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On a final day where any and all allegiances seem to be dedicated to which Sheffieldian headliner punters are willing to camp at their respective stages for, it leaves a band like Thumper left in the lurch. They’re already pulling the veritable graveyard shift of Sunday morning side-stage openers, with a rather spotty crowd that can’t exactly be a morale booster. If that’s the case though, you can’t really tell, given how they power through their half-hour with dexterous ease, and an impressive wall of volume under their belt. Theirs is a beefy alt-rock concoction that continues to enthrall with each spiralling riff and rumbling dual-drumbeat the sextet have to offer. Moreover, it’s a lot of fun; you won’t find anyone else doing a power-pop cover of Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten this weekend, nor will there be a frontman like Oisín Leahy Furlong who’ll climb into the crowd to proudly brandish his Irish flag. Under-the-radar openers don’t get much more bracing than this.
The designated Reading & Leeds ‘rock day’ doesn’t seem to be much of a thing anymore, because if it were, there’s no way that Static Dress would be this low down. The buzz is practically audible as soon as their name is uttered now, such is evident by the considerable influx of people to see the latest in the band’s many flag-planting ceremonies. They’ve been conquering pretty much every stage they’ve set foot on and Leeds is no different, a display of razor-tight post-hardcore that owes a lot to the genre’s halcyon 2000s era, but isn’t shorn of contemporary sharpness either. Obviously it’s a pretty no-frills showing today, though between frontman Olli Appleyard channelling the era of vamping hardcore thespians and the eerie presence of masked guitarist Contrast, Static Dress prove just as eye-catching as they are to the ear. Honestly, there’s very little to complain about in what’s the exact expected outcome from a band of their reputation—it’s vital, ferocious, brimming with notably combustible energy, and ready to break into the open air sooner rather than later.
God bless DE’WAYNE for really trying his hardest. He’s coming up to his Main Stage slot as an evident unknown, trying to evoke The Ramones in what he’s saying and doing (despite this crowd maybe not being old enough to even know who they are), but just not coming out with a definitive response to anything. He’s not a very solid performer for a start, as his voice skids around even more than on record to feel less like deliberate shabbiness and more just a lack of composure. His band don’t fare much better either, with the bare bones of a punk setup that’s serviceable at best and unable to mask how rigid and skeletal they are at worst. At least it’s all slightly tightened and reined in for a cover of The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog, the singular moment of focus that DE’WAYNE displays, only for it feel more like a perfunctory display of punk know-how with how much personality is stripped away. The element of nerves is a mitigating factor—between songs, he can seem a bit unconfident, which is definitely understandable—but this really doesn’t go any way that’s suitable for anyone present. What a shame.
Is the intrigue around Poppy starting to wear thin now? Three or four years ago, her blend of tart, kitschy pop with metal was a major talking point, but since the influx of weird and wilder genre pileups have come around in the meantime, hers feels far less potent now. That’s just as true in the live field as well; right now, this is alt-metal that simply falls in line, bound by what might be a cool novelty for the uninitiated, but wears its peeling paint unfortunately openly for everyone else. Songs like Concrete and Scary Mask really just feel a bit ordinary now, mostly because Poppy as a live presence simply doesn’t feel as fresh anymore. She’ll try and regain that magnetic quality, playing up the girlishness of her delivery and curt jumps and twirls, but it strikes as trying to catch up now more than anything. As such, it leaves a set that’s a bit behind on what could make it special, never totally whiffing but feeling more played-out than it should. For some people, it’s probably the most out-there thing they’ve heard all weekend, and more power to them; it’d just be better if that was the resounding feeling for everyone.
With all of the—for lack of a better term—‘casual’ Leeds-goers congregating for AJ Tracey, you’d be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t just a last-minute replacement for a deposed Jack Harlow. In truth though, he’s probably the better fit, when he’s got a fairly decent history with these festivals already, not to mention one of the most extensive collections of pure bangers that UK mainstream rap has to offer. That was true when he took to the Main Stage back in 2019 (in more or less the exact same slot), and it’s true now, though some initial technical bugs with his backing track leave the first couple of songs to be rapped a capella. The fact that it still sounds good is a testament to the consummate professional that Tracey is, and when things start going properly, that comes to play in full force. That list of bangers has only been added to in the past handful of years; Rain illicits just as wild a reaction as Ladbroke Grove once did, and Dinner Guest and West Ten click so resoundingly in this vein of pop-rap, especially coming from a stage this size. Tracey himself is more function-over-fashion in approach, though it definitely works for him, and there’s still enough to it to where it’s hard to imagine any of his baying audience leaving without being at least reasonably satisfied.
