Review by Sarah Williams. Photos by Alia Thomas, video by Rob Piper.
When I first saw the line-up announcement for Punkle Fester, it was an immediate no-brain decision to go. Featuring the likes of Darko, Fair Dos, PMX and Almeida at the top of a bill of thirteen acts, it is conceivably the best UK skate-punk shred-fest I have ever encountered. The bar for this gig is set extremely high; clearly worth the four hour trip to The Talking Heads in Southampton.
We have Lee Warren and local Southampton skate-punks Captain Trips to thank for this monstrously good line-up, and they’re in good spirits when I rock up at Saturday lunchtime. Portsmouth trio The SLM kick things off, turning out silly fast punk reminiscent of The Ergs. They throw some nice metallic guitar licks into the mix, coming across a bit like a drunken NOFX practicing for a Slayer covers set. Or Slayer practicing for NOFX covers set, I can’t decide.
Their songs cover a range of important topics, with titles like Bitten By A Zombie, Turtle Shark and Here Come The Raptors. Vocalist/guitarist Rob clearly enjoys introducing the songs with rockstar-style flair, although the rest of the band keep ribbing him to keep within their allotted set time. Their new song Paradox Maradox adds a bit of depth to their set with some more earnest singing. They finish off with a cracking song about zombie sharks and a shout along of ‘sword, sword, sword!’ from the small but enthusiastic audience.
Between bands, Rich Mayor (frontman of Captain Trips) plays a quick acoustic set in the lavishly decorated front bar, adding some lovely atmosphere to the smoking terrace. He plays Give Me A Shout from his solo album Decade, which gives his voice a chance to shine without the force of a full band behind him. He’s got a unique sound that’s warm but rough around the edges, and a talent for a catchy songwriting.
The Bitter-Town Hounds bring a lot of hair and energy to the mix, introducing a welcome metal edge to the day. They make good use of on-stage space, playing off each other’s energy. Their drummer can’t run around but he looks like he wants to, hurling a lot of passion and energy into his kit. The vocalist has the perfect confident rock delivery and the bass really stands out, partly because of the great sound in The Talking Heads. The highlight of their set is an unexpected but deeply enjoyable cover of Suicidal Tendencies’ Cyco Vision. More of that, please.
Portsmouth’s melodic hardcore act Sombulance are next on the bill. They get a lot of support from the local crowd, and the exceptional sound quality means you can appreciate the detail in their compositions, particularly in Marc Morey’s inventive percussion and the interesting bass licks on songs like Downfall, which you might miss in a venue with poorer sound.
Their normal singer Dean Harwood is on paternity leave, so guitarist Will Pearce and Almeida’s Tom West are playing Sombulance karaoke, splitting vocal duties halfway through the set. Will’s gruffer vocals work really well on Better Left Behind and he puts a huge amount of force and feeling into Lifer, but it does mean they lack a second guitar for the first half of the set. When Westy joins them on stage, Will resumes his usual place in front of his pedal-board so that we can enjoy the full waterfall of cascading dual guitars on The Articulation of Afterthoughts.
It seems that relatively few of us have heard of London’s Screech Bats, but we’re pleasantly impressed with their set. I later find out that half the band were in Hearts Under Fire, who I loved, explaining why they sound so familiar. Singer, Esme, slinks around the stage; she’s got a warm, sultry voice that immediately appeals. Guitarist Kit has a heap of energy and some off-hand comments to entertain between songs. The high point in their set comes in a banger of a tune on the topic of aliens, called E.T. It shouldn’t be noteworthy, but I also really enjoy seeing an all-girl act smashing it, especially on a line-up that’s otherwise entirely male.
On A Hiding To Nothing are like a super-charged wind-up toy: they just keep going and going at breakneck pace, barely pausing to draw breath. It’s fast-faster-fastest upbeat bouncy punk to jump around to, a bit like early Greenday if you hooked them up to a car battery. Gag Reflex reminds me a lot of The Kimberly Steaks, or Teenage Bottlerocket with some added sense. On top of all that, they muster some outstanding triple-vocal harmonies.
