LIVE: Anti-Flag / Cancer Bats @ Academy 2, Manchester

By Liam Knowles

Navigating Manchester on a Friday night is one of the most hellish things you can imagine, as drunk students and office workers clog the streets and everyone tries to drive around the city like the layout makes any sort of sense whatsoever. Unfortunately this combination of traffic issues and general fuckery meant missing Worriers, but the people who were there seemed to all agree that they were great, and there’s no doubt that they’ll be knocking people dead when they tour the UK with Nervus later this month.

The first of tonight’s headline acts is Canadian hardcore sweethearts Cancer Bats, who are positively alight with energy from the second they burst into ‘Gatekeeper’ and don’t let up at all, hammering through the first four tracks without so much as a breath between them. Unfortunately the crowd don’t have the same vigour, with incandescent vocalist Liam Cormier having to state that they’ll pretend the first four songs didn’t happen if the crowd gets moving from this point forward. Lucky for him, ‘Hail Destroyer’ is next in the set and it’s medically impossible to stand still during that song. That unmistakable ‘yep, we’re at a Cancer Bats show’ vibe is finally there as the pit opens up and the crowdsurfers start coming.

It’s been 10 years since the ‘Hail Destroyer’ album came out and it’s clear to see the love that people still have for it, with ‘Lucifer’s Rocking Chair’ setting heads a-banging and ‘Pray For Darkness’ creating a frantic circle pit, just like it always does. We’re also treated to a fair amount of material from this year’s ‘The Spark That Moves’, including the irresistible bounce of ‘Brightest Day’ and a huge singalong to ‘Space and Time’. Top that off with choice cuts from across their back catalogue and the excellent cover of the Beastie Boys classic ‘Sabotage’ and you’ve got all the makings of a great show – but despite the band themselves being excellent, which they consistently are, there’s definitely something missing from tonight’s performance. Whether it’s the fact that the majority of the crowd are there for Anti-Flag, or the fact that hardcore never translates as well in large venues with big gaps between the band and crowd, this definitely wasn’t the show that everyone knows they’re capable of. Thankfully they’re coming back in the new year for a solid 20-show (!) run of intimate venues, and that’s always the setting in which you’ll see Cancer Bats at their most majestic.

Bands like Cancer Bats might struggle in larger venues, but Anti-Flag are more than at home in a room this size, and easily fill it with their politically-charged brand of melodic punk rock. The band walk on stage to a mixture of speeches from Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Great Dictator’ and Martin Luther King, before launching headfirst into ‘Die For The Government’ from their 1996 album of the same name. It’s easy to forget just how long Anti-Flag have been around, considering the youthful energy they still radiate as they play and how spirited they still sound. All their set staples are there, including ‘Broken Bones’ and the anthemic ‘The Press Corpse’, and the enthusiastic crowd holler back every word like their lives depend on it. In terms of pure enthusiastic energy and the ability to write memorable choruses that can fill any venue, there are very few who do it better.

The only real issue with Anti-Flag is that, regardless of how much fun they are, their whole shtick just feels a little forced. The political speeches as they walked on, the flags that adorn the stage, the on-the-nose anti-government rhetoric – it’s difficult to disagree with their stance, of course, but it’s laid on so thick that they almost become a meme of themselves, especially when hating Trump at a punk rock show is such a given and going for him really feels like going for the lowest hanging fruit. This, combined with their ‘looks spontaneous but is definitely choreographed’ audience interaction and the fact that there’s a random bloke with a microphone hidden behind one of the amps who seems to exist solely to give the gang vocals a bit more oomph, just makes the whole thing feel a bit more disingenuous than a punk show should feel. There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Anti-Flag fans in the room had a great time at this show, but the band could likely strip back all the above and people would enjoy it just as much, if not more, due to the additional authenticity it would add to their performance.

Tonight’s show wasn’t perfect, but it was a great opportunity to see two very different bands do their thing, and whilst the crowd may have been weighted in Anti-Flag’s favour both bands will have definitely won over some new fans from each other. As for all the other stuff – there’s always the chance that regularly writing about music turns you into a moany old git, so go and check out all these bands and decide for yourselves if they tick your boxes.