As soon as we walked into the Lithuanian House in Toronto on August 4 I knew it was going to be a great weekend. The speakers were blasting Bad Waitress and the chandeliers that adorn the ceilings in the Death Room and the Main Hall were glistening in preparation for the moshpits that were soon to take place beneath them. People everywhere were greeting friends with laughs and hugs and the air was buzzing with anticipation for the first band to come on stage.
Right at 6pm, Boxcutter hit the stage in the Death Room and proceeded to hand us our asses for the next 30 minutes. The band kicked out songs from their 2022 EP it’s more like embracing and from their recently released split with Treehouse of Horror and Please Don’t Crash What Good Does Getting Angry Do? with an infectious energy that had the crowd dancing and moshing within minutes. Lead vocalist and guitarist Toast’s vocal delivery was absolutely phenomenal. Her screams were visceral and full of so much emotion. Several times during the set, she jumped off the stage and continued playing in the middle of the crowd without missing a beat. Along with Toast’s vocals and guitar, Faith’s deep bass tone, Kai’s frenetic drumming, and Banjo Ryan’s beautifully haunting cello created a layered sound that compelled you to move as close to the stage as possible. In between songs Toast spoke about the ongoing Metro workers strike, the vileness of Doug Ford especially when it comes to the move towards privatization of healthcare in Ontario, the importance of fighting for trans rights, and the urgent need for all of us to organize, mobilize, and fight for what we believe in. At the end of their set Toast fell to the floor with her guitar on top of her as feedback filled the room, having given her all to the crowd. To say Boxcutter kicked off the weekend with a bang would be an understatement.
After Boxcutter, we ran upstairs to the Main Hall to see Lastima. With the stage bathed in blue light and a steady slow release of fog from behind the drummer, the Philly-based five-piece made you feel like you were walking toward an abandoned castle in the woods. Their emo-tinged black metal drew you in and for as long as they played nothing else existed outside of them on the stage. The guitars, bass, drums, and violin worked perfectly together giving each instrument time to shine. The songs built up slowly before exploding in lush, textured breakdowns. The vocals ranged from clean to rough and kept up their balance of melody and dissonance. “Hollow” had one of the best breakdowns of their entire set. The song built until they were playing heavy and fast and then that transitioned suddenly to a gorgeous, introspective breakdown with keys and mournful violin. The emotion generated by the violin carried through the rest of the song, adding even more power to the story being told.
Burial Etiquette from Thunder Bay was up next in the Death Room. We ran downstairs and found a spot to stand in front of the stage. They were filling in for Roman Candle who couldn’t make the festival this year and they absolutely killed it. The crowd started headbanging within minutes of the first song starting and no one stopped until the band was done. They put the ‘emo’ in screamo as they all traded vocal duties, lending a wonderful mix of vocal styles to their heartfelt lyrics. It was extremely clear throughout their set how much they care about their music and each other. They played “Gentle Wings” off their 2020 split with Coma Regalia (who would be playing later in the weekend) to celebrate its 3rd anniversary and it blew everyone away. In between songs, lead vocalist and guitarist Jaccob also said that they have finally finished their new album after 5 years. I have thoroughly enjoyed everything they’ve put out and I am very, very excited to hear that new music is on the horizon.
Dreamwell hit the Main Hall stage next and I launched up the stairs to see them. They are a band that I’ve wanted to see for quite a while and they did not disappoint. They seemed to get heavier the more they played and every single one of the band members radiated power. The music took control of them and it felt like their very lives depended on releasing the music into the universe. Lead vocalist Keziah Staska moved around the stage as if propelled by the intensity of the lyrics. He leaned into the crowd and made eye contact with the audience. At one point, he tore into Canada for our atrocious treatment of Indigenous people. They played tracks off of their 2021 album Modern Grotesque as well as their new song “Obelisk of Hands” and people were moshing, head banging, and going wild. During the last song, Keziah smashed the microphone on his forehead and finished the set with blood pouring down his face. Once the last note was struck, he jumped off the stage and walked directly to their merch table. Dreamwell was beyond amazing. They are coming to Toronto in November and I hope to be there to witness the magic again.
