The big review: Outbreak Fest 2023

Spin-kick, motherfuckers! Europe’s greatest hardcore gathering gambles on some daring line-up choices and wins big with three days of chaos, camaraderie and karate-chops...

The big review: Outbreak Fest 2023
Sam Law
Ashlea Bea, Anna Swiechowsk, Nat Wood

For those who made it out for last year's edition of Outbreak Fest, it felt that, surely, the highlight of England’s hardcore calendar couldn’t possibly get any bigger. Three days of no-barricade mayhem at Manchester’s 5,000-plus capacity Bowler’s Exhibition Centre, headlined by Knocked Loose and Turnstile, it was the kind of gathering that countless bands on the bill had never seen before.

This kind of show wasn’t just a watershed moment for the UK scene, but for hardcore on a global scale. There was no shame, it felt, in hitting a ceiling with such uncompromising vision and bloody-browed ferocity.

Except, they could go bigger. Even better, arguably. Pivoting to meet the shifting boundaries of a scene that’s now less about scuffed knuckles and crunching guitars than community, inclusivity and the positive release of negative energy, the festival’s youthful organisers bolstered an already stacked bill with big names from the adjacent world of alternative hip-hop. A move into red-brick fortress Depot Mayfield – a venue that can hold 10,000 fans – right next to Manchester’s Piccadilly Station saw them lay siege, this time, right at the heart of the city. And, again, all hell broke loose…


“What the fuck is Fleshwater?!” begs one punter in front of Outbreak’s main stage early on Friday afternoon. It’s not a question we recommend spending too much time thinking on. A good proportion of the crowd crammed between the pillars in Depot Mayfield’s main room seem to have been drawn in by the promise of members Anthony DiDio, Jeremy Martin and Matt Wood, but this ‘side-project’ really belongs to vocalist Marisa Shirar, whose sweetly sorrowful vocals are the centrepiece around which grungy, shoegazey songs like The Razor’s Apple and Kiss The Ladder are constructed. An, er, watery mix doesn’t do the Massachusetts crew many favours, but their quality shines through the murk.


There is a lot of buzz around Koyo right now. The Long Island crew have supported the likes of Knocked Loose, Stick To Your Guns and Silverstein. My Chemical Romance hero Frank Iero cropped up in the video for wryly-titled latest single You’re On The List (Minus One). Word has it that upcoming debut LP Would You Miss It? (due September 29) is one of the freshest feeling hardcore releases of the year. They do nothing to slow down their momentum on Friday. Shirtless and sweaty, frontman Joey Chiaramonte seems less interested in pop-punk sweetness here than he is on record, but he more than compensates for that by overloading songs like Since You Asked, Hanging From Grace and Ten Digits Away with sheer flailing exuberance.

Militarie Gun

If you were looking for a band to represent the broadening horizons of American hardcore over the past few years, you could do a lot worse than Militarie Gun. Celebrating the release of their outstanding debut Life Under The Gun this weekend, the Los Angeles collective emphasise the light in songs about the drudgery of existence like Do It Faster, Let Me Be Normal and Very High, bringing out the flickers of old-school punk, jangling indie and heartwrought emo that make them really shine. Vocalist Ian Shelton seems to be straining at the emotional seams, but it doesn’t hurt to have a crowd of thousands beating their chests and willing him along.

High Vis

We’ll put it bluntly: High Vis steal the show on Friday. The hype around the London crew is absolutely deafening all weekend. Their (remarkably reasonably priced) merch is selling like hotcakes. Some scamps are even sporting piss-take “KETCHUP ON MY GORE-TEX” shirts, aping their already-iconic “TEARS ON MY GORE-TEX” number. It is, quite simply, a moment. And they don’t waste a millisecond of it.

An opening cover of Oasis’ Morning Glory lays bare their blatant Britpop influence for anyone who might have missed it, but everything else is an exercise in woozy melody supercharged with hardcore energy. With the venue’s front circle area rammed to the rails, a tide of fans throw themselves at the stage, desperate to be a part of songs like Choose To Lose and Walking Wires. By the time frontman Graham Sayle lets loose the climactic Trauma Bonds, it’s more than enough to send the heaving warehouse into absolute delirium.


