Level Up Festival 4

author MAK date 31/07/22

Like a lot of festivals in 2022, we’ve had a long three years wait since the last time certain events were held. London-based ska-punk weekender Level Up Festival falls into that category. Ska fans across the country and even abroad descended up South London’s ska punk home of New Cross Inn for an event promoted by a collection of enthusiasts in Be Sharp Promotions, El Topo Bookings and Fishlock Promotions.

LINEUP

FRIDAY

Newly formed ska band Til I'm Bones were meant to be opening the whole weekend, and there was a level of excitement to see this band for the first time however one member catching Covid shattered those hopes. This did mean however that Filthy Militia was to open Level Up with a strong dose of two-tone infused third-wave ska. Fresh from releasing their EP “Coping Mechanisms” we were treated to a selection of newer songs including the ever-so-anthemic “Differences”. With the additions of Lead Shot Hazard’s Tom and Eve Crabb, on guitar and sax respectively since the debut release, there is a new punch to Filthy Militia. It was early on into the night, yet the crowd was quite full and rather excitable, some singing and dancing from the start, older hits like “Up In Smoke” and “Little Sister” still went down a storm. Lead man Frosty decided he wanted to warm everyone up during the bounciest track in “Land of the Dead”, he got segments of the audience to squat up and down to prepare everyone’s knees for the weekend ahead. One side up, one side down, alternatively switching to an almost polka-style rhythm was rather amusing. This was the first time in a few years seeing Filthy Militia, with an almost completely different lineup, one that favours them more, giving them a much tighter performance. [7]

Call Me Malcolm - Photo courtesy of Paul Smith

By the time Call Me Malcolm hit the stage, the New Cross Inn already started to feel like a sweatbox. That made it even more baffling to see singing guitarist Luke wearing a dinosaur onesie of all things. That didn’t last, however. Filthy Militia did well in being a decent warm-up, nevertheless, the energy erupted tenfold as Call Me Malcolm threw out a set laden with fan favourites, monster-sized anthems and even a few surprises. “There’s No “I” In Apocalypse” created carnage, the skank pit was vibrant, and everyone around it was singing back everything that Malcolm launched our way, from the anthemic chorus to the pulsing brass hooks. That relentless energy barely wavered; the high octane tracks in “NowsirawariswoN“ and “Jacob” made sure of that. To much delight, the band unleashed their first ever song “Does My Offbeat Look Big In This?” to keep that excitement flowing. During this, Luke followed Frosty in getting the crowd’s knees working by doing a Slipknot-style “Jump The Fuck Up” moment. The highlight of the set came from Call Me Malcolm inviting all of their brass player friends from the other bands out into the middle of the crowd with their instruments for “Restore Factory Settings”. A big circle of members from JB Conspiracy, Filthy Militia and Charlotte from Til Them Bones, who did manage to make the show. Much like earlier, the crowd sang all the big hooks and even the brass melodies. This was nothing short of epic, the sound of all the brass instruments playing in unison was just phenomenal. How that wasn’t the closing segment, I’m not sure, as it would have been really hard to top that. Throwing in a surprise oldie “Battle Axe” did well in that, a more chilled reggae style track for the die-hards in the room. Though of course, ending the set with “All My Nameless Friends” was the grandiose finish this set needed, with the whole room joining in with the “Woah” chants at the end. It was a phenomenal performance of punchy ska punk, only two bands into the weekend and it was already off to an incredible start. [9]

The JB Conspiracy had a huge set to follow, though with one of the most impressive brass sections in the UK ska scene, if anyone could do it, they could. New Cross Inn was jam-packed at this point, you could see the windows had massively steamed up. From the get-go, the pulsing horns along with the combinations of skankable rhythms and synth melodies the crowd was jumping and dancing around. You couldn’t help but be taken in by the sheer talent of the brass section, as well as the incredible voice of vocalist Lank. Newer hits like “Guiding Lights”, "Starting Again" and “The Long Road To Munich” showcased the incredible musicianship on show and went down remarkably well. Older hit “Drop Your Anchor” to no surprise had a mass sing-along for its gang vocal style chorus. It was the first album classics that encouraged the most chaotic moments of the set as “Adrenaline” got the blood flowing along with the epic “Time To Leave”. Compared to the previous sets, it was less eventful in terms of antics. It was simply a great set of fun ska music to dance to with wonderfully tight artistry on show. The encore consisted of “The Escape, which opens with one of the most exciting brass melodies out there, the whole crowd sang along to the hooks, making your hairs stand on end. This was followed up by debut album opener "This Machine", and the room exploded into a skanking frenzy for the set closer. One of the more 'harder-hitting' tracks in the band’s catalogue and the atmosphere in the room mimicked that. It was a perfect end to an all-round solid performance, closing the evening in style. [9]

