Bristol. It’s the home of Banksy, boats, bloody good cider and – for just one day a year – a sweaty, beer-fuelled celebration of rock, alternative and metal music in the form of Hit The Deck Festival.
This time around the chaos was spread across 5 venues, making this year’s festival slightly smaller than it used to be – not so great if you want value for money from your ticket, but a godsend if you’re not a fan of walking!
Those who are familiar with Bristol will know that each venue is just a 10-15 minute walk apart but if you’re a stranger to the West Country (or you’ve taken advantage of the famous local ciders) then you might find that catching all the bands you want to see is a bit of a mission. Either way, it’s definitely worth planning your day out as there are so many good bands to see and a totally different vibe in each venue that you’ll want to experience.
It was my first time at Hit The Deck so, rather than running between venues and catching 5 minutes of a set here and there, I decide to spend a couple of hours at each one and get a real feel for what was on offer. First up it was The Fleece, one of Bristol’s more iconic venues. Tucked away down a little side street, it’s the kind of dark, sticky-floored establishment that any regular gig-goer will feel at home in (and believe me, that’s a good thing!)
I was just in time for Southampton punk-rockers Dead! who, despite what their name suggests, are actually a pretty lively bunch. Their upbeat blend of funky riffs and distinctive vocals has earned them a dedicated fan-base who spend the whole set pressed up against the front of the stage, singing along to every word.
Considering it was so early in the day, those guys had a crazy amount of energy and with so many catchy, jump-around-the-room-style tracks like ‘Phantom’ and ‘Everything.Everything.’, they’re worthy of a much higher slot on the bill. The band seemed genuinely grateful to everyone for coming to watch their lunchtime set though and it’s refreshing to see a band that are so talented yet so down to earth.
They were a tough act to follow and Ashes had the job of doing just that. Their set was pure, good, honest metal from start to finish with the obligatory heavy riffs, screaming and electro sections thrown in for good measure. Although there was a good sized crowd watching, they didn’t really get the kind of reception they deserved.
Every band seems to have a beardy frontman these days, but none of them are quite in the same league as Adam Carroll, the leader singer of Zoax, who burst to the stage sporting a bow tie and a wild look in his eyes. These guys are the definition of ‘stage presence’.
One minute Carroll was up on the stage, the next he was on the floor shouting down the mic into people’s faces and scaring the crap out of them, then suddenly he’s strutting up and down the bar top, performing from the other side of the room. He maked every inch of The Fleece his own and it was impossible not to watch as he guided the band effortlessly in and out of different genres, tempos and vocal styles. Zoax were mind-blowingly good and with a performance like that, it’s pretty clear they’re here to stay.
So how do you follow a crazy act like that? Well, if you’re Brawlers then you throw up on stage mid-set… And then carry on! Yep, really. Weirdly it’s not as gross as it sounds (but every bit as rock and roll as it sounds!) and it’s the only thing that slowed down an otherwise faultlessly energetic punk performance.
Upbeat songs like ‘Drink & Dial’ and ‘Instagram Famous’ were technically brilliant and lyrically prove that this is a band who, in true punk rock fashion, say it like it is. These tracks really kept the momentum going; Up until this point the crowd had been pretty static considering the chaos unfolding in front of them but vocalist Harry Johns had just the right amount of attitude and charm to get everyone on their feet and launch the whole festival straight into full swing.
Just as things were picking up, it was time to leave The Fleece and head to the next venue. With no outdoor stages or stalls to distract from the action, this is a festival that truly is all about the music. There were merch stands and the opportunity to chat to bands that were hanging around but other than that there was not a lot do between bands so, with a bit of time to kill, I strolled over to the coolest boat in Bristol – the Thekla.
