Outbreak 2023: the heart and soul of hardcore

Outbreak 2023: the heart and soul of hardcore
The UK festival marked its biggest year to date with a line-up embracing the collision of hardcore punk and alt rap that’s given the subculture a new lease of life.

The air smells faintly of piss, which is a good sign. It instantly lays to rest any misgivings about Outbreak, the UK’s leading hardcore punk festival, making the jump from community and mid-sized venues to a 10,000 capacity former railway station that traditionally hosts things like Warehouse Project and a circus show called “La Clique.” With fully vegan catering, stages flanked by security who seem to know every word to every song and approximately 200 indoor portaloos (hence: piss), Outbreak 2023 might be physically bigger, but spiritually it hasn’t strayed far from the youth centre in Sheffield where it all started.

Not that there are many concerns to the effect of selling out. The rise of hardcore over the last few years – notable enough for The New York Times to declare a “renaissance” – has been met with overwhelming positivity by longtime fans, critics and newcomers alike. Unsurprising, really. A decade of digitally-native micro-genres has made gatekeeping a thing of the past, while the sad economic state of the music industry / life in general makes the success of any band with grass roots feel like a win for everyone. There’s also the collision of hardcore punk and alternative hip-hop worlds, which has given rise to a new generation of genre-defying bands like Turnstile, Soul Glo and Militarie Gun, and blown the doors off a subculture that has spent much of the 21st century in its own orbit.

Top to bottom: Jesus Piece, High Vis, Scowl. Photos courtesy of Anna Swiechowska and Nat Wood.

Taking over Manchester’s Depot Mayfield across the last weekend of June, Outbreak 2023 embraced this period of transformation like a husband returning from war. Established in 2011 as a gathering for local scenes around the UK, from Glasgow to South Wales, the festival has bounced around venues in Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, steadily growing but staying firmly DIY while also reflecting the flashpoints of hardcore history. Last year it celebrated its tenth anniversary with a set from GRAMMY-nominated darlings Turnstile, who, in a nice full circle moment, returned to Outbreak for the fourth time – this time as headliners – before bouncing off to Glastonbury to pack out the John Peel Stage.

Riding the momentum in the zeitgeist, this year’s line-up leans into the cross-pollination between hardcore and hip-hop. Headliners range from Converge and Bane to Death Grips and Denzel Curry, while the rest of the bill offers everything from homegrown heroes like High Vis, to new gen US bands like Zulu and Scowl, to cloud rapper Lil Ugly Mane and the “goth cowboy” Denzel Himself. Surprisingly of all there’s Odd Future member and hip-hop prodigy Earl Sweatshirt, who is very amused by the steady stream of bodies stage diving to the chill, mid-tempo beats that make up most of his set. 

Simply put: the bill is all over the shop, but while that might feel like a relatively new thing for Outbreak (last year the only non-rock act was Injury Reserve), the artists all share a historic DNA consisting of DIY ethics, social dissent, and musical physicality.

“I think energy is the common thread between all these things,” Militarie Gun frontman Ian Shelton tells me. “It’s like a combination of energy and ethos. So much of what hip-hop provides is that same thing. It’s about dissecting the world and unpacking something in a small space and making something cathartic, and I think that’s very much what the non-rock artists are bringing to the line-up.”

Top to bottom: Zulu, Trapped Under Ice, Denzel Curry. Photos courtesy of Nat Wood.

“Rap is more of an industry than it’s ever been, so of course all types of people who didn’t grow up with it are fucking with it now,” adds Pierce Jordan of Soul Glo, a breathtakingly inventive Philadelphia band whose influences stretch from Young Thug to Meshuggah and beyond. “I think that’s why all types of artists incorporating hip-hop into their music is also happening in hardcore,” he continues. “We are such people. And I don’t know if I can speak to the rest of the hardcore scene that uses rap and hardcore together, because I don’t think we exactly have the same upbringing in a lot of ways, but for me personally it’s just like, both come from the African tradition, which is also my tradition, so it makes sense to do all of the musics that reflect your background in one work.”

Outbreak obviously isn’t the only festival with an eclectic line-up. From major internationals like Primavera to smaller scale events like Wide Awake and local boutiques like Hoco Fest in Tucson, Arizona, it’s become par for the course to see wildly different artists rubbing shoulders with each other. “I’ve been getting used to seeing festival line-ups that are more along those lines,” says Soul Glo guitarist Gianmarco “GG” Guerra. “At Coachella I watched Björk play with a string arrangement then left to go watch Knocked Loose.”

“I like a mixed bill because it doesn’t lend itself to the homogenisation of genres,” adds drummer TJ Stevenson. “The problem with a lot of music is it just becomes such a myopic chamber and all the new bands are reflexive of bands that are reflexive of bands… I think mixed bills in general are critical to getting people to open their minds a bit more.” 

