Slam Dunk North Review Part 1: A Spectacular Fusion Of Music And Energy
The very first second I stepped onto the Temple Newsam grounds, I felt what I feel every year: the mixture of happiness and anxiety, knowing you’ll see your favorite bands whilst also knowing you’re going to have to make a run for it to see the other favorites, conveniently placed at the very same time at the other side of the field. The thought of being with my friends, holding their hands and crying to the songs we love together (let me live, I’m very emo) filled me with pure joy over the last couple of weeks, and now it’s finally here again. Slam Dunk 2023.
At least for this day, I feel at home, surrounded by all the misfits and outcasts that are just as in love with music as I am. That being said, I’m also a woman, in a scene that hasn’t always been the safest place (for women and LGBTQ+ people alike). Alternative music has always been more open to ‘us’ than any other genre, but we all know some questionable lyrics in the songs we love. Nowadays however, nearly 1 in 3 acts (specifically 16 in 58) on this day feature one or more women on stage, proving the genre and the festival are making steps towards a more inclusive experience for everyone. Slam Dunk also works with Safe Gigs for Women and Mad Millennials, to reduce the anxiety some of us experience regarding sexual assault or mental health issues, hoping to make the festival one of the safest places to be in the scene. This way, everyone in the audience will hopefully experience that same feeling of being at home.
As both a kick-ass photographer and writer (if I may say so myself), I tried to make the Slam Dunk schedule reflect my own beliefs as feminist and mental health advocate. Sometimes, there’s been some conflict between the two, for example in choosing between Scene Queen and Dragged Under, or The Academy Is… and PVRIS. Once, the feminist won. The other time, my sense of nostalgia and my inner kid won. Just know that the anxiety between picking what to see today, has been worse than fighting my way through a clashfinder as a guest. Woe is me, right?
Four Year Strong:
Over the last decade, Four Year Strong has become a staple on the Slam Dunk line-up, always guaranteeing a high-energy party everyone will leave satisfied. The beard-powered ‘pop-punk’ band (another band where the genre doesn’t really do the music justice) is known for their fast guitar riffs, making the audience start one of the strongest and biggest mosh-pits of the day.
This band is just such a blast every time I see them live. The music feels very colourful and positive, whilst going hard as hell. Even the covers they play are done in the most Four Year Strong way. I’m a big fan of Green Day (my go-to screen name is based on the song Christie Road) so I’ll always enjoy Brain Stew/Jaded, even done by other bands. And they do it very well, putting their own spin on any cover they do. It’s also quite an accomplishment to sound just as tight live as they do on their records, knowing how much energy and precision goes into each song.
Seriously though, how do they do these riffs so fast? I really need to catch my breath after just listening to it. I think their beards might actually be magical.
Kids In Glass Houses:
This year’s Slam Dunk is filled with reunions of bands, in this case, the Welch men are celebrating 15 years of their debut ‘Smart Casual’. They described this record as their own ‘John Hughes coming-of-age era’ and this comparison feels completely accurate. For anyone that’s unfamiliar with this name or simply needs a refresher: he was responsible for movies like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty In Pink and Sixteen Candles, all the 80s teen comedies, basically.
The energy in the set does read like a story fit for a movie, as they play the entire record from start to finish. They are even dressed as if they are the main characters in the story. It’s a story of the summers we spent in our teens, meeting the perfect girl that got away, and spending our weekends with friends without a care in the world. This is the soundtrack to a perfect festival day in sunny Leeds. And don’t you dare forget about me.
In recent years the pop-punk scene has had quite the resurgence, finding their way into the mainstream more too, much to the chagrin of parts of the scene. Especially popular acts will receive hostile reactions for making easily listenable music. Hell, I’ve done it myself with Girlfriends earlier today (I’m sure they’ll become a part of my playlists soon anyway). Grayscale have grown a lot over the last 5 years since they first performed at Slam Dunk. The band itself would rather describe themselves as alternative rock, and the pop-punk genre might be a little too restrictive for a band like them.