SATURDAY

Baldhead and the Dreads - Photo courtesy of Paul Smith

Sadly, I missed Fidget open up with a solo set, but I managed to get in just in time to catch Baldhead & The Dreads plough through a chilled-out set consisting of reggae punk/ ska songs about weed and dogs, including “Smoke Weed, Pet Dogs” and “Quit Your Job, Get A Dog”. To no shock at all, it was a very silly, humorous performance laden with gags such as drummer Tommy P holding up a sign that said “applause” on one side and “Smoke Weed Pet Dogs” on the other side to encourage singing. It was still very early into the day, so the crowd was a tad thin, but those who did turn up were enthusiastic, singing along and cheering, bopping along. It was overall very light-hearted and a nice way to ease into the day. [6]

Redeemon - Photo courtesy of Paul Smith

Ska metallers Redeemon followed up with a sound far more dominant, the heaviest sounds of the weekend, blasting shredding riffs our way with pulsing horn hooks layered on top. It was like a wonderful punching wake-up call. The intensity of the crowd picked things up a notch during the lead single “Anaphylactic”, with some people rocking out towards the front, headbanging to the harder segments or skanking to the upstrokes and more ska-influenced elements. I was expecting a bit more carnage on show in the crowd, though it seemed a bit too early still to go full pelt. The lack of chaos made it easier to appreciate the talented musicianship as Redeemon continued to provide us with a variety of metal styles, from harsh death metal in “Pressure Switch” to more 90s groove in “Finest Mistake”: all featuring some exquisite horn melodies to put you in awe. This was a strong performance that deserved a stronger reaction. [7]

Prize Dink Camp - Photo courtesy of Paul Smith

Prize Dink Camp may have been one of my favourites of the weekend. Three Piece Belgian Synth ska punk featuring members of Koala Commission. The keyboard and electronic synth melodies were so bouncy and had people dancing immediately. It was just ever so buoyant musically, even though topically it challenged mental health more serious subject. Hilariously during “Happy Thoughts”, singer Folkert joked they were going to attempt a breakdown, it might not be as heavy as Redeemon was, but they would gig it go. Tracks “Nobody Cares” and “Destroy, Rebuild, Repeat” came in hard like punchy hardcore tracks, but were wonderfully balanced out by peppy polka/ska rhythms to keep the fun zone dancing. The contrast from 'let's go heavy' to 'let's have fun' was truly captivating. “The Floor Is Lava” was a true highlight, with the chorus going “The floor Is lava, so you better jump around”, in which a good portion of the crowd took note and jumped around/ Amusingly there was a failed attempt at a human pyramid, which collapsed before the someone could get to the top. Having only known this band a little before the weekend, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this set as much as I did, it was a very merry experience. [8]

Harijan

Manchester ska crew Harijan came in with the most downbeat sound I’ve ever heard from a ska band, but it worked sublimely. Punchy and gritty working-class punk anthems mixed with bouncy upstrokes and vibrant brass hooks erupted from the stage, showing similarities to Capdown and Inner Terrestrials. Vocally, frontman Mike switched between coarse croons and some melodic reggae-like cleans. Instantly parts of the crowd were skanking and singing along, there was a steady sprightly energy that rarely wavered, but never quite hit the heights I hoped. The set was full of tracks from Harijan’s 2020 self-titled album, which by now fans knew well enough to join in on, some around the room even joining on the horn lines, “Portland Street” and “Box Packer” in particular stood out for this. Much like Redeemon, I felt like the performance on stage was spot on and deserved a stronger response. [7]