Festival seasons will come and go, and every single time, you’ll have at least one appearance from Enter Shikari showing literally everyone else how it’s done. They’re the undisputed kings of the summer festival at this point; just stick them on a main stage for 40-ish minutes, and be blessed with a guaranteed winner on your bill. Here it’s no different, as they rocket into the anthemic The Great Unknown with that high bar kept up all the way throughout. But more so than a lot of others acts, theirs is a platform that earns its high billing, as Rou Reynolds takes time to chastise Thames Water for allowing sewage to pollute the British coast and the Conservative government for their complacency in it all. It’s moments like that that do so much to elevate Enter Shikari among British rock, where no matter how their bill position rises, it’s never taken for granted when there’s a palpable grounding and a connection on a punk level.
Beyond that though, one a purely musical basis, it’s all business as usual. The blending of alt-rock with dazzling electronics is a fresh as the day it was conceived, even on an earlier cut like Sorry You’re Not A Winner. Meanwhile, *satellites truly takes flight as the perfect distillation of everything wonderful and joyous about an Enter Shikari festival set, brought crashing down by the snarling rave leanings of The Void Stares Back, featuring a suitably raucous cameo from Wargasm as garnish. That’s totally meant as a compliment, by the way; Enter Shikari remain one of the most chameleonic, forward-thinking bands in rock music, rarely missing with any experiment and finding ways to galvanise it even more live. That can definitely be attributed in part to an impressively lavish stage setup for this early in the day, but it’s through being just a fantastic band first and foremost, who continue to gleefully lap their brethren among the festival circuit regulars with complete ease. It’s nothing new for them, but it doesn’t need to be when it’s still this far ahead of the pack.
Fontaines D.C.’s recent tear speaks for itself when they find themselves this high up on the Main Stage. Crossover moments have been slim (even their closest one Liberty Belle gets unfortunately snubbed today), but they’re quite clearly a draw, in what can only be presumed as the people’s champ of ‘real’, ‘legitimate’ music among a pop- and indie-centric run. That’s fine to think that, and it’s fitting enough that the band themselves are also…fine. They’ve got the energy and attitude of a band cracking the big leagues, to be sure, but the niche is definitely narrower than this one, when they’re locked in to a heaving post-punk lane where the tacit reluctance to cross over is rather noteworthy. It’s an impressively big sound they’ve got, thick and grand in how it fills in rock corners hitherto unexplored on this scale over the weekend, but between Grian Chatten’s immovable bellow and a choice of songs built to accommodate that entirely, it can be a hard one to parse out. Still solid, but tempered by how much of an acquired taste it is.
Let’s not beat around the bush—it’s acts like D-Block Europe that give the naysayers fodder for why hip-hop apparently doesn’t belong here. In the grand scheme of things, they aren’t abysmal, but when a sub-headline slot feels deigned upon them due to market saturation with some residual popularity, that’s not exactly a good look. That’s compounded by the fact that, of the UK’s mainstream representatives, they’re easily the weakest here. They’ve not got a ubiquitous hook or excessively catchy composition style, and thus end up reliant on a lightweight, skeletal vibe to carry a pretty nondescript set. Admittedly it can be a good vibe when it clicks, though that’s presuming it’s a regular occurrence rather than a pretty patchy gauntlet that never properly picks up pace. As for Young Adz and Dirtbike LB themselves, to call them ‘mouthpieces’ is probably overemphasising their contributions to already truncated songs, when it’s more a case of hyping up their own backing track to cultivate a vibe that’s supposed to be a substitute for something more. At least the crowd seem to be enjoying it for the most part, but that’s decidedly in a vacuum; anywhere else D-Block Europe just can’t compete in terms of live energy, distinct songs or simple entertainment value. Like the inflatable goat’s head behind them that just won’t go all the way up, it ends up notably flaccid.
Wolf Alice’s set opens with a skit played on the Main Stage screens, and it’s laughably bad. It probably would’ve been okay had the audio and video not been out of sync by almost ten seconds at some points, but had this been a weaker band, it would not bode well for the set to come. Thankfully, Wolf Alice are not a weaker band; if anything, when it comes to uplifting the next generation of headliners, theirs is a name to get right near the tippy-top of that list. Today, they’re more about the music than the spectacle, but that’s totally fine when they’re hitting every note they strive for with laser accuracy. It’s arguably after the opening pair of Smile and You’re A Germ that their stride can truly be hit, welcomed by the idyllic gauze of Delicious Things that’s an undisputed festival anthem already. It helps that Ellie Rowsell’s status as an indie icon is undisputed at this point, not only as the malleable centre to Wolf Alice’s big, roaring rock sound, but bending around into the gorgeous acoustic flutter of Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love), or the punk gnash of Play The Greatest Hits. What Wolf Alice lack in ceremony is made up for multiple times over by their own enormity, where more than ever before, they feel like a band capable of doing it all. Topping the bill is now a case of when, instead of if.
