LIVE REVIEW: Slam Dunk Festival 2019 – South @ Hatfield Park, Hatfield – 26th May 2019

To many, Slam Dunk represents the proper kickoff of British festival season, something that feels especially pertinent now. This year, it’s slimmed down to a two-date affair over the bank holiday weekend rather than a three-day one, and with both Hatfield and its sister site in Leeds now having moved away from previous city centre locales and into the fields that have become far more synonymous with the festival experience, for perhaps that first time, Slam Dunk truly feels like the event it’s always been billed as. That’s something reflected in the lineup too, which has always felt masterfully curated towards the festival’s primarily pop-punk, hardcore and metal audience, but more so than ever, 2019 feels pretty much stacked from top to bottom.

That extends right down to the earliest performers too, as William Ryan Key (6) kicks things off with an acoustic set of songs from his days fronting Yellowcard that draws a rather sizable crowd to revel in the nostalgia. It’s all incredibly innocuous and is hardly going to go down as a performance for the ages – there’s only so much that can be done with the dynamic of one man and an acoustic guitar, particularly on the rather small Marshall Stage – but there’s such a profound likability that radiates from Key that it’s difficult not to feel at least some sort of joy. It helps that the likes of Way Away and, of course, Ocean Avenue are bona fide pop-punk classics and are met accordingly, but there’s a level of intimacy and warmth here that it’s hard to complain all that much. Again, it’s far from amazing, but it’s hard to overlook resonance of this calibre and magnitude coming from an opening act.

It’s been an interesting time for Milk Teeth (8) lately, not only in their massively rejigged lineup but also in a few considerable sonic shifts, to the point where one could easily assume that an early slot on one of the smaller stages is the sign of a band testing the waters and playing it all as cautiously as possible. This is, until this current incarnation of Milk Teeth proves to be their strongest yet in almost every way. The clearest improvement comes from the addition of Em Foster into the fold, bringing not only an impressive vitality in her screamed vocals that makes a track like Fight Skirt feel rowdier and more powerful than ever, but also a personality and sense of humour that feels genuinely fresh. She comes close to overshadowing Becky Blomfield in terms of presence, in all honesty, but she’s still an invaluable melodic core within the band, lending almost a poppiness to grunge bangers like Owning Your Okayness that goes down an absolute storm. More so than ever, Milk Teeth feel like a well-oiled machine, leaping into their craft with efficiency, but never feeling clinical or premeditated, to where it’s unquestionably the best they’ve ever been.

The same, sadly, can’t be said for Wallflower (5). They’re heady enough to forge some interest from a decently engaged crowd, but their particular brand of emo lacks a lot of definition, particularly in this environment, and it can be difficult not to zone out at times when it all feels rather one-paced. Sure, they plough along valiantly, but it’s not like any of their efforts really pay off, especially when not a lot of this really sticks beyond the initial hit. They’re certainly capable of a lot better, and while it’s easy to chalk this up to being an off day, Wallflower’s abilities still end up feeling disappointingly underutilised.

It’s easy to be a cynic with pop-rock, given how much behind-the-scenes conjecture can often end up coming true, but among so many chancers and those at the receiving end of industry pushes, Hot Milk (8) feel like the real deal. Case in point: a tent that’s absolutely rammed and willing to sing their hearts out for a band who currently have about twelve minutes of released music to their name. It’s not like that alone this set’s only selling point, but it’s a level of receptiveness that only sets the ball rolling for pop-rock like this to be as massive as it has every right to be. And make no mistake, there’s an energy to this band that consistently hits its mark, whether that comes from a vocal dynamic between Han Mee and Jim Shaw that’s consistently snappy and quickly executed, the power-hooks that make Wide Awake and Awful Ever After dazzle as much as they do, and even a similar level of excitement and ease from both sides of the barrier when it comes to unreleased material. If there’s a nitpick to be had, some of the crowd interactions can almost be laughably rote given how frequently they default to big, pump-up clichés that have been worn into the ground at festivals like this, but when that’s the only complaint to be had, it’s clear that Hot Milk are already doing a lot right. With a bit more music under their belts, they’ll be making their home on stages far bigger than this in no time.

