It’s the May Day bank holiday in London, which can only mean one thing; Deserfest! A weekend of avoiding the sun in the darkest and dingiest venues across Camden Town, listening to the darkest and dingiest stoner and doom music.
One of the peculiarities of the 2018 edition of this event is the presence of some distinctly non-stoner and doom bands. Case and point; the first band on at the Electric Ballroom is British black metal icons Winterfylleth. There’s no question they’re a good band and good live — there’s a decent-size and appreciative if not overly enthusiastic crowd — but it is questionable whether their brand of cinematic black metal is really a good fit for DF.
Over at the Koko, Planet of Zeus have the party going in full flow. Their Clutch-meets-AC/DC whiskey barrel groove is much more fitting for the festival and they get a raucous reception for their efforts. It’s good fun rock and roll. And props to any band brave enough to do both an extended guitar solo jam and a drum solo in the same set. One of the highlights of the day.
In Harriet Bevan, UK doom outfit Black Moth has a talented and alluring frontwoman. In Black Moth Harriet Bevan has an OK band backing her. The band’s blend of occult rock and old school heavy metal is perfectly satisfactory, but there’s few moments that are worth getting excited about. While the Underworld is packed, I’m not sure the performance reflects the hype.
Melting Hand and Five the Hierophant both show off different sides of instrumental music. At the Black Heart, Melting Hand go for spacey, keyboard-effect heavy desert rock. It’s decent, it’s loud, and it’s the kind of standard middle of the day affair Desertfest often puts on. At the Ballroom, Five the Hierophant are at the far more experimental end of the spectrum. Slowly building on repeating rhythms, Hierophant adds increasing layers of complexity to slow jams, adding left field instruments such as tabla drums and saxophones. Very understated compared to Melting Hand, but pretty good nonetheless.
They might have moved on from their early Clutch-meets-reggae roots, but Lionize have evolved into an excellent rock band. Live they have a real energy and frontman Nate Bergman a guy who can sing and work the crowd. And wear sparkly outfits without shame. The Dev is pretty full but in comparison to the whole festival, it was only a lucky few who got to experience the raw rock energy this band can expel. If only they could bottle the magic for an album.
Opposite in almost every way is NOLA’s Eyehategod. Their set at the Ballroom is dirty, heavy, and grimy. Every note feels pained as is it eked out of the band. Mike Williams laid-back persona between songs juxtaposes his misanthropic delivery during. One of the heaviest acts of the day, and despite the joyless nature of the music, one of the most enjoyable.
Supreme, sublime, fucking great. Reformed Swedish rockers Graveyard are back and firing on all cylinders. What makes Graveyard so good on record — no-frills, stripped back rock and roll with a penchant for classic song-writing — makes them entirely irresistible live. Vocalist Joakim Nilsson can jump from a pained croak to a smoky croon at a moment’s notice, and gives the songs and extra dimension. There’s no rockstar showing off, barely any interaction with the crowd in fact. Just the best fucking rock songs you can get. But the Koko’s crowd sing-along to all the old material with gusto. The set takes the best of the new album Peace, plus the classics from 2011’s Genghis Blues and 2012’s Light’s Out, [all Nuclear Blast], closing on ‘The Siren’ is almost spine-tingling. The potential set of the weekend.
“To try and be in keeping with the festival, we’re going to try to stick to mostly slow songs. As you can imagine, that’s quite tricky for us.” Napalm Death’s Mark “Barney” Greenway is happy to proclaim they’ll play anywhere to any crowd, but at least he’s aware the UK’s pioneering grindcore act are somewhat at odds with festival headliners gone by. However, ND carry on regardless and deliver what they know; short, sharp, stabs of relentlessly fast and brutal music. Greenway’s vocals are still terrifying some 30 years on (how he can still talk, let alone scream, is a mystery), and the band can still summon energy lacking in bands a third of their age. The crowd respond in kind; there’s plenty of moshpits and crowdsurfers, and night finishes for most in a sweaty pile.
The masses exit quickly to make their trains, leaving North Carolina’s ASG with the after party shift. It’s shame that the after party feels more like waiting for the dregs to leave. The lack of a crowd is a shame, as the band’s Floor-like mix of big riffs and melodic vocals are plenty enjoyable, and it feels like a waste having them on so late to such a small crowd.
Rock and roll never dies and hard-working writers never sleep. Opening festivities on Saturday at the Underworld is Puppy; an alt-metal trio that are half melodic rock and half metal riff machines. It’s as if Smashing Pumpkins team up with Khemmis. It’s a little odd and jarring at times, but the band have an easy stage presence and are clearly having fun. It’s a small but enthusiastic crowd.
Along with the likes of John Garcia and Matt Pike, Scott “Wino” Weinrich’s music is one of the key pillars that make up Desertfest. The dude was flying the doom flag while few others would, long before liking Black Sabbath was cool again. The legend gives a warm and personal acoustic set at the Underworld, happily strumming along to material from his Adrift solo album, various cuts from his work with Conny Ochs, and a couple of covers. Wino seems relaxed and happy, with a few jokes cracked along the way.