In the literal years in which it’s been suggested that Bring Me The Horizon should be the breakers of UK rock’s stubborn streak of disallowing its key players to graduate to headline status, they’ve basically become a different band, like, another two times over. But even when That’s The Spirit found them at their poppiest and amo brought back the metal flair and cranked up the modernity, now is where it can come to fruition with the greatest impact. They’ve certainly not let the opportunity slip by, curating a grand visual display framed around an AI tailored to basically every move they make, the onstage eye candy that’s impressive enough just to watch successfully play out.
But this is Bring Me The Horizon we’re talking about, a band now famous for larger-than-life confidence and translating that into grand statements of intent, which from start to finish, materialises as a band on the form of their lives. They start off ridiculously strongly with Can You Feel My Heart?, the doorway to exploring their modern era with heaviness and stadium-sized ambition placed right at the front. They sound terrific in terms of how the riffs crunch and serrate, now more industrial and welcoming of jagged electronic shards (Kingslayer in particular sounds utterly gargantuan), and when it’s led by Oli Sykes on his most ferocious form in years, it’s a recipe to silence the handwringers who’ve been holding back for way too long. After all, you won’t get another headline act tearing through a metalcore slobberknocker like Dear Diary, and a caving industrial monolith like Parasite Eve, while still having some of the most irresistible hooks imaginable on DiE4u and Drown.
It’s the jolt of freshness that should come with the territory of being a headliner; with each subsequent turn and musical moment, there’s something new to take in, in how carefully and meticulously curated the whole experience is. Obviously there’s the pyro and confetti—the best friend of any arena band—but then there’s the ‘robot’ cheerleaders for Happy Song and the street-dancers on Mantra and Parasite Eve. Bring Me The Horizon’s understanding of spectacle is second-to-none here, even recruiting Yungblud to reprise his role on Obey and sounding better than he’s ever done before. (It’s not quite the headline-grabbing get that Ed Sheeran was at Reading but, y’know, it’ll do.) By the time they round out with a beautiful acoustic Follow You and the ever-triumphant Throne, whether or not this is a deserved moment isn’t even a question anymore. As they leave the stage emblazoned with the huge sentiment of “Bring Me The Horizon Just Rocked My Fucking World”, it’s impossible to disagree.
When the Arctic Monkeys last headlined here in 2014, they were effectively in the same position as they are now—between albums, and hinging on promises of a greatest hits set and a prolificness within British pop culture to succeed. That’s definitely worked considering the anticipation that’s surrounded their appearance all day, as arguably the greatest band of the 2000s indie generation making a long-awaited return to reassert their dominance. But it’s also worth remembering that same narrative covered their last headline slot too, and in its wake, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino happened to clarify what then felt like a profound bout of going through the motions. As far as right now goes, they do give an airing to a new track from The Car, I Ain’t Quite Where You Think I Am, which, in all its wacka-wacka guitar clicks and repurposed lounge tempos, disappointingly signals much of the same.
In essence, what transpires is the polar opposite of Bring Me The Horizon’s previous display; the Arctic Monkeys are seasoned headliners at this point, and a stacked list played with proficiency and arena-rock savvy is built to satisfy. It does at first, with the looming stomp of Do I Wanna Know? that morphs into the feverish post-punk of Brianstorm, and then the cooler shuffle of Snap Out Of It. But as things progress and a once-gassed crowd noticeably wanes and fractures, something just isn’t sitting. It’s headline calibre inasmuch as a massive band making a one-off appearance with get bodies in attendance, but it’s also so cold and free of excitement or momentousness. Proficiency only gets so far, and the verve that’s demanded of a show of this scale tends to only come in spurts; the uptick in enthusiasm upon the introduction of I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor says it all.
In some respects, it’s understandable, with the Arctic Monkeys’ current mode of leathery, seasoned rockers that’ll seep down into much of their work. It’s why even their more noteworthy cuts feel slower, and conversely why material from AM like Why D’You Only Call Me When Your High? can connect through its natural design. But as much as Alex Turner wants to play that role as staunchly as possible—the faux-‘American’ accent he puts on in rare moments of chat is ridiculous, straight up—it’s not achieving anything all that beneficial for them. They’re able to pull it back at the end, as Arabella spirals into the riff of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs and R U Mine? acts as an ever-grand finale, but it’s not exactly been a smooth or fruitful journey to get here. If anything, it reinforces the ‘too big to fail’ mentality that a lot of bands on this level have, and that’s now been adopted by the Arctic Monkeys going forward. In other words, the diehards will probably have a field day, but for anyone expecting something indicative of the riotousness and rambunctiousness that this band embodies at their best, it’s all just a bit damp.
Words by Luke Nuttall
Photos by Harry McCulloch, Linda Borscika, Georgia Hurdsfield, Emily Marcovecchio and Matt Eachus