It’s that time of year again. Collectively we sew those last few most recent patches onto our denim jackets, prepare our roll-up materials, lace up our filthiest walking boots and make a rather large withdrawal from the nearest cash-point as we’re all sure as shit going to need it. Desertfest London 2015 has arrived and it’s time to fucking party!
Now into its fourth glorious year, what started off as a challenging and aspirational punt by organisers Reece Tee and Jake Farey has turned into one of the world’s premier stoner, sludge, psyche and doom rock events. Expanding the Desertfest-branded template to other European cities (Berlin and Antwerp along with more rumoured to spring up across the continent…) has been an equally roaring success. But, to me at least, Camden will always be the true home of Desertfest.
A few changes grace the 2015 edition: expanding on Sunday night into the Koko and Purple Turtle venues near Mornington Crescent enhances the festival’s capacity and allows for the eargasming delights of headliners Sleep to round off the entire shebang in a beautiful palace of amp-flooded fury. Equally, the spiritual home of the festival – The Black Heart pub on Greenland Place – has for the first time had its well-trodden doorstep cordoned off to keep the valuable punters away from any pesky traffic or disruptive tour vans. In turn, this opens the gateway to the fest housing an outside bar, some food stalls and enhanced merch arrangements for the first time. But above all, this temporary extra space instantly provides a richer atmosphere of true togetherness that Desertfest has never quite felt before. As I gaze across the bearded, plaid shirt-ed, denim-shrouded masses, it dawns upon me that this is more than a festival now, this is a global destination for heavy music excellence. Anyhow, let’s get rocked!
…Well, let’s get drunk first and then get rocked!
London/Brighton sun-bashers Torpor kick things off in the already sweaty confines upstairs at the Black Heart. The sound mix begins with a few teething problems, but it’s not long before the South Coast’s blackened doomsters are into their stride. Venomous vixen of a frontwoman Nats Spada staggers up on top of the monitors and her righteous and cavernous bawl soon fills the room, backed by Jon Taylor and Lauren Mason‘s dark, post-metal riffs. Like a heavier Kowloon Walled City or The Death Of Her Money, Torpor sandblast through 30 minutes of grief and strife to a packed out and curious crowd. Definitely ones to watch with their From Everything Comes Nothing material, they don’t so much leave a footprint but a crater behind upstairs at the hub of the festival.
Is there such a thing as post-doom? Bouncing over to the Underworld to catch Sweden’s Walk Through Fire fresh from their tour with Dead Existence, I’m rather inclined to answer “Yes”. Painfully crushing and devilishly slow to begin, they soon ramp up the tempo and the atmosphere to pound the audience with a sort of mash-up crossover of Bell Witch and Isis. Caustic and cathartic all at once, their blackened mantras leave no stone unflattened as they abuse the Underworld with their fifteen minute slabs of amplifier abuse. Juliusz‘ precision destruction behind the kit and Ufuk‘s desperate roars propel them forwards into galaxies of sonic frustration and anguish. “Can we get the lights down lower?” is a somewhat ironic request from the frontman with the band already playing their scarred and fractured chords in near complete darkness.
Anticipation is high down in the Underworld for Dopethrone. Very HIGH indeed… geddit? The Montreal power trio roll onto the stage in front of a packed house of some 600-odd people and before even the first riff is belched from the sound system, the audience are cheering with all the passion of a headliner band. Always a honky-tonk act trapped in the aesthetic of sludgy drug-lords, the four-album veterans step straight into Tap Runner and begin to ooze riffs instantly. Despite a pretty cruddy sound mix, Dopethrone win over the underground furnace by their sheer power of conviction alone alongside Vincent Houde‘s rabid cackle, misanthropic solos and that snarling-kid-in-a-crack-den persona. Gurt frontman and de-facto stage manager for the day Gareth Kelly joins them on stage for a romp through the explosive new anthem Scum Fuck Blues and by the time Dark Foil and Devil’s Dandruff roll around, the venue is completely losing their collective shite for these deliciously toned grooves. Ending on their cover of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine, Canada’s finest Riff Dealers blast away into the night once again. Not bad for a band on at 4pm in the afternoon.
Back over on the Stage Of Filth (aka the HDP/WPC Stage) at the Underworld, Agrimonia strike up what could potentially be the only sound of the day that loosely resembles a clean guitar tone. An unusual concoction of prog rock stylistics, crust-punk vocals and aesthetics and traditional heavy metal riffs gives them an edge of differentiation on a day dominated by dirty doom and spliff-erific stoner rock action. Agrimonia’s raging boulders of dynamic action can’t replicate Dopethrone‘s rapturous reception but there’s still plenty of heads a-banging up front for the fivepiece’s synth-assisted jams.
There’s nothing wrong with a cheeky ‘tache, and Steve Brooks has one of the cheekiest out there, fo mo sho. The Electric Ballroom is finally open to hold the legions of Desertfesters and the happy return of the Florida legends Floor is the first sound to grace its four walls, on the band’s first ever UK show no less. Somehow both uplifting, yet heavier than a lead tank, the bass-less trio power through most of their Oblation and Floor albums and are clearly loving every second of being back in the game. Drummer Henry Wilson is the unofficial star of the show as he pounds his kit from every height and angle possible to punctuate Brooks‘ and Anthony Vialon‘s monster dual riffage. With Brooks‘ sickly tones topping off the likes of Return To Zero and The Key like a musical cherry on an icing of pure tone, this is a triumphant highlight of prestige and power.