It’s a long time since we’ve seen Defeater. By our count, in fact, the Boston boys haven’t been to the UK since Outbreak Fest 2019: more than four years and, for the fest, a whole other city ago. They don’t take long making up for lost time. Keeping focus on the harder edges of songs like No Shame, Mothers’ Sons and The Red, White And Blues, there’s a spiky sense of focus and a refusal to be overwhelmed by sentimentality, with mainman Derek Archambault keen to keep the celebratory atmosphere going. A welcome, sorely overdue return.


Wanna have your heart ripped out and shoved right back down your throat? Look no further than Converge. By process of elimination after last year’s booking of almost every major name in hardcore, it felt weirdly inevitable that we’d be seeing the Salem legends in 2023. What was less certain was which version would turn up. The dour-faced virtuosos looking to drag you into their despair? The textural experimentalists responsible for Bloodmoon? Maybe, just maybe, the bunch of great dudes at heart who just want to get in on the biggest-ever hardcore party? For all the blistering intensity of songs like Eagles Become Vultures, Concubine and Homewrecker, there’s something euphoric about their deployment on Friday evening. And as apologetic as master drummer Ben Koller professes to be for dropping a version of The Saddest Day that hadn’t been practiced “in 15 years”, absolutely everyone is banging far too hard to notice any missed beats.


The choice to have Bane closing Friday’s proceedings over their nominal co-headliners Converge sits awkwardly with some fans this weekend. Sure, this is a part of an extremely limited ‘reunion’ run, but do they really have the chops to top-line one of the biggest hardcore shows ever? They certainly spare nothing in their efforts to prove that they’re exactly where they belong. With frontman Aaron Bedard on fiery, emotionally volatile form and the band around him remarkably on point for their lack of time together, bangers like Some Came Running, My Therapy and Final Backward Glance are warmly welcomed, and there are about 1,000 bodies flung from the stage who look like they wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.


There’s an unexpected directness about Candy as they open Outbreak’s ultra-sweaty Saturday. Rather than the dense, electronic-inflected chaos of their records, we get more conventionally chugging, churning aggression. Part of that is likely down to the absence of keystone guitarist Michael Quick (“He just wasn’t able to make it,” a merch guy helpfully informs us) but there’s also enough intelligence about this lot to understand that a harsher trip into their regular hellscape may not be the best way to win over the largely-hungover masses. Frontman Zak Quiram is in absolute control, pacing the stage with a mix of menace and shoulders-back confidence that suggests his lot could as easily be closing this massive room as opening, and songs like Lust For Destruction and Price Of Utopia ferociously back him up. Sweet!


What a difference a year makes. When Scowl opened Outbreak’s main stage on the Sunday in 2022, they had barely tasted hardcore beyond America’s cool West Coast. They return today as globe-conquering heroes, with vocalist Kat Moss having fully metamorphosed into the star she was always meant to be: neon-bleached hair and eyebrows glowing in the flashes of UV light. More psych-stained recent tracks like Opening Night and Psychic Dance Routine flesh the set out sonically and temporally, too, but it’s still old bangers like Bloodhound that stir up the best reactions. The only marks deducted are for guitarist Malachi Greene’s decision not to wear his trademark West Ham top this year, despite The Irons’ recent Europa Conference glory. Tsk…

Soul Glo

When Soul Glo took to the Dogtooth Stage at Download a couple of weeks ago, they had to have been disappointed. There were a sea of bodies in front of them, sure, but most were absolutely melted by the heatwave, with some actually asleep. Today should more than make up for it. In response to some of 2022’s more ridiculous moments, Outbreak’s main stage this year is two-tiered, with a higher platform at the back offering some kind of safety for the band while the front one about a foot lower gives space for them to mix directly with the cartwheeling, commando-crawling stage invaders. It’s at max capacity for most of the Philadelphian’s set, with the aptly-titled likes of Jump!! (Or Get Jumped!!!)((by the future)) and B.O.M.B.S. pulling waves of the colossal crowd up around them, leaving towering guitarist GG Guerra craning his neck just to see what the hell is going on, while vocalist Pierce Jordan simply flops on his back to soak it all in. Superb.