What does set Outbreak apart, especially in the UK, is its ethos. A lot of festivals previously dedicated to rock music, like Reading & Leeds or Download, have either moved into a more mainstream pop space or become prohibitively expensive. Especially after the pandemic, that’s seen a lot of fans turning their energies away from heavily sponsored weekenders that cost more than a week in Crete and towards genre-dedicated festivals with an intimate feel. As far as punk goes there’s also the entirely separate circuit of DIY events like Manchester Punk Festival, Upsurge and Static Shock, which exist to build community and solidarity rather than provide a “festival experience.” After stepping up this year, Outbreak now bridges those two worlds: small enough to stay true to its scene, but eclectic enough to disrupt the hyper-traditionalism that can make hardcore in particular feel quite homogenous.

"Rap is more of an industry than it’s ever been, so of course all types of people who didn’t grow up with it are fucking with it now [...] I think that’s why all types of artists incorporating hip-hop into their music is also happening in hardcore."

Pierce Jordan, Soul Glo (Photo by Ashlea Bea)

For Shelton, the Covid-19 pandemic played a significant role in the reshaping of hardcore and its success in recent years. “I think what’s happened is the world has opened up,” he says. “The big thing about live shows disappearing for a long time is that the songwriting has to get better, and when the songwriting gets better the appeal gets broader. There was a streak of hyper-traditionalism happening before and when it came down to it, and the only place you could listen to hardcore was at home or in your car, people realised that there was something missing.”

Coming out of the pandemic having never played a live show, Militarie Gun hit the ground running. Lauded for transcending the limits of what hardcore can be, their set at Outbreak last year was the second show they’d ever played in the UK and it pulled one of the biggest crowds of the weekend. In another full circle moment, they took to the main stage this year on the release day of their new album Life Under The Gun – an album described, much like this year’s Outbreak, as exploding “out of the basement show without abandoning its energy and essence.”

“I think people who are ‘winning’ now are artists who all noticed that feeling and tried to create records that were better in a very conscious way,” Shelton says. “What’s happening now is so much more in line with the original first wave of punk and hardcore, because there was melody in the vocals and the songs were catchier. It wasn’t just ‘fast part, breakdown…’ That originality is coming back, of taking influences from everywhere and making it hardcore.”

Top to bottom: Fans during Candy's set. Photos courtesy of Ashlea Bea.

Wandering around Outbreak this year, the festival had a motley feel. Skaters made use of the indoor ramp from doors til close. The corridors were constantly crowded with people looking at artworks curated by the Leeds-based exhibition space Screw Gallery. A constant stream of people in sports shorts and cross-body bum bags flew across the stage and into the crowd during every single set, true to Outbreak tradition. But whether you’re there for skating, Denzel Curry or Trapped Under Ice, the entry point is effectively the same. When Shelton graduated from California street punk shows to hardcore shows as a teenager, Ceremony was the band that hooked him in. 

“It was always the best feeling in the world when they would play the song where you get to say, ‘I find problems, I’m a fucked up kid,’” he says, referring to “I Want To Put This To An End” off the Bay Area band’s 2005 debut EP. “The communal element of being fucked up, of admitting that you don’t feel normal, that was everything to me at the time.”

"What’s happening now is so much more in line with the original first wave of punk and hardcore [...] That originality is coming back, of taking influences from everywhere and making it hardcore.”

Ian Shelton, Militarie Gun (Photo by Ashlea Bea)

“So much of what we try to do is create a reciprocal energy with the audience,” he continues. “I want to put the way that I felt at that time into somebody else, and hopefully say something that resonates in a way that makes you want to yell it back at me.” One such moment tends to come when Militarie Gun play their emotionally stark anthem “Don’t Pick Up the Phone,” as they did early into their set at Outbreak, with the lyric: “I want money, I want love.”

The line taps into the desires of the kind of people hardcore tends to mop up: those down and out, struggling on the outskirts of society, reaching for comfort and security and occasionally finding it at shows, whether they take place in dank basements or Depot Mayfield. That becoming more available to more people can only be a good thing.

“Hardcore is amazing right now. There’s never been a time like this, with so many entry points and so many bands,” Bane vocalist Aaron Bedard proclaimed on stage during the veteran band’s only European appearance of the summer. He sounded genuinely moved as he went on to advocate for compassion towards newer and younger fans who might not be as familiar with stage invasion etiquette or every split EP that inspired a week-long argument on the Bridge Nine board in 2009, and could be seen knocking about the festival from Bane’s Friday slot until they turned on the house lights on Sunday night. “It’s the greatest currency that we have.”

Top to bottom: Soul Glo, the pit during Soul Glo, Loathe. Photos courtesy of Ashlea Bea.

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