“It’s a little bit fuzzy… this feeling in my headddddd…” It’s a good kind of fuzzy though and for sure, it’s only likely to get even fuzzier with a line-up looking like today’s does. After a leisurely coffee and a well overdue catch up with the good editor Mr Shaman Lee, it’s time to head back down into the murky Underworld’s depths for some tasty Yorkshire-humoured riffage courtesy of BongCauldron.
“Who’s hungover? …We’re working on it!” cackles oak-sized guitarist Biscuit down the mic as the popular power trio from Leeds take to the stage in front of an already monster crowd shortly after 1pm and launch into (what else?) Pissed Up. The first couple of songs feel a little bit loose and sloppy as the band and gear warm into the day and each other, but newbie Bury Your Axe In The Crania Of Lesser Men sees the three hairy lads from up norff ease into their mighty sludgy riffage and really enjoy themselves. Gauze Rite brings us more banter than beer and, conversely, more beer than band, whilst Bigfoot Reign gets the first proper mosh off the day started as the throttling powerhouse that is BongCauldron toss around more riffs and crack more one-liners than is frankly sensible at any hour of the day. The guy behind me as I head up the stairs sums it up best: DongCauldron.
Next stop is over to The Black Heart with very good intentions to catch the technical riffery of Telepathy or the hotly anticipated Poseidon, but I’m stopped in my path to either performance by a) The complete inability to get anywhere near the stage door, b) The bar and it’s seductively cold beverages and c) a chance encounter with Chris, Marty and David of the mighty Slomatics. As I set my ears to Northern Irish mode, we descend into a hugely enjoyable and impassioned chat about everything from the Belfast underground rock scene to our shared passion for Oxford’s dynamic duo Winnebago Deal. As ever, always a pleasure to see those fine gentlemen.
Fast-forward to 4pm and everyone’s favourite Liverpudlian suns of plunder Conan are making some very loud noises indeed over at the Electric Ballroom. Hawk As Weapon piledrives the Desertfest crowd into a sweetly-intoxicated oblivion as Jon Davis‘ wail bellows over the PA as richly and hauntingly as it always does. Still newish drummer Rich Lewis might well have the biggest kit in underground doom metal right now but at least he knows how to use it as these now world-acclaimed sludge monoliths lay waste to Camden’s swollen belly of amplifier fanatics. Is there a more doomed outro in the business these days than Battle In The Swamp can offer you? Frankly, no there’s fucking not and that Monnosian volume hit is just what these head-banging, hangover recoverees need to get their Saturday truly started. Revengeance represents the newer warp-speed version of the de-tuned Conan sound with drummer Lewis, who has almost single-handedly given the band this additional dimension of speed, leading the charge. I’ve watched, along with a great many others, Conan emerge from basement bar obscurity to festival main stage battlers supreme and they’re a fucking glorious sight to behold in full flight in any setting, especially during the likes of the punishing Foehammer.
I have very few notes taken during Slomatics‘ 50-minute set, mainly because it’s one of the heaviest, most trance-inducing gigs I’ve ever seen anyone play. This legendary, yet somehow still constantly underrated, band are, on record, already ridiculously weighty and expansive. But in the live arena you can literally feel drummer Marty Harvey‘s distant, deep-space vocals creep over the top of David Majury and Chris Couzens’ ludicrously-sized doom riffs like a gas creeping over solid cold rock formations until suddenly everything they expel from Estron and A Hocht with such primal force fits together and immediately makes total sense. Opening at The Underworld with the quint-essential, extra-terrestrial pounding of Trogglorite and ploughing on to a devastating exercise in tone on newbie Electric Breath, I realise it’s rare that a live band can ever be as transfixing as these true gentlemen from Northern Ireland are today. The Underworld is at the point of bursting as Slomatics roll into the explosive Armageddon stomp of Return To Kraken, the utterly dominating death march of Lost Punisher and an extended version of the invincible Ulysses, My Father. But for a finale, there’s something even more special planned as the bassless threesome bring out Jon Davis from Conan and Black Bow Records (aka as the world’s biggest Slomatics fan) to helm the star destroyer and add guest vocals to a soul-bruising March Of The 1000 Volt Ghost from the very first Slomatics album Flooding The Weir. This is a special moment. If you were there, then you will know that you have experienced true, next level heaviness from of one of the most cathartic and yet infectious bands in the universe.
Checking my watch, it looks like it’s time to go and lose my bananas to Desert Cruiser for the 67 millionth time. But wait, Truckfighters are apparently blasting everyone so hard over at the Ballroom that I can’t even get in and so it’s a toss-up between food o’clock or French disasteroids Monarch’s misery over at the h_d_p/WPC Stage. Shamefully I opt for the former and wait on for the flapping wingspan of riffery that is Pelican.
