As another day of Reading Festival dawns, the girls in bikinis have switched to tracksuits for comfort and the need for coffee becomes more urgent. Fortunately, a day of hardcore awaits with enough heat to blister paint, let alone merely drive off autumnal chills.
Words: Kate Allvey. Images: Abbi Draper-Scott
All sets are from Saturday unless otherwise stated
For several slow minutes on Sunday, Hot Milk’s performance hung in the balance. They storm onstage… and no sound is heard. Sound engineers run frantically, officials storm across the stage, and bassist Harry Deller motions to the crowd to wait. Incredibly, we stay as the screens tactfully conceal the chaos backstage. “Let’s try that again,” grins vocalist Han Mee as she bounds back onstage, delivering us ‘Party on My Deathbed’. Hot Milk are the Prodigy’s punk bad seed kids, and they play hard on electronic samples to drag us into their underground vision. They fuse rhythm and bass, metal and harsh, and harsh and soft settings to build a lightning storm in our midst. Mee and fellow vocalist Jim Shaw try to stare each other down aggressively, then giggle during the crescendo of ‘Teenage Runaways’. Their debut album, ‘A Call To the Void’ had been released two days before, putting Mee in a positive mood. “No one would sign us for ages, it was dead annoying,” she reveals, then asks, “will you celebrate with us?” before setting off the charge that is ‘Bloodstream’. It ignites into the right song for dreaming of better days.
Vocalist Harvey Freeman stares defiantly from the front of the stage. His flak jacket reads ‘404’, but his band are the opposite of an error. He breaks his gaze for a second to deliver a huge slam to kick off their set. The crowd instantly shuffles backward anticipating the instant pit. Live, we see a riot barely contained. Bassist Charlie Smith is a small guy and the force of his sound waves throw him around like he’s barely able to control his own instrument. As Freeman shares his experiences leaving school at sixteen over misleading garage beats, a chilling breeze slips into the arena. We’re smacked with the slab of unadulterated, dirty noise that the band calls ‘Silent’. It’s clear that Graphic Nature wear their hearts and minds on their sleeves. Freeman tells us that “this is exactly what Graphic Nature is about; not only starting the conversation about mental health with men, but with everyone…we don’t talk about our feelings, that’s why so many of us kill ourselves…” Of all the statements this weekend from artists exploring their own mental health, Graphic Nature’s feels the most genuine. Their track ‘Into the Dark’ is a black salute to the way out of depression which resonates strongly with so many in the pit. We scream to acknowledge that, amid the internet dialup guitar tones, Graphic Nature use their platform to represent a battle which anyone could be fighting.
The honesty of High Vis matches that of their predecessors on the Festival Republic stage. “The working class is as good as dead,” intones vocalist Graham Sayle. His performance style must be based on VHS tapes of Liam Gallagher, even down to his posture. It’s less that they hop between genres and more like they’ve plucked their favourite aspects from everything from the last forty years. The result is a sound that’s extremely evocative of a time and place close to them, but we’re not sure when or where. The bass throbs like an infection behind the splintered vocals that make their way into our skin, and the intelligence in the post-punk backdrop shines out. High Vis are the band who’ve drawn older festival goers away from coffee vans and the hipsters away from Instagram snaps in front of aesthetic backdrops. They’re an intelligent mob, the product of a lifetime of eclectic musical inference, and a tremendous experience in person.
