• Charlotte Hardman

Neck Deep @ O2 Apollo, Manchester, 14.10.17 / Louder Live

As the nights draw in, leaves begin to fall from the trees and the weather begins to turn colder, is there any better way to spend a Saturday night than jumping around in a sold out, very sweaty Manchester Apollo to a long night of riotous pop punk? For the dedicated legion of fans who queued from the crack of dawn and stoically whiled away the hours on the chilly pavement, it was clear there was nowhere else they’d rather be than waiting eagerly to see Neck Deep, who have at last returned to home soil for as close as they can get to a huge hometown show at the venue they attended so regularly as teenagers, and that they have dreamt of playing themselves ever since. The release of their latest record ‘The Peace and the Panic’ has seen the Wrexham quintet solidify their place as the new giants in the pop punk scene and leading lights in the genre’s revival. Even before doors opened, the anticipation hummed through the air outside like a swarm of bees, the heart and soul of Manchester itself- there was no doubt that this was going to be a very special show indeed!

Opening the night were the band who had so far flown under almost everyone’s radar, but who were about to make their presence heard in the most delightfully raucous way- Edinburgh quartet Woes. It’s never easy playing to a still filling room, but the band took it all in their stride, blasting out catchy hooks and upbeat, driving choruses and proving that they have an energy big enough to fill a stage of that size with ease. With a new EP release coming soon and more tours already in the works, they will definitely be ones to watch over the coming months!

Helping to pack out this bill with an impressive display from the scene’s brightest and best were a revitalised, reenergised Real Friends, who gave the best live performance of theirs I’ve seen to date- opening with their landmark track ‘Mess’ and never letting the pace drop from there on out, their short but sweet set was piled high with spinning mosh pits and many a brave crowdsurfer, making it one of the most energetic responses to a support band that I have seen for a very long time!

Next up in this veritable tidal wave of pop punk were Brighton’s As It Is, who didn’t fail to put on the kind of light-hearted yet fiercely energetic performance that we have come to expect from them, whipping the whole room up into a wild, bouncing mass of bodies with their staple closer ‘Dial Tones’. Behind this happy-go- lucky atmosphere, however there was a very serious, very poignant message- taking care of each other should be our top priority. Whether it was Real Friends asking the older fans in the crowd to take care of the newcomers who were helping keep the scene alive, or the message of openness and honesty about mental health that was reiterated by the bands and by mental health charity Hope for the Day, the sense of belonging and community in the room in amongst the moshing and the fierce circle pits was incredibly heart-warming.

Despite surviving the slew of energetic sets from the three very talented bands who had already graced the stage that evening, nothing could have prepared you for the reaction of the packed out room when, at long last, the night’s headliners took to the stage. The chanting of the band’s name dissolved into cheering as loud as a jumbo jet taking flight, as the white curtain that had been covering the stage fell dramatically to the ground and the unmistakable opening riff of ‘Happy Judgement Day’ roared from the speakers- Neck Deep had arrived! The piercingly topical, politically charged lyrics fired up the angry punk spirit in every member of the packed out, sweaty crowd, and the wall of sound blasting from every side was deafening as people sang and screamed every word! Barely pausing for breath, the band went crashing into ‘Lime St’ as a flurry of crowdsurfers came flying over the barrier, all inhibitions forgotten as reckless abandon took over and the crowd around me dissolved into a sea of waving fists and teetering bodies as people’s feet struggled to stay rooted on solid ground! Coming in early with their gigantic hit single ‘Gold Steps’, Neck Deep pushed the atmosphere even further, until the temperature in the room was comparable to that of a furnace and there wasn’t an inch of the crowd that wasn’t rippling with pogoing pop punk fans, swept up in the riptide of palpable energy that poured from the stage in waves!