Grayscale try to set themselves apart with their lyrics and subject choices. Most people at Slam Dunk are in their 20s and 30s, generally speaking. We’re dealing with other things besides the crushes we had when we were teens. We’re dealing with divorces, losing loved ones and addiction. The lyrics are more mature than we regularly see in pop-punk, with a poetic touch to them. The band’s music still has some pop-punk vibes, being very melodic in general, but the use of choir vocals or horn players and other instruments is what sets them apart as well. It’s a shame those additions aren’t part of the live ensemble yet, but it’s telling they have bigger ambitions than just this one specific genre can offer them.
The influence of TikTok on the music industry is noticeable in the next couple of artists, but it wouldn’t be fair to cut these women short by just describing them as TikTok artists. They just happened to explode through it. LØLØ cites artists like Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff as influences, with lyrics from “Josie and the Pussycats” (Kay Hanley) in her Instagram bio. These artists should tell you a bit of the kind of music to expect from her: this one is for the girls.
It’s leaning more towards pop than it does rock, so it might rub some of the people at the festival the wrong way. There’s a lot of ill feelings towards artists like her, because of the use of samples and the so-called pandering to TikTok audiences by writing short hooks that can be used as sounds on the platform. I do wonder why we don’t reserve the same energy for bands like Fall Out Boy for doing the same thing.
LØLØ doesn’t really care to pretend to be anything she’s not, to try to fit into the scene that wasn’t built with her in mind. Whilst some women choose to wear a more ‘alternative’ outfit (also completely fine obviously), there’s just as much room for women that choose to present theirselves in a more feminine way. Either way, we’re not here to judge a fashion show, are we? There were a couple of men in the crowd being negative towards her, which she skill-fully shot down. The performance by her was fun and the vocals sound just as clear as they do on her records, making it easy to listen to. It’s honestly the perfect time of the day for the positive summer vibe she brings. There was also a feature by the singer from Girlfriends, and the amount of collabs at the festival is really fun to see.
Another one of the feminine acts of this year is Scene Queen. As she stated in the past when talking about her EP Bimbocore: “Women have spent far too long making themselves small for other people’s comfort. I realized that the louder I am and the more out of the box I get, the bigger the box gets, and the more room there is for other women to get inside it.” And boy, is she loud about it.
I see a lot of similarities between LØLØ and Scene Queen, even though they are in different subgenres. Both women gained a lot of popularity through TikTok and Scene Queen also uses familiar interpolations in her songs, for example the Pink Panther theme. Speaking of, there’s a lot of pink in both her music and on-stage presence, and I love every bit of it. Even though she’s not in a headlining spot, it seems only a matter of time until she does, since she got one of the most popular sets of the day, getting one of the most active crowds of the day as well, with a massive amount of crowdsurfers. Scene Queen brought Sam Matlock from Wargasm on for the song she originally sang with Set It Off’s Cody Carson. All to say: Scene Queen is one of the acts to keep an eye on for sure.
Over the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of steps towards an inclusive scene, but because of the very recent growth into this direction, most of the acts featuring women are placed at the start of the day. This is a clear sign of the scene changing though, since most of the opening acts are just starting out. One of the opening acts is Sincere Engineer, who recently toured with Billy Talent, The Menzingers and Yellowcard (all playing today as well!). Opening a festival is always going to be a little tricky when everyone is still trying to get onto the grounds, and Sincere Engineer has the unfortunate luck to be programmed at the same time as Zand, but has gotten a bit of a crowd anyway.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen a lot of solo women tour with bands, almost growing into their own subgenre within the alternative scene. Acts like Kayleigh Goldsworthy (LS Dunes), Oceanator (La Dispute) and Pom Pom Squad (PUP) come to mind. I’ve been vibing with their music more than the bands they were supporting, and I think that’s because we were due a little representation in the scene. I’ll relate to their lyrics more, simply for having a ‘similar’ point of view. Sincere Engineer fits within this ‘subgenre’, although calling it this is doing all of them a disservice. It features lead singer Deanna Belos’s lyrics, with a band to accompany her during shows. The songs are honest, angsty and raw, with elements of humor and bluntness, making it all feel a little more personal too. More please!
Everything about Girlfriends is exactly what I like about pop-punk. The music is catchy as hell, and they’re exactly the kind of band I’d have been obsessed with a couple of years ago. They sound great live as well, and you can clearly hear the influences from bands like Blink182, All Time Low and 5 Seconds Of Summer in their songs. Everything is exactly how it’s supposed to be, and yet I feel a little sad that I don’t like them as much as I know I would’ve liked them if they existed 10 years earlier.