The party doesn’t stop when Hot Milk leave the stage. Don Broco fans in branded paper hats assemble early in jolly groups to get the most impressive view. A Don Broco show is definitely funny but not a joke, even though vocalist Rob Damiani resembles a member of Electric Callboy with his retro sunglasses and Rocky Balboa shirt. However, the effects he spins on his vocals combined with the game backdrops give Don Broco’s set a sense of cybernetic immersion. ‘Manchester Super Reds No.1 Fan’ comes across as the best song Korn are yet to write, and while they rely on nu-metal to get the crowd jumping, this isn’t nostalgia. This is an extension of the original, and where Limp Bizkit could have been if they couldn’t live comfortably on the cash from ‘Rolling’. Reading Festival holds a special place in Don Broco’s heart. “We’re from just up the road, a little town called Bedford. We’ve been coming to this place every year since our GCSEs,” reveals Damiani before ‘Pretty, “and Reading was my first ever pit!” Back in the midst of time, Don Broco volunteered at Reading for Oxfam, and stood on the main stage after the festival was finished. That was the moment they realised where they wanted to be in their careers. Their shared history with the festival explains their overwhelming joy and why they revel in their own triumph for their few minutes in the spotlight today. Drummer Matt Donnelly’s gorgeous ballad voice is revealed on ‘Bruce Willis’ and security guards grab Damiani’s shirt to prevent him from spontaneously jumping into the pit mid-song. He semi-dangles over the front row, a burly man gripping him, while he sings with every fibre of his being. Our shirts wave around our heads like sails on a thousand windmills as Don Broco closes with ’T-Shirt Song’. There were many serious topics and sombre moments of the weekend, but Don Broco reminded us that metal can just be for fun.
Scowl are the band that could easily become a teen’s obsession after witnessing their live set. “If you don’t know who we are, you’re about to find out,” snarls vocalist Kat Moss over feedback before sparking us all with her manic X-Ray Spex DIY energy. They play anarchic fight music, but somewhere under all the discordance they open a window into the punk past and future. Some in the audience drift away when they hear how fast Scowl go (they sped through four songs in seven minutes), but most stay when they realise this is the most exciting spot onsite. Moss, in her lolita dress and acid green pigtails, could be mistaken for a manufactured pop star on sight alone. However, vocally she screams like all of Slayer compressed into a tiny package. Those who poke their noses into the tent out of curiosity are won over and the pit which springs up is joyful.
No-one is ready for ZAND’s ‘ugly pop’. ‘Ugly’ is not the right term, though it’s how ZAND describes their music; it’s brash, compelling and the logical conclusion of every smutty innuendo or dance move in pop. Onstage, they’re like an animated latex sex doll, Chucky-style, to go on a rampage. ‘Boys Like U’ is empowered trashy gold. Their new song, ‘Leeches’, uses vocal effects to switch between Marilyn Manson atmospheric whispers and full-on banshee roaring. We’ve had hardcore realism for most of the day, and ZAND’s hardcore surrealism twists our perception of reality and rock music. Despite the porno lyrics and their intention to ‘spit on your fucking grave’, it’s an oddly heartwarming set. The pit is almost entirely female, and for just a few minutes we can slam and punch their air without concern. A hen party shakes their heads in mild disgust, but within five minutes they’ve joined the pit too and their pink cowboy hats can be seen at a distance as they stay to headbang. ZAND asks, “how many sluts are in the audience?”; we cheer and they launch into their tribute to gold diggers and sugar babies everywhere, ‘Slut Money’. It’s lurid and overtly sexual, and totally unlike anything else produced at Reading this weekend.
A sharp switch to a different energy blew in when Mothica floated onstage. ZAND’s lyrics glamourise using men for their own gain, but less than ten minutes into Mothica’s set, she shares her story of sexual assault as a teenager. She’s got a stunning vocal range and a style reminiscent of a cabaret version of Amy Lee. However, despite their musical differences, both she and ZAND share a message of empowerment and owning yourself. Mothica addresses her rapist in ‘Buzzkill’, dragging the mountains of identity up from the sea of guitar distortion. It’s her first show in the UK (she will return supporting Halestorm in the winter) and she is not afraid to bare herself musically and emotionally in front of us. Mothica wells up with tears during ‘Forever Fifteen’, her acoustic song based on her teenage suicide attempts, and the tent silently acknowledges her brutal vulnerability. Her set is not all woe by any means, however. She’s remixed Bring Me The Horizon’s ‘Can You Feel My Heart’, taking it from a TikTok hit to a high point in her own setlist. Smashmouth’s ‘All Star’ must be one of the least expected covers Mothica could have included, but she does it anyway. Since she’d shared some of the lowest points in her life only minutes before, it felt like forced jollity. Her set ends with the energy of a children’s party after a bereavement.