Despite an initially mixed response to their new record, the many songs from that album that were woven into the set went down a storm with the electrified crowds! The album’s opener ‘Motion Sickness’ sucked you in with its plunging hook and crashing drums, which gave way to its ridiculously lively guitar line, and the line everyone had been waiting to scream along to was delivered by the crown with a great walloping shout, making Ben’s presence on the stage practically redundant as every voice in the venue shouted in unison ‘Better jump, better run, better go, better jump, RUN!’. The grit of the relentless, grinding guitars on ‘Don’t Wait’ -sadly not featuring Architects’ Sam Carter (‘He has better things to do than hang out with us!’ Ben jovially explained)- drove the spinning circle pits relentlessly, and the soaring melodies and touchingly romantic lyrics of ‘Parachute’ beckoned a sea of swaying hands into the air and painted warm, soft-lipped smiles onto every face. Yet the crowning glory of them all was undoubtedly ‘In Bloom’, where the light technicians completely outdid themselves with a mesmerising display of blue lasers that pierced the semi-darkness, floating over the heads of the crowd and spinning gracefully in time to Ben’s impressively controlled vocal performance.

Of course, there was a healthy dose of older material mixed in there too, including the first song Neck Deep ever wrote, ‘What Did You Expect‘, a track built from pure teenage angst, boasting a driving bassline and chaotic, screaming guitars- a pure punk delight! Welcome too was the inclusion of ‘Kali Ma’, which juxtaposes a sunny melody with bleak, visceral lyrics as well as ‘Rock Bottom’ with its low, undulating opening riff, feverish chorus and lyrics that promise of a brighter dawn breaking on the horizon and a chance to rebuild your life on the firm foundations of your lowest ebb. And I’m sure anyone who has ever even heard the name Neck Deep will have heard the age-old catchphrase that spawned from ‘Citizens of Earth’, so needless to say it was the automatic response of several members of the crown to yell that particular affectionate string of profanities up at the stage the second that song reached its screeching conclusion!

As the night began to hurtle towards its climax, Neck Deep cut the lights and slowed the pace right back down, stripping away the security of the guitars, bass and drums, leaving Ben alone in a single spotlight with just an acoustic guitar for company. Gazing out at the sea of faces before him, Ben recounted the story of the meeting that inspired the song he was about to play, ‘Head to the Ground’. ‘And when I was sitting writing these words alone in my bedroom, I never dreamed that I’d be playing it to all of you and hearing you sing them back’ Ben said, disbelief and pride written all over his face. And they did, everyone in the crowd- they sang the words back up at the stage that this band never even dared to dream of one day playing on. This venue had given the band so many memorable teenage nights, and in beautifully cyclical fashion, a whole host of new memories were being created for the next generation who stood waiting in the wings. As much as this show was about looking forward, it also gave a nod to the influence of the past, as Fil joined Ben onstage for the heart-wrenchingly emotional ‘Wish You Were Here’, dedicated to both of their fathers and high school friends who had recently passed away. The heartbreak and pain that inspired the lyrics was palpable, and yet it was the beauty and simplicity of the track that brought many in the crowd, myself included, to tears! The rest of the band slowly began to filter back onto the stage for the song that put them on the map and kick-started their careers, the romantic duet that needs no explanation- it was, of course, ‘A Part of Me’.

Neck Deep left the stage for a brief pause before returning, hailed by chants as they delivered a blistering encore. In a city whose sense of hometown pride has been renewed more than ever this year, the ode to where it all began ‘Can’t Kick Up the Roots’ was sure to go off in explosive fashion, and indeed it did, with wave after wave of crowdsurfers being thrown up into the air in a proud celebration of the spirit of this great Northern city. Rounding out the night with its wonderful mixture of defiance and existentialism, ‘Where Do We Go When We Go’ demonstrated perfectly the direction that Neck Deep are heading in- they are a band who have conquered the worldwide alternative scene, and have now successfully returned home to share in their glory with those fans who gave them their start all those years ago, at a tiny show in Manchester’s iconic Sound Control. And now, as the confetti rained down and the final notes rang out through the speakers, dissolving into a rave full of flashing lights and joyful singing, the big question on everyone’s mind is- where on earth are they heading next?

'The Peace and the Panic' is out now via Hopeless Records.

Check out the video for the band's stand-out single from the record, 'In Bloom', below: