Bob Dylan stated back in 1966 on Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, “Everybody Must Get Stoned” and whilst it’s not an mandatory requirement for Desertfest, a quick doobie here and there over the course of the weekend would certainly be in the spirit of the festival. Even if it makes travelling between the Electric Ballroom, Underworld, Black Heart and KOKO (on Sunday) a more sedate experience.
Now in its fifth year, Desertfest has slowly been growing, expanding its sonic outlook and spreading its influence like the creeping sands of the Sahara. It’s fitting then that Egypt is the first band on at the Ballroom, with their huge riffs, occasional forays into psych-influenced noodling and thundering bass runs they’re the perfect embodiment of desert rock. By the end of their set, it’s a wonder that Camden hasn’t been enveloped in a plague of scarab beetles.
Egypt’s set stops short of invoking any plagues, so the trip to the Underworld for Lionize is relatively uneventful. Their set is focussed on revelling in the history of metal and rock, and alongside low slung west-coast riffs the channel the spirit of The Doors, the hooks of Creedence, and the buffoonery of Lynyrd Skynyrd. When they drift off into reggae territory, it’s not entirely unexpected, but it’s not their most convincing moment.
It’s a fairly bright start to the weekend (musically speaking) but The Poisoned Glass quickly turn the skies black, metaphorically at least. The former Burning Witch duo (Edgy59 and G Stuart Dahlquist) create terrifying soundscapes built on the back of colossal bass pulses. Whilst their moments of onslaught are as impressive as they are oppressive, it’s the subtlety in the quieter moments and the careful crafting of their dynamics that gives their more aggressive side such an effective impact.
A band that knows all about impact is Crowbar. Subtlety is not really in their vocabulary and the band leave little room for it in tonight’s unrelenting show. Their sludge heavy, hardcore riffs ooze from the speakers at the Electric Ballroom, yet as stifling as their songs are, there’s a party atmosphere in the room, and when To Build A Mountain heads into their cover of No Quarter, there’s a palpable sense of joy in the room, which threatens to spill over when a cheeky snippet of Type O Negative’s Black No 1 is played between songs.
JK Flesh’s headline set is as bleak and foreboding as you would expect from a Justin Broadrick project. With his hoody up, he unleashes a pounding dub-step meets industrial onslaught on a room thick with dry ice and crammed with startled/elated onlookers. For just a second, JK Flesh looks and sounds like Gazelle Twin’s evil long lost triplet. It’s down to Corrosion Of Conformity to close the first night. With Pepper Kennan back in the fold, a fair bit of material from Wiseblood, and a rousing version of Albatross, they can’t go wrong. “Let’s get high!” they roar as the set nears its conclusion, and from the response of the room, it’s clear that Saturday is going to be hard work for some.
The afternoon after the night before should fade in gently, but clearly nobody told Poseidon to be gentle with the delicate heads of those awake at 2pm on a Saturday. As they set about brutalising those who’ve made it to The Black Heart with their thunderous slow-motion doom it’s all the assembled throng can do to keep it together and nod in unison. Clearly this kind of treatment is popular, because they’ve got people queuing out of the door waiting for their turn for a sonic pummelling.
It’s not often you see a giant bear of a man, all bald head and long flowing beard, playing John Carpenter style ’80s keyboards over waves of toxic sludge guitar and gurgled vocals, but that’s what greets those wandering into the Underworld to catch Swedish legends Counterblast. It’s this nod to ’80s horror classics that give the band a little extra twist but whenever they get lost in the mix, the band seem to lose their edge. Not to be outdone by Counterblast, Monomyth also have keys (although much more ’60s in vibe), electronics, a projected cosmic backdrop, and a double-necked guitar. Ordinarily this kind of set up screams prog-rock excess of the worst kind, but Monomyth’s immersive and repetitive riffs draw on Krautrock as much as they do on the likes of Pink Floyd. It’s precisely the kind of hypnotic pulse that’s required.
No setting the controls for the heart of the sun for Conan, it’s all about bleak sludge with them. There’s no doubting that they’re an incredibly physical live prospect, and they move a lot of air. Despite being at the opposite end of the spectrum to Monomyth, they still manage to establish a vaguely hypnotic atmosphere as their set wears on. Veering back towards mindless rock ‘n’ roll excess are Truckfighters. Musically, they’re mining a similar seam to the other stoner bands on the line up, but in terms of presentation, they’re a different prospect altogether. Like Kyuss being covered by Scorpions, the Scandinavian band hit the stage like a whirlwind, and with considerably more vigour than almost every other band over the entirety of the weekend. Guitarist Niklas Källgren leads the charge, and is the energetic focal point around which the bands songs revolve. Big and dumb it might be, but as a break from the bleakness of all the sludge and doom, they’re a welcome distraction.
At this point the Electric Ballroom switches direction and looks towards instrumental exploration. Pelican’s prog-heavy songs require a certain amount of introspection. Whilst the majority of the audience is transfixed, nodding along to the post-rock grooves and ever growing sonic monoliths, it’s pleasing to see small pockets of people taking the lead and dancing like they’ve been possessed by the (un)holy spirit. It’s perhaps the only time during the course of the weekend that anyone cuts a rug in a non-ironic manner.
Following Pelican is quite a task, but Russian Circles step up to the plate and knock it out of the park. More intricate, and weaving more complex patterns than Pelican, theirs is a world alive with mathematical possibility, adroit musicianship. Some bands forget that being clever and intricate is not necessarily the way forward and fail to connect at an emotional level but Russian Circles have songs like the truly beautiful Mlàdek, which twists and turns and pulls at the heartstrings. As their set finally finishes, there’s a pause before a roar of approval. The audience had apparently been stuck in a trance like state for a few moments. Tonight Russian Circles were mesmerising.