Abraskadabra - Photo courtesy of Paul Smith

Brazilian poppy third-wave outfit Abraskadabra on the other hand launched into a high-energy performance that was unrelenting. Bubbly skankable anthems with infectiously catchy choruses had the crowd eagerly getting their knees up for a well-balanced array of songs from all of their albums. The singalong style hits flowed fluently, “Left Corner” and “Sing ‘Til the End” had voices ringing around the room, even newer single “Do We Need A Sign” had a top draw reaction. The brass hooks were completely captivating and stimulated an outstanding response. “Heavy Hitters”, much like the name suggests, picked up the tempo and the energy with faster-paced riffs and beats, causing a little more pit carnage, but for most of this set, it was a proper heart-warming, joyful atmosphere. Having seen them at Level Up four years previously, in terms of tightness, delivery, setlist and reaction, this performance is a vast improvement, and it was great to see. [9]

I’ll be honest by the time Andy B & The World hit the stage, I was notably quite drunk, so my memory of this set is rather hazy. I remember a packed-out room dancing around to the infectiously bubbly horn hooks to “Black & Blue”, leading to almost everyone singing along to one of the most anthemic choruses I’ve heard in ska-punk in recent years. “Frantic” was incredibly punchy, with a mixture of harder-hitting riffs and horn hooks. Andy B’s album “The First One” was filled to the brim with guest appearances, so there was always a wonder on who out of those guests might appear at Level Up. We were treated to a nice surprise of Alex Copeland, singer [Spunge] adding his distinctive voice to “Times”, which added a lot of excitement. This was swiftly followed by a cover of [Spunge] favourite, “Kicking Pigeons”, the room erupted into a beautiful skank pit. I don’t remember much else of the set, but this was a pure highlight.

Popes of Chillitown - Photo courtesy of Paul Smith

I’d sobered up at the right point to watch Popes of Chillitown cause one of the craziest sets I have ever seen at New Cross Inn. Exploding into “Opoom” the packed-out venue was a pure mess; the pit area was just a whirlpool of people bopping around like atoms. Popes knew exactly what they were doing by putting their most popular hit “Wisdom Teeth” in so early, the energy reached humongous heights, It was outright adrenaline, the room reeked of gig sweat, and the beers were flying all over the place, waves of bodies crowd surfed at various points. It was the best kind of fun. All the classics came out, “Upside Down” and “Culpa” in particular went down a storm and had people losing their voices. We even had some surprise rarities like “Impatient” and “Blame Game” that aren’t played as often since their release of “Work Hard, Play Hard, See You In The Grave Yard”. Towards the end of the set, there was a kind of medley, that I’m almost certain featured a snippet of all the other songs in the Popes' catalogue that weren’t played full. The atmosphere somehow intensified for “Vamos A La Luna”. I didn’t think it was possible, but as soon as we got the countdown of “5..4..3..2..1…AWAY WE GOOOO!” it unleashed pure mayhem in the crowd. With the breakbeat pattern drumming, along with the pulsing brass, you couldn’t help but lose your shit and skank heavily. I’ve seen Popes countless times, I’d been to New Cross countless times, and I’d not witnessed such craziness from the venue or the crowd before. Things just clicked and it was breathtaking to experience. [10]

I think the only thing that could have realistically followed that Popes set was something wacky. Enter the El Topo All-Star Band for the Saturday night after party. A collective of musicians from various Belgian bands in the El Topo scene, including members from Prize Dink Camp who we saw earlier in the day. This was an all-out cover set, featuring a mixture of well-known pop songs and the odd punk classic. We were treated to punky ska covers of the likes of Bloodhound Gangs' “The Bad Touch”, Backstreet Boys' “Everybody”, and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”. For those remaining party goers who hadn’t rushed off to bed or got trains, it was a wonderful variety of well-known songs that had the dancing and singing along like nobody cared. One comical factor was Rancid's "Time Bomb" was performed about five times sporadically throughout the set. It was a proper wholesome set to end the night the right way. Nothing too serious or chaotic, just a lot of fun. [8]

SUNDAY

Boom Boom Raccoon

Sunday Kicked off lightly with acoustic ska trio Boom Boom Racoon, who treated us to a selection of fun light-hearted sounding songs with strong anti-capitalist messages. Chilled out upstroke strums and pulsing horns topped off by catchy melodies for the likes of “Post Anti-Capitalist Anthem”, “Heist” and “All Cops Are Breakfast" had a few eager crowd members dancing early, but you could tell around the room this was very much a hungover day at New Cross, with plenty of people still needing to wake up a little before joining in. This however didn’t stop people singing along to “NHS (National Health Simpsons”, shouting “DENTAL PLAN, LISA NEEDS BRACES” back at the band. The highlight of course came when the trio performed their popular cover of Vengaboys “Boom Boom Boom Boom”, looking over into the fun zone there was a backwards conga line which broke off into a skank pit. The was a nice way to start to the day and start to clear out the hangover cobwebs. [7]

Plot 32 - Photo courtesy of Paul Smith

Plot 32’s high-spirited brand of ska-punk followed up perfectly, continuing a rather joyful atmosphere. On stage, they come across as one of the happiest bands ever. Frontman Stash bounced around the place and danced about, while drummer Liz played with the biggest smile on her face. Even with a heavier-sounding song like “Issues”, it was all still very gleeful. We were still in that hangover period of the day and the band was happy to joke about the plenty of sore heads in the crowd. Gradually the dancing in the crowd started to pick up more as Plot 32 pulled out more bangers like “See You Next Tuesday” and “Go Hard or Go Home”. The more sombre number “Barry The Butcher” had a wonderful singalong. Coincidently Plot 32 has also been playing Vengaboys “Boom Boom Boom Boom” for years so it was amusing that for the second band in a row we got to hear this cover, and once again it got a brilliant reaction from people dancing around and going a bit wild. This felt like the right set to loosen people up a bit. [7]

Lead Shot Hazard - Photo courtesy of Paul Smith

Heavier ska punk outfit Lead Shot Hazard hit the stage met by a much more vigorous crowd, New Cross had woken up more for a set that was chock-full of crunchier hooks and fiery brass tones. “Hacky Sack? Let's Have A Rebellion” early on certainly got the blood flowing. One surprise to this set was that Lead Shot had a new member on stage for the first time. Snowy from Codename Colin has added his trumpet talents to the band, making that four brass members in the band. Previously at Level Up Festival, Leads Shot had some t-shirts printed up specifically for the festival, to give away for free and they did the same this time. Taping roughly 20 t-shirts to Filthy Militia’s Frosty, they made him run into the crowd during what I think was the older hit “Grids & Markers”. He caused a frenzy as gig goers chased him through the room to grab a shirt while the band unloaded fast-paced ska-punk hooks from the stage. During “Braggin’ Rights” the brass section came into the crowd and danced along with them, twirling around during the skankier segments. The pit area was electric, full of dancing and jolly behaviour. The set finished epically with the closing song “Between Hell and High Water”, a track catered for the big finish with the dominant brass hooks and the inviting crowd chant. This set was full of fun antics backed up by a first-rate performance and proved to be one of the more memorable performances of the weekend. [8]

Last Edition - Photo courtesy of Paul Smith

Last Edition chimed in with a set of chirpier third-wave ska-punk anthems. The atmosphere while less chaotic, was a lot more upbeat in comparison to the previous. Even then, having seen Last Edition before and heard them on record, they came across with a bit more bite in their delivery. The riffs felt crunchier at times and the Sax came across as more forceful. It just had a bit more oomph than I was expecting. “Last Orders” in particular stood out for the impressive crooning sax intro about bouncy rhythms. The crowd at the front was happy to skank to the ever so bubbly anthems such as “Shorts Until September” and “If Ska Ruled The World”. The choruses are so infectious you couldn’t help but sing along. Lead Shot Hazard may have left Last Edition with a hard set to follow, but the Leicester four-piece did a valiant job in providing us with some delightful tunes to get those knees up. [7]

3 dBs Down

Dubbed as promoter Paul Smith’s favourite band, 3 dBs Down had a lot to live up to as they unloaded their brand of ska-punk-tinged melodic punk. Evidently the day before, drummer Mr J broke his foot and was wearing a protective boot. Though he decided he was ok to carry on and you wouldn’t have known he was injured by the way he played. 3 dBs Down unloaded a set full of favourites and singles, including the hard-hitting skanker in “Count To A Million”, which had it all, punchy riffs, chirpy upstrokes and a catchy as hell chorus. This triggered some crowd excitement and encouraged some dancing early on. Prior to Level Up, the band unleashed their new single “Unconvinced”, more of a boppy melodic punk track which went down well. The band also recently released a video for “Idiot Ignorant Evil”, which when performed provided us with some proper headbang-worthy riffage. This was probably the least “ska” set of the weekend, with music that edged more toward a straight-up snappy skate punk sound, but the elements were there, it was a lot of fun and it fits in nicely. [7]

