It’s spring bank holiday in the UK, which can mean only one thing; a long weekend of headbanging in London’s dingiest venues. 2019 marks the eighth edition of London’s Desertfest; a festival dedicated to the slow, the slower, and the heavy. With a healthy dose of bong and Satan worship thrown in for good measure.
This year’s line-up – again scattered around various venues within the city’s metal heartland of Camden Town – doesn’t boast as many heavy hitters as in previous years, but there’s still no shortage of quality to be found across the three days.
Likely inspired by headliner Om, the Electric Ballroom’s lineup for the day is bordering more on the experimental than you might normally expect. Jaye Jayle are the festival openers; whose simplistic minimalist loops and deep crooning vocals remind of recent Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at their moodiest. They’re followed by Hhy & The Mucumbas; a Portuguese outfit consisting of two drummers, a DJ, and dancer-come-conductor who never turns to face the crowd. The result is akin to the kind extended tribal drum interluded you might hear on a Sepultura album. It’s atmospheric but not particularly engaging and the audience thins out a lot before the end of their set.
They’re followed by England’s own Grave Miasma, who provide a wake-up call and make a sharp about-face from everything else that has hit the Ballroom stage so far. While they share the po-faced seriousness of other acts, their brand of no-frills old-school death metal is a sharp contrast to the quiet introspection and slight air of the arty-farty of previous acts. It’s pretty good, but as with Napalm Death, Winterfylleth, and Akercoke last year, do they really feel like a natural fit for a stoner festival?
It’s left to others at other stages to bring the fun. Great Electric Quest know they can’t go wrong with a classic cover, and so with Iron Maiden’s ‘Wraithchild’ and Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’ they garner a good old singalong. The rest of their material is perfectly competent trad heavy metal, but they look like they’re having a blast being on stage and the crowd show their appreciation.
The cold and pissing rain of this weekend is in start contrast to the summer sun of last year, so it’s a good job R.I.P turn up the heat at a sweaty Underworld. Their hammer horror occult take on 70s-inspired doom could have been a plodding chore, but the band play with such energy it become a delight. Much of this is down to frontman Fuzz who comes across like a mashup of Alice Cooper and Freddie Mercury (sans a few octaves); He stalks the stage arrogantly goading the crowd about how much of a pleasure it must be to see the band and performs with the kind of extravagance you rarely see these days. He also has a scythe for a mic, so makes him instantly cool, even if he does lick the shaft an awful lot. It’s great fun though and one of the sets of the weekend.
Blanket are about as wet as the name implies, so it’s quickly over to the Devonshire Arms for Whoremoan. Finally, a real desert rock band! Complete with fuzzy riffs in the truest and a high octant punk energy, they get the tiny Dev rocking in no time. Unfortunately for Skraeckoedlan the Swedish outfit clash with Om, which is a shame because these deserve more exposure. Blending big heavy riffs and a penchant for catchy melodic vocal hooks – ending up somewhere between Elder and Witchcraft — they’re a pleasant surprise discovery to be sure.
After all that excitement it’s time for a musical sedative, and you can’t much more sedate than Om. The Californian trio have long perfected the art of hypnotically meditative music, and the likes of ‘Meditation is the Practice of Death’ and ‘Cremation Ghat I &II’ transcendental loops take the listener to a different plane. A very low key and introspective way to end the day, and despite the lack of sound or movement from the crowd during the music, it was a pretty cool experience.
Saturday starts off well with Elephant Tree at the Ballroom. Their brand of grungy vocal harmonies and sludge-laden go down well with an already heaving crowd. It’s mellow yet heavy, and between songs the band are good at interacting with the audience. An early highlight on a good day.
They’re followed by Dvne, who put on a sublime set. The progressive Scottish metal outfits 2017’s album Asheran [Wasted State Records] was a belter that didn’t get the attention it demanded, but hopefully this set convicted a few more people to check them out. Sitting somewhere between early Baroness and Anciients with more post-metal tendancies, the band thrive on combining atmospherics with crunching riffs, and they deliver in spades. Musically it’s fantastic, even if they don’t out on much of a show.
Sadly, Headless Kross bear little resemblance to the Tony Martin era Black Sabbath album of the same name, instead dishing up slow but enjoyable dirge, even if the raspy vocals don’t do it for me. Likewise with Kalloused, whose abrasive and endlessly aggressive grinding doesn’t get the juices flowing. Enos‘ shouty desert rock is fine but isn’t a standout even a weekend that isn’t overflowing with straight up stoner music.