Jesus Piece

“Last time we played Outbreak, it didn’t look like this,” grins a shirtless Aaron Heard as the thousands of bodies stretched out in front of him spin and collide, occasionally splashing claret or being carried away injured at the side of the stage. “It’s fucking beautiful!” While many attribute the expansion of festivals like these to some kind of ‘softening’ of the genre, Jesus Piece’s absolutely heaving set feels like a guarantee that the most violent end of hardcore holds just as much appeal as its most accessible. From a manic Tunnel Vision dedicated to “all the ADHD-heads” to the frankly nightmarish Gates Of Horn, their spectacularly savage return feels like one of the memories that will linger longest from Outbreak 2023. Unholy hell!


Tucked away in the back corner of Depot Mayfield, beside the skate park and the impressive selection of exclusively vegan food options is Outbreak’s intimate second stage. No artist makes better use of it than Miles Romans-Hopcraft, AKA Wu-Lu, from the mean streets of Brixton. Marrying the gritty textures of grunge and skate punk to the aggro and more adventurous rhythm of trip-hop and jazz, he perfectly fits the genre-blending bill this weekend, while songs like Scrambled Ticks and Broken Homes packing enough punch to not be lost against the tornado of chaos going on elsewhere.

Code Orange

In the grand scheme of audio-visual intro tapes in heavy music, Code Orange’s deployment of Shania Twain banger I’m Gonna Getcha Good! with scenes of Travis Bickle getting ready to inflict violence must be right up there with Metallica’s appropriation of The Ecstasy Of Gold from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. It’s a joyous, disorienting lead-in to a set where very few have any idea what to expect, being the Pittsburgh brutalists' first UK show on the Underneath cycle, well over three years since that album came out. And then, chaos.

From the moment recent single Grooming My Replacement – a song that’s all shoved elbows and twisted guts – explodes, things descend into outright violence. So it is for Swallowing The Rabbit Whole, In Fear and Drowning In It. Even the comparatively soothing Bleeding In The Blur lands with earthquaking heft. If there’s slightly less stage invading than during some of the other big sets this weekend, it’s only because those bodies are tied up in the bloodthirsty mosh. Some punters head in with mouthguards, while others spill out sporting wounds down the length of their bodies.

Much as we’d love to see radio-ready hits The Easy Way and Out For Blood live, there is an adherence to full-bore brutality that sees them left out tonight, with grenades like The New Reality, Spy and Forever instead sending proceedings utterly over the top. “That might be the best show we’ve ever played!” gasps frontman Jami Morgan, letting his ever-stern facade slip when we catch up after. In fairness, it’d be hard to top it.

Death Grips

There are precious few at Outbreak 2023 that don’t understand that Death Grips are fucking brilliant. There are plenty, however, before their headline set on Saturday night, who question whether the famously stand-offish Californian experimental hip-hop trio will be the right fit for the fest's arms-round-shoulders, grab-the-mic type vibe. Indeed, they don’t bother selling any merch tonight. There is virtually no conversation with the crowd. And they perform in silhouette against a solid red backdrop. But fucking hell does it go down a storm.

Rapid-firing through over an hour of nailed-on classics like I Break Mirrors With My Face In The United States, Get Got and Guillotine, there are bodies swinging from most of Depot Mayfield’s massive pillars while the crowd heaves in a borderline biblical swell. The temperatures are so high by the time we get to the juddering climax of The Fever (Aye Aye) that it feels like a mercy being allowed to spill out into the cool night air. But there’s a lingering craving to dive back into their weirdly primal, machine-tooled madness again in the not too distant future.


Another band who made their bow last year returning, bigger, better and bolder in 2023, soul-stained Los Angeles powerviolence collective ZULU open up Sunday to a startlingly sprawling crowd. Alternately smashing and soothing the bangovers, their trademark mix of pipebomb sonic violence and defiantly smooth soul samples are just the ticket at this hour. Having lived a while with tracks like Fakin' Tha Funk (You Get Did), For Sista Humphrey and From Tha Gods To Earth off this year’s smashing debut LP A New Tomorrow, the crowd go totally apeshit. “This is loud. This is beautiful. This is a moment,” gushes guitarist Dez Yusuf towards the climax. He’s far from wrong.