OAHTN also take the biscuit for best onstage banter of the day, largely at the expense of their bald bassist: “You may recognise Jack from the poster.” They joke about his battle-hardened gig shirt, saying you can almost see the smell, which isn’t surprising for man constantly tearing around the stage, jumping and high-kicking. They also tell us a great story of a guitarist dislocating his knee on stage the night before, before finishing off on the staggeringly speedy tune, Swagger.
Southsea’s melodic gruff four-piece Misgivings take the speed down a notch and pour on relatable angst à la Husker Du or Gnarwolves. This is Will Pearce’s second performance of the day, having played with Sombulance earlier, however here he shares vocal and 6-string duties with Ollie Richardson. The combination of their two voices really works: Will sounds rounded and confident, whereas Ollie pulls off a rawer Leatherface-style rasp. They sadly announce that this is Joe Anderson’s last show on bass, with their drummer coming out from behind the kit to give him a big hug. One of their new songs (New Lows, I think) is a highlight of the set, filled with anger and discontent, promising good things for their next album.
Next to take the stage are London’s finest punk rockers, Müg. They point out that today’s been a real mates-fest and they’re right; there’s a great sense of camaraderie in the room, especially for these guys, who know literally everyone through their work on Umlaut Records. Rad Bandanas is driven by a riff that’s destined to invade your head for a week, and it’s impossible not to sing along to Necktie. At the end of a fantastic set they even treat us to a rare version of NOFX’s It’s My Job to Keep Punk Rock Elite and a few chugged bars of Lagwagon’s Mr Coffee. The ‘drinking coffee, I drink coffee everyday’ gabble at the end is a timely choice for a day that, for me, has been entirely fuelled by fast punk and excessive caffeine consumption.
They introduce their mascot, Düg (a world-weary rubber skull), tossing him out into the crowd for a kickabout. This backfires slightly as one particularly enthusiastic kick causes a girl to upend a full pint of coke into her hair. The bar staff also choose this moment to serve my dinner: it’s the first time I’ve seen ‘table service’ extend to the front-row of a crowd, and it feels like pure luxury. I also like to think I’m the only person to have awkwardly eaten a beer-battered mushroom during the guitar solo on Tweed and Elbow Pads.
Today’s heroes Captain Trips are next. As the promoters they gain a big, extremely enthusiastic crowd. They perform a storming melodic punk set that’s punctuated with heavier sections. They’ve got a great sense of urgency, ripping through three songs with no breaks, with drummer Andi Farrar holding it all together through some incredibly fast breaks.
Rich Mayor’s voice is somehow both gruff and incredibly smooth, complimented by seriously on-point harmonies from guitarist Phil Merritt. They play a new song that has some more accomplished, technical guitar work that packs a hell of a punch and promises big things for their next record. I love their recently released track Bottom of the River a little too much, but fortunately everyone else does too. They perform an exceptionally well thought-out cover of John Farnham’s You’re The Voice, which gets the entire crowd punching the air and yelling along with abandon. The singalongs in The Voice are a great primer for the ‘woooaaahoooh’ sections on their last and best song The Flood.
Grand Collapse are a mind-melting change of pace – certainly the hardest, most chaotic thrash of the evening. The hardcore fans are out in force for this set, with variations of both slam-dancing and ballroom-dancing on display. We also crack out a successful human pyramid for the first time today (as far as I’ve seen), as it’s probably illegal to watch a TNS band without one. Vocalist, Cavin Sewell, takes a ride on one audience member’s shoulders, spinning like a catastrophic totem-pole.
The ferocity of the noise matches the intensity of Calvin’s dead-eyed stare as he stalks moodily in front of the stage, spitting out acerbic verses. He looks like he’s glared into the abyss and survived to write an album about it. I stop and stare slack-jawed at their drummer, Glenn Tew, who looks like he’s having a well-choreographed fight with his kit. The lighter-toned guitars parts cut through the destructive force of the noise like a beam of hope, giving their whole sound a heavy metal undertone.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that tonight was less of a gig and more of a who-can-play-the-fastest contest, for which I think Almeida win the gold. Not only do they play at a superhuman pace, they do it with flawless technical flair while constantly navigating inventive rhythm-changes and flourishes. It’s enough to keep any audience on their toes for thirty straight minutes, but the South Coast crowd are out in force for this four-piece, screaming along and punching the sky during Kinslayer and air-shredding at every opportunity.
