The Kerrang! review: Slam Dunk Festival 2021

All the highlights from Leeds and Hatfield as Slam Dunk 2021 closes festival season in heroic fashion…

The Kerrang! review: Slam Dunk Festival 2021
Sam Law, John Longbottom
Header photo:
Alex Tweedale

Most festivals got moved once. For Slam Dunk, this weekend was the fourth date it had been marked for since last May. Had it not gone ahead, organisers were very clear that the fest would never be able to slam again.

In the event, they emerged victorious. A bit bruised and with a couple of bands lost along the way, perhaps, but the greater good of the thing – pulling through magnificently in the face of utter defeat – meant that the party in both Leeds and Hatfield was a rager before anyone had played a note.

As it was, loads of them did, and the added feeling of winning the day only made them all – some of them playing their first shows in a year and a half – all the more special, exhilarating and life-affirming.

Here, we round up the best bits from the weekend across both sites. Heroic work, Slam Dunk. See you next year. And we can't begin to tell you how good it feels to say that…

Blood Youth, Jägermeister Stage, Leeds

This weekend's Slam Dunk shows are the last for Kaya Tarsus as frontman of Harrogate metalcore heroes Blood Youth. Leeds feels particularly poignant. With massive 'YORKSHIRE' chants ringing through the Jägermeister tent well before noon, the home-county faithful have turned out in force to say goodbye. "This is our fucking home," Kaya grins with a bittersweet mix of sadness and triumph. "Ever since we've been a band, you've made us very proud of where we come from."

There's little sentimentality in their incendiary set, though. Breathtaking opener Iron Lung feels like a full-force showcase of their atmosphere, melody and savagery, while Playing The Victim burns with unquenched vitriol. Meanwhile, neck-wrecking banger Spineless, dedicated by Kaya to his bandmates, sends a full-blooded pit into overdrive.

"I may not be in the band anymore," the singer signs off, "but Blood Youth continues forever." On today’s evidence, it'd take an army to stop them. (SL)

Photo: Eddy Maynard

Loathe, Jägermeister Stage, Leeds

Emerging in a beret, Loathe frontman Kadeem France looks ready to incite a lunchtime revolution as the Liverpudlian metallers hit Leeds’ Jägermeister Stage. Whether getting down to roar in the front rows’ faces, throwing shapes or crossing his arms and banging his head, he’s very much the focal-point of what feels like a purposefully high-energy, hard-edged showing that feeds off the energy of a raucous tent. With a near-seven-foot Pit Troll caught in the mosh, and songs like Red Room and Gored dropping with the chaotic impact of breeze blocks from a motorway overpass, hell is very much unleashed.

Sonically, it’s a case of gut-rumbling heaviosity over defined cutting edge, emphasising the savagery of Aggressive Evolution and Broken Vision Rhythm rather than their detailed intricacy. That’s no bad thing, mind, with the cathartic outpouring raising goosebumps. By the time the closing salvo of Two-Way Mirror and White Hot arrive, the former’s wavy atmospherics feel all the more like an eerie respite, and the latter’s angular outbursts land like clinical killing blows. Guitarist Erik Bickerstaffe throws his arms around Kadeem in the echoing afterglow, visibly delighted to have his band back up to speed, once again proving themselves among the most exciting in all of heavy music. So are we. (SL)

Photo: Nathan Robinson

As It Is, Rock Scene Stage, Leeds

British-American emo mainstays As It Is unexpectedly find themselves competing with the distraction of a big banter secret set from pop-rockers McFly on the other side of site on Saturday afternoon, but quickly confirm that the mass of fans who stick around have made the correct decision. Although there’s something fitting about seeing melancholic cuts like The Wounded World from 2018’s The Great Depression rolled out under Leeds’ moody grey skies, their performance feels defined more by tentative positivity, with certified bangers No Way Out and Hey Rachel setting a tone.

“It’s been a while, Slammy D,” grins frontman Patty Walters. “We’ve been very busy being very sad, but we are filled with more happiness and optimism today than you could ever know.”

Performing in front of a bold pink-and-black backdrop and propelled by Set It Off’s Maxx Danziger on drums, they look like an outfit ready to take on the world again. Dial Tones sees waves of crowdsurfers being hurled towards the stage. The Stigma (Boy’s Don’t Cry) wrings out one of the most affirmative sing-alongs of the weekend. All in, a stirring celebration of emotional honesty and staying the course. (SL)

Photo: Bethan Miller

Creeper, Rock Scene Stage, Hatfield

The weather in Hatfield might be hotter than the sun, but that’s not going to stop Creeper from working the crowd as hard as ever. After all, no-one here today waited 18 months just to skulk in the shade.

