Slam Dunk Festival 2023: The Big Review

Running down the best of the best from Leeds and Hatfield as Slam Dunk 2023 kicks off the most jam-packed UK festival season ever…

Slam Dunk Festival 2023: The Big Review
James Hingle, Sam Law, Nick Ruskell
Apertunes, Eddy Maynard, Katie Mcmillan, Bethan Miller,

Slam Dunk is absolutely rammed for 2023. Sold out at both Hatfield Park and Leeds’ Temple Newsam, it feels like the booming attendance at the UK’s annual celebration of the sunny side of punk and metal is indicative of a broader resurgence in the appetite for all things alternative. And, although that means long queues and countless bodies to navigate our way around on-site, it also makes for an atmosphere unlike any other as an army of the finest bands from our world descend to get the summer started with a showcase of their sweetest and most off-the-chain tunes.

K! were at the heart of the action with the two-stage Kerrang! Tent hosting a run of incredible performances and our new apparel range selling like hotcakes. As always, we were alongside you at the heart of the action, too, to chronicle every fist pumped, shirt ripped and tear shed on the first big festival weekend of summer 2023...

ZANDAmazon Rock Scene Stage, Leeds

Slam Dunk Leeds’ towering Rock Scene stage has seen its fair share of misfits and malcontents over the years, but few have packed quite as much vibrancy or positivist punch as ZAND. It’s already been a big year for the ‘ugly pop’ trailblazer, but as they crash on to kickstart shenanigans up North with gimp-masked dancer in tow, it feels like there's a ravenous hunger for more. Where the moody rock-rap-electro blend of I Spit On Your Grave and Slut Money pulsate on record, they rock the field here, with bass-heavy waves of angst, agony and green-winged defiance flowing into a no-holds-barred Slammy D debut for the ages.

HeriotKnotfest Stage, Hatfield

It’s still the morning. While stomachs are still digesting breakfast, Heriot open the Knotfest Stage with the ferocious nature of someone who really fucking hates the AM hours. “Wake the fuck up,” roars guitarist/vocalist Debbie Gough as the already sizeable crowd follows their every command by ripping open the first circle-pits of the day. They’re arguably the heaviest band on this bill (sorry, Malevolence), but their brutality is controlled with sublime execution as they lay waste to tent with their short 30-minute set. This is a band who are going to rise fast, and they’re busting skulls on the way.

VUKOVIAmazon Rock Scene Stage, Leeds

Amidst choppy winds, the PA seems to struggle with VUKOVI in Leeds. The incendiary Scots are old hands as Slam Dunk, though, and they manage to keep ramping it up. With guitarist Hamish Reilly’s car-wreck riffs along with singer Janine Shilstone’s urgent vocals and gleefully gobby between-song exclamations being flung across this gaping main stage, C.L.A.U.D.I.A and La Di Da rip open Leeds’ first real mosh of the day. As anyone who’s caught one of the headline dates on their ongoing NULA tour will know, these guys have long since had the material to keep the party going for far longer than their allocated 35 minutes. But there’s an underdog snarl about their set that suggests they’re still at their best when punching up.

Higher PowerKnotfest Stage, Hatfield

Leeds hardcore-cum-alt.rockers Higher Power bring another high-octane display to SD, and despite a few rogue moments of feedback, the quartet waste no time in getting their contingent bouncing. Once the early sound issues subside, they (ahem) power their way through a set consisting of jangly anthems like Passenger and Low Season with great precision. Higher Power just want people to vibe with them, and it’s something reciprocated throughout, making this another shrewd win for Slam Dunk.

Trash BoatAmazon Rock Scene Stage, Leeds

Trash Boat have come a long way since winning the people’s vote to open Slam Dunk’s Fresh Blood stage all the way back in 2015. For those lucky/creaky enough to remember that rough-edged, rambunctious first run-out, it’s remarkable how the St Albans quintet have grown. The banging Bad Entertainment and Alpha Omega confirm the prowess they’ve built, while Tobi Duncan’s all-court swagger through the likes of Delusions Of Grandeur ("I want to see this place spin like a fucking Beyblade!") underlines his status as one of British rock’s most formidable frontmen. Hell, they even drop a savage cover of Linkin Park’s Given Up. Tantalisingly, there's more new material on the horizon. On today's evidence, it should catapult them even closer to superstardom.