Reading apps buzz in unison as a secret set has been announced! Ignoring the fact that it can’t really be defined as a ‘secret’ if a hundred thousand people receive a text, SOFT PLAY’s decision to jump into the festival at the last minute was a delight. The duo (formerly known as ‘Slaves’ until last year) still channel the spirit of 1977 in their pure, old school noisy punk, and there is no hope of getting close to the stage unless you sprinted the second your app alert arrived. In the midst of the garage punk guitar riot, ‘The Alpha’s weird monologue feels disjointed. Seeing people attempt to mosh to an anecdote about two girls having a fight was disconcerting, but ‘Shutdown’ later proves that SOFT PLAY are still relevant eleven years later. “I just wanna be beautiful like you,” Isaac Holman pants into the microphone as a man in a Hawaiian co-ord slams on his own outside the tent, trying to catch a glimpse of his heroes. Despite the seething crowd chanting ‘we don’t want it’, it’s obvious that SOFT PLAY is everything we want and need at this festival.
The half-moon rises slowly and the dedicated 1975 fans stride towards Stage West, leaving the Festival Republic stage only half full for KennyHoopla. Those who leave deserve our condolences and commiseration because they opted for something mediocre rather than magic. Travis Barker’s influence extends beyond drumming and collaborating on an EP in 2021; KennyHoopla sounds like the spiritual successor to Blink 182 live. Aside from mentioning that the culture sometimes feels claustrophobic, he barely speaks to the crowd. He has a specific vision of how he wants his set to be as he flings himself around the stage with infectious energy; he wants to show that punk rock can touch anyone, no matter who you are. KennyHoopla breaks open his own hype with ‘estella//’, rich in slices of guitar and beautiful emotion as he drops down to an a cappella rendition of the chorus. His joyful nihilism while multitasking between crowdsurfing and singing the line ‘gone forever but I don’t care’ drifts into an echoing fade out leaving a trail of ash and stars in his wake. Critics are already declaring this to be his breakthrough moment, the set that pushes him onto the main stage next year, and it’s entirely believable. KennyHoopla could make any music he chooses with that level of talent and we leave feeling blessed that he chose punk rock.
Like a hooded prophet or demon summoned from the smoke by phones aloft, Sleep Token rises to end the day. Despite selling out Wembley Arena in minutes, the tent is mysteriously half empty for his set. It’s very easy to weave your way around the front, and those of us lucky enough to be there are very aware that this will be the last time we’ll see them in a venue this small. The set was squarely aimed at frontman Vessels cultists, the fanatical few who camp all day by the barriers to immerse themselves in his glory. In a small, dark venue, his performance (inseparable from his music) takes on fresh life, his every move a graceful ritual. Cloaked backing singers emerge from the mists as ‘Chokehold”s aching extended chords ring out. At only nine songs, Sleep Token’s show is brief, but each song is displayed in its full magnificence. Of course, if you closed your eyes and ignored the hypnotic spectacle, it’s very clear that this is pleasant electronica wrapped in spooky paper but it’s virtually impossible to drag your eyes away from the stage after the first few songs. The breakdown on ‘Granite’ smashes any chance for reflection and boils the crowd into a frenzy. With each opening chime on ‘Alkaline’, Vessel takes one step forward until he virtually looms over us like a child’s nightmare. The song is saturated with harpsichord organ effects and unholy metal screams. You can’t dance, you just have to stand in awe. During ‘The Offering’ the enigmatic Vessel breaks character and dances manically, his physical slams and taps casting shadows on the walls. We visually gorge ourselves on the intimate theatre before us. We’re only reminded that he is human when he plays the piano because he never speaks or acknowledges us. Fifty minutes pass in seconds and it feels like as soon as Sleep Token arrive, Vessel reverts to his own dimension. You cannot shake the feeling that you accidentally sold him your soul.
This was a weekend of support, soul-baring and serious conversations with artists dedicated to improving audiences’ lives. It was also a weekend of boundary-pushing surprises, of acts who smashed the lines between genres with glee, and of bands who are redefining what it means to be a rock band, but there was no shortage of wholesome fun and opportunities to dance. Reading might be the first taste of festival life for most of the folk in attendance. However, it’s got the moreish flavour that will bring them back year after year, and it’s delicious enough even for seasoned festival-goers.