“I’m emotional just playing for you, we’ve needed this so much.” yells frontman Will Gould as he opens the pit up. The band rip through a set loaded with songs from 2020’s Sex, Death & The Infinite Void, giving the likes of Born Cold, Cyanide and Napalm Girls a proper hammering for those of us who have had the record on repeat, all sounding satisfyingly huge when they’re backed up by a field full of people screaming along. With Waterparks having pulled out due to that thing that’s been fucking everything up for what feels like forever, Creeper are able to extend their electrifying set a little and wrap with Annabelle which brings the biggest sing-along of the day so far. (JLB)

Photo: Nat Wood

Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, Punk In Drublic Stage, Leeds

I don't want spend the whole of my life indoors,’ sings Frank Turner on The Next Storm, midway through show number 2,545. ‘I don't want spend the whole of my life inside, I wanna step out, and face the sunshine.’

As summer 2021 winds down towards another uncertain winter, it feels like a definitive statement from the folk-rock troubadour, who’s done as much as anyone for live music over the last year-and-a-half, playing constant livestream benefits and getting properly back on the road as soon as humanly possible. Having accidentally double-booked himself to headline the Moseley Folk Festival 120-odd miles down the road later tonight, he might be playing unusually early in the afternoon, but the sprawling crowd don’t slack on rewarding him and his Sleeping Souls with a soul-swelling singalong. “This is culture,” he replies, emphatically. “This is church.”

At June’s Download Pilot, Big Frank told us that he’s a metalhead in his soul. Today feels like proof that he’s really a punk at heart. Said scheduling conflict means there’re no onstage hi-jinks with recent collaborators NOFX, but the fast pace and gleeful rough edges are evidence of genuine shard values. Whether tapping into personal experience (The Ballad Of Me And My Friends) or political angst (1933), he’s still one of Britrock's most unlikely outsider icons, and gunpowder-packed new songs The Gathering and Non Serviam feel like proof that won’t be changing anytime soon. (SL)

Photo: Nat Wood

Trash Boat, Jägermeister Stage, Hatfield

In the shade of the tent, Trash Boat are ready to turn up the heat. Oldies like Tring Quarry rip the crowd apart and while fresh material such as Don’t You Feel Amazing? might sound a world away, it’s no less capable of bringing the crowd together with vocals that fill the tent from top to bottom. After all, “If you’re into Trash Boat, you’re into the whole thing,” blasts singer Tobi Duncan. “All our albums, everything we do. Who knows… we might release a country album next,” he jokes… at least, we think it’s a joke. Right, guys? Right? (JLB)

Photo: Nat Wood

Funeral For A Friend, Jägermeister Stage, Hatfield

Having rescheduled their anniversary tour to the start of 2022, it’s fair to say Funeral For A Friend are ready to unload. Fans struggle to get into the tent as the Welsh veterans roar through Streetcar, Bullet Theory and Sixteen, all sounding as sharp as they ever have. “This. Is. So. Important,” declares frontman Matt Davies, gesturing to the crowd. He’s not wrong. People clutch at the front of their T-shirts as they scream along, one fan raises both fists in the air with an ice cream in each hand. Festivals are just great, aren’t they? Anyway, a triple whammy of Roses For The Dead, Into Oblivion and Escape Artists Never Die wrap up the most emotional set of the day. Fingers crossed we’ll see them again in January. (JLB)

Photo: Bethan Miller

Bury Tomorrow, Jägermeister Stage, Leeds

Not only is Saturday evening’s Jägermeister Stage set from Southampton heavyweights Bury Tomorrow their first show in 18 months, it’s the beginning of a new era in the wake of the departure of founding rhythm guitarist and clean vocalist Jason Cameron. Knowing they’ve got a point to prove, absolutely nothing is spared, with a massive, video-screen-laden production, the meaty live debuts of Cannibal tracks Choke and The Agonist, and high-octane outings for all-time bangers Lionheart and Man On Fire.

“The past two years have been fucking insane,” acknowledges frontman Dani Winter-Bates, gesturing to new players Tom Prendergast and Ed Hartwell. “Our band is different. The whole fucking planet is different right now. All we can hope for is fun, rejuvenation, and family.”