Spanish Love SongsKerrang! Stage, Leeds

Dylan Slocum's voice feels like it could scarcely carry any more aching bittersweetness right from the first lines of Spanish Love Songs' incredible lunchtime set in Leeds. Turning Kerrang!'s own double-staged tent (coined to coincide with the launch of our excellent new apparel range) into a gaping temple of melancholy, every song – from the aptly-titled Routine Pain to the surging Generation Loss – feels geared to stress the Los Angeles collective's building reputation as contemporary emo leaders. They've just confirmed that their fourth LP, due on August 25, will be named No Joy, but its lead single Haunted wrings out a far broader range of emotions than that’d suggest before Brave Faces, Everyone forces every voice in attendance to send us off with happy tears in our eyes.

Scene QueenKey Club Stage, Leeds

"Every time I come to this city, it's somehow even more feral than the time before," grins Scene Queen to a thoroughly unhinged afternoon crowd over on Leeds' Key Club Stage. There’s good reason for that. If it wasn’t evident when the New York Bimbocore monarch (real name Hannah Collins) dared to call out the worst of her contemporaries on uncompromising recent single 18+, it certainly is as she vies for attention with many of the best of them this weekend. From Pink Panther to, er, Pink G-String, it’s a riot of rosy fabric and ‘twerkle-pits’. Barbie & Ken (retitled Barbara & Kenneth and featuring WARGASM's Sam Matlock) and the swinging cover of Katy Perry's I Kissed A Girl are particularly manic highlights. And even though a handful of punters seem to have come just to roll their eyes, it only makes the glitter-encrusted half-hour all the more righteously enjoyable for the rest of us.

Holding AbsenceAmazon Rock Scene Stage, Hatfield

If there’s one band this weekend that truly deserves their spot on the coveted main stage, it’s Welsh post-hardcore crew Holding Absence. Fresh off a U.S. tour, the four-piece hit Slam Dunk with the swaggering confidence of a headliner, backed by a raft of bangers. Gravity and Afterlife are met with a rapturous response, with the crowd ripping their own vocal cords screaming back every single lyric word for word. This is a real moment. Take this as their audition for headlining this place in the future.

Static DressKnotfest Stage, Leeds

There's a red-hooded figure in a white T-shirt and blue jeans slung up on a massive cross, along with several fuzzed-up CRT monitors, at the back of the stage for Static Dress' gloriously unshackled set in the steaming Knotfest tent on Sunday afternoon. This kind of abstract, inventive theatricality feels par for course at this stage. After introducing themselves to an army of new fans at the post-COVID edition of Slam Dunk in 2021, frontman Olli Appleyard triggered minor hysteria when he misleadingly tweeted “if you’re attending slamdunk festival this weekend keep an eye out…” last year. (They weren’t playing, just shifting some vinyl.) 2023 feels like the first time Leeds’ own post-hardcore crew are playing on their own gleefully twisted terms. With an audience that’s already digested last year’s brilliant debut Rouge Carpet Disaster, the searing, serrated likes of Push Rope and Courtney, Just Relax seem to have reached their thrilling final form.

WARGASMAmazon Rock Scene Stage, Hatfield

Despite their equipment not making here in time and having to borrow from other bands, WARGASM attempt to use that frustration to add more petrol to their already ‘fuck-this’ attitude. “We’ve been through hell to be here,” shouts Milkie Way, before they smash their way through D.R.I.L.D.O. Sadly, while their wall of fuzz usually hits the right notes, their performance today feels like a bowl of ready salted crisps that have been left out all day in the sun – the expected crunch is missing.

Real FriendsKerrang! Stage, Hatfield

What Real Friends do best is put on a display that makes you want to throw your arms up in the air, scream your lungs out into the ceiling of the Kerrang! Tent and pour out your emotions with your mates. From Tell Me You’re Sorry to Me First, the emo-pop-rockers are in fine spirits and look absolutely stoked to be playing to such a sizeable crowd. Their songs are echoed around the tent with the band jumping in unison with their dedicated following. All in all, a lovely time.

Boston ManorKerrang! Stage, Leeds

It’s legitimately difficult to cram into the Kerrang! Tent thanks to the sea of craned necks and sweaty bodies assembled for Boston Manor. After a busy spring for the Blackpool boys – March’s Australian tour followed by shows in mainland Europe through April – they could be forgiven a little complacency. Instead, the Brit-punk bannermen feel energised and focused to be playing back on home turf: battle-hardened, road-ready. The darker, moodier, more adult feel of songs from last year’s Datura like Crocus, Foxglove and Floodlights In The Square – not to mention their ski-mask stage dressing – might be better suited to neon-streaked winter nights than sun-dappled summer afternoons like this, but such is the poise and confidence of Henry Cox and his less-than-merry men that Leeds is still left with chills.

