In 2016, Slam Dunk Festival changed its Midlands venue from Wolverhampton Civic Hall to the far bigger Birmingham NEC campus. It’s a festival that has expanded year by year, adding more stages and attracting bigger names like You Me at Six and Panic! at the Disco. This year it’s the turn of Enter Shikari – a noticeably heavier and more experimental choice – celebrating the tenth anniversary of their wonderful debut album. Standing inside the Genting Arena and absorbing its vastness is a brilliant experience because it feels like Shikari are a band just too weird to be filling spaces this big. Last year’s Ally Pally gig was proof that they can decimate arenas, but their presence still feels like a delightful infiltration of mainstream culture as I walk past posters of artists who have played this venue like Katy Perry, Jay Z and Kanye West. How would Shikari’s headline set compare to the legendary circle pits of the Adele show here in 2016?
I spent most of the day at the Signature Brew stage because it was outside in the sun and the lineup was excellent. Up first were Sorority Noise, who are touring off the back of their pretty decent new album and they open with the fantastic ‘No Halo’ to start the day off strongly. Though they were an energetic live band, after fifteen minutes I found myself becoming disinterested by the more generic pop-punk songs, so I went into the arena to watch Crossfaith. Crossfaith are a band that I have always found to be unlistenable shit on record, but they have a well-earned reputation as being fantastic live. They fully deserved the large crowd that came to watch them tear through a brilliant set, peaking with a wild cover of ‘Omen’ by The Prodigy.
Next up, one of the UK’s finest young bands – Milk Teeth. ‘Brickwork’ and ‘Crows Feet’ from last year’s impressive debut album go down a storm early on, but encouragingly it’s new song ‘Owning Your Okayness’ that really sets the place off. It’s great to see a young and enthusiastic crowd turn out for a band that should be playing much bigger stages next year, especially armed with anthems like ‘Swear Jar’. Moving back inside, Black Foxxes are just about to play ‘Husk’ – one of the best songs of last year by a British band. Unfortunately, after that they decide to play two underwhelming new songs which leaves the atmosphere in the room neutered compared to the riotous pits at Milk Teeth. The set picks back up when the band returns to familiar material, highlighted by an immaculate performance of ‘River’. One of the heaviest bands on the lineup, Bury Tomorrow are delayed due to technical issues, but when they finally come on they tear through their opening few songs.
Although they could seem a bit out of place at Slam Dunk musically, Turnover and their modest anthems go down a treat in the sun. They announce that they’re aiming to release the follow up to Peripheral Vision by the end of the year, then close out their set with brilliant one-two of ‘Hello Euphoria’ and ‘Dizzy On the Comedown’. Straight afterwards comes the first show of 2017 for Citizen, who also announce a new album due in the autumn and play a rousing set comprising mostly of songs from Youth. Right from the opening lines of first song ‘The Summer’, the band delight their fans and win over new ones with impassioned performances of songs like ‘Silo’ and ‘The Night I Drove Alone’. Only ‘Cement’ and ‘Yellow Love’ are played from their last album but both stand out as highlights.
After about five minutes I’ve had more than enough of the beige as fuck Deaf Havana, so it’s time to get angry with hardcore punk band Stray from the Path. The tiny Impericon Stage cannot accommodate everyone who wants to get a good look and it’s obvious why. “Who wants to be in a music video?” is a rallying cry met with an onslaught of crowdsurfers as the band powers through ‘The House Always Wins’.
I should feel a surge of hometown pride gazing out at the vast and ecstatic crowd watching Bedford’s very own Don Broco. I don’t though because they’re shite and also they went to Bedford Modern (boooooo private school). To clarify, they’re not shite live. They’re actually very energetic and clearly having an absolute blast. Unfortunately, even when played to perfection, their songs are still crap, but I appreciated Rob Damiani calling for a giant pit during their final song so that I can take advantage to nab a good spot for the headliners.
With respect, Enter Shikari are light-years ahead of every other band at the festival. There’s something brilliant about seeing them in the limbo period between eras, when a new album is near completion but not yet announced. Just like at Reading 2014 a few months before their best album yet The Mindsweep was announced, there is hunger and confidence overflowing from the stage. Towards the end of the set, Rou cheekily informs the audience that they are adding the finishing touches to the best record of their lives. They play this headline set with the excitement and self-belief of a band that has just created something brilliant, but has it kept all to themselves for just a little longer.
I was initially sceptical about the idea of Shikari playing Take To The Skies in full. Playing an album in its entirety is a move regularly pulled by bands that are past it and have nothing new to offer, or bands who never had it in the first place who want to cash in on nostalgia like The Fratellis and The Pigeon Detectives. Enter Shikari are a progressive creative force, improving and expanding on their sound with each album. To look backwards risked eulogising Take to the Skies by placing more emphasis and praise on it than deserved, as if it remains their grandest work yet to be equalled by its followups. Thankfully, the show is not that at all. The urgent synths of their self-titled track signal the band’s arrival and the reaction of the crowd as Rou starts screaming make it clear that this is who most people have come to see. Shikari mix up the order of the songs and incorporate some of their best material that came after into the set. The crowd goes just as batshit for ‘The Last Garrison’ as for ‘Sorry, You’re Not a Winner’ and ‘Mothership’. As the election looms, ‘Anaesthetist’ feels particularly incendiary with its threat of “You will not profit off our health” yelled by thousands.
What makes this the best Enter Shikari show I have seen is not only the mastery of the performance, but also the number of euphoric moments they fit into 80 minutes. The “standing like statues” chant. “We’ll break the walls” near the end of ‘Labyrinth’. “The curtain goes down” crescendo in ‘Anything Can Happen In the Next Half Hour’. Rou letting the crowd to yell “You do this every fucking time” in ‘No Sssweat’. “SWIIIIIIITCH” in ‘Juggernauts’ when the guitars and drums kick back in. These are the moments that bands need if they’re going to headline festivals and Enter Shikari have them on tap.
If anything, these anniversary shows might be a send-off to a lot of these old songs. The November arena tour will see the return of a lot of post-TTTS material and hopefully a new album, which will leave little room in the setlist for songs like ‘Johnny Sniper’. But if there is one I hope they never retire it has to be ‘Return to Energiser’. It’s the standout moment of the day, with the jaw-dropping green lasers shooting out from the stage into the arena’s upper levels and all the way to the seating at the back during the song’s bridge section. It’s a song that twists and turns until reaching its peak when Rou screams “That’s not what you want” as the crowd goes mental. The main set closes with a touching performance of ‘Adieu’, played on this tour for the first time since 2009, sang back by a crowd aware they will likely never see it live again.
The encore includes the song I’ve been desperate to finally see Shikari play, ‘Ok, Time for Plan B’, ending the show with a intensity few other bands can match. I assumed this would be the climax, but Enter Shikari have always been a band to subvert expectations and keep fans on their toes. They tear into an outrageous version of ‘The Appeal & the Mindsweep II’ and guitarist Rory climbs into the crowd to be held aloft triumphantly by front row fans drenched in sweat. Although these Slam Dunk shows are all about commemorating the past, finishing the set with the last song on their most recent studio album is a clear message that Shikari are still a band justly proud of their later albums and always looking to the future. Go see them in November, you bellend.