2022 is a special year for desert rock / stoner rock / doom metal extravaganza Desertfest London. The event, which takes place across multiple venues in and around Camden and has become a mainstay of the UK heavy music scene, was cancelled in 2020 for obvious reasons and then rescheduled as a special 10-year anniversary event for 2021. Inevitably, the 2021 festival was again cancelled, so the 2022 edition is not only the first Desertfest London for three years, but also a chance to celebrate in earnest a “Decade in the Desert”.
Taking place over three days and in various sizes of venue from the tiny pub room of The Devonshire Arms to the 3000-capacity Roundhouse, Desertfest London 2022 showcases 82 bands ranging from relatively obscure newcomers to internationally renowned behemoths. Although a few heavy-hitters including Corrosion of Conformity and The Obsessed had to pull out, presumably for COVID-related reasons, this year’s final lineup still features many luminaries including Electric Wizard, YOB, Eyehategod, Conan, Bongzilla, Orange Goblin, Stöner (featuring Brant Bjork and Nick Oliveri of Kyuss), Witchcraft, and Steve Albini’s Shellac.
As I arrive at the press tent to pick up my pass, the sense of community surrounding Desertfest is palpable . The cordoned off backstreet outside the Black Heart pub and venue is lined with merch stalls and drinks stands and riddled with flared trousers and leather jackets. Heavy music fans with accents from many corners of the planet are joyfully immersing themselves in the culture and music.
The first band I caught on the Friday night are London’s Inhuman Nature, who play to a packed out audience upstairs at The Black Heart. Following an unsettling feedback intro, they blast into a set of scuzzy thrash metal with elements of hardcore and doom. The influences of Obituary and early Metallica are apparent throughout this high-energy set replete with distorted bass, distorted shouted vocals, techy guitar solos and chugging riffs. Inhuman Nature does a fantastic job of energising the audience; a mosh pit emerges early on which expands gradually to take up at least half of the room. Several people get involved in stage diving and crowd surfing and the set is met with explosive enthusiasm.
Hey Colossus hit the stage at the medium-sized Powerhaus just as the sun begins to set outside. The three-guitar hypnotic post-rock band aren’t really metal. It’s music to dream to, and the audience stands still and mesmerised. Hey Colossus often drone on one chord for minutes on end, while rhythms build in intensity, delay pedal melodies ebb and flow, and vocalist Paul Sykes delivers his lyrics in half-spoken post-punk style. The sound gradually morphs from Hawkwind-esque space rock to calming ambience to driving motorik to early Pink Floyd psychedelia. At times Hey Colossus reach peaks that almost feel like metal, and the audience (who are perhaps used to a more aggressive type of sonic brutality) start to nod their heads. Through it all the band, encased in dry ice and without any direct spotlights, sway and get lost in the music. It’s a captivating, cerebral and, at times, intense set.
The Devonshire Arms hosts Alunah next. Although it’s difficult to see much in the overcrowded venue, their groovy 1970s-style occult rock goes down well. It’s a good fun set dominated by frontwoman Siân Greenaway’s excellent (if a little over-reverbed) gutsy voice and infused with classic riffs and bluesy guitar solos.
I must confess that I’ve never quite been able to get into Sweden’s Witchcraft. Their doomy and very 70s-inspired rock just never quite felt convincing. Their set at the packed out Electric Ballroom goes down well, but I can’t say that I’m won over. The riffs are good, but I always want them to be more all-encompassing and distorted. The classic rock vocals are decent enough, but at such a comparatively loud volume that the rest of the music comes across as slightly weak. I’m sure most of the audience at the Electric Ballroom (with its ridiculously sticky floor) would disagree with me, but I find the set a little underwhelming.
King Witch kick off Saturday’s proceedings at The Underworld. Laura Donnelly’s wonderful soaring vibrato-laced vocals borrow from power metal but retain enough hard rock grit to perfectly sit with the band’s dark gothic doom. The monstrous distorted bass is often augmented by creepy chiming arpeggios in between the huge riff-based sections when the band really take off. The dynamics are brilliant as King Witch move from headbanging stoner rock riffs to blistering Les Paul solos throughout a suitably intense set to begin festival day two.
Denmark’s Konvent follow soon after at The Underworld. The all-female doom band shatter the peace of a choir recording intro with a massive death-doom onslaught. Vocalist Rikke Emilie List declares that the band are “about to kick your asses” before commencing to stare out from the stage and gesture like a deranged preacher whilst barking out lyrics in deep guttural growls and anguished screams. Konvent are heavy — intense black metal-inspired sections with mournful chord sequences and double kick drums alternate with impossibly sludgy slow sections. Devoid of guitar solos but chock-full of frightening power and atmosphere, they rip through a delightfully scary set.
California’s Earthless declare to the Electric Ballroom that it’s “so good to be back” before launching into a 50-minute instrumental track that seems to be 90% guitar solo but that ranges from trippy ambience to Black Sabbath-style riffery to Hendrixian bluesy psychedelia. There can be a fine line between music to get lost in and music to get bored to, but Earthless just about stay on the better side of that. They keep coming back to variations of the same riffs, leitmotif-style, in between rounds of swirling guitar wig-outs. The second, and last, song is a cover which I don’t catch the name of — with vocals this time — and it sounds like classic late 60s rock in the vein of Cream or The Allman Brothers. It’s a good contrast to the sprawling first track, and a strong end to a trippy classic rock set.