Celebrating their tenth year, Ukraine’s Stoned Jesus are seasoned pros at this point and feel like they’ve been around forever. The animated power trio put on the best set of the day so far and get one of the biggest singalongs of the whole weekend along to ‘I’m the Mountain’. They know how to work a crowd into a (admittedly slightly slow and weedy) frenzy, and have a back catalogue chock full of big and slow burning riffs.
Trouble by another name, The Skull is pretty good at what they do. As well as former Trouble vocalist Eric Wagner and bassist Ron Holzner, the band features current and former members of Witch Mountain and Cathedral, so it’s of little surprise they deal in slow, heavy, evil riffs offset by some nice heavy metal-inspired harmonies. Wagner still has the vocals even if he so much prowl the stage as shuffle around it. Kadavar, on the other hand, despite being more beard than band are all energy with their free and loose 70s rock/psyche jams.
Biggest surprise goes to Coilguns, whose set the at the Dev might well be one of the unexpected highlights of the weekend. Musically they sit somewhere between the angsty punk of At the Drive in with the sludgy nihilism of Eyehategod; it’s angry, its messy, and it’s fine. But this is a band you absolutely need to see live in the flesh to ‘get’. Within seconds it’s uncontrolled chaos; the frontman is climbing the rafters, the bar, the tables, and anything else the mic cabe will let him reach. Not only does he start and take eager part in a mosh pit in one of the smallest venues in London, he actively wrestles people to the ground, hugs and screams in their ears, and generally gets up in your personal space. It’s abrasive, in your face, and confrontational. A standout at a festival where too many musicians simply stand still and grimace.
To be honest it’s hard to follow the scenes seen at the Dev but Amenra make a good go of it. The Belgians specialize in miserable music; slow, atmospheric, and heavy. It’s bleak listening, but they know how to put on an intense show; slow and minimalist moments build up before exploding. There’s plenty of energy onstage, combined with an impressive light show, and they get deserving reception from the crowd.
The weather’s still a bit shit. The hangover is getting worse, but on with Sunday. After warming up with a double whammy of perfectly decent instrumental bands in Mountain Caller and Surya, it’s time for the big guns. Colour Haze might include vocals occasionally, but it’s the long musical interludes where the Germans shine. Their dense but spacy psychedelic performance at the Roundhouse is the kind where the crowd stands quietly and just gawp. Drummer Manfred Merwald is a powerhouse and as much of a lead instrument at the guitars; all Brann Dailor-esque fills, and he is the core of the band’s approach to repeatedly building song movements up to a crescendo and back down again over and over. Great watch, and a big crowd show their appreciation.
Over at the Underworld and the Black Heart, it’s a tale of two venues with contrasting fortunes. Sabbath Assembly‘s lackluster take on classic Ozzy doom and heavy metal is disappointing by comparison to Colour Haze’s expansive set, while later on The Secret deliver a high-octane blast of blackened misery gets the crowd moshing but the vocals get largely lost in the mix and chaos. The soft vocals and quiet loops of Chve‘s medieval-sounding one man and a hurdy gurdy folk could easily be taken out of The Lord of the Rings. It’s a small crowd, but the whole experience feels very personal barely see anyone move or make a sound, and a few are happy to sit and experience.
Meanwhile, the Black Heart gets lucky with a series of quality sets. Liverpudlian death-and-rollers Video Nasties give a short sharp set of grinding riffs, squeals, and fun in the Black Heart. The look of disappointment on the faces of late-comers is a testament to their instant appeal. Messa, meanwhile, are flat out fantastic. The Italian doom outfit’s 2018 album Feast for Water [Aural Music] is a gem and well worth your time if you like music that is both heavy and melodic and progressive without being overly complicated. In Sara, they have a captivating vocalist with a beautiful voice and an impressive range. It’s always good to find a band that can follow up a good record with the live performances, and Messa deliver, especially with the searing solos that sound so much bigger and more central to the songs than compared to the recorded versions, and in set closer ‘Hour of the Wolf’ they have a classic rock banger that more than a few in the crowd sing along with.
Fu Manchu are everything you want from a DDF headliners; chunky riffs, searing guitar histrionics, vocals you can sing along to, massive pits, and a sense of fun. Fu Manchu are all about the rock and roll and the spacy grooves, and the Cali stoner veterans put on a great show. The Roundhouse is rammed, and mosh pits open up with almost every song. ‘Squash That Fly’ and the boogie of ‘Weird Beard’ deserve special mention. There’s no fuss or hype, just 60-odd minutes of good time rock and roll, and the crowd lap it up. Great way to bring proceedings to a close.
And ends 2019’s London Desertfest. Another year, another quality lineup. Who’s up for getting me over to the upcoming New York iteration?