It’s easy to scoff at Busted (7) and how they effectively began as the most marketable derivation of 2000s pop-rock imaginable, but booking them in a secret slot at a festival primarily associated with pop-punk for an audience for whom their introduction into the genre would’ve most likely been through bands like this is nothing short of inspired. It definitely seems to work as well; not only is the Key Club tent overflowing, but this proves to be the sort of expertly-concentrated nostalgia hit that circumvents any critical faculties and really only delivers joy. Busted’s take on pop-punk isn’t nuanced or intelligent in the slightest, but it’s hard to deny that Air Hostess and Year 3000 have the choruses that have kept them lodged in fans’ heads for over a decade-and-a-half, and simply the sight of a band who, by rights, could headline this festival rocking up for an early afternoon slot proves to be quite the moment in itself. As for the band themselves, they’ve still got good chemistry and the vocal trade-offs do generally hit well, but it’s the sight of Lower Than Atlantis’ Eddy Thrower behind the drum kit that goes towards acknowledging that Busted might have more of a tie and a reverence for this scene than first thought. Maybe that’s something of an exaggeration, but it’s hard to argue with how well this goes down, and fun can count for a lot at shows like this.

The rain begins to descend over Hatfield Park, and given what As It Is (4) bring to the table on the Monster Energy Stage, you’d think they wouldn’t have it any other way. They’re here to promote The Great Depression after all, an album that’s proven enormously divisive among fans and honestly hasn’t held up the best compared to an album like okay., but when that takes the form of glutting their set with their attempts at being dour and heavy that don’t land all that well, it’s worth wondering what the point really is. They’re trying to push a bleakness and an oppressiveness that genuinely feels forced at this point, whether it’s in the onstage presence that comes from matching black outfits and general attempts to sever their pop-punk roots as viscerally as they can, to a sonic palette that swaps out the crispness of a track like Dial Tones for stabs at heaviness that feel incredibly misguided, or a ‘hardcore’ reimagining of The Question, The Answer that just comes across as a total mess. At least they’re suitably throwing themselves into their work with Patty Walters channelling his inner Adam Lazzara in his swinging of the mic cord, and The Stigma (Boys Don’t Cry) ends things on a high note, but As It Is’ alienation of their past feels incredibly myopic and detrimental in both concept and execution, and a set that feels so profoundly uninteresting and bland because of it speaks volumes.

Apparently The Word Alive (6) are some kind of draw given the size of their crowd at the Jägermeister Stage, even if it can be slightly difficult to see why. As a band, they prove themselves to be incredibly good at ticking all the right metalcore boxes and hitting all the right beats when necessary, and that results in an experience that’s not totally unlikable but falls into a formula that can wear thin. At least Telle Smith stands as a primary asset given an abundance of personality and vocal power for the likes of Lighthouse and Why Am I Like This? that are laser-focused on hitting those enormous melodic metal peaks, but it can be an ordeal to get there, especially when this sort of out-the-box metalcore really does go through the motions more than would be ideal. Still, the moments that are there are worth praising, even if it’s difficult to see The Word Alive fulfilling anyone’s criteria for a highlight.

That Cancer Bats (8) will be fantastic live is probably one of the greatest certainties in music, but the fact that they’ve continued to keep it up for this long just shows the level of band they’ve become over the years. Nothing’s really changed either – Liam Cormier remains the human-shaped dynamo he’s always been as he dashes around the stage backed by roaring hardcore played with bone-rattling tone – but that’s such a foolproof formula that nothing really needs to change. The closest thing to that is a guest appearance from Pagan’s Nikki Brumen, but she’s so well-integrated and plays off Cormier’s energy so well that her all-too-brief moment feels like simply the next natural phase of the show. And it’s a testament to how great Cancer Bats really are that they’ve reached a point in their career where everything can be executed as smoothly as it is; it’s certainly easier when each appearance is more or less a slight variation on a theme, but when each variation is consistently excellent, it’s all the easier to simply stand back and appreciate it.