The lyrics reflect the influences from the early aughts as well, which isn’t always the best thing. Lyrics like ‘life’s a bitch, her name is Brittany’ would’ve been better off left in that era. Overall the lyrics feel a little cheesy as well, but seeing the aforementioned bands are still thriving on the same premise, I can’t hold that against them that much. Sometimes you need a little cheesiness. There’s nothing wrong with the ingredients of their recipe, and I’ll probably listen to the songs more in the future, but it all stays a bit surface level, it’s not making my heart beat faster and make me fall in love with it… yet. The recipe is just missing that one ingredient for me, that thing that’ll make them stand out and move the genre into new territory instead of returning to the old. It’s perfectly fine for the ones that don’t like to think about it all that much, and just want to have a good time.
Today is the perfect day for a party and Gogol Bordello is the perfect band to give us one. Whilst they certainly bring all the fun, there’s a lot more than meets the eye. Solidarity is a big theme with this band, also speaking the show to the Ukrainian background of Eugene Hütz, the lead singer to the band. By standing with Ukraine, we stand together.
The band is all about coming together in our similarities, not alienating those that are different than us. They convey this message through a dance party filled with singalongs, where band and audience are equally rowdy, making the sense of camaraderie amongst everyone bigger by the minute. Reading they intend to ‘smuggle’ some of their Romani culture into the English speaking world makes perfect sense. The sun even comes out to play, which seems awfully fitting.
It feels a bit strange that a band that’s been around since 2001 hasn’t performed at Slam Dunk before, and that they have been scheduled on such an early time slot compared to their status as “emo heavyweights”. Most people will have heard they’re dramatic and slightly over the top ‘Ohio Is For Lovers’ and not that many other songs. I severely underestimated their popularity though. The energy the highly underrated band puts into the performance makes the crowd very enthusiastic about everything they perform.
A lot of bands get a little jaded playing that one hit night in night out, but Hawthorn Heights seems to understand it’s brought them a lot of good along the way. The enthusiasm shown by the band throughout their set, shows how happy they are to get to reach new audiences with their music. If that’s due to just one song, they haven’t done all that bad. The fairly ‘unnoticed’ legends definitely deserve to get more love for the rest of their discography as well, and they have more than achieved this today.
There’s a bit of a pattern in the women having to be at the top of their game more than their male counterparts. We tend to hold them to a higher standard from the start, not allowing them to make any mistakes. There’s an underlying feeling of not being in the right place and any mistake you make, inevitably makes someone go “see, they don’t belong here”. But Charlotte Sands belongs on the stage and you can tell with every move she makes.
The music is incredibly captivating and powerful, but can also feel a little heavy on the heart at times. There’s always a silver lining shining through in every song though. Especially ‘Alright’ hits close to home for me, ending on a positive note with lyrics like ‘heard it gets good, I’m thinking that I could in time’. It’s very self-aware and reflective, touching upon themes like imposter syndrome, doubting yourself and mental health struggles.
It’s Sands’ mission to make a space for people to feel accepted and less alone, something that she’s definitely succeeding in. You don’t need to go at it alone, and the togetherness of the community hopefully takes away some of the weight of our individual troubles. The feeling of friendship in the crowd is palpable, which is one of the biggest accomplishments for any artist.
I’ve grown up in a scene that wasn’t really made for women, and I felt a little out of place in the crowd at the punk shows I visited. I was more drawn to the shows by pop-punk bands, because those audiences were mostly women as well. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good punk band, but I always felt like I didn’t really belong there. When I wanted to enter a moshpit, I was treated with kid gloves, gently pushed aside. Seeing a band like Destroy Boys fills me with envy towards the girls that get to experience the genre in a different way than I did, looking up to other badass women on stage and in the pit.
The music is very rough around the edges, the vocals are raw and gritty, and the 80s punk influences shine through. I love how angry and pissed off they sound and the lyrics reflect it. The unpolished character with its imperfections would and should be be applauded and make for a wild crowd, regardless of the identities of the people on stage. It’s a shame they are on this early in the day, making people still a little wary to spend a lot of energy in the moshpit.