Leeds Festival is a place where large-print names dripping in prestige take to the dirge and drizzle of Yorkshire’s Bramham Park to perform to thousands of glittered faces, caked in mud up to their knees; a place where upcoming bands from across the world are the greatest small-print discoveries; a place where, in between sets, you’d rather not tell your parents about.
The British festival is a different beast to its global counterparts – it’s a weekend-long lifestyle, brilliant in its squalor and its drunken, grinning optimism. Almost every year, the line-up polarises opinion: “The worst line-up ever!”; “It proves rock is dead!” are the kinds of remarks that crop up, always whiney, always wrong. The line-up for 2018 was undoubtedly the most variegated yet, with a spectrum of genres reaching further than ever before. Though this year saw yet another dusting off of festival favourites Kings of Leon, The Kooks and Courteeners – enjoyable, but textbook-safe and pedestrian at best – it was ultimately a line-up of risk.
Friday was graced by the linchpins of the SoundCloud phenomenon: Lil Pump and SCARLXRD. It would be easy to consider SoundCloud rap as a niche, little-known micro-genre, where if you know, you know. What I saw at Leeds Fest is just how deeply these lo-fi, self-made rappers are running through people’s veins. Drawing droves of young people – far more than you could imagine – screaming their verses, whipping up mosh pits with a violence as if they’d been electrocuted, these livewires are the punks of our generation. With an identity born out of the blue, self-raised on laptops in bedrooms, SoundCloud is the breeding ground for the next Sid Vicious. SCARLXRD’s vitriolic rap-metal hybrid, characterised by claustrophobic trap beats and ear-shredding vocals that rise like bile is the thing of your mother’s nightmares. Yet just like his mumble-rap counterpart Lil Pump, united in genre but differing in sound, the masses are entranced. Like it or loathe it, SoundCloud rap taps into something we needed. 2018 was the first year Leeds embraced SoundCloud stars with open arms. Their finger is on the pulse of the now far better than we thought.
The indie-rock front this year was far better fought by Spector and King Nun than anything you’d be likely to see on the Main Stage. The Festival Republic Stage boasted a menagerie of acts that were consistent in flair and originality. London’s Spector, with their debonair wit, soaring pop melodies and vocals that echo the eighties, gave an excellent neon-tinted performance. Their shrug-of-the-shoulders narcissism that is their trademark, however, made them seem inert on stage. If it weren’t for their stellar music, your mind might wander. The real knock-outs were Dirty Hit’s King Nun (pictured). The shabby grandeur that makes every track an anthem defied Sunday’s downpour. They threw themselves around the stage, caught in the eye of a storm where every drop spun them in a different direction. With frontman Theo’s gift of the gab between songs, and the brattish hysteria of his voice that was just as atmospheric as it is on record, King Nun brought one of the most incredible sets not only of the day – but the weekend itself.
One of the best things about Leeds Fest 2018 is the wealth of female-fronted bands so high up the bill. It’s so easy for festivals to be crammed with lads with stadium-size saviour complexes – it was great to see these typically underrepresented bands given the recognition their merit deserves. Dream Wife, before I say anything else, are just fucking cool. Since the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, punk rock has never been so exhilarating. Their music is charged with riot-grrrl smarts and aggression, tinged with that little bit of danger in the fun. Absolutely captivating to watch, with the kind of sexiness that wields power, Dream Wife will have you chanting “gonna fuck you up, gonna cut you up!” – you’ll feel ten times taller than you did before. If we take a walk to The Pit – the host of Bring Me The Horizon and Frank Carter and The Rattlesnakes’ secret set – all-female Seattle band Thunderpussy are waiting there. Their name is vivid enough for you to imagine what this glam-rock foursome are about: they’re entertainers, glittering on stage and unafraid to speak their minds. With experimental dance moves, thigh-high boots and an American stage-school charm, frontwoman Molly Sides brought theatrics to their performance that entirely separates Thunderpussy from other bands of their ilk. In a music industry that leaves fun as an afterthought, both Dream Wife and Thunderpussy made it an integral part of their identity. Girls really do just want to have fun.
Reading and Leeds 2018 was an anti-pop dreamscape. Rex Orange County’s parma violet-sweet sound had so many people sat on shoulders, arms outspread, singing along to his breezy pop melodies with their lyrics of endless of optimism and insecurities. The brass section, owing to the R’n’B influences Alex O’Connor wears on his sleeve, added weight and memorability to his live performance. His trademark song ‘Loving is Easy’ welcomed a chorus of singing along, with friends and lovers dancing to its twinkling chorus. And then there was Brockhampton: arguably one of the most important – not to mention influential – collectives in the world. This all-American boyband is a lo-fi hip-hop collage created by the most exciting multidisciplinary creatives in the game. Founded by Kevin Abstract in a Kanye West forum, their music is undeniably the greatest thing since West’s emergence. Their infectious, irreplicable beats bear the torch for a new strain of rap; a new strain of band. Elusive, with the kind of mystique that creates undying passion in their followers, it was incredible that Reading and Leeds Fest was one of the first UK dates they have ever played. The hysteria was immense. You had the sense that everyone knew that this, right here, was what they had been waiting for. In their matching outfits – a typical boyband trope they somehow warp to their own ends – Brockhampton’s performance was lightning in a bottle. The kind of adulation they received was no less than what you’d expect for a boyband in the typical sense, not to mention the sense in which they have redefined it. Brockhampton, alone, were the perfect reason to go.
The weekend was crowned with Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar. The fine curtain of rain as night fell was a testament to the loyalty of Lamar’s army of fans. His music is smooth, prismatic and shaded with sensitivity and the kind of intellect that has earned him the laurel of being ‘King of New York’ – no small feat for a Compton boy. Bodies crushed with intensity at the front of the stage, clamouring to be close to the Bard of rap. The energy was unbelievable. Every beat drop left the audience swept away by a powerful surge of jumping bodies who, you could see, were having the time of their lives. Pulling the classic stunt of leaving the stage as if he was finished, Lamar left a lingering five minutes before he returned for his performance’s crescendo with ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’. An anthem. Although, among the sea of people, and on a colossal stage spurting fireworks and theatrics, Kendrick Lamar was strikingly small. The Main Stage often reminds you that the musical deities we worship are, in fact, just human beings, like the rest of us. It’s incredible just how far music can take you: Leeds Fest, and other festivals like it, are the manifestation of our culture that people believe in.