Each member of Almeida is overwhelmingly talented in their own right, and the crowd adores them for it. For Marc Morey and Tom West this is the second set of the day, having played in Sombulance earlier. Marc doesn’t stop grinning for the entire set, and Westy’s voice effortlessly slices clear through the backing. The exceptional sound quality really allows them to shine – you can hear every note of the vocal, and every technical twiddle on Baz’s bass. As another band’s bassist says to me later, “I had to check that he was playing the same instrument as me.” For me the highlight is their massive, atmospheric set-closer, Fantastic Massacre.
It’s hard to follow an act as precise as Almeida but if anyone’s going to do it, it’s PMX. As Fair Do’s put it later in the evening, “Back when you were dreaming of being in a skatepunk band PMX were actually doing it.” Possibly the most anticipated act of the day, it’s a rare treat to see the Scottish four-piece this far south.
PMX really are the crème de la crème of skate-punk. Every tune is clean, technical and loaded with mass appeal. Although they primarily play tracks from their most recent EP, huge songs like Brave Face have the power to transport you back to late ‘90’s skate soundtracks. John Harcus has one hell of a voice: clear, bold and roughened at the edges by his accent. He leads us through soaring verses and anthemic choruses; all of which is twinned with grin-inducing virtuoso lead guitar pieces. Pull The Trigger and Dark Days particularly stand out, as does the the instrumental intro to December Rained. It’s even more jealous-making for the fact that they appear to be quite smashed, and yet still able to play with a skill that puts the rest of us to shame.
Manchester’s Fair Dos are a revelation, continuing the theme of making the rest of us envious of their jaw-dropping technical ability. Early in the set, One of Life’s Great Lessons gets a huge reaction from the audience. Danny Cumming’s throaty hardcore vocals contrast perfectly with the cleaner, super-fast guitar twiddles thrown into every song. They’ve mastered building anticipation with every stop-start guitar part and solo. There are some seriously heavy thrash tunes in their set, with drummer John Holt playing with staggering force. He thunders unrelentingly through their twenty-five minute set, making it all look easy. They blend skate punk with heavy metal better than many other bands in the genre, every heavy breakdown is ridiculously fun.
As though today’s line-up hasn’t been killer enough, Darko arrive to give us a lesson holding the audience in the palm of your hand. There’s a small but extremely enthusiastic group in crowded right at the edge of the stage – notably, it’s primarily women down the front now, all rocking the fuck out. Timepieces & Lock Shaped Hearts inspires a huge singalong, fists raised and voices hoarse. The opening riff of Hiraeth completely fills me with joy. It feels like the band are giving 150%: deserved headliners of a day of ridiculously strong acts.
Singer, Dan Smith, has compelling stage presence, conducting the crowd and lending the band a lot more charisma and personality than your average hardore act. Drummer, Andy Borg has the calculated force and timing of a machine, unstoppably driving the show. There are few bands at this level who deliver duelling lead guitars quite as well as Darko, at its most fun on the stop-start tennis-match section on Atlas To Atlantis. They mellow on the opening to Life Forms, giving us all of thirty seconds to catch our breath before hurtling into more finger-tapping madness. They encourage us to squeeze in even closer to the stage for The Smarter I Think I Am…, close enough to literally watch the sweat flying off bassist, Karl Sursham’s, beard. They don’t look like they’ve planned an encore, but at the chanted demand of the crowd they return with We Can Stand For Something More, ending an incredible day on a high.
Punkle Fester has immediately rocketed into my top gigs of the year. It is special not only for the flawless roster of bands, but also for the quality of sound and the size of the venue. Although there were plenty of people in The Talking Heads it felt like an intimate show; wandering around the venue there were plenty of mates to run into and new people to get to know. I could have spent the last three hours just staring in awe at drummers, or marvelling at all the duelling electric guitars; it’s been a relentless technical masterpiece from start to finish. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any better, another band would turn up and suddenly slay your expectations.
I cannot fathom how Lee Warren and Captain Trips can possibly top this next year, but if Punkle Fester 2018 happens you would be a complete fool to miss it.
Review by Sarah Williams. Photos by Alia Thomas, video by Rob Piper.