The concept of Desertfest is somewhat misleading. On the surface it appears to be nothing more than a list of insanely heavy bands brutalising the ears of audiences over the course of three days as that same audience slowly wilts under the influence of alcohol, “medicinal” refreshment, and by the third day of trudging around the streets of Camden, feet that need serious attention from a chiropodist/reflexologist/foot fetishist. All of which is entirely true, there’s certain a fair bit of that going on, but this year, perhaps more than any other in the festival’s existence, there’s a wider scope and appeal to the line-up. In other words, if Stoner, Doom and Sludge mean nothing to you, fear not, there’s something for everyone over the course of the weekend.
Desertfest’s party atmosphere is established early on, thanks largely to an absolutely astonishing set from 1000mods. Their gigantic riffs fuse Black Sabbath to a range of influences, but it’s when they channel the Southern Fried rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival that things start to really fire up. So far so standard, but Vodun take things in an entirely different direction. A heady mix of classic ’60s rock, a dose of psychedelia, a little grunge and a huge African influence they sound like nobody else this weekend. Vocalist Chantal Brown (who was once in the much missed Do Me Bad Things) is the focal point, there are elements of Skunk Anansie’s Skin in her range, but her voice has a unique acrobatic quality to it, she’s simply incredible. The band themselves are hard to ignore, doused in day-paint they look like they’ve been attacked by a gang of highlighter wielding graffiti artists. Obviously they’re one of the highlights of the weekend.
With Stoned Jesus no longer on the bill, it’s up to Glowsun to fill a gap. Slowburning riffs and atmospherics are order of the day, and the band has plenty of great riffs. At times it feels like the song structures have been forced together and held together with sticky back plastic (choose your brand), but when it works it flows brilliantly. It’s possible to imagine that they’d take you on a spiritual journey if you’d ingested the right pharmaceuticals, but at this point in the day, and with no such assistance to hand, the handbrake turns in their songs are a little jarring.
If a desert does develop in Camden over the next few generations, the starting point will surely be traced back to The Black Heart, a venue that spends much of the weekend crammed to bursting and on the verge of combustion from the sheer heat radiating from the bodies within. Under such conditions, you’d expect any milk based product to curdle, but Terminal Cheesecake, armed with Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs vocalist Matt Baty subbing in take it all in their stride and thunder through a series of relentless, mind-bending psych workouts.
Catching a breath of fresh air at the Underworld (it’s all relative), it takes The Picturebooks all of two bars to knock it back out of our lungs. It’s always good to see a drummer employ an actual bell on their kit and having seen the violence with which Philipp Mirtschink attacks his armoury (like a roid rage version of Moe Tucker) we fear for its well-being. Essentially this is the blues element of stoner rock writ large. That they’re a two-piece draws inevitable comparisons to The White Stripes, but really they’re more like a stripped back but phenomenally aggressive Led Zeppelin. It’s not all out bombast though, there’s a fair amount of soul in these tunes too. They seems constantly amazed that they continue to accrue fans by simply touring. Someone should tell them that if you’re great live and have great tunes, that’s what happens. Still, a little humility goes a long way too.
Finishing up Friday night at The Black Heart is Zombi, a band that takes its lead from George A Romero and synth-prog explorations of Goblin. There are no down-tuned guitars or guttural vocals here, just a clutch of beautifully executed explorations in analogue synth, prog-rock meanderings and rhythmical genius. That they’re so dissimilar to the usual Desertfest fare is an absolute boon as they take things in an entirely different direction to what might be expected. Not that there’s anything wrong with giving people exactly what they want and Slo Burn give those who made it into the Electric Ballroom exactly that. John Garcia’s post-Kyuss band, that sounds not entirely unlike Kyuss bring the riffs down heavy. Pilot The Dune is ridiculously grand. Colossal and expansive it is part stoned and part wide eyed amphetamine fuelled party anthem as it pulls in two directions at once. The desire to cut loose and the need to rip things up in frenzy are combined and condensed in its long slung splendour.
Most of the bands at Desertfest owe a huge debt to Black Sabbath, but sometimes it is easy to forget that before Sabbath there was The Blues. Representing the roots of the festival are The Groundhogs, the bonefide blues legends. Things get off to a slightly shaky start, and they take a while to find their feet. As the set progresses and morphs from straight blues and into something a little more progressive, and in particular their rendition of Eccentric Man, they have the audience in the palms of their hands. Avon’s set struggles to compete, although at one point they channel David Bowie’s Jean Genie and sound totally glorious. Sounding totally disgusting on the other hand are Iron Witch who pack out The Black Heart to such a degree that even the downstairs bar is “one in, one out” for a short period of time. It’s not actually necessary to get in the venue however, their filthy sludge onslaught is not only audible from the stairs, it pretty much oozes down them.