San Francisco’s deadliest duo Black Cobra set their equipment to blitzkrieg mode and set off down the gauntlet of oblivion over at the Underworld. Performing a smattering of new material alongside their devastating back catalogue of grinding hardcore, it’s barely seconds in before Jason Landrian‘s rabid bark and hyperspeed riffage and Rafa Martinez‘s impossible drumming fill the London air once again. From the head-banging chug of Chronosphere to the frenetic descending darkness of Avalanche and the sheer brutal morbidity of Corrosion Fields, the gruesome twosome are even mightier and faster than ever as they bulldoze a packed crowd deeper underground with their dazzling finesse and volume. God help us all when that much-rumoured new record drops on our sorry souls.
Time is scarce unfortunately and it’s time to leg it over to the Electric Ballroom to get both Atomic and Bitchwaxed with, ummm… The Atomic Bitchwax. New Jersey’s finest nuclear blasters don’t get over to the UK enough for my money but as they bash straight into Hope You Die, it’s clear they’re the perfect tonic for this stoner rock fest-ive evening. Time has served the trio well and Finn Ryan still possesses one of the fastest left hands on the gigging circuit. Their brand new material from the Gravitron record seeps perfectly into the set, including a barnstorming It’s Alright which has the crowd singing along in no time. It’s instrumentals that really delight from this much under-rated band and newbie War Claw fits the likes of The Giant like a glove in the setlist. Monster Bob is an absolute powerhouse behind the kit and throttles Ryan and the humble Chris Koznik through the classics of Shitkicker, The Destroyer and So Come On like it’s his last day without a care. Backed by Jack Dickinson‘s deliciously cosmic visuals, this is so much fun it feels borderline illegal.
Apparently Red Fang are tonight’s main stage headliners, but it soon becomes apparent that no-one has told Ben Ward and Orange Goblin as they step out in the Electric Ballroom to a hero’s return. It’s the local lads’ 20th anniversary and what better way to celebrate than by playing their famous third album The Big Black all the way through for the very first time exclusively for Desertfest. It never ceases to amaze me as to quite how big Mr Ward actually is as the definitive specimen of biker-man-rock proceeds to completely OWN the Electric Ballroom stage and get the party started. But then rampaging around next to rock’s most famous Richard Hammond look-a-like Joe Hoare, he looks even more gargantuan than the last time I saw these legendary Londoners.
I don’t need to tell you the setlist tonight – you probably already have it on a patch stitched to your back of your jacket – but needless to say, every single one of these anthems is a solid gold belter from the rousing Scorpionica and Quincy The Pig Boy to the groove trains of 298kg and The Big Black itself. Ben Ward and the boys are clearly having the time of their lives and it strikes me that if you add Motörheads gruff and grit to Kyuss’ sand dune odysseys, Saint Vitus’ metal and Blue Cheer’s, umm bluesy cheer, then you surely have the recipe of England’s finest rock export cracked. With special guests galore, including Harry Armstrong, and rare tracks following up The Big Black showcase then I find myself being forced to agree with Ben’s firm conclusion: “this is pretty fucking special!”
With Orange Goblin and then Red Fang kicking ass across the road, it’s a small but committed crowd that initially assembles for the debut UK headline performance of Oakland, California’s doom overlords Noothgrush. Cackling into existence and then proceeding to drop out of life almost completely, the foursome lurch from gear1 to gear2 and back again in a brutally oscillating pattern over the course of a harrowing 70minutes of liquid amplifier torment. Russ Kent‘s mind-tantalising riffs are played with a conviction and stone-cold grandeur that very few could muster and backed by Dino Sommese‘s charismatic yet draining and soul-cleansing growl, it’s the perfect way to end a formidable sludge line-up on the WPC/HDP Stage.
A string snap and the subsequently messy guitar change hampers Noothgrush’s progress, but this is not an act for the faint of heart or mind as they plough onwards down the plughole to a mesmerising sense of oblivion. Chiyo Nukaga‘s vicious autopsy of her kit is a sight to behold and there’s something bizarrely hypnotising about the plodding rhythms and terrifying screams that suck in and spew out the likes of Oil Removed and Entropy. Hearing music this unsettling is a constantly surprising way to bring likeminded souls together as the Underworld sways in a symphony of matted hair and sickly grins.
On a personal note, I’d like to express how happy I am for Matt from Human Disease Promotions and Gareth from When Planets Collide for putting on, year after year, the filthiest set of bands this terrible planet can muster up and drag them to Camden for our morbid pleasure. Thank you gentlemen, the Underworld bows to you.
Phew! That was a whole lot of riffage! It’s time to hit the pub to rehydrate for tomorrow’s magic I reckon!
The Atomic Bitchwax
Scribed by: Pete Green
Photos by: Lee Edwards