Co-headlining the two-staged space with longtime contemporaries While She Sleeps, they get all they ask for here, and it’s reflected back in sound. Knife Of Gold seems to cut deeper than before. Black Flame smoulders with even greater unnatural darkness. “No matter how strange it feels, we are all fucking in this together,” Dani vows as they take their leave. “I want to promise you our band is never giving up.” Thank fuck for that. (SL)

Photo: Nat Wood

Alkaline Trio, Punk In Drublic Stage, Hatfield

Six months ago, if you’d have told us we’d be watching Chicago punk legends Alkaline Trio, surrounded by thousands of friends, on a blazing hot day in September, we’d have told you you were crazy. Yet here we are collectively howling along to Mercy Me. Trio are on top form and pit after pit open up to the likes of Armageddon, I Wanna Be A Warhol and This Could Be Love. “Congratulations for surviving COVID,” says vocalist Matt Skiba. “It’s very nice to be here. And that is a wild, wild understatement.” Clearly, the feeling is mutual. (JLB)

Photo: Nathan Robinson

While She Sleeps, Jägermeister Stage, Leeds

Sheffield metalcore heroes While She Sleeps have always felt like the unruly northern yin to Bury Tomorrow’s southern yang and for the first time in years they get a shot at friendly one-upmanship face-to-face (literally, across the two-sided Jägermeister tent) on the same bill. Having already smashed off any ring rust at June’s Download Pilot and August’s Bloodstock Open Air, they might just have the edge tonight, with bangers like Anti-Social, Brainwashed and The Guilty Party feeling well-oiled and razor-sharp.

Where so many outfits have taken the return to live performance as cause to celebrate the bond between band and fanbase, it’s something that WSS have always been about. Playing to a cacophonous Yorkshire faithful, the message behind SLEEPS SOCIETY, YOU ARE ALL YOU NEED and You Are We feels more powerful than ever.

If there’s any complaint, it’s that some of the long-term hardcore here would love an airing for one or two This Is The Six-era tracks, but their absence is emblematic of Sleeps’ conviction to keep pushing onward and upward. Finishing with a near-box-fresh salvo of NERVOUS and SYSTEMATIC, they stress an implicit need for bigger, more complex sounds. The audience duly comes unglued.

“This is fucking beautiful,” grins frontman Loz Taylor. No word of a lie. (SL)

Photo: Nat Wood

NOFX, Punk In Drublic Stage, Hatfield

Finally, it’s time for the best-worst live band of all time to hit the stage. “Alright, let’s get ready for a big disappointment,” jokes frontman Fat Mike as the LA punks launch into the turbo-charged Dinosaurs Will Die. Despite having not played the UK since pre-COVID times, the band are in no hurry to, y’know… play songs, and stage banter tonight includes defining felching, a debate about whether to cover “you guys’ fucking weirdo” (Boris Johnson) in honey and put him in a pit of fire ants and repeated attempts at “getting cancelled in England”. Welcome back, chaps.

New song I Love You More Than I Hate Me sounds ferocious live and sits comfortably alongside mainstays like Leave It Alone, Franco Un-American and their cover of Rancid’s Radio. NOFX really are Schrödinger's punk rock band – simultaneously both tight as can be… and a total shambles. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. (JLB)

Photo: Nathan Robinson

Don Broco, Rock Scene Stage, Leeds

For those who have followed them for all of the past 13 years as a band, seeing Don Broco finally headline Slam Dunk’s main stage to a thousands-strong mob of ecstatic fans feels both head-spinningly surreal and joyfully inevitable. COVID might have done its best to speedbump their arrival, but trust the Bedford boys to take a year off in stride, swaggering on like it was all part of the plan.

They’ve splashed the cash on a production fit for this overdue coronation, too – all field-filling laser displays and sparkling pyro – but their triumph is owed to a set of songs that could never really have come from anyone else: Pretty, Manchester Super Reds No. 1 Fan, Stay Ignorant, Technology.

Having perfected their singular blend of bombast, bounce and off-kilter sexiness over the last half-decade, they slather it liberally all over a performance that seems far more interested in shaking asses and raising smiles than any triumphalist posturing. Gumshield punches up, a borderline-absurdist thumper, Greatness goes off like a bomb in a cowbell factory, and even the near-decade-old Priorities feels somehow renewed. Waterparks’ Awsten Knight and While She Sleeps’ Loz Taylor come out for the UK live debut of Action. One True Prince gets played for the first time anywhere. And the hits just keep coming, from You Wanna Know to Come Out To LA to Nerve.

“We’ve been coming to this festival for years,” gasps frontman Rob Damiani, almost overwhelmed for just a second. “For this to happen right now is fuckin’ crazy!” Then it’s back to good-time business, with Everybody fuelling the craziest shapes busted of the entire weekend, and T-Shirt Song (dedicated, as if it were a club show, to one fan’s girlfriend) seeing a sea of short-sleeves swung over heads before their owners spin off into the night.

A hell of a show. Bow down to Broco. (SL)

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