Toronto's New Friends Fest 2023 Celebrated the Subversive Force of Community

With HIRS Collective (pictured), pageninetynine, Piper Maru, Gulfer, Life in Vacuum, Fern Sully, .gif from God, Cloud Rat, Respire

Photo: Riley Taylor

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Aug 8, 2023

Started in 2017, New Friends Fest  — Toronto's preeminent (post)hardcore, punk and screamo festival — held its fourth, devastatingly loud iteration this past weekend at the Lithuanian House on Bloor.

New Friends DIY — which was started by Egin Kongoli, Rohan Lilauwala, and Vanessa Fever as a way to celebrate their "collective love of punk and the vibrant, empowering communities [they've] experienced while touring" — is the not-for-profit collective behind the festival, which strives "to continue the rich story of grassroots DIY emo/hardcore in Toronto." Running a DIY festival in Toronto isn't easy, and the neverending list of DIY spaces and venues that have shut down in the last few years (Soy Bomb, Double Double Land, FAITH/VOID, D-Beatstro, etc. etc. ad infinitum) speaks to the resilience and dedication of its diverse team of passionate volunteers. 

As I bounced between the venue's two concert spaces (the upstairs Main Hall and the downstairs Death Room), a swirling, cacophonous wall of sound followed me throughout, a testament to the amazing work done by all the sound folks. Kudos times infinity to them for making everything — instruments and vocals — sound balanced and intelligible, never an easy feat.

Featuring both international and Canadian bands from various punk and heavy subgenres, NFF promotes empathy and advocacy through its adherence to a DIY ethic defined by inclusivity, empowerment, and independence. These principles are embodied through NFDIY's commitment to creating a "mutually empowering atmosphere free from sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of oppression." This defiant and socially conscious approach sets them apart from the multitude of corporate and consumerist festivals that have oversaturated the summer concert landscape. New Friends Fest is a celebration of art, noise and the subversive power of community, and a powerful protest against apathy. Here are the best acts that Exclaim! Caught at this year's edition. 

August 4

Life in Vacuum

Since I started writing for Exclaim! back in March, I've wanted to cover Life in Vacuum. I've been lip-synching to their explosive post-hardcore anthems (and believe me, they are anthems) on buses, subways, and while walking through Farm Boy, and sometimes (quite often, actually) the words slip out, vocalized for all to hear — much to the chagrin of my fellow shoppers, I'm sure. On Friday, that subtle embarrassment was fully validated as I screamed along to tracks from the band's new album, Lost, including the album's centrepiece "Moving On," a slow dirge of a track that explodes into the year's most jubilant chorus. And yes, I got misty eyed screaming along.

For a three piece, they made an impressive amount of noise, although there were some performance hiccups: the band had to find a last-minute replacement bassist, who learned all the songs in less than 3 hours and did a beyond-impressive job regardless. They sounded like a force to be reckoned with, hitting you right in the frontal lobe: the music grooved, crashed and soared. Sometimes it's melodic, and sometimes it's throat- shredding, but it's always passionate — and it gets people dancing! Not just slamming or moshing, but actually dancing (perhaps, dare I say it, bopping). You better believe I was among them.


With their blistering combination of screamo, black metal and post-rock, Respire (which features members of the NFDIY organizing committee) proved, within seconds of their first song, why they're one of the most beloved heavy acts in the city. As plumes of smoke billowed into the crowd, the seven-piece performed music from across their discography; screaming, chanting, beating chests and flailing. It was romantic and devastating, monolithic and fragile, crushing and tranquil — sometimes all at once! Even when the pit opened up, I witnessed people embracing, kissing, holding hands and forming dance circles and comforting each other. They even generated clap-alongs! The band's passion is real, and they unapologetically embrace sincerity and empathy, embodying the best of what NFF has to offer: community, resilience and heart.

Although their performance was shortened by some mid-set technical difficulties (an inevitability, according to vocalist and guitarist Rohan Lilauwala), the energy never wavered. Jokes were told from the stage and from the crowd, and it was a surprisingly light-hearted intermission. Another guitar was found, the day was saved, and Respire were brilliant as always. If you've never seen this mighty band live, or heard their music, I implore you — go buy and listen to everything they've ever done. They're essential.

Cloud Rat

From the moment Cloud Rat's set began, everything and everyone went ballistic: the crowd, the band and the sound. Wasting no time, their sonic barrage pummelled the masses, their three-piece strike a devastating mix of noise, tight musicianship and release. Vocalist Madison Marshall commanded the scene, head banging and prowling the stage while the squalling torrent created by guitarist Rorik Brooks and drummer Brandon Hill churned around her. Even without a bass player, their set was punishing, a brutal combination of screamed vocals and technical musicianship.