Modesty seems to be a theme that carries rather heavily with Saves The Day (6). They’re not the flashiest band around, nor have they ever been, and that’s perfectly reflected by their set on the Dickies Stage that boils down to little more than a function-over-fashion run-through of fan favourites. As much as Chris Conley’s fetching jacket and aviator shades combo would suggest otherwise, there’s very little to say about this; they’re efficient at what they do, and having a pop-punk classic like At Your Funeral as the opening number is always going to gauge a high early reaction, but it would’ve been nice to have a bit more that would allow them to stand out more. It’s certainly a good set, but some extra pizzazz could easily notch it up to a great one.

As goofy, juvenile and melodramatic as they can be – and as deserving of the criticism they’ve received for it as they are, at that – it’s hard to deny that Simple Plan (7) can offer a fun time, if not much else. This is pop-punk at its most puddle-deep across the board, and weighed down with stodgy, outdated teen angst on Welcome To My Life and Perfect towards the end really puts that into a larger perspective, but when they’re good and they really swing for the fences, they deliver possibly some of the most enjoyable moments of the entire festival. Summer Paradise is the obvious standout with its weightless ska sway and beach balls tossed into the crowd, but the gusto that I’d Do Anything and Jet Lag are delivered with makes for a great time, and seeing a band enjoying themselves as much as they are (especially drummer Chuck Comeau when he gets the brief opportunity to sing lead vocals) is hard not to smile at. Again, it’s much more about the atmosphere forged than the songs themselves, but even if there’s nothing exactly revelatory here, a well-played, infectious and high-energy set can make up for a lot of shortcomings elsewhere. Perhaps, for Simple Plan, mod-afternoon main stage slots are the cap for how far they can take this, but to see them making the most of it counts for a lot.

It’s easy to draw parallels between Saves The Day and The Get Up Kids (6) at the best of times – both are among the elder statesmen of their scene largely past their prime established by a classic early album, but continue to move forward anyway – but today, it feels even more straightforward. Placing the two in the same context (not to mention having them on the same stage right after one another) highlights how much both rely on the no-frills approach to festival sets, and for The Get Up Kids, their results barely move the needle whatsoever from where it ended up last time. They’re definitely good, especially in the vocal department thanks to Matt Pryor’s sense of gravity in his delivery, and even newer material like The Problem Is Me connect with a burgeoning crowd, but again, it lacks a certain something to elevate it beyond a mid-afternoon pleasantry. In fact, ‘pleasant’ is probably the ideal word for this – as far as straight-laced emo and indie-rock goes, The Get Up Kids do a consistently good job, even if it doesn’t amount to much else.

Just a few days ago, Gallows (9) played their first live show since 2015, a show which, if all reports are anything to go by, saw one of the one of the most exciting and vital bands the UK has ever seen return with a remarkable degree of intensity and firepower. Of course, that’s to be expected; even if their current incarnation fronted by Alexisonfire’s Wade MacNeil has divided opinions, they’re a punk and hardcore institution at this point, and bringing that exact energy to a frankly enormous crowd in the Impericon tent only proceeds to solidify this as one of the best sets of the festival, hands down. From front to back, it’s hit after hit without letting up once, kicking off with a truly incendiary rendition of Misery that’s the perfect establishing moment for what Gallows are capable of here. There’s not a second wasted between MacNeil’s bullish, violent stalking of the stage and front rows and a guitar tone that could quite feasibly be made of solid metal, but the power and receptiveness from the crowd of said power is what elevates this set to something truly amazing. As big as this tent is, there’s still so much that feels spontaneous and personal here, be it Liam Cormier’s return to the stage for a guest turn on Last June, a scrappiness and malevolence that gives Outsider Art its seething darkness, or the near-constant stream of bodies over the barrier that couldn’t be more perfectly soundtracked by the onstage chaos. It’s hugely difficult to fault, especially for a band picking things up after nearly half a decade without even a hint of rust or uncertainty. Gallows really are one of a kind, and at this rate, they always will be.