(“Who likes meth? No? I do!”) and the whole set has a very spontaneous feel (including a couple of forgotten lyrics and chords). The crowd is dead silent during the performances and blaring afterwards.
Continuing yesterday’s theme of questionable line-up choices, UK death metal oddities Akercoke appear at the Ballroom. Equal parts heavy and theatrical, it says a lot that the venue is half empty when the underworld is between sets and the other two venues barely have enough room to swing a cat. What few people are here like what’s stage, but it’s hard to understand the logic of why.
By comparison, the Ballroom is full to the rafters for Japanese veterans Church of Misery. Chock full to the brim with a catalogue of Sabbath riffs and Tony Iommi funk, the band just play 60 minutes of groovy doom. Tatsu Mikami’s bass is slung so low at various points it looks like it might well just fall off – and he does end up playing lying down at one point – but he still manages to deliver the best rhythm grooves this side of Geezer Butler. Great performance and a reminder of how good simple doom music can be.
Over at the Dev, Crowd of Chairs conduct an almost insultingly long check considering the racket they make. Their brand of abrasive noise punk goes over ok with the few people present, but in all honesty, this feels more like a time-killer between better acts. Meanwhile, Italian stallions Black Rainbows’ enthusiastic brand of galloping 70s stoner rock draws a decent crowd at the Underworld.
My notes for High on Fire read: “Thunderous pummelling riff riff riff”. Is there a better way to sum up what makes Matt Pike & Co. so appealing? From the opening beat of ‘Sons of Thunder’ to the closing double-whammy of ‘Fury Whip’ and ‘Snakes for the Divine’, the ever-shirtless Pike delivers riff after monolithic riff in double time. The massive crowd headbangs as hard and crowdsurfs endlessly. With no new album to promote, it’s largely a greatest hits set comprising the likes of ‘Blessed Black Wings’, ‘Waste of Tiamat’, and the excellently named ‘Bastard Samurai’. Attempts are made to sing-along but it’s a well-known fact no one has ever been able to hear themselves or any other human beings during a HOF set.
Miss Lava’s post-headline set at the Black Heart is a more subtle hour of groove-laden desert rock cut from same cloth as Slo burn. The Portuguese four-piece provide an easy-going come down after the brutality of High on Fire, and delay the inevitable ringing in the ears that will keep everyone awake tonight.
By day three the cumulative hangovers are building to critical mass, whiplash has rendered necks immobile, and a lack of sleep is starting to induce delirium, but fuck it. There’s metal to be listened to.
Unfortunately, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a smile on any of the early Sunday afternoon performances. Moloch, CHRCH, and Fister give largely joyless performances, fetch delivering varying degrees of dour-faced, ‘we don’t engage the crowd’ sets. Fister’s blend of self-proclaimed ‘uber miserable doom’ is the best of the bunch but it takes until Elder’s uplifting set of the RoundHouse to really get the day going and inject something approaching joy into proceedings.
Desertfest veterans Elder deliver what is easily the best performance of the day at the RoundHouse. The Boston, Massachusetts outfit has long-held a monopoly progressive songs that combine on expansive rock with heavy riffs, but the addition of a live second guitarist adds a new element to make their sound even better. Nick DiSalvo’s vocals – always the weakest element of the band’s live sound – are better than on previous occasions, and they seem more confident in stage; there’s more chatting with crowd than the last time they played this festival.
California’s Blackwülf brand of straight to the point heavy rock is perfectly enjoyable, and the band have a big cache of groovy riffs at their disposal. Love Chief at Dev is one of the surprise sets of the weekend; a strong 70s rock vibe with plenty of Hendrix influences produces something fun, chilled out, and one of the few times the audience can get a bit of a dance on. At the other end of the spectrum, Bison provides a slab of heavy groove to really your band your head to over the Underworld.
Probably best known in the metal community for being that band Lemmy was in before Motorhead, Hawkwind deserves more credit than they often get. Their brand of psychedelic space rock has no doubt influenced a lot of the other bands present at this festival. However, it’s 2018, and they haven’t aged all that well. The kaleidoscope backdrop is fun, but a single dancing lady and long spoken word passages around the enormity of space are all very 60s, and the meandering jams are OK at best.
The current metal scene doesn’t have as many charismatic frontmen as it used to, but Monster Magnet’s Dave Wyndorf is a genuine bona fide Rock star. He goads the crowd at every opportunity, encourages sing-along, and generally looks not only that he’s having a genuinely good time, but wants the crowd to do the same. The band lays on a set list mixing the greatest hits with some decent cuts from the new album Mindfucker [Napalm Records]. New tracks such as ‘Rocket Freak’ and ‘When the Hammer Comes Down’ sit nicely with old classics ‘Space Lord’, ‘Powertrip’, and ‘Negasonic Teenage Warhead’; all in all adding up a classic rock and roll performance. Great way to end another year.
WORDS BY DAN SWINHOE
PHOTOS USED BY PERMISSION OF DESERTFEST: JESSY LOTTI, SALLY PATTI & FALK-HAGEN BERNSHAUSEN