The band, who categorize their sound as "grindpunk," also explored more complex soundscapes, accentuating the grind with glitchy electronics that snuck their way in amongst the chaos. Throughout the set, the band offered up these conflicting textures, which were equally hostile and serene. These moments of respite (if you can call them that) presented a different type of darkness, not so much a break but a downward spiral. Their set was incredibly complex, yet also loose and violent, a fitting — and harrowing — end to day one.

August 5

Piper Maru

Although their album covers feature kittens holding hearts emblazoned with their name, you mustn't let the seemingly innocent imagery fool you: with lyrics that pointedly confront racism, police brutality, misogyny and the hypocrisy of the modern human condition, Piper Maru are unapologetically confrontational.

That ethos was on full display on Saturday evening as the band kicked off day two of the festival. The Toronto four-piece — whose members also make up the excellent band Terry Green — came roaring right outta the gate. At one point, vocalist Beef Puff got off the stage and started crawling through the pit, interacting with fans while screeching, yell-talking and screaming across the band's no-nonsense brand of gritty hardcore. It's blunt, aggressive, and fucking fast, and people were singing along and slamming through the pit seconds into their set. The band "slowed" things down during a bouncy cover of Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge," padding out their relatively short oeuvre with the weirdo punk classic. 

.gif from god 

Inspiring one of the biggest, densest and most chaotic pits at the festival, .gif from god presented us with relentless brutality from the outset, an explosion of blast beats, furious riffing, and thunderous bass. The band's two vocalists, Andrew Schwartz and Mitchie Shue, traded piercing howls, guttural death bellows and agonized screams, while the rest of the band flailed throughout the devastation. Apocalyptic torrents of noise and pain bludgeoned the crowd as hardcore dancing and crowd surfing filled the basement Death Room.

Even when they (very briefly) slowed things down near the end of their set, there was a palpable sense of doom — both the genre and the feeling. Late in the set, Schwartz humbly addressed the crowd while a drum was repaired, thanking us, the other bands and the festival volunteers. Whether ripping through the pit or standing in the back, the packed crowd looked mesmerized by the sound and fury. This was one of the best, most energetic and furious sets of the festival, and .gif from god were by far one of my favourite new discoveries. 


Hailing from Montréal, Gulfer are…different than most other bands on the NFF bill (they were, as the band themselves asserted, the "softest band in the place"). While they compose similarly impassioned songs about existential themes (love, isolation, nostalgia) that feature a healthy amount of screaming, their swirling, undistorted (!) guitars and clean vocals are clearly indebted to math rock, indie rock and midwest emo.

But don't let the reverb fool you: live, the band is energetic and rousing, a somewhat mellow presence amidst the more abrasive sounds that the festival is known for. Although the sound was muddled during certain points in the set, the band's intricate mid-tempo compositions featured plenty of dual tapping and polyphony, and got the crowd bobbing and singing along. It was a welcome palette cleanser after two days of ear-piercing noise.

HIRS Collective

As a self-produced, self-directed and proudly queer entity, HIRS Collective are radical in their approach to punk. Made up (or so it appears…) of core duo Jenna Pup (aka JP, on vocals and drum machine) and Esem on guitar, the HIRS Collective play sometimes short, always sharp songs that are abrasive and confrontational. Their sophomore album featured 35 (35!) collaborators — for this factor and more, I walked into the Main Hall on Saturday night wondering, how the fuck are they gonna do this? I had never seen them perform, nor had I watched a live video…and I'm so very glad I didn't, because ho-ly shit, what a performance. Framed by a formidable — and altogether intimidating — wall of amps, the band played over a backing track of drums, bass and various other sounds and instruments (we understandably weren't treated to dozens of guests, and one of the members unfortunately couldn't make it to the show). 

Within five (but probably closer to two) seconds, the Main Hall was chaos personified: bodies flinging themselves through space, crowd surfers and stage divers, and audience members getting up on stage and getting on the mic. The band certainly doesn't take the word "collective" lightly: everyone was invited to participate, and the band was not above a single member of the audience. They take cliched rock star posturing — the amps, the stage banter, the diving into the audience — and subvert it through a decidedly queer lens. It's messy and brave, sassy and jubilant and liberating, and it was extraordinary.

Although this is a band that matters, that has something essential to scream about (their goal is to empower queer and trans individuals, as well as any members of the audience who feel oppressed), they are also fun as fuck. Snippets of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," "Groove Is in the Heart" and "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" were interspersed amongst the bands intense, frantic compositions, and the scene was a celebration of difference and diversity. It was mayhem at its most poignant and pointed. At the end, when vocalist Jenna Pup climbed up into the balcony, dove headlong into the audience (!), was caught by the masses, and crowd surfed into the end of day two, I got the feeling that this was — for the band, the organizers, and the audience — a moment of pure, unadulterated triumph.

