Birmingham show at the O2 Academy in November last year. PVRIS’s nine song set is a balanced mixture of material from both of their albums, opening with piano piece ‘Heaven’ and finishing with the much faster, heavier ‘My House’.
Unfortunately the headliners clash, resulting in a decision between Good Charlotte and Jimmy Eat World. I settle on the latter – reasoning that as I haven’t ventured out to the Monster Stage yet, I could do with a change of scene.
The Monster Stage was far.
Half an hour walk, to be precise. Which translates to a fifteen minute sprint.
For most of the bands, Slam Dunk works on what photographers tend to call an ‘open pit’ policy. This means you could go into any photo pit, at any time, and shoot the band performing. However, this rule does not apply to the headline acts and the photographers covering the festival are only allowed a more standard pit access to shoot the first three songs. This results in utter chaos, as fans and press alike rush over to the Monster Stage to try and catch the start of Jimmy Eat World’s performance. And being only human this serves as a major flaw for both myself and many other photographers, as despite our best efforts we arrive late for the headliner’s set, looking, and feeling, rather worse for wear.
Jimmy Eat World’s set up, however, is stunning – large, red streetlamps shine on the stage and I find I enjoy their set much more than I thought I might. Despite not being a huge Jimmy fan, I recognise tracks such as ‘Futures’ and cult classic ‘The Middle’. But it’s the crowd that make this performance so wonderful tonight; strangers hold hands and sing along to tracks together, while others dance with each other. In the end, I watch the fans more than I watch the band.
But this is what makes a festival, and this is certainly what makes Slam Dunk so special. And whilst I may not have been as prepared as I had hoped, leaving my body armour and roller skates at home, this is why we throw ourselves around a spread out site year after year, dusting ourselves off from mosh pit and crowd surfing related injuries. All good practice for Slam Dunk 2019.
Slam Dunk Festival 2018 (Midlands) @ NEC 28.05.18 / Eleanor Sutcliffe
For direct information on Slam Dunk, visit www.slamdunkmusic.com
For from the Genting Arena, including full event listings and links to online ticket sales, visit www.gentingarena.co.uk