Shellac finish off the Saturday night at The Roundhouse. Steve Albini’s noise rock group don’t quite fit with the core of the Desertfest aesthetic, but nonetheless play to a nearly full room. Albini’s wonderfully kooky — and very clearly audible — lyrics are barked out in a Beefheart-esque drawl over the top of angular start-stop post-punk minimalist repeated riffs and fuzzed-up punk bass. Both Albini and bass player Bob Weston interact with the audience regularly. Albini at one point rails against the phenomenon of professional singers attending karaoke nights and “dusting the locals” as seen on videos including one of “Celine fucking Dion… singing a Celine Dion song”. Weston, meanwhile, apologises to the audience for their inclusion on the lineup as non-metal band, blaming the band’s mistaken understanding that this was a sweet-based “Dessert Fest”. Nevertheless, Shellac do reach quasi-metal territory on several occasions — the fuzzy heavy blues riffs elicit mosh pits on several occasions. At other points they bring in contemplative and brooding instrumental sections. Todd Trainer’s drums are interesting throughout — he beats out primal grooves with an instinctive flow and a masterful sense of dynamics. Occasionally he bashes upside-down on a high cymbal erected behind his head. For most of the set they keep the songs short and snappy; highlights include “Wingwalker”, “Scappers” and “Killers”. Penultimate track “The End of Radio” is an extended epic spoken word rant over a steady repetitive groove during which Albini repeatedly returns to a refrain of “can you hear me now?”. This one proves divisive — for some metallers this is the point that they write Shellac off, but for others it is the climax of a deliciously off-the-wall set from a seminal group that serves as a welcome break from the doom metal homogeny of much of the rest of the lineup.
DVNE start things off at the Roundhouse on Sunday. As usual, their evocative spacey prog-doom holds the already relatively full room enthralled. The two vocalists provide everything from pure melody to guttural growls as ultra-heavy drums, massive guitar riffs and psychedelic synths crash and swirl underneath. The sound is brilliant, and there’s a lot to hang on to: unsettling electro-noise fills the gaps between songs, melodic guitar solos colour the instrumental sections, and a plethora of dynamic, time signature and tempo changes make this a thrilling journey of a set that leaves the audience wanting more.
A bit later, Conan take the Roundhouse stage and blast out their massive droning sludge. Their bluesy dirges are punctuated by gruff screams and punky shouted backing vocals. There are some great grooves that get people headbanging, but somehow it’s not easy to discern the actual notes of the riffs amongst the general cacophony of the aural onslaught and the room acoustics. Some faster sections provide variation in between the doses of thick, slow down tuned riffery. It’s a set that gives many of the Desertfest attendees exactly what they want, but I find myself wishing for a bit more variation and clarity.
YOB are up next at the Roundhouse. They perform with a quasi-biblical image of sun rays behind them, and their set does indeed feel like something of a spiritual experience. There’s hardly any talking between songs, and the sound is brilliant for this atmospheric set that encompasses groovy sludge rock, vocals that soar and dive across a phenomenal range, excellent melodies, and a lot of experimental elements. There is even one point when members of the audience start “shh”-ing each other so as to be able to better hear one of the quiet angular clean guitar interludes. At other times the sound is immense — especially considering it emanates from a three-piece band; euphoric post-rock trades places with bleak and discordant darkness before shifting to Sabbath-on-downers riff mode. It’s a magical performance that captivates the floor of the Roundhouse.
Finally, Electric Wizard takes the Roundhouse stage. After the ambient recorded intro they launch straight into “Come My Fanatics”. Of course, it’s the epitome of doom metal — downtuned Sabbath riffs, gruff bluesy vocals, projections of old horror movie clips, and classic rock guitar solos. The sound is pretty good, but not perfect; much of the detail of the guitar solos is lost in a swirling wah-wah-filtered white noise mess, for example. But they seem to gain confidence as they go, with each of the first few songs appearing to be more hard-hitting than the last. Some of the material verges on supercharged 1960s blues rock, but for the most part they do what they do best, with no talking in between songs. An Electric Wizard set can often be a thoroughly spellbinding experience. This one is undoubtedly solid, but doesn’t quite reach those heights. The band reach an ultimate finale of wig-out noise and dramatic strobing psychedelic rainbow projections before leaving the stage. Whilst perhaps not being the most transcendental of Electric Wizard performances, their set ticks all of the key Desertfest aesthetic boxes and gives the audience exactly what they came here for.
Whilst it’s impossible for any one person to have watched even a quarter of the bands that played, it’s clear from my experience that the return of Desertfest London has been a triumph for organisers, bands and audience alike, all of whom have been starved of the festival experience by the global pandemic. All will hope that Desertfest London is a further sign that life is returning to the live music scene in the UK and worldwide.