Given that so many festivals are shutting up shop – Heavy Fest announced only last month it was closing down for good – it’s nice to see London hosting Desertfest for its fifth installment. Although its shed the Prog and Heavy Metal stages from last year, it’s still a glorious weekend of celebrating all things bong and Black Sabbath across some of the best venues in London’s Camden town.
Friday night saw big name bands such as Corrosion of Conformity, Crowbar, Raging Speedhorn and JK Flesh (Justin K Broadrick of GODFLESH) join forces with lesser known but excellent bands like Lionize, Asteroid, Black Pussy, Guapo, Teeth of the Sea, Gurt and more.
Saturday is opened hairy doomsters Poseidon, and they nearly rattle the Black Heart apart in the process. Their thick, monolithic slabs of reverberated riffs draw a decent crowd for so early in the day and probably shake out a few fillings in the process. Thought the vocals leave a little to be desired and the near-pitch black lighting means there’s little in the way of audience connection, it’s a pretty solid start to the day.
Taking on of the early stints at the Underworld, Counterblast are loud, abrasive, and largely joyless. One of the few bands to go for synths and a triple vocalist attack, Swedish quintet combine the sludge of early Mastodon with a crusty punk edge. There’s a lot going on, and it’s a challenging listen, but also rewarding if you stick it out.
UK four piece Telepathy are first instrumental group of the day, and the first to make an effort to engage with the audience during their set. Playing a decent mix of post-metal with doomy influences, they don’t let a torn drum skin spoil the show. A band with promise, but perhaps not enough quality material to sustain the whole set.
Over at the Electric Ballroom, Scouse purveyors of “caveman battle doom”, Conan, draw a massive crowd. It’s easy to see why; massive, grinding riffs, thunderous drums and plenty of chances to headbang. However, the pained screams of Jon Davis’ vocals are an acquired taste and if they’re not your cup of tea, it all quickly becomes a chore to watch.
It takes until the mid-afternoon and Dusteroid’s blend of heavy desert rock and spacey vocals before the afternoon takes a slightly more chilled direction. They’re the first band to lay the riffs on thick without approaching nosebleed-inducing levels of aggression.
If you take the fuzzy rock of Queens of the Stone Age and have it played by AC/DC’s Angus Young, you might be halfway to a Truckfighter’s live experience. Niklas “Dango” Källgren is easily the most energetic person at the festival, and not just because of what people have been smoking all day. Before the first song he’s already run across the stage a few times and thrown his shirt into the crowd, and once he’s strapped in he’s jumping, windmilling, playing solos behind his head, and throwing every kind of rockstar shape possible. Blessed as well with a good frontman in Oskar “Ozo” Cedermalm, Truckfighter’s blend of big melodic rock with plenty of fuzz makes for one of the most entertaining shows of the day and is rewarded with an energised response from the Ballroom.
It’s not always easy for instrumental bands to not only fill a venue, but play music that grips the audience for the whole set. Pelican and Russian Circles, however, are two bands how have perfected the dark arts. Pelican play first, and their heavy take on progressive post metal is a delight. It’s got the grind to make you bang your head, but also the atmospherics to get lost in.
Russian Circles, despite having two less members than Pelican, make a lot more racket. Less proggy and chin-stroking in nature, but more direct and bigger on riffs, they act as the other side of good instrumental music. It might be quite as thoughtful, but it’s easier to mosh to. Both bands get rapturous applause between each song, and hardly a word has been said onstage for almost three hours between the two band’s sets. But it doesn’t matter. Epic bands don’t need to chat when they can create massive soundscapes.
At last year’s event, Manchester’s Ten Foot Wizard provided a surprise in one of the best sets of the weekend. And it’s no surprise that they do the same again this year. Having them close the tiny Devonshire Arms after the main headliners was an act of genius by the organizers. Shame that nearly the entire festival tried to cram into what was literally the back corner of a local boozer. 10FW know how to put on a good show; it’s sweaty, it’s fun – where else would you gets songs like ‘Turbo Dick’ (working title) or ‘King Shit of Fuck Mountain’? – and they know how to write a good rock tune. The mix of Clutch’s boogie with a touch of QOTSA-style guitars, plus a band who know how to rile up the throng in front of them, makes for a killer end to the day. Plus there’s a Theremin solo!
If the Black Keys had balls and a sense of humour, they’d be a lot like Dyse. The German two-piece are on an early shift at the Underworld, but deliver a huge helping of rawkus rock and roll. Between each sweaty song, the audience are treated to a dry dose of humour; where else would you get a drummer singing Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’ before diving in? Although not quite as alluring on record, live they are probably the best thing from Germany since Rammstein. Less fire though.
Over at the Black Heart, fellow German outfit The Moth lay on some decent heavy metal-inspired doom with some occasional ventures into more death/sludge territory. They can clearly write a meaty riff but live it all falls a bit flat.
Necro Deathmort are one of one the biggest oddities of the weekend. An electronic two-piece, their music is a strange mix of synths, vocal effects, and guitar distortion and reverb. It’s dark, haunting, and very introspective: the band don’t acknowledge the crowd or look up from the deck until the very end, when we’re treated to a little wave. It’s actually surprisingly very good, but at almost complete odds with everything else that’s playing this weekend; more like music to get lost to in a dark room than rock out in a large venue. Which might explain why it was so under-attended, which is a shame.
Over at the Koko, Elder couldn’t be more opposite to Necro Deathmort. The Boston, MA, boys are all about riffs, guitar solos and long psychedelic jams. They almost outshone John Garcia when supporting him in London last year, and have no trouble filling the big stage with their blend of 70s rock and big doom thunder. Of the six songs they manage to squeeze into their hour long set, we’re treated to a new one that definitely fits into the standard Elder mould. The crowd lap it up and this is clearly a big destined for more success.
It’s a shame to see the crowd thin out after Elder leave the stage, because they miss a treat in Trouble. Probably the oldest band in attendance – and occasionally showing their years with the cheesy moves – you won’t see better examples of twin guitar leads this side of Iron Maiden. Frontman Kyle Thomas, formally of thrash outfit Exhorder, has a great set of pipes on him and handle’s the band’s older material with ease. It’s hard to argue with classic such as ‘The Tempter’, ‘The Skull’, or ‘At the End of My Days’, while the new material have a real energy about it. The cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘Supernaut’ is a particular highlight.
Closing out the Koko and festival is the mighty Electric Wizard. Along with the likes of Orange Goblin and Kyuss, Dorset’s finest worshipped Sabbath long before it became cool, and have spent 20-odd years honing their brand of satanic, psychedelic, druggie bliss. Played to a background of 70s exploitation skin flicks, frontman Jus Oborn snarls his way through the more modern epics like ‘Witchcult Today’, ‘Dunwich’, ‘Satanic Rites of Drugula’, ‘Black Masses’ and of course a handful from 2000’s magnum opus, Dopethrone. The band have changed little on the whole over the years, and each track is and ode to zoning out and wallowing in a fug of massive riffs. There’s no encore, and nothing from their upcoming but untitled new album. But it’s still a hell of a closing act, and one of par with Sleep’s closing set from last year.
It’s been a great weekend that showed off some of the best Britain has to offer when it comes to dirty stoner, epic doom and everything between. Roll on next year.
WORDS BY DAN SWINHOE