Are Pelican the sort of band you need to know the back catalogue of inside and out to ‘get’? Errr frankly no. As long as you like riffs you are welcome with open feathers at this tour de force of sonic power as the Chicago quartet ease through each and every gear in their arsenal at the Electric Ballroom. It’s up to the emotional peaks and down to the gritty post-rock valleys we go from one of the most masterful exponents of layered sonics from the same city scene that has also brought us the delightful likes of Big Black, Shellac, The Jesus Lizard, Yazuka, Bongripper and tonight’s headliners Russian Circles. There is no UK band at present capable of delivering what Pelican do and so from me at least it’s a full set of hails towards their ghostly, ambient riffage. Desertfest is in uncharted waters this year with two main stage headliners expelling instrumental-only, is-it-metal-or-is-it-something-else finesse. Earthless to headline next year please Reece? You know it makes sense.
Russian Circles are next up to set sail in said uncharted waters as the Ballroom’s Saturday headliners. There’s no real celebration. There’s no real aplomb. There’s virtually no lighting on stage at all, never mind visuals, but as the opening chords of Deficit kick in, the tension in the Ballroom right now could be cut through with a blunt butterknife. As always, the vocal-less trio are driven forward by that powerhouse of innovation behind the drumkit that is Dave Turncrantz and it’s safe to say that the Illinois’ collective are on the most forward-looking form of their lives. A new song or two fly by to fairly muted applause but Harper Lewis sounds as devastating as ever and the colossal power of Geneva is yet another convention to be reckoned with. Rarely if ever do you get a band who divide emotions and reactions like this in a headline setting as multi-layering guitarist Mike Sullivan powers forward with an arsenal as emotional as it is metallic. Brian Cook’s wall-rupturing bass is of course a major factor in Russian Circles’ heaviosity but if there were ever a thinking man’s Desertfest headliner, this is truly it. Part doom, part expansive prog, part atmospheric hype; no-one I speak to seems quite able to put their finger on whether or not Russian Circles quite nail what we were all looking for tonight with a performance that’s as big as their reputation, yet as far removed from “the desert” as we’re likely to experience all weekend.
If there was one band I was bracing myself to experience today, it was Mantar. Gossip around The Black Heart about the wrecking ball German duo was at an all-time high during the day time, so I made sure I crept out of Russian Circles thirty minutes early to ensure I bagged a spot in The Black Heart’s tiny upstairs venue. It seemed this was a very good decision as I grabbed a couple of cold ones and settled myself in at the front for a 25-minute wait and a chinwag with the lovely Claire from The Heavy Chronicles blog. Barely seconds later the room was completely rammed and bathed in sweat as much as anticipation for the devastation that lay ahead.
Our Bremen-based brethren Mantar (guitarist/vocalist Hanno and drummer Erinc) finally emerge from the tiny side-room, stripped to the waist and ready for war. Their hybrid bombast of blackened doom metal and punked-up assault fills The Black Heart with the kind of triumphant aggression that only a special kind of band can embody. That Mantar have been able to stir up this level of hype and passion only just after the release of their second album is already remarkable but as the pair hammer and smash through the likes of the diesel-fuelled Spit, the torturous Astral Kannibal, the anthemic Era Borealis and the turbo-charged The Huntsmen, we can all see for ourselves that they’re worthy of every plaudit out there. Musically, Hanno’s riffs are sharp and faultless, bouncing back off his throaty, centre-stage rasp like baking popcorn shards in a microwave as Erinc religiously batters his kit to within inches of rebellion next to him. Limbs fly, bodies thrash and whip, throats are screamed hoarse and the only thing preventing our visual distraction from the absolutely motoring Mantar are the crowd-surfers sailing overhead and off again into the night. Eventually collapsing into a heap at the side of the stage after White Lights an hour later from sheer physical exhaustion, Mantar seem to have seeped every ounce of energy out of both themselves and their venue-limited audience as they pound along to a rhythm that pulls in the influences of everything from the machine-like thrust of Godflesh to the spitting swing of the Sex Pistols. “This is death uber alles” indeed.
Trudging back down the stairs of The Black Heart, the party is already in full swing. It’s the Spahn Ranch’s turn on the DJ decks and as Big Ben Ward hits the Play button to Status Quo’s Rocking All Over the World and stands back arms aloft, no-one looks happier than the Orange Goblin main man as the drunken chaos begins. After-parties have become a big party of what Desertfest is all about, with bands, fans, organisers, staff and everyone in between joining hands and singing along to the tunes we know and love after the mazy running about between stages during the daytime. Run To The Hills is screamed falsetto by the entire bar, punters jump on their tables and thrash along to For Whom the Bell Tolls and all pints are downed as Ben leads everyone on the charge through Kyuss’ Green Machine for the billionth time ever. Happy? Definitely. Drunk? Possibly. I can’t overdo it mind, I’ve got a festival to cover tomorrow afterall…
Scribed by: Pete Green
Photos by: Lee Edwards