It’s no secret that New Found Glory (8) are about as reliable as festival bands go, especially when they always seem to pull a decent crowd and have a wealth of some of the best pop-punk songs of the both the 2000s and 2010s at their disposal. However, with their backdrop today is the artwork of their new covers EP, it seems like a rather telling hint that they’re not averse to mixing things up when they want to, and and a set for which a considerable portion consists of said covers is one of the clearest examples possible. And even if this might be an objectively weaker set given how many omissions from their own catalogue are made, there’s no denying that the reaction to the likes of Eye Of The Tiger or Let It Go is pure unbridled fun, both from the crowd and the band themselves. There’s always been a youthful energy with New Found Glory onstage, and when they’re safe in the knowledge that they actually have the clout within the scene to pull something like this off (not to mention recruit William Ryan Key as their additional guitarist and bring members of Less Than Jake and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones up to round out The Power Of Love), the whole thing is simply joyous. With the rest filled out with a selection of gold-plated pop-punk hits like Understatement, All Downhill From Here and Hit Or Miss for an incredibly non-exhaustive selection, it’s all just the typical New Found Glory stamp of quality that’s always expected but never unappreciated.

It’s hard to think of many bands that can match the power of The Menzingers (9). That mightn’t be power in a strictly outward sense, but in terms of pulling in a crowd with nothing but the sheer excellence of their music and keeping them fixated on virtually every single note is something that most bands simply don’t have the capacity to do. Yet The Menzingers aren’t ‘most bands’, and from the second that the opening riff of Tellin’ Lies peels out of the Dickies Stage’s speakers, they’ve got a baying crowd chanting back every word. It’s for good reason too, as House On Fire and Lookers are some of the finest punk songs to be released this decade and are played with the gusto and bravado they deserve, while Midwestern States effortlessly and expertly captures a timelessness that’s always been one of the building blocks of Slam Dunk as a whole. They’re quite simply the perfect band to headline a stage, packed to the gills with enormous songs that would sound even better with an even bigger platform, and the sort of warmth and affability emblematic of a band having the absolute time of their lives, with literally the only fault being there isn’t nearly enough time to fit all of their best material in to one fifty minute set. If all of that wasn’t enough, the double rainbow forming in front of them is the physical poetry that represents the near-perfection that is The Menzingers.

While All Time Low’s headline set on the Monster Energy Stage might be the bigger talking point, having the Jägermeister Stage topped by Bullet For My Valentine (7) is arguably the more interesting proposition. Not only is this their first time at Slam Dunk, but they’re being dropped right to the top of their stage and on the back of their worst album to date at that, an unenviable task that doesn’t really have any easily predictable outcome. That said, it’s not like Bullet have ever been slouches in the live environment up to now, and when they’re at their best, they’re more than capable of delivering the sort of extravagant, arena-ready metal show that’ll always see them comfortably race towards the finish line. Tonight though, it’s not quite to that extent given a rather more frugal production setup than normal – consisting of CO2 cannons, confetti and a wall of cabs for Jason Bowld’s drums to sit atop – but it puts a focus on the music in what could be the best way possible. Over It and Piece Of Me sound a lot less anaemic for a start, but there’s genuine towering presence with Your Betrayal and Scream Aim Fire to show how capable of real heft Bullet still are. The extended mid-set drum solo mightn’t take wind out of the sails as much as it does yank it away in the most unceremonious fashion possible, but on the whole, this streamlined approach is a good fit for making the most of these songs. It’s also impressive to see how thoroughly Matt Tuck can still handle this harsher, heavier material, to the point where the transition between him and SHVPES’ Griffin Dickinson for No Way Out feels perfectly smooth in how well the firepower is matched. It’s definitely not the best that Bullet have ever been (and given both the setting and the circumstances, it was never going to be), but they can still be an excellent metal band when they want to be, and when it comes to closing out a festival like this, it would take a killjoy of the highest order to say they’re not worthy.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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