I arrived at the Thekla just in time to catch the end of As It Is. I’ve got to be honest, I had never heard of those guys before but it seems the rest of Bristol had since I was greeted by a packed out bottom deck. As they belted out hit after super catchy, upbeat, pop-punk hit, it’s not hard to see why these guys are getting so much attention. It’s the kind of stuff that takes you right back to the glory days of the emo genre and the crowd were loving it.
Local lads Decade did a great job of showcasing the punkier side of this genre with fast, infectious riffs and harmony-filled, catchy choruses. They got a great reception from the off and continued to keep the crowd smiling throughout their set with a bit of banter (mostly about poo… what else?!) and some slightly awkward chit chat. Both their personalities and music make them ridiculously likeable and a genuine pleasure to watch.
Next up were the band that I had been waiting to see all day – The Swellers. After over a decade together the band recently announced their plans to split up so it was a bittersweet moment as they took to the stage, knowing that it was their last ever Bristol show. They couldn’t have put together a more perfect setlist for the occasion though; All the crowdpleasers were in there including ‘Runaways’, ‘2009’, ‘Fire Away’, and of course ‘Best I Ever Had’ which brought their time in Bristol to an emotional end.
Ever the professionals, they delivered each song flawlessly. There were so many opportunities for moshpits and fist pumping but this was an oddly sedate affair with fans standing proudly, watching, singing along, soaking up atmosphere and just enjoying the band’s final moments together. The atmosphere in the room as The Swellers played those final chords just goes to show how much these guys will be missed but it’s so good to see them go out on such a high.
Next up, MC Lars took to the stage and reminds the somewhat dwindling crowd that he’s the only hip-hop act in this year’s Hit The Deck line-up. His trademark combination of geekiness, hip-hop and audience participation was slightly at odds with the rest of the festival’s offerings but you know what…? It kinda worked!
It didn’t make his set any less awesome either as he rapped masterfully through crowd-pleasers such as ‘Download This Song’, ‘Signing Emo’ and ‘Mr Raven’, all of which kept the hardcore Lars fans happy. He also included a bit of chat about each track to bring those less familiar with his work up to speed, making everyone in the room feel part of the experience and creating further proof that MC Lars is officially the nicest guy in the music industry!
It was time for something completely different next as I headed to one of Bristol’s biggest venues, the O2 Academy, for metal-core giants, While She Sleeps.
Excitement had been building for these guys all day and they did not disappoint, bursting onto the stage with serious attitude and launching straight into ‘New World Torture’. The hauntingly heavy track from their latest album went down a storm with the Academy’s vast crowd and set the tone for the rest of the night.
From raw, snarling vocals to intricate, technical guitar melodies, the crowd were treated to an incredible set which concluded with ‘Four Walls’ – the track that brought metal to the masses after getting mainstream radio exposure in recent months. Sleeps have been going from strength to strength over the last few years and totally deserve their sub-headline slot at a festival that’s just as crazy yet humble as they are.
While the room filled up ready for Skindred, I headed upstairs to the Academy 2 for a different kind of headliner in the form of New Jersey emo rockers, The Early November.
There really was something for everyone at this festival and while things got rowdy downstairs, the crowd that had squashed themselves into the tiny Academy 2 were much calmer, bouncing along and tapping their toes to opening track ‘Frayed In Doubt’.
As the band belted out angsty lyrics and strummed out jarring guitar melodies, the crowd proudly sang every word back to them, proving that emo is still alive and well in this room.
As someone who’s never been to Hit The Deck before I can’t really compare this festival to previous years, but there’s no doubt that Zoax, Decade, The Swellers and While She Sleeps were the stand-out acts of the day with their passionate performances.
Hit The Deck has a lot to contend with these days as there are so many festivals covering the same genres, such as Slam Dunk, Takedown and Hevy. Somehow it manages to sit alongside them quite nicely though and feels more like a celebration of lifestyle, attitude and passion for music rather than anything genre specific. Anyway, regardless of what it is or isn’t, I’ll definitely be coming back again next year!
Words and photography by Liz Murray