NOAHFINNCEKey Club Stage, Hatfield

With a massive online following thanks to his open and honest YouTube channel, what NOAHFINNCE shares with his crowd is a connection that goes deeper than the music. “This song is about my undiagnosed ADHD,” he shouts before bopping through Worms (Inside My Head). Surprisingly, there are minimal phones in the sky, replaced by good-old-fashioned hands clapping, waving and throwing horns. What Noah does best during his set is keeping the crowd solely focused on him, encapsulating them with his energetic charm, with tunes that make you feel good – the perfect fit for Slam Dunk.

Kids In Glass HousesAmazon Rock Scene Stage, Hatfield

"It's been a minute," grins Aled Phillips, understating things somewhat. Nine years' worth of minutes, actually, since Kids In Glass Houses last set foot on a stage, a time during which SD top man Ben Ray has been chasing them to get back together and play the fest. Largely marking the 15th birthday of their excellent Smart Casual album, the Welsh pop-rock heroes draw one of the day's biggest crowds to the Rock Scene Stage, and at some moments look overwhelmed by the reaction.

Dressed in a suit (in this heat!), popping moves like a post-hardcore Prince and taking to the barrier to lead the sing-alongs, Aled is a man on a mission, with no rust or cobwebs anywhere. In one glorious voice, Matters At All, Saturday and Easy Tiger are sung joyously back, and it all feels like a very special moment for all involved. Welcome back, boyos.

The MenzingersKerrang! Stage, Leeds

Is there a band more ardently adored at Slam Dunk 2023 as The Menzingers? On the strength of tears of joy shed alone, we’d wager not. As much as the Pennsylvanian punks get hung up on their encroaching middle-age, they’re in an irresistible sweet spot for this ecstatic audience, combining the unabashed energy of the festival's younger generation with the roadworn gravitas of its veterans. They've also got far too many classic songs to fit into a 45-minute greatest hits set like this. Going hell for leather though, they drop them thick and fast, with Gregor Barnett and Tom May tag-teaming vocals through punchy, poignant blue-collar anthems. When they announce the completion of their long-awaited eighth album and drop fresh cut There's No Place In This World For Me, it’s a promise that they’ve still got miles left in the tank.

Maggie LindemannKey Club Stage, Hatfield

Maggie Lindemann has had a busy week. Off the back of a huge sold-out UK tour, the rising TikTok star hits the Key Club Stage with all the presence and confidence of a future mega icon. Looking around the crowd, her reach has people as young six years old, to old punk dads, rocking along to her swaggering alt.pop, with Self Sabotage and Crash And Burn highlighting the skilled writing of this young, up and coming pop-punk queen.

PVRISAmazon Rock Scene Stage, Leeds

When Lyndsey Gunnulfsen spoke to Kerrang! about life on tour with PVRIS recently, she espoused the importance of embracing the quiet moments to de-stress and maintain perspective when things get loud. They get absolutely deafening today. The massive crowd assembled at Leeds’ Rock Scene stage scatter any lingering doubts as to whether her Massachusetts pop-rockers are, indeed, a Very Big Deal. Their sounds fit the bill with ever more effortless cool: the hip-swinging energy, synthetic adventure and sheer polish of Gimme A Minute, Death Of Me and Goddess (featuring singer Charlotte Sands) glinting in the setting sun. PVRIS remain one of the most important – and danceable – acts in modern alternative music.

CreeperKerrang! Stage, Leeds

It's not every day that a show begins with the keyboardist holding her frontman's severed head aloft. Then again, very few bands are anything like Creeper. Picking up where the onstage narrative left off at last November's staggering London Roundhouse performance, they're using this evening's Kerrang! Stage co-headline to kick off their vampiric new Sanguivore era. The theatricality is, as always, perfectly on point, with the new ‘William Von Gould’ sporting greased-back hair and blood-spattered black threads to match his bandmates’. There's a fresh bite to songs like Cyanide and a circle-pit littered Suzanne, too. And when the outrageous goth swagger of single Cry To Heaven hits, it threatens to steal the whole damn weekend, sucking influence from heavier goth-rock forebears like Danzig and Sisters Of Mercy. A spectator injury mid-set pauses things for a sec, but there's simply no end to this crowd’s (blood)thirst for what Creeper might throw at them next.

