Desertfest Belgium Part I: Live At Trix, Antwerp

Desertfest is an ever-expanding, sprawling franchise festival, having pushed it’s tentacles out from London to Berlin, Antwerp and even Athens. As Ghost Cult did last year, we went to Desertfest Antwerp again, about the only October festival in the genre of stoner and doom music. Last year proved a great party and this time the line-up is salivatingly good, so we expected no less than a wonderful party of fuzz, swamp and bass, with a side order of psychedelia.

Friday

Black Wizard, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Arriving at Trix, Black Wizard are warming up the people on the tin, cramped, and snug vulture stage, that’s tucked into a corner next to the bar. Where some bands are best compared to cocktails or complex mixers, Black Wizard can best be described as doom stoner on the rocks, straight up. This makes for an excellent warm up band.

Torche, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Torche is a band I just never clicked with. It’s so formulaic for me, too stoner by numbers, and very sleek and commercial. What they do, they do well enough, but it as just never managed to convince me, and again they can’t today. Strangely enough the band manage to sound incredibly reverb-y and almost like they’re playing an outdoors festival, which they clearly are not. This contrasted to their incredibly polished, poppy sound just feels very good, wile huddled away in dark indoors venue.

Subrosa, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Giving us one of the heaviest and most interesting releases of the ear, Subrosa with hefty riffs and wailing violin strings, multi female vocals all coming together to a crushingly haunting experience. On record they’re lauded, and at Desertfest they were incredible live as well, bringing more menacing energy than most of the other bands on today´s programme.

Fans at Desertfest Belgium, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Fans at Desertfest Belgium, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

One thing that’s a little bit of a downer on the party is the merch: punters walk around the merch area forlornly looking for the merch of the smaller bands, which mostly play the vulture stage, a tiny stage crammed next to the bar across from the main desert stage. Sadly none of the smaller bands seem to have anything on sale, and even the bigger bands seem unable to afford the concession the festival charges on selling merch at it’s table, meaning it’s slim pickings for vinyl hunters. Those looking for shirts and posters are in luck though, as Lo-Fi merch has a fine selection of classic stoner-doom shirts, and several other stands sell beautiful hand drawn posters and even custom silver jewelry.

Fans at Desertfest Belgium, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

After Subrosa we get m personal highlight, and part of the reason I looked forward to this event: Yob. Yob is love as they say and getting tossed around in their ocean of bass and strangely transcendental doom metal bring a special kind of inner peace and Zen-ness I haven’t yet found anywhere else in the world. While the lighting guy is clearly disconnected from the music by spamming us with strobes, them playing ‘Marrow’ in full, my favourite tune from their last album, makes me forget about all of that and just sink into the waves of bass and let it wash my sorrows away.

Yob, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Yob, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Yob, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

 

Red Fang, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Red Fang sadly disappointed me, having seen the band in what for me feels like their heyday just after they released Murder The Mountains (Relapse) the energy of the band on stage and on record has totally changed. Having gone from light-hearted destructive fun energy to a more polished song based structure, the newer songs are just weaker, lacking the punch in the gut good time feeling their earlier works was known for. The bassist’s vocals are weak at best especially when he tries to properly sing and not semi-shout as they used to, and it seems the crowds are mostly waiting for the older material to come by to really start singing along and enjoying themselves. Maybe they had an off day, because even the guitar solos seemed out of tune and odd, where usually the riffs were the solid core of all that was Red fang.

Black Cobra, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Black Cobra, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Black Cobra are a duo, who manage to create such an immense sound and horrible racket, elderly people a mile over will still mumble those damn kids. It’s incredible to feel and see and hear the utterly destructive wall of noise these two create with their crushing sludge base with a distinctly punky edge, utterly destroying the night and keeping the audience enraptured even though it is already quite late.