With the application of a few cycle lamps and dry ice, Celeste recreate the climax of Sunn O)))’s recent show at the Barbican on a budget. Part black metal, a little mathy and post rock in places they’re a curtain of blackened noise that threatens to destroy the structure of the Underworld. Sadly imploding over at the Electric Ballroom are Black Spiders who are playing their final gig in London. They’ve had a good run though, and it’s good to see a band calling it quits whilst still on their game.
After the incendiary Slo Burn performance on Friday night, John Garcia returns and plugs the hole Slo Burn tried to fill by rolling out a few Kyuss tunes. One Inch Man is joyous, but Gardenia steals the show by a country mile. Garcia also finds time to drop a few new tunes, and Kentucky in particular suggests that the flame is still burning brightly. Elsewhere he ticks off a few other Garcia classics (he points out that he’s been in about 10,000 bands) and Cowboys Suck – a Hermano tune is phenomenal. Scissorfight keep things rolling and their no nonsense stomping anthems- have increased the temperature of the underworld considerably. The fact that one of them is resplendent in a hat worthy of Slade’s Dave Hill is neither here nor there, this is a band with riffs and hooks that most would kill for. A juggernaut of Sourthen Fried Metal, they’re an unstoppable force this afternoon.
Switching trucker cap for at heather one, it’s time to join Turbonegro who storm on with Hot for Nietzsche which finds the point between The Who (Won’t Get Fooled Again) and AC/DC (take your pick). Blow Me Like the Wind is big dumb fun, like Steel Panther Or Spinal Tap but to someone not clad in the standard Turbojugend get up (or Kutte as it’s known) Turbonegro’s ability to shock has long since passed and their joke is pretty thin. The tunes on the other hand pass muster. They’ve got a bunch of great rock songs, of that there is no doubt, but they’ll have to up the ante before too long.
Sunday brings festival fatigue, aching feet, and a new venue for Desertfest in the shape of The Roundhouse. This means that to switch between venues, there’s a considerable trek and the heaving masses of Camden market to contend with. It’s entirely understandable that a fair few have just decided to decamp to the Roundhouse for the entire day.
Bongzilla get things off to a suitably slothy start. Bathed in green light that foreshadows the arrival of Sleep later on their Stoner riffs fill the venue like clouds blown from the lungs of a much blitzed deity. Adding to the list of legends that have graced the festival over the years is St Vitus. Over the years their influence has never really been properly acknowledged, but along with Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer, they were at ground zero in terms of doom metal. Just listening to the likes of Zombie Hunger or Born To Late, it’s clear to see just how important St Vitus were to the Doom bands that followed them, but it’s also fair to say that they sound a little flat and ironically, uninspiring this afternoon.
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs (or Pigsx7 as is easier to type) are at the other end of the inspiring spectrum this afternoon. They might have produced one of the most exciting albums of the year in the shape of Feed The Rats, but it’s fair to say that it’s when they play live that they really impress. Huge, stretched out, low slung and filthy jams are the order of the day and they create a sweaty and engrossed audience in the short time it takes for vocalist Matt Baty to strike his first satanic Tai Chi style pose. Off stage he’s appears to be a quiet and unassuming man, on stage, he is a self-proclaimed DEMON and wild eyed maniac. It’s impossible not to get absorbed in the band’s lolloping riffs, delay soaked vocals and frantic onstage presence but needs must and another stroll is required to catch Swedish legends Candlemass’ set at the Roundhouse. They’re still capable of taking it to church, although it’s unlikely they’d be particularly welcome in a church. Somewhere more gloomy would suit their Doom soused tunes, so it’s entirely appropriate that they have a song entitled A Cry From The Crypt. Their material seems to have aged a little better than that of St Vitus, and in part that’s due to the vocal dexterity of Mats Levén who could happily be compared with the likes of Ronnie James Dio.
Closing the festival at The Roundhouse are the true legends of Stoner rock and Sleep finish the festival off in style. Much like Sunn O))), Sleep is a band that you feel as much as hear, and the low slung riffs of Holy Mountain or Dragonaut thunder home with a bass so low it makes your brain rattle inside your skull. Drifting into the land of nod is not an option, but entering a hypnotic otherworld most certainly. Sleep’s repetitive riffing and colossal sound provide a gateway to somewhere else entirely. The desertification might have started off at The Black Heart on Friday, but Sleep finish the job off here tonight. In this alternate universe, Camden is knee deep in sand, and breathing lungfulls of sweet smelling, mind altering smoke.