‘Toasty’ doesn’t even cover it this morning. As the already-blistering sun threatens to turn the concrete under Hammer’s feet into a grey, bubbling sludge, a rabid horde of black-clad teens descend onto Camden, New Jersey’s Susquehanna Bank Center, sprawling across the site like a nailbomb going off in slow motion. Warped is in town, and it’s taking no prisoners, but we’re not here to soak in the ambience and crack open a few $13 beers – we’re here to observe a war. On one side: Warped’s proud and long-standing tradition as a punk rock Mecca. On the other: the rise 21st century metal, and the invasion its frontline warriors have inflicted upon the festival. Oh, and then there’s the not-so-insignificant backdrop of Warped co-founder and Warlord-In-Chief Kevin Lyman’s recent comments about the major metal fests around the world being flooded with “grey, fat and bald” bands. Shots have been fired. Lines have been drawn. It’s time to get heavy. “Are you fucking ready?!” screams While She Sleeps’ Loz Taylor as he greets the fans flocking to the Monster Energy Stage to soak in their first riffs of the day. What starts off as a smattering of eager devotees soon becomes a couple of hundred hyperactive moshers, who are treated to a loud, frenetic and fucking sweaty 20-minute showing from one of the UK’s very best bands. It’s a heartwarming sight to behold, but there’s no time to bask in the moment now. We’ve got some investigating to do…
Some time later, in the far more civilised and, thankfully, air-conditioned surroundings of a tourbus, we find ourselves nursing our mosh-inflicted wounds alongside Sleeps guitarist Mat Welsh, currently poring over some recently acquired and rather splendid-looking Refused vinyls.
“Warped’s definitely not for you if you’re a fucking ‘cock star’,” he says, in between showing off artwork. “There’s no space to be a mardy-arse. Everyone has to go through catering, and no one knows when they’re going to play, so you’ve all got to be right there, 9am, every day to find out.”
A lifelong punk fan, the guitarist is all too aware that Warped’s legacy extends beyond promoting camaraderie. Deemed the home of punk and hardcore for the majority of its lifespan, the festival has of late undergone a noticeable evolution in its fundamental makeup. While pop-punk and post-hardcore still have a very vocal presence at the event, this year’s lineup is stacked with heavy bands: Sleeps, Miss May I, Crossfaith, The Amity Affliction, August Burns Red, Blessthefall, New Years Day, Asking Alexandria, Beartooth, Hundredth, I Killed The Prom Queen and We Came As Romans are just some of the names making a racket. While Warped has never shied away from booking heavier acts (Killswitch, Avenged Sevenfold and Architects are just some of the names who have made multiple appearances over the years), it would appear that an increasingly large chunk of the bill is now being devoted to metal.
“Warped’s just moving with the times and going with the trends of the scene,” offers Mat by way of explanation. “And I think that genres are so merged now that ‘punk’ is more of a mindframe. I think there’s as much of a punk, DIY attitude now as there’s ever been.”
He’s not the only person to voice such a notion today. As we exit the Sleeps bus to face the sun once more, we bump into Blessthefall’s Beau Bokan, off to meet his bandmates ahead of their set on the Shark Stage. While he echoes Mat’s sentiments, suggesting that, due to its DIY nature and lack of mainstream radio play, “metal is the new punk rock”, he also believes that heavier bands are starting to dominate alternative music.
“Kevin Lyman saw that whole transformation happening,” he insists. “All of a sudden it was like, ‘Wow, screaming bands are drawing bigger crowds than NOFX and Pennywise!’”
But do those increasingly numerous “screaming bands” feel comfortable wedged in on a bill that also features the likes of Texan rapper Riff Raff, electro-rockers Pvris and British pop bandits Mallory Knox? Not only does Beau think they can all get along just fine, but he believes that the fans that come to Warped every year leave elitism at the door. “Good, honest music shines through any sort of genre or label,” he responds. “I think that everyone can appreciate, look up to and be stoked on each other’s music. Warped’s [crowd is] a perfect example: August Burns Red just played, and Pvris went on right after them and the crowd was just as big. No one’s going, like, ‘Waaaah, boooo!’ They’re all loving it because they’re honest bands. We have metal fests, which are cool if you wanna specifically listen to that, but you’re getting a breakdown all day long. I love that [here] you can walk the grounds and hear punk bands, a DJ or whatever. I think that’s awesome.” As wars go, this is sounding like an awfully jovial one…
As Beau strolls away, that last comment is difficult to shake off. Patrolling the seemingly endless rows of buses and bandwagons out back, it seems like everyone on this tour, regardless of scene or genre, are BFFs; in one corner you’ll overhear members of Crossfaith eagerly jabbering away about how awesome Pvris are, while in another you’ll clock bands in Iron Maiden tour shirts playing frisbee with dubstep DJs. There’s an unwavering sense of kinship uniting these musicians that seems to go beyond being tourmates. We next stumble into The Amity Affliction, fresh from owning the Monster Energy Stage with an arena-filling, crowd-pleasing run-through of their polished metalcore anthems. As they step offstage, frontman Joel Birch and clean vocalist/bassist Ahren Stringer suggest that Warped’s come-one-come-all approach to booking bands has found a natural ally in the internet’s game-changing impact on music.