Saturday

One of the smaller bands that deserves mentioning it Black Mirrors, Belgian local rockers whose singer reminds a lot of Janis Joplin, in both her vocal style and her erratic dancing stage presence. It’s lovely to see

Wolvennest by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Wolvennest by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Possibly my favourite new discovery of this festival, Wolvennest with altars and incense, skulls and candles taking centre stage while the band lurks on the back of the stage, a single keyboard and synth set at the front between te two later with behind it Wolvennest’s mysterious vocalist whose deep, dark resonating vocals add to the ritual nature of this dark, deep doom-y electronic and hazy atmospherics, the head scene smoke that mists over the crowd pulls you into the occult vibe of the band and seriously transport out to a different dimension. I’m not sure where you go but it;s dark, it’s powerful, it’s creepy and it’s very very sincere and deep. They were recently announced to play at Roadburn, and are definitely recommended to have a look at if you go there, exceptional experience.

Purson, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Purson may have been the biggest disappointment of the day for me, when you hear them on record they’ve got it all, good catchy songs, a nice retro 70’s edge to it, strong female vocals, and attractive presence and, while they’re not bringing much new, they’re doing what was done before very well. Not so live. The stage presence is flat and almost bored, and they don’t make any use of the potential to really rock out. Maybe they chose weaker songs, maybe they had an off day, but they were a true let down.

Elder, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Normally psychrock is very difficult for me to stay interested in, there is the danger of endless guitar noodling and spiralling jams that never develop the hooks a good song does. Remarkably then is that Elder manage to do both of those things, yet not sink into the spinning black hole of what I lovingly call guitar masturbation. The most amazing things about Elder is the restraint they have giving hooks and songs room to develop, and keeping you hooked, even though the vocals are not very frequent and more in the background than foreground. You can tell elder’s guitar wizard Nicholas DiSalvo is an incredible talent, not just by what and how he does play, but especially by what he does not play. What a complete eargasm of a band.

ColourHaze are instrumental German psychedelic at it’s finest, lifting you up out of this plane and into another. The band play incredible well, and have the usual introverted, backlit show, so the audience can just close their eyes and take a trip to outer space or whatever dimension the music takes them. It’s excellently done and expertly played, but for me not m cuppa tea, so about 20 minutes in I wander off to find other gems.

 

It was more coincidence of seeing a friend and being able to get to the front that led me to the vulture stage to see Hangman’s Chair. As is usual the smaller rooms at festivals like this are impossible to get into but usually hold the most interesting treasures, as is again the case with Hangman’s Chair. A very energetic live presence, heavy and expert riffing, beautiful hair tossing in a way stoner and doom bands usually don’t do much, and an incredible set of pipes on the vocalist, who belts out very crisp, clean melodic vocals over the blues infused sludge riffs thundering on.

Weedeater, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Weedeater, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Without a doubt Weedeater are the most redneck band in existence, to the point that singer Dixie actually shot his own toe off with a shotgun once. They are a prime example of the swampy, heavy, dirty southern American sludge, and you can almost smell the bayou as the band rolls through it’s set. Sweltering and oozingly heavy, infused with the scent of pot that floats up like incense from the crowd, the three-piece band manage to create such a racket, and a show it boggle the mind. Star of the visual show if new drummer Travis “T-Boogie” Owen who, situated front and center, manages to do stick tricks and kick his high-hat, while keeping perfect time and propelling the sluggish landslide of the music forward. Dixie’s characteristically gravely vocals and fuck you attitude only add to the excitement of watching this band do what it does best: crush and audience.

Pentagram, by Susanne A. Maathuis Photography

Pentagram is one of the greats in the genre, so ancient I’m sure by the look of it they revive Bobby Liebling every night in order to get him on the road, the shambling and shimming heavily 70’s outfitted wraith of a man bellows, sings and stares at the audience with a madness none can rival. I’m always surprised the man hasn’t toppled over yet, but his vocals are still strong and his presence eerily energetic. The band itself just gets on with things and plays, they let the showmanship rest squarely on Bobby’s shoulders, and expertly play their instruments. By the end of the set some madness ensues involving tossed guitars and other such shenanigans, there really is no other band like them out there at the moment.

When it comes to after parties Desertfest is certainly no Roadburn, where shenanigans are abound after the bands finish, but the brilliant cocktail bar outside, and rum n coke’s so strong you can see right through them in the venue itself, do get the party started, even if it takes a while. And by three in the morning, as venue security tries to sweep us out the door, most want to linger for a bit more dancing.

WORDS AND PHOTOS BY SUSANNE A. MAATHUIS