YellowcardKerrang! Stage, Hatfield

One of the reunion bands this weekend, Yellowcard are given the task of closing proceedings of the Kerrang! Stage. It’s an occasion they rise to with sublime ease. With the tent overflowing, to at least another six rows’ deep outside, this feels like a crowd falling back in love with this band all over again. “We haven’t been a band for seven years, and we thought these days were over,” admits vocalist Ryan Key. With the emotion of being together again palpable, the second chance really gives the pop-punks a sting in their tail as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of hit album Ocean Avenue. There’s a big birthday party vibe, and this victorious gig is real testament to how stoked Slam Dunk are that the band are back together.

Bowling For SoupDickies Stage, Hatfield

There's so many people gathered at the massive Dickies Stage for Bowling For Soup that those of the back struggle to hear. Or, they might, if there wasn't thousands of people singing every ruddy word. As ever, the Texas pop-punk kings are an absolute blast, dropping bangers and banter in equal measure. There's a riotous Girl All The Bad Guys Want, disgusting talk of where calamari comes from, a massive sing-song for Ohio (Come Back To Texas), and more horsing around than a weekend at a stud farm. Jaret Reddick takes a pause from the almost endless stream of jokes to remind us that "the world is a better place with you in it" before a closing romp through 1985, and self-evidently, Bowling For Soup remain one of music's greatest operatives in making you feel brilliant.

MalevolenceKnotfest Stage, Leeds

There's an ominous heat emanating from the front of the Knotfest tent before Malevolence even step on in Leeds. The Sheffield metallers have pounded blood, sweat and tears into festival fields and venue floorboards, not just across the UK but around the world over the past 12 months. Indeed, they've interrupted a U.S. tour to make Slam Dunk 2023, and frontman Alex Taylor insists that he's not flown 4,000 miles to watch this throng of fellow Northerners stand still. A horde of mosh-hungry brutalists heaving towards the barrier duly oblige. Having become accustomed to the coppery taste of cuts like Life Sentence and Still Waters Run Deep from last year's Malicious Intent, every snarling riff, chest-beating chorus and earthquaking breakdown inspires a limb-flinging, neck-rending response. And, by the time they get to soul-scourging closer On Broken Glass, tired voices reach their growling crescendo – which is no more than Britain’s most bruising band deserves.

The OffspringDickies Stage, Leeds

The Offspring don’t need many bells and whistles to make their Dickies Stage headline feel special. Stepping out to a sprawling crowd, the Garden Grove legends just drop sunbaked banger after banger until every one of the tired bodies in front of them is moving. Come Out And Play. Want You Bad. Staring At The Sun. Hit That. Hammerhead. “I’ve heard that saying, ‘It’s grim up North!’” teases evergreen guitarist Noodles. “But no way. Look at you guys: this is beautiful!” Whether battering through a classic rock medley of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, Iron Maiden’s The Trooper and Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine, spuriously claiming that there are 1,999,004 fans in attendance, or complaining with tongues in cheek that they can’t hear themselves speak over Enter Shikari’s riotous set on the other side of the park, there’s an effortless, playful cool that only comes from the experience of nearly 40 years as a band. And their closing salvos – Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) and The Kids Aren’t Alright before an encore of You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid and Self Esteem – could hardly be better for closing a weekend like this.

Enter ShikariAmazon Rock Scene Stage, Hatfield

After scoring their first-ever UK Number One album, announcing a massive UK arena tour, and once again having the world completely at their feet, Enter Shikari’s headline set feels like a victory lap. The stakes have risen, and the production has become even more spectacular, with a castle of screens emitting mind-bending graphics behind a band who can do no wrong. Shikari have always been one of the UK’s greatest live exports, but on this form it feels like they’re just getting started, as everything hits with all the precision of a Michelin star chef; everything went out to service with pure excellence.

Opener, (pls) set me on fire, from their brilliant new album A Kiss For The Whole World, is already earning its place within Shikari folklore as a crowd-pleaser. Following it with a triple assault of Juggernauts, Anything Can Happen In The Next Half Hour and Labyrinth, really is just taking the piss, but in the best possible way. When you have a back catalogue as extensive, as eclectic and as wonderful as this, it makes for a truly immersive experience. Later joined by WARGASM for their banger The Void Stares Back, and the enigmatic Cody Frost for Bull and The Last Garrison, the St Albans four-piece finish things off with the feeling of a band entering new era, but with all the excitement they brought when they first burst onto the scene over 15 years ago.

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