"Everyone's a Fucking Victim": This Is Hardcore 2023 Review

Hugo Reyes and I recount our wild experience at This Is Hardcore festival 2023.

"Everyone's a Fucking Victim": This Is Hardcore 2023 Review
Credit: The Unsteady Hand, via YouTube

This Is Hardcore got the Violent Treatment this year. Hugo Reyes and I, co-hosts of the podcast Violent Treatment (check it out wherever you get your pods), ventured out to Philadelphia to attend the annual hardcore takeover of Franklin Music Hall. The lineup featured everyone from legacy headliners like Bane and Gorilla Biscuits; newly-reunited heavy hitters like Prayer For Cleansing and Suburban Scum; modern-day mosh titans like Pain of Truth, Speed and Mindforce; melodic hardcore jukeboxes like Silent Majority and Koyo; young up-and-comers like Scarab, Envision and Fool’s Game; and a smattering of other groups, new and old alike.

It was the first time either of us had ever gone to what’s now the longest-running hardcore fest in the country (I think?), and we really fucking committed to getting our time and money’s worth. While we didn’t attend the Friday night show of the official fest, we saw a different gig that night and then hit a midnight after-show on Saturday — following 10 hours straight of hardcore that day, and with another 12 hours on the docket for the next day.

We only sat down to skip two sets throughout the whole weekend, so we basically witnessed as much of the fest as we could, and we have thoughts. Rather than writing up our own experiences independently, we figured we’d just have a back-and-forth conversation about the bands we saw, the vibe of an East Coast hardcore festival, what the crowd reactions said about the current hardcore climate, etc.

Hugo: I got to Philadelphia a few days before Eli, but as he mentioned, I did not go to day one of This is Hardcore. While I would have enjoyed some stuff on the lineup, I decided to rest my feet. After going to Tied Down a few months ago, I know how tiring standing for 10 hours can be. But I did go to a show that was a short thirty-minute walk away from our AirBnb. Gouge Away was playing at the Ukie Club as part of their return tour. The decision to buy tickets for it was an easy one. The first piece of music writing I ever did was on Burnt Sugar, and I adored it. I wanted to see if I still felt the same way about the band as I did five years ago. Plus, the venue Ukie Club was unlike anything I go to in Chicago. It had a VFW hall feel I only read about in old 90s zines or documentaries about shows in the suburbs at Knights of Columbus Halls.

There was a lull when I arrived at the venue. Though the flyer says 6:30, the show did not start for another hour. The first band was Harm Assist, which, funnily enough, features a member of the emo band Sweet Pill. It sounded like stuff from Philly and the kind of hardcore that I don’t know if you would have liked. It sounded kinda Turmoil and that kind of era of metallic hardcore. People seemed unsure at first of how to dance to it. But people eventually got moving. The last band I saw by myself was Sunstroke, who I was familiar with because of New Morality Zine. They stood out as the one melodic hardcore band on the bill, but I enjoyed it. Then you showed up, Eli. What did you think of the gig?

Eli: Yeah, so I rolled into town at about 9:30, and within minutes of arriving at our AirBnb, I was in an Uber heading over to the Ukie Club, where I arrived just in time to see Nine of Swords. Like Hugo mentioned, the setting of the venue was awesome, and unlike anything I have access to in Pittsburgh. Hundreds of punks and indie kids hanging inside and out of an old VFW hall, with shitty sound and people from the scene running the show DIY as hell. The vocalist of Nine of Swords was basically inaudible during their set, but the band — who I remembered being more of a noisy indie-punk band, not so much a noisy hardcore band — were pretty good. A couple members from Soul Glo were playing with them, so it definitely felt like a very Philly Thing to witness.

Also like Hugo, Gouge Away’s Burnt Sugar was a record I loved when it first came out, but if I’m being honest, I hadn’t listened to Gouge Away in years before they dropped that comeback single earlier this year. Seeing them for the first time was fun, and it was cool to see them play some new stuff that has the hardcore urgency of their earlier material (my favorite of theirs).I was also a little frazzled from the long drive, so I wasn’t as fully zoned-in on the music as I would be for the rest of our time in Philly.

The next day, we woke up early, hung with our Endless Scroll pals, Eric and Miranda, and then got to the venue just in time to see the first band of the day, Scarab. Hugo, the first 30 seconds of that set were pretty impactful for you, right?