Whilst everyone is getting their prog on at the Ballroom, things are a little more direct at the Underworld. Monarch’s droning Doom might be a little off the boil tonight, but it still creates an unnerving intensity. If Eurogirl’s vocals hadn’t been totally buried, it might have been a different story. No such level problems for Samothrace however who might just edge into band of the day territory. Their blues inspired doom is beguiling, with the material from Reverence To Stone being a particular highlight. The interplay between the band members suggests a certain amount of improvisation occurring all cued-up by drummer Joe Axler (whose cymbals are set so high, they must be part of a work out regime) as they make their way through a series of monolithic slabs of inspired noise. Unearthly Trance’s sludge/doom onslaught wraps up the evening at the Underworld; as bleak as it might be, they can’t supress the strangely joyous feeling established by Samothrace, who have set the bar (and cymbals) high.
Sunday morning brings the sun, and the possibility that whatever incantation Egypt laid down way back on Friday, it might just be starting to take hold. Witchsorrow obviously haven’t looked out of the window yet as they kick into their set with There Is No Light, There is Only Fire. Clearly there’s light, and it’s bathing Camden and its glorious streets (glorious with the exception of the huge mound of shit observed on the later walk down to KOKO, although even that was glorious in its own way. Huge.) The switch from the galloping Doom of Witchsorrow, to the twitching panic of Ohhms’ Hardcore influences is jolting, but utterly invigorating. Alongside Truckfighters, this is by far the most energetic performance of the weekend, with vocalist Paul Waller prowling, dancing and thrashing around the stage like a squashed Mick Jagger. When they’re not creating a doom/hardcore/stoner hybrid, often within a single song, they venture into instrumental post-rock territory which, unbelievably is every bit as enthralling as when the band has the pedal to the floor.
By contrast, Bast are relatively sedate. Doomy they may well be, but they’re given to some quite delicate and finessed deviations into the same territory occupied by the likes of Baroness. As wonderful and friendly as Desertfest is, it can at times feel a little monotone in flavour. There’s only so much stoner, doom and sludge it’s possible to take. Thankfully there are pockets of slightly more experimental fare on offer with the likes of Teeth Of The Sea whose (grab bag of electronica, Morricone, and Coil is phenomenal), JK Flesh and Monarch.
Sunday sees Necro Deathmort slicing through the gloom. Whilst their name suggests early Carcass style grind, their set is perhaps the most calming and enveloping of the weekend. Delayed squalls of guitars mix with vocal chants of epiphany, and occasionally, industrial clubbing drum patterns. Unlike, for example, The Haxan Cloak’s dark and disturbing view on the afterlife, this is an almost transcendental moment. If death (death, death) is so awful, why is it Necro Deathmort make it sound like a night club on the outskirts of Heaven (no not that Heaven).
Down at KOKO, Elder’s perfect storm of brutality and exquisite detail seem to fit the interior of this beautiful venue perfectly. Summing up the festival however, is better left to Trouble. They’ve been treading the Doom/Stoner path since 1979, and in guitarist Bruce Franklin, they’ve got one of the trail blazers of the scene that Desertfest celebrates. There’s an eternal truth that lies in their riffs and stage craft. Musically they draw on the likes of Black Sabbath (as almost every band here does) mix in a little NWOBHM and a dash of psychedelic rock for good measure. It’s all tinged with a whiff of ’70s weed; there’s none of that new fangled skunk here, this is the stuff that’s full of twigs, bits of plastic and stinks of diesel. As an antidote to the earnest face of Stoner (the equivalent of a bore in a kitchen at parties), this is a band that dons the bandana, and lives to rock.
Trouble’s influence hangs heavy over the whole weekend, but it can plainly be seen in Blood Ceremony, who tap into the vein that Trouble helped establish and add an occasional flute flourish. It’s there in Mothership’s set too, although with a far more psychedelic flavour. They’re gritty, and hit their stride early excavating huge grooves at the Underworld that it’s impossible not to fall into and wonder at the sheer power of their riffs. Mondo Drag’s set is the final word at the Black Heart for the weekend, and they reach further back into the annals of history for their influences. There are hints of Pink Floyd during their intro, but after that, they mine the point where hard rock morphed into metal. The ghosts of Blue Cheer and Deep Purple are summoned and instructed to jam, and they tear the roof off the place.
Finishing the festival (for most) are industrial pioneers Godflesh, a band that has influenced probably as many of the bands on Desertfest’s bill as Trouble. The bleak remorseless pounding that they serve up should be enough to make everyone at the Electric Ballroom cower, but it’s lapped up by a crowd that possesses far more energy than a bunch of people on a three-day bender should possibly have. Of the “newer” material, Towers Of Emptiness is far and away the most effective song in the set. It’s perfectly honed. Propulsive, abrasive, chaotic and yet at some points calm and controlled, it’s the perfect encapsulation of what Godflesh does. Of course, the cuts from Streetcleaner (Christbait Rising, Streetcleaner and Like Rats) provide the main highlights but also serve as a reminder of Godflesh’s status as true innovators.
Desertfest’s fifth anniversary was a total success; a righteous knees up in celebration of talent, both new and old and of a musical form that might not sound as if it likes a party but clearly does. Here’s to next year.