Young Mountain’s set marked the first time that they had ever played outside of Europe and the Swedish emo band wasted no time in showing us what they were all about. Their energy levels started out high and remained there for their entire set. They seamlessly switched between clean and rough vocals and had some outstanding breakdowns. They also played a few more shoegazey tracks including their new song “Merkurius”. Before playing “Lovely” (off their 2021 EP INFRARÖD, lead vocalist Kami Kalantari said, “Just have fun and live your life” which is not only great advice, but also fits the mission statement of the festival perfectly. I think I speak for everyone when I say, Young Mountain please come back to Canada soon!
Virginia-based emoviolence band Ostraca were up next and they opened a pit to hell. I mean that in the absolute best way possible. When we walked into the Main Hall, they were set up in a triangle with the bassist and guitarist facing each other and the drummer in the middle. Their guitar work was intricate and their vocals were excellent, both guttural and higher pitched. You could feel the screams deep within your bones and the floor shook with the power of the instruments. More and more people joined the pit the more Ostraca played. The environment was (controlled) chaos and the band kept adding layers upon layers of depth to their sound. They played a couple of tracks off their new album Disaster along with some older songs and left everyone wanting more.
I loved Life In Vacuum’s new album Lost and have been waiting for the opportunity to see them for a while now. They ripped the roof off of the place with their fuzzy, garagey, melodic punk. They had everyone singing along almost immediately and rocked so hard that all of the members were dripping sweat within minutes. They were playing with a fill-in bassist who learned their entire set in 2 hours and if we weren’t informed of this, I would never guess. The complexities that exist on their albums are magnified live and their amazing musician shone through on every song. Life In Vacuum turned the energy in the place up so high they broke the knob.
Toronto’s self-described “orchestral post-everything collective” Respire hit the stage in the Main Hall for their first and only show this year and they overcame technical difficulties to make sure that show counted. In addition to the traditional drums, bass, and guitars, the band also brought in violin, viola, and trumpet to really enhance the imagery of the songs. Each song created its own unique atmosphere that made you feel as if you had been transported to another dimension. At one point, thunder sounded out of the speakers and it was so loud that you could feel it through the floor. Near the middle of the set, vocalist and guitarist Egin Kongoli started to have technical difficulties with his guitar so the band stopped and started to tell jokes. One memorable joke was, “Why did the squirrels stop arguing with the porcupine? … They got the point!” *ba dum tss* A few audience members shouted out jokes and a few were honoured with a rimshot from drummer Travis Dupuis. “We’re better at being sincere” laughed guitarist and vocalist Rohan Lilauwala before they started the set back up. They gave a passionate speech about the importance of DIY and the rich, lifelong friendships that they’ve formed because of the punk community. (It should be noted that along with being excellent guitarists and vocalists, Egin and Rohan co-founded New Friends Fest along with Vanessa Fever in 2017 and they’ve continued to build it up over the years. Massive props to them for making this weekend happen.) During one of the songs, a cardboard cutout of Rohan went crowdsurfing. The cutout eventually made it to the stage where Rohan himself saved his cardboard doppelgänger from the pit and put him on stage so he could watch the final moments of their set.
Next up was Habak from Tijuana, Mexico. If you haven’t listened to them yet, fix that right now! They play melodic crust punk with a healthy dose of screamo. They are fast, they are furious, and they kick all kinds of ass. Once they started playing the sound wrapped around the room, enveloping everyone in their torrent of sound. They were so powerful that you could feel the vibrations in every fiber of your being regardless of where you were standing in the Death Room. Alex’s voice was absolutely phenomenal, extremely powerful, and at times gloriously guttural. The room was positively packed and the pit was huge, as it should be.
Michigan grindpunks Cloud Rat closed out night one with a set that if your socks were still on would’ve blown them off. The only word that comes to mind when I think about them is epic. Everyone on stage (and in the crowd) was full-body head banging to breakdown after breakdown. They played a career-spanning set including some tracks off their excellent 2022 album Threshold which opened the pit up even more than it already was. Vocalist Madison Marshall is a fucking powerhouse. She doubled over with the force of her screams multiple times and was able to shift back to clean, melodic vocals with no effort whatsoever. The vocal delivery drives the emotional intensity and poetic nature of the lyrics home. Cloud Rat fucking rock. What a way to cap off the first day of New Friends Fest. We left buzzing and eagerly awaiting what was to come the next day.