Hugo: Yeah, I’d describe walking into Franklin Hall to watch Scarab as a bit of a culture shock. I don’t know what I was expecting. I had been watching Hate5six videos of East Coast shows, and TIHC sets for years. I think I thought the venue would be bigger. But seeing people mosh as hard as possible for the first band at the fest was surprising. I had not been to a proper hardcore show on the East Coast yet. I’ve seen plenty of violent sets in Chicago before, but this region’s style feels distinct and not something I can encounter in the Midwest. Something felt different, though, at Scarab. It was like the Mosh Olympics. People weren’t stopping their windmills as they approached the pit's edge. It was everything I wanted, from the kind of hardcore meant to feel scary. I was partially toward the back as I did not want anything to do with people swinging with all their might. It was also great seeing you immediately enter the pit during the set. And it felt like the energy never really let up for the rest of the day and only got more intense.

Eli: Yeah, it was so entertaining to see your eyes bugged out of your skull after the first several sets, just because of how shocked you were by the moshing. As a lifelong East Coast resident, it wasn’t the style of moshing that shocked me, but the sheer volume of violence for every single set. The least popular bands on the bill still got the sort of reaction a notable headliner would get in Pittsburgh, and as the day progressed from regional openers to modern-day scene leaders like Pain of Truth and Mindforce, the pits were just comically over-the-top. I got in there a decent bit throughout the weekend, but Saturday was definitely the more crowded day of the fest, and the crowdkilling never relented. Just fully saturated dancefloors filled with people with no fear of losing a tooth, and with a burning desire to punch or kick anybody in their radius.

That's what made it so goddamn fun, though! Especially when the two bands after Scarab — Risk and Fool’s Game — played, and it seemed apparent that they were having the best sets of their careers thus far. Those first few bands on Saturday really set the tone, but it was good to get a bit of a break from the chugging when Dead Last, Wreckage and Raw Brigade followed. Also, some amazing banter in that section, right?

Hugo: I agree; I enjoyed that section as someone whose tastes are closer to hardcore punk than metallic stuff. My big takeaway was that Raw Brigade are still underrated. Every time I see them, they get a big reaction and are consistently good live. I just think the recordings don’t do justice to the live experience. As you said, the best banter had to have been from Dead Last. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but it was something like, “If you’re only playing hardcore to be on a Grammy.com list, fuck you.” It was nice to be reminded that the bands that played the fest don’t care about us music writers at all. It’s honestly the relationship that should exist between artists and those who cover them.

After that little hardcore punk lull, we returned to the more ignorant, moshier section of the fest. If I remember correctly, we only watched a few songs from Life’s Question. I was very hot on their record from last year but haven’t returned to it much. One of the biggest surprises of the weekend came with Regulate. The few times I’ve seen them in Chicago, the reaction has been tame. I finally felt like I saw them in the right atmosphere on the East Coast. What stood out to you during this section of Saturday?

Eli: I was absolutely blown away by Raw Brigade. I was so-so on their recordings but as you mentioned, the live experience is what I needed to see to get it. People went ballistic for them, and their more classic 80s sound was a nice reprieve from the heavier stuff that dominated the fest. Regulate were insane and awesome, but they were quickly overshadowed by Suburban Scum. I knew their reunion set was going to be violent, but it managed to actually surpass my expectations.

The new vocalist (Buried Dreams frontman Austin Sparkman) was so hyped up on adrenaline (and probably beer, based on what he was saying) that his stage presence genuinely intimidated me. So many hardcore frontpeople go through the motions of acting reckless, but he was riling up the already ferocious crowd by tossing drinks, clothes and even a mic stand offstage. It got sketchy at points, and for a fest that was so well-organized, and with bands who garnered intense reactions in a predictable way (as in: I expected how people would behave, what the vocalists would say, etc.), feeling like something could go deeply awry for a few moments during Suburban Scum was exciting.

Do you think any of the other super-heavy bands throughout the night (Bulldoze, Pain of Truth and Mindforce) were able to surpass the thrill of Suburban Scum?

Hugo: I don’t know if anything was able to surpass Suburban Scum. It is hard to follow any reunion set. All the other sets you mentioned were pretty rowdy, though. I thought I was far back for Mindforce, and suddenly, a pit appeared right next to me. Pain of Truth was similarly gnarly. I felt like momentum was carrying throughout everything around this time on Saturday. There weren’t any lulls. But if we are to take a big-picture view, I think we will be talking about Suburban Scum in ten years when we look back at what mattered.

For me, some of my most anticipated sets came directly after this block we are talking about. I was getting tired at this point. I was running on three hours of sleep and a lot of caffeine. But the minute Death Threat played “Dead At Birth,” something awoke in me for a few minutes. I got up close and sang along to one of my favorite hardcore bands. It wasn’t too violent, partially because Death Threat does a good job of balancing the fast and hard stuff pretty well. Then was Silent Majority, who I would describe as a bucket list band for me. I think the highlight of that set was getting hit directly on the head by the singer of Pain of Truth. I was not prepared for people to crowdkill to what is essentially the blueprint for long island pop punk and melodic hardcore. I know you said that Death Threat made more sense to you after seeing them, right?

Eli: Yes, definitely. I've wanted to get really into Death Threat for a long time but have struggled with most of their material outside of the highlights on Peace & Security. I don't think their recordings sound that great, but the band were super tight live and their attitude really seeped through in a way I enjoyed. Vocalist Aaron Butkus said that the first time he played TIHC he was high on angel dust, which honestly illuminated the gritty authenticity of their sound and lyrics, and made me appreciate them more. It was apparent that they've made some real-deal songs over the years, and seeing you and others go hard for them definitely made me a fan.

I honestly hoped Silent Majority would do more for me than they did. It was a great set and the band were visibly emotional while toasting their recently fallen bandmate, Rich Jacovina. I really came around to Life of a Spectator while preparing for this fest, and I had a great time hearing the highlights off that record. That said, I think I was just a little tired by that point in the night and wanted to preserve my energy for the aftershow — which ended up being the most insane part of the whole weekend Lmao. Hugo, care to set the scene?

This video does absolutely NO justice to how small and scary this room was lol

Hugo: We skipped Gorilla Biscuits to go to an aftershow at Bonk’s Bar at midnight. I don’t think either of us knew what to expect. I had seen a video of Gridiron playing there, which looked tiny. When we arrived, we found out it was not in the bar but in what looked like a repurposed garage. The room was even smaller than I imagined. I don’t even have a place to compare it to; I’ve been to house shows that could fit more bodies. Once Balmora started, the whole room just became one big dancefloor. Some big guy was already causing damage before a note was even played. It was the first time the entire weekend that I felt imminent danger. I quickly moved off to the side, but even that wasn’t completely safe. At one point, the singer of Adrienne made his way toward us. It was honestly my favorite thing I experienced all weekend. Balmora is now a favorite of mine because of it. Based on our conversation after, I imagine you experienced Balmora similarly to me.

Eli: Absolutely. The room was so small that there was nowhere to hide, so we were sandwiched between an extremely violent pit and a rigid brick wall that could’ve ruined either of our weekends if a fist or foot connected with us with enough force. It was really fascinating to see people mosh that hard for a straight-up metalcore band. Balmora play a style of music that wouldn’t have been accepted as “cool” enough for a hardcore environment as recently as a few years ago, but now that late-90s/early-2000s metalcore is beginning to be re-integrated into young hardcore scenes in a big way. Bonk’s at 12:30 a.m. with 140 people spilling out onto the sidewalk was the best possible way to witness the budding hype for a band like Balmora, who were basically unknown before dropping their debut EP earlier this year.

We ended up sticking around Bonk’s for one more set, Cleveland’s Live It Down, and then taking off to get some much-needed sleep before day two. Once again, we got to Franklin Music Hall right at doors, and hustled inside to see Delaware’s Killing Me opening the show to yet another room of early-bird moshers. From there, it was Pittsburgh’s new beatdown torch-bearers Pain Clinic, and then Philly’s Envision, who we discussed on a recent episode of Violent Treatment. What’d you think of that first three-pack of Sunday, Hugo?

Hugo: I was enjoying myself at the beginning of day three. These three bands felt like a nice mix of what the festival offered. Killing Me is violent but fast enough at points that I could latch onto the songs. Envision was one of my most anticipated sets of the weekend. I know I was hotter on the record that came out earlier this year than you. Singing along to “And Still” was a lot of fun. And I finally got to see Pain Clinic, a band you have been hyping up for a few months. Seeing them get a solid reaction was nice, and I generally had a good time. But as with a lot of the more beatdown-adjacent stuff at This Is Hardcore, I have trouble seeing myself listening to it on my own. I enjoy it live because it is the most engaging to watch and experience imminent danger.  

I will say that besides Envision, a lot of the fest on this day at the beginning felt very one-note to me. The stuff that followed Pain Clinic was similar; by the time Vamachara came on, I was beginning to lose stamina. I just needed one or two more “down-the-middle” hardcore bands to break up the monotony of seeing a deluge of metallic hardcore. But that’s just me. My tastes will always lean toward hardcore punk. How did you experience the beginning of Sunday at This is Hardcore?

Eli: I had a great time with those bands. Seeing Pain Clinic really set it off outside of Pittsburgh, and with a ton of Pittsburgh people moshing, was super special. I think that band is onto big things, and it was one of my fav sets of the day. A close rival would be Envision, though! That set ruled. I was less hot on the record than you, but hearing their bouncy, energetic, but not totally beatdown-y breed of hardcore in this setting really sold me on the band. They were refreshingly fun and light, while still moshy, and I was all-in.

I know the next section (Missing Link, Vamachara, and Facewreck) was pretty beatdown-heavy for you, and I get that. At a certain point the bands blended together. It was cool to see people already moshing to just the feedback at the start of Missing Link's set. That's how you know a band is going places. Vamachara were pretty cool, but I once again liked seeing the other Pittsburgh band on the bill, Facewreck. They got a good reaction. I was pretty stoked when Combust came on next, though, both because I love that band and their form of springy, old-school NYHC was a necessary reprieve.

Between Combust, End It and Bitter End, which was your favorite?

Hugo: It is really tough to choose between the three. End It had the biggest reaction out of the three based on what I saw. My sightlines were not great for them. I could only really see Akil and no one else. I also saw End It plenty of times, so the novelty has run off a bit. But for me, Combust really stood out. It was a palate cleanser for me. Their record from last year was on rotation for a couple of months. To be able to hear some of those songs was cool. I also just love late-80s NYHC worship, so getting a little bit of that was welcomed for me. Bitter End was nice, too, as I had never seen them before. If I'm correct, the rest of the day was pretty much full of stuff I wanted to see. I felt like we had to grab a meal for the rest of the day strategically. The most violent set of the weekend was coming up next in Speed. You said it was particularly gnarly, right Eli? I couldn’t see well during it, so I can’t speak to it.

Eli: There were a couple moments during Suburban Scum’s set that might’ve been gnarlier, but otherwise the Speed set was the most ludicrously violent set of the weekend. You could tell most of the fest wanted to catch them, and the pit was just at five-stars-in-GTA levels of mayhem the whole time. I couldn’t even get near the edge of it because the whole crowd was surging back and forth to avoid flying fists, and when a second pit eventually opened up, I got in for 10 seconds before getting donkey-kicked by some dude. Speed’s music on record hasn’t fully clicked with me yet for whatever reason, but their set more than lived up to the hype I’ve heard about their shows.

We ended up eating during Wisdom in Chains, so the next three-pack was metalcore vets Undying, straight-edge torch-bearers Magnitude and the hometown rap-core heroes in Gridiron. Undying’s songs don’t do anything for me but it was cool to see so many young kids from the Balmora show losing their shit to them the whole time. Metalcore’s a’comin’ back. Magnitude were one of my most anticipated bands of the fest and they were fucking awesome. Piling up during “To Whatever Fateful End” and “Opposition” was a blast. And then Gridiron were really fun for me, but I know I’m definitely way hotter on them than you. You really enjoyed a good chunk of this portion though, right?

Hugo: Yeah, I enjoyed Undying a lot more than you did. It was cool seeing people in bands going off for them. It also put me in the mood to expand my knowledge of metalcore. I skipped it as it peaked in the mid-2000s, and these newer bands doing metalcore have been exciting me. I had seen Magnitude several times, but this was my favorite of theirs. A big theme for me that emerged was seeing many of these bands in a fest environment was far better than seeing them play to 100 people on Tuesday with four people moshing. Magnitude also handed me my one injury of the weekend, badly scraping my knee during a side-to-side part. Gridiron is much more your speed; I had a good time with it and still love hearing “No Good at Goodbyes” every time I listen.

At this point, we were heading toward the end of the fest. I had to ignore the pains in my ankles telling me to sit my ass down. We had a funny mixup around this time. For some reason, I thought Throwdown was up next, and then we quickly realized it was Vein F.M., who represented the last current band playing. How did you experience the last bit of the fest?  

Eli: Yeah, I remember glancing at the stage while the band was setting up and thinking, “Wow, the Throwdown dudes look really young for their age! Oh, wait, that's Vein!” In the first episode of our podcast, I called Vein’s Errorzone the most overrated hardcore album of the 2010s. I don’t know if that's totally fair, but it was an opinion I held for years because I just didn’t understand why people freaked out about that band when they first started. I’d seen them a couple times since and my opinion had marginally improved, but this was by far my favorite experience with Vein’s music ever. The sound coming off the stage was torrential. So much power behind their instruments, and the triple-vocal attack made their sound that much more unrelenting. They didn’t take a beat between songs except when the singer said “last song” at the end of their set, and the unflinching intensity of those 25 minutes had me mesmerized. I was very impressed.

Throwdown and Prayer For Cleansing were both fun capstones to a moshy weekend, and it was particularly cool to see younger people react to Prayer for Cleansing with such vigor. I was exhausted by the end of their set, but I kept just enough energy in the tank for Bane, who played a kick-ass set that was sincere, energetic and super fun to sing along to. I know you were utterly dead by the time Bane started, but I think you also had a blast during Prayer for Cleansing, right?

Hugo: Prayer For Cleansing was a big draw for me. I had spent a lot of time with Rain in Endless Fall this year and, as you said, it was cool seeing younger people at the front moshing hard as fuck to them. I’m not the biggest Throwdown fan, but the response made me understand them more. They are just not my flavor of straight edge right now. By the time Prayer for Cleansing was finished, I was mentally exhausted. For most other fests, I try to be strategic about when I take breaks. There were just not as many opportunities during TIHC. Standing for over ten hours as a heavier dude with flat feet is strenuous; I was feeling my age by the end of the day. The end result was that I only watched three songs from Bane and sat through most of them. I left before they finished because I wanted to relax and fall into bed.

Now that we reached the end of the recap, I have one big-picture thought, even though I’m unsure how much we can extrapolate from one fest. But there is part of me that wonders if the moshier, more beatdown stuff will become the predominant style in hardcore for a few years. But to be fair, TIHC’s booking generally leans that way, given Joe Hardcore’s history, so that may not be the case. Any big takeaways for you after the fest?

Eli: My pushback there is that that's how the genre has kind of felt for the last 10 years. The heavier, moshier stuff has just become more and more predominant among hardcore’s most popular bands. So at this point, I would kind of expect a turn in the other direction toward more melodic or straight-forward punk stuff. But based on what we saw at this fest (and what we see through videos of similar fests like Sound and Fury and FYA) I can’t really argue with your hypothesis, because it was the heavy bands that most resonated. Pain of Truth, Speed, Mindforce and Suburban Scum got the biggest crowd reactions of the whole weekend. We didn’t see GB, but of the top bands on the bill, it was Prayer for Cleansing and Vein that got the best reactions. Not Bane and Silent Majority, which had passionate crowds, but much smaller ones compared to the younger, heavier groups who played throughout the day.

The main thing I’d add to your takeaway is that I think things are going to get more hooligan-y in the next couple years. I sensed an impending pushback to the sort of safe, be-mindful-of-others, posi vibes that cropped up around a lot of musical sub-genres during the sort of post-#MeToo social justice reckoning of the late 2010s. Hardcore hasn’t felt dangerous for a while now, and as its scope continues to grow thanks to Turnstile and other adjacent bands bringing new kids in, I think there’s a core group of lifers who’re ready to go the other direction and make things more hostile again.

Not necessarily in a bigoted way (though maybe some of that..) but mostly just in the level of destructive moshing, the attitude coming off the stage, the provocative shit like Suburban Scum throwing a mic stand into the crowd. I do think we’re on the precipice of a major vibe shift where the genre fights off a lot of the outside attention it’s been getting by getting more extreme, and while I think some of that will surely look ugly, I can’t say that I’m not intrigued to see where that goes.