One of the most joyful bands on the bill followed up with probably the happiest sounding set of the weekend, Codename Colin just oozed excitement the minute they hit the stage for a set up exuberant third wave tones. The crowd was immediately bouncy, getting their knees up to the gleeful anthems, happily singing along and dancing to fan favourites like “Losing Friends”. Codename recently released a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”, in which Snowy who was back in his usual band performed the iconic intro on trumpet, causing much excitement in the crowd. It was such a cheerful performance, there was rarely any angst at all, the only notable part was during “Kelly’s Missing”, the big “fuck you” track to promoter Absent Kelly. The only hard riffs of the set had the crowd jumping and you could feel the flow underneath you force you up and down with everyone else. Middle fingers in the air as the words “FUCK YOU KELLY!” rang around the room. The highlight came during “Friday The 19th”, where singer Charlie commanded the crowd to join him in singing the “NANANANANANANA” part of the song back and forth between the crowd and band, it was beautiful to watch. [8]

For such a long day, one band had to be sacrificed for a food break, and I chose Sonic Boom Six out of knowing them the least. From what I did catch it looked like pandemonium, a crammed room bouncing to hard-hitting rap-fronted ska punk. The only song I did recognize was “Monkey See, Monkey Do”. By the end of the set, the windows had steamed up and it smelled like a sweaty gig, the sign that a fun time was had.

Finally, it was time for the last band of the weekend, Skacore favourites Random Hand headlining Level Up for the second time. Four Years ago they delivered an absolute frenzy of a set that famously had the floor looking like it was going to cave in if you saw the ceiling of the downstairs bar. Random Hand threw out more of the same, Trombone fronted punk banger after banger with plenty of skankable segments in between. This set was well balanced in providing fans with songs from all four albums, “Play Some Ska” one of the oldest hits was played early on to invigorate the crowd. From the start, the energy rarely strayed away from being pure madness. I lost count of how many times I saw people crowdsurfing. Amusingly one fan crowdsurfed multiple times and each time kept losing his keys. Those keys were given to the band a couple of times to which frontman Robin was happy to have a bit of banter about them being handed to him. The big difference between this set and Popes of Chillitown the night before was Popes was nonstop, song after song, relentless partying. Random Hand were happy to have a bit of a laugh and a chat between songs, meaning the flow was slightly more relaxed, but the entertaining value was a lot more humorous. However, when songs were played, they hit just that little bit harder after a quick breather. The harder riffs flourished, though it was the skank pits that were most enchanting to watch, seeing fans bop along to the proper dance-type tracks in “Pack It Up” and “Not A Number” was so great to see. Along with the hits, Random Hand pulled out a brand new song for us to hear, I think it was called “The Devil With A Microphone”, one of the more danceable new songs with an awesome little trombone intro, the sound is very similar to tracks from the last album “Hit Reset”. Random Hand finished off their set with the popular hit “Anger Management”, the massive “OOOOOOWEEEEEEEOOOOO" sing-along chant was deafening as the whole room joined in. Robin then decided to join in on the crowd surfing action himself for the big finish. You couldn’t have asked for a stronger finish to a wicked weekend. [9]

FINAL WORDS

Level Up Festival was an absolute blast of a weekend. It was a very strong lineup for fans of DIY-level ska punk. The lineup contained some of the best the UK ska scene had to offer, and those bands proved why they are so well loved with outstanding performances. For anyone that does like their music full of brass and upstrokes, this is a weekend to take note of each summer now that it has returned. As far as the overall atmosphere goes there was very much a feeling of ska punk family vibes that was ever so inviting, everyone was friendly and it was fun joyful vibes all weekend. Smiles were all around and good times were had. The common joke is that ska is dead, but that is a lie, this weekend proved that ska is very much alive, and making lots of noise. It would be great if next year we could possibly get some of the Bad Time Records bands over.

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