August 6

Fern Sully

Although they cheekily describe themselves as "indie emo sorta '90s grunge sometimes I guess ugh idk," Fern Sully also know how to write some killer power-pop tunes. The band, who opened up day three in the Main Hall, was clearly having a great time on stage (they bantered, stuck their tongues out at one another, and sent each other The Horns).

And yet, as performers, they were tight and intense. They may be fun people, but they're a serious band, and it's an effective — and honestly welcome — dichotomy. The overdriven riffs (courtesy of Mel and Becca) were punctuated by a driving rhythm section made up of bassist Izzie and drummer Hannah, and Becca's impassioned vocals soared over the distortion. Their sound is filled with bright harmonies, crunchy guitar work and poignant lyrics, and during the last song, I got emotional — it was fucking fantastic. Earnest and "heavy in feelings and not in sound" (according to guitarist Mel), Fern Sully is a really great live band. They may have joked about "all of [the songs] being new ones," but the promise of a forthcoming EP (October!) gives me hope for more shows. Although the band only has a handful of tracks on their Spotify, and even less on their Bandcamp, I'm glad new stuff is on the horizon because, damn, Fern Sully! I…nay, the city…nay, the world needs you!

Massa Nera vs. Quiet Fear

Out of all the performances scheduled for this weekend, this one intrigued me the most because, let's face it, it's very rare to see the abbreviation "vs." at a concert, let alone at an emo/punk/hardcore festival rooted in friendship, acceptance, and community. When I entered the Main Hall on Sunday evening, I expected a gladiatorial confrontation of epic proportions: both bands employ a potent, chaotic mix of various heavy genres, which clearly meant a bloodbath.

With clean, ethereal passages and songs that stretch past the seven-minute mark, Massa Nera veer more to the "post-" side of things; conversely, Quiet Fear is a bit blunter, a bit heavier, with roots in traditional hardcore. Although it took a while to set everything up, once the bands started playing, it was chaotic, weird, and very entertaining. It bordered on performance art, with the two bands starting the set (sets?) by trading off sub-thirty seconds blasts, before launching into their respective performances. Here, Massa Nera's triple vocal onslaught found its match in Quiet Fears' vocalist, Jonatan Patiño, who screamed,n growled and bulldozed his way into our collective hearts.

If anyone in the crowd was unaware of Quiet Fear's presence, they were very rudely awakened (and rightfully so) by Sunday's performance. The two bands played along to each other's sets, helped fix fallen drums, headbanged and thrashed and screamed in unison, and even crowd surfed. It was rapturous, a truly unique and relentless experience. It was absolutely one of the best sets of the festival, and I'm very glad I was able to be a part of it. Oh, and who came out on top in this collaborative fray? The audience (obviously).


Although New Friends Fest has brought some pretty big punk, hardcore and emo bands to Toronto, this year's festival featured one of their most impressive bookings: cacophonous skramz pioneers pageninetynine, who played their first ever Canadian show as the Sunday night headliners. The energy in the room before the band took the stage was beyond charged, and you could tell that the crowd was aching for the band to launch into its grinding, pulverizing "documents." With nine band members on stage (including two vocalists, two bassists, and four guitar players!), the group whipped the fest's biggest audience into a carnal frenzy: it was pandemonium…beautiful, wonderful pandemonium.

The band was funny, humble and explosive, treating every song in their set (which came from every corner of their eclectic and influential discography) like it was the last one. It was heavy and it was dark, but it was also an exultant, crowd-surfing, stage diving, body-hurling frenzy. The side stage was filled with members from various bands from throughout the weekend — including the festival organizers — who looked like they were having the time of their collective lives.

When one of the microphones broke due to some overzealous wall-scaling, the always-stellar sound crew fixed the issue within minutes (you absolute heroes, you). Near the end of the set, the band paused and reminded us why we were all there: to build a community, to celebrate this scene, and to think about how important it is to just do some good in this world, to participate, to be kind. During the extended, very proggy jam that closed out the set and the festival, numerous drummers, including members of the audience, pounded on a blue floor tom while the crowd expelled every last bit of energy.

I hope pageninetynine enjoyed their first trip to Canada. They played for an hour — maybe more, maybe less, it's really not important. It felt like a lifetime compressed into a moment, and 17-year-old me emerged in unrestrained fashion: it was a show I never thought I'd get to see, and here I was, a few feet away from pageninetynine, dancing, screaming and almost losing my glasses (twice!) — and I loved every sweaty, ferocious minute of it. For me, it was beyond perfect, and a glorious way to close out the festival. Do yourself a favour and be a part of it next year. Your high school and adult selves will both thank you.

Latest Coverage