“People are a little more open than they used to be,” asserts Joel. “You’ve got fans who like Chelsea Grin, who are a death metal band, but then they’ll come out here and like us as well.” “It’s hugely to do with the internet,” adds Ahren. “When I was growing up, we had mail order, and we’d go and buy a CD from the shops based on the artwork, never having heard a single song. Now, people can listen to whatever they want. That’s why there are so many different bands now – because of the internet, anyone can just go with an idea and create another band. You don’t even need a record label any more; you can reach a million kids on YouTube and get put on Warped!”
As Amity disappear inside one bus, we grab August Burns Red frontman Jake Luhrs as he emerges from another. ABR are not only one of the heaviest bands playing the festival this summer, but also one of the most veteran, and he’s witnessed first-hand how the evolving manner in which we consume music has impacted on the alternative scene’s identity.
“Years ago, you’d listen to one type of music and that was it,” he theorises. “Now, kids are broadening their horizons and starting to pick from all these different genres, which is really cool. I think having that variety of music is good for you.”
Does all this cross-pollination mean we’re gonna be seeing more and more unexpected influences creep into heavy music?
“I’m sure that 10 years down the road there’s gonna be some funky stuff,” Jake laughs. “Whether it’s gonna be accepted or not is gonna be a different thing. The metal gods will decide! But when it comes to Warped, it’s nice to come out and see different genres, and it’s a cool opportunity to make new friends and become fans of the musicians that you’re on tour with.”
If Warped has indeed served as a haven for people looking to throw themselves into an environment free of genres, then it may well have accidentally set a precedent for the way younger music fans identify themselves in 2015. Fresh from obliterating the Monster Energy Stage with an impassioned set in front of a fanatically excited crowd with Beartooth, a sweat-soaked Caleb Shomo argues that the reason metal is making more of a noise at Warped in recent times is because the open-mindedness of the ‘next generation’ means heavy bands are more easily accepted.
“With this generation of fans, it’s more about the band and if they like it or not,” he offers. “It’s not about, ‘I only listen to death metal!’ or ‘I only listen to rap!’ People find a song they like, they wanna go and see that band. You see a lot of crossover tours going on now with pop-punk bands and metal bands [together]. It’s definitely a different age. It’s a good vibe, and I’m into that. I’m the same way; I was jamming While She Sleeps earlier, and then I was playing videogames while listening to Young Guns. I could never just listen to one genre – I love so many different kinds of music and there are so many bands I wanna watch on this tour.”
It seems, then, that everyone we’ve met today agrees on one key point: Warped may well have served as a unique force in years gone by, but metal – no, music is changing. Be it through the manner in which it’s consumed by fans or the gregariousness of the bands within it, the days of genre-led divisions within the scene are, it would appear, numbered. The endgame for all this chummy ‘buddying up’? That remains to be seen, but as Asking Alexandria tie up the day’s heavier proceedings over on the Shark Stage, an army of stagehands get to work dismantling the festival and a certain Mr Lyman starts preparing the traditional post-show Warped BBQ (he insists to Hammer he “loves metal” and his controversial comments were “made in frustration”, but that he stands by his assertion that “we need to embrace these younger, heavy bands”), a sun-kissed and beer-powered Miss May I offer some reason to remain optimistic. By far the most proudly and resolutely metal band on the bill today, they see heavy music’s evolving identity as a perfect way to induct endless new followers into the family – and for them, Warped still serves as the first boarding point. Put plainly: if it all ultimately leads to more kids tripping into music festivals and discovering metal bands, who are we to argue?
“Every day I ask if it’s people’s first time seeing us, and more than half the crowd put their hand up,” reveals frontman Levi Benton. “It’s insane. To play to people who’ve never seen us is amazing. It’s especially amazing because they’re not always metal fans – these kids come here to see a pop-punk show, and they leave with a Miss May I t-shirt on. That’s really cool.”
A war? More like a revolution…
Warped UK 2015 takes place October 18 at London’s Alexandra Palace and is headlined by Black Veil Brides and Asking Alexandria.