They might be from a different hemisphere and play far more fast and loose, but Sydney, Australia’s Speed follow Zulu with a similar sort of up-punching energy. On one level, there’s much of the lovably knuckle-dragging macho meanness of old hardcore about songs like One Blood We Bleed, A Dumb Dog Gets Flogged and Every Man For Themself, but it’s counterpointed by a freewheeling youthful energy today. Indeed, the spread of circle pits and bloody grins lends an almost early thrash feel. And a crowd who’ve been waiting to experience their chaos for far too long seem reluctant to let them leave even when time’s up, chanting “SPEED! SPEED! SPEED!” like unhinged punks desperate for one more fix long after they’ve finished.

Show Me The Body

You’ve heard the name Show Me The Body. You’ve certainly certainly seen their iconic logo – those three coffins becoming quickly as ubiquitous as Black Flag’s four bars. The New York collective’s positioning about halfway down the bill at Outbreak on Sunday, however, suggests that they’ve still got some ground to make up on their peers. They’ll have all the support in the world, mind, with a host of luminaries from across the weekend visible in the wings and an enthusiastic crowd lapping up the likes of We Came To Play and Loose Talk. With his head shaved and vest tucked like a proper skin, frontman Julian Cashwan Pratt seems reluctant to leave the stage, but the closing run of USA Lullaby into Body War proves to be a fitting, tooth-loosening farewell.


We’ll be honest: Loathe seemed to get lost in the overwhelming swell of bands when they turned up at Outbreak last year. Their thoughtful, measured set – the kind that could really work under your skin at a headline show – struggled a little for attention against everything else going on. They’ve evidently learned from that for 2023, cranking the bombast and owning the main stage with the kind of swagger they’ve earned from the moment a savage Aggressive Evolution butts against the even more maniac Dance On My Skin. The relatively melodic Screaming underlines frontman Kadeem France's star-power before New Faces In The Dark plunges us back into the maelstrom. It’s been a minute since the Liverpudlian lot released a set of new songs, but the smiles with which they receive the colossal sing-along to Two Way Mirror suggests that their next steps could see them become even more massive than this. Let’s get to it!

Trapped Under Ice

It’s hard to think of a band more quintessentially ‘Outbreak’ than Trapped Under Ice. They might be more famous nowadays for sort-of spawning Turnstile and Angel Du$t, but they’re worshipped on their own terms as they turn up at the business end of Sunday. In the early exchanges of Born To Die and Skeleton Heads, it feels like the nervous energy in the heaving crowd is trapped, somehow, but by the time we get to Reality Unfolds and Do It, the stage-invasions are in full flow to the point that the festival are having to display safety warnings on the big screens for the first time properly all weekend.

Not that musclebound megastar frontman Justice Tripp seems to give a damn. Sporting silly shades and a sort of Lego-man haircut, the hardcore hulkster is an almost distracting focal-point early on, but even he eventually gets lost in the sweaty chaos. By the time he’s handing over the mic to Graham from High Vis for Street Lights before we’re swept away by a closing salvo of Jail and Believe, it’s hard to care about anything other than concrete riffage and not getting your skull cracked by the hail of bodies spilling from the stage.

Denzel Curry

With Death Grips proving to be an inspired booking for Saturday’s chaotic crescendo, Denzel Curry works just as well carrying us down Sunday’s closing stretch. The Floridian rapper’s latest LP Melt My Eyez See Your Future proved that he could electrify without the need to rely on too many hard edges, and although he doesn’t lean too heavily on those tracks tonight, he uses the salve of Walkin and Ain't No Way to connect with a crowd flagging from three days of getting their arses kicked.

Then all bets are off. A rat-a-tat run-through of IDK collab Dog Food with the whole room chanting ‘THE BLOCK IS HOT, THE BLOCK IS HOT’? A shot of Twistin’ featuring Lil Ugly Mane for the first time in almost a decade? The semi-industrial ballast of Hate Government? Have it all! Even if leaving out his cover of Rage Against The Machine’s Bulls On Parade feels like an odd choice, by the moody climax of ULT and a limb-flinging Blood On My Nikes, even the most ardent doubters have been convinced that the hip-hop superstar can still hold his own in the hardcore scene from which he came.

All that’s left for the rest of us to ponder is where the hell Outbreak Fest goes next? Wherever that may be, we’ll see you in the pit!

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