11.29. I know it was definitely 11.29 because I wrote it down immediately.
11.29 was the exact time when I caught my first scent of a reefer struck up by some denim-clad longhair on my long walk into the heart of good old London Town. A bit early for some perhaps, but when you take into account that today is the start of the third inaugural DesertFest in Camden, it’s not really all that surprising.
With last year’s beard n’ burger-based event taking in stoner rock royalty of the likes of Lowrider, Dozer, Unida, Fatso Jetson and Pentagram, Camden’s stages are now well and truly primed for this independent affair to grow and flourish. Three days of solid drinking, ear destroying sonics, nodding your head and shuffling between three venues in painfully close proximity to one another with your face engrossed in a tiny programme desperately trying to find out who’s on in 15 minutes is once again upon us! Hurrah!
2014 brings the first year of real diversity with genre-decimating metal acts of the likes of Japan’s Boris and Norway’s Kvelertak treading the sticky Electric Ballroom floors alongside dozens of acts from todays (and yesteryear’s) stoner/sludge/doom/hard rock elite. Diversifying the line-up has been a deliberate ploy of Reece Tee and his small team of organisers to keep this essentially not-for-profit festival relevant, fresh and less repetitive than the riffs its bands are more than likely to be bashing out over the next 3 days. Whatever you’re here for, whoever you’re keen on watching, however much beer you guzzle and facial hair you grope, it’s going to be a blast I can promise you that much.
As with last year, it’s a privilege to be here to bring you a short summary of what a killer time I’m having over this happy and hippy, yet slightly soggy April weekend of awe-inspiring live music. But sod all my giddy glee to even be around a group of musicians and fans whom I have a huge amount of respect and passion for; let’s get on with the damn show!
Start as you mean to go on and The Earls Of Mars are certainly as bonkers as a shoebox full of Mexican jumping beans falling down a well. Harry Armstrong’s moustachioed wail haunts the cosy confines of The Black Heart as his merry band of jazz-metal lab-technicians oodle and whirl around him. Heavy and groovy, yet more than slightly unhinged, they rattle through 45 minutes of macabre prog-rock in what feels like next to no time. The captivating ‘Cornelius Itchybah’ is a one-song masterclass in gothic horror and judders by like a poltergeist wearing a Type O Negative t-shirt and Pentagram boxer shorts. New song ‘Fisticuffs’ blitzes across the room with drugged riffs and quasi-poly-multi-rhythms galore to culminate in a sound resulting somewhere between Mercyful Fate and Stinking Lizaveta. Yep, that’s right, you heard me. Any band with more reverb than guitars and a live double bass player gets my vote and under Armstrong’s spell the crowd become absorbed in this bizarre yet thoroughly enthralling spectacle of bluesy, yet metallic psychedelia.
Over at the Electric Ballroom, Switzerland’s Monkey3 arrive with a spaceship-landing type vibe for their debut UK show before blasting off into an instrumental prog galaxy far far away. Cosmic keys and brooding basslines are the order of the day early on as Walter’s giant drum hits pave a path for Boris’ guitars to skip merrily down. Like some kind of mangling of Dream Theater and The Atomic Bitchwax, they win everyone in the room over speedily. As Boris solos away into the stratosphere it’s like taking a bong hit through your earhole as lights flicker, vocal samples flutter and an eerie ambience pollutes the air through the darkness. Seguing between stoner rock supremacy and Tool-influenced progressive ingenuity with ease and swagger, Monkey3 make a fair few diehard fans very happy indeed with their driven yet beautifully controlled songcraft. A fun and deeply experimental way to kick off a spectacular Friday main stage.
After a one-two of seriously tasty but overtly proggy action, some basic rock n’ roll is swiftly required and Borracho are here to supply just the ticket over in The Underworld. Right outta the Fu Manchu, Karma to Burn or Roadsaw rulebook of “riff first, ask questions later”, the Washingtonians blaze a well-worn trail of lumbering stoner grooves and cacti-shredding solos. Frontman Steve clearly loves every second of his power-stance heavy blues and chugs away at his Flying V with gusto to fill in the gaps from his backroom-echoing vocals. A band for the good times exclusively, Borracho fill out the Underworld in mere seconds and romp across the stage like Usain Bolt in a school fun run. ‘Know The Score’ from new record ‘Oculus’ sounds full of energy and swagger on first inspection but the DC mob’s songs do eventually wane a little and ultimately prove overly long and simplistic for what they realistically need to be.
Without the grandness of their usual lightshow, Necro Deathmort are reduced to a simple but effective dirty disco fest. AJ Cookson and Matt Rozeik’s weird table-top machines of doom still sound like a sci-fi movie soundtrack from the past, yet set in the future, and a packed Black Heart bubbles and bops away to their funky blend of dub, funk and techno like its 2114. Desert rock? Perhaps not. Martian rave music? Definitely. The dive-bombing drops of ‘The Heat Death Of Everything’ continue to penetrate the consciousness with the weight of Godflesh and Author & Punisher combined as the duo lean and wretch against their raft of instruments and yearn for the most unholy of sonic releases.
LA’s Sasquatch are here to do one thing and one thing only back over at the Ballroom and that’s rock the fuck out of everything imaginable. Guitarist Keith Gibbs and bassist Jason Casanova look even more chuffed to be in London than their fans are that they’ve graced our shores once again with their brand of gloriously American power rock. ‘Wolves at the Door’ is a particular highlight – barrelling past like a ’68 Chevy in the Californian sun.
With a four album deep wealth of back catalogue experience to call upon, it’s almost too easy for these good-time-rollers to live in the moment and give it everything they’ve got. ‘Eye of the Storm’ is a truck-driving anthem through and through and flat-visored stand-in drummer Dan Joeright is in complete control as he pounds his giant kit into the floor. The only tragedy is that Zodiac and Sixty Watt Shaman are both switching their amps on over the road which thins the crowd out somewhat, buts there’s no doubt about it, this is a festival highlight already. As the power trio fade out with a scintillating ‘The Message’ and the all-conquering ‘What Have You Done’ Sasquatch proves to be a stoner rock shot to the veins for all in the room.
Despite a few technical issues on the busy Metal Hammer stage at The Black Heart, there’s not too much delay before Germany’s Zodiac hit the stage to blast a brand of soulful, heartfelt Yankee rock. Easy on the eye Frontman Nick van Delft certainly has the attention of every pair of female eyes in the room and oozes class as his strong yet delicate voice commands and fills the room with tales of remorse and glory. His guitar-string bending ain’t half bad either and a small but committed crowd are treated to the finest cuts from Zodiac’s latest yet somewhat under-the-radar ‘A Hiding Place’ record. ‘Diamond Shoes’ and ‘Moonshine’ give off the pungent scent of liquor and dusty, wooden bar-room floors as the four-piece cackle by with a groove reminiscent of ZZ Top or CCR in their prime.
Although it unfortunately meant having to miss the return of stoner rock supremoes Sixty Watt Shaman in The Underworld, I was curious to check out Ed Mundell’s latest venture The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic (UEMG).
The former Monster Magnet and Atomic Bitchwax guitarist may be back with a new troupe of musicians in tow, but that doesn’t stop him reaching for the stratosphere just as much as his Wyndorfian former act ever did. With Mundell installed as band leader alongside the versatile bass-skills of Collyn McCoy (also of Trash Titan and Otep) and Dan Joeright on drums (the stand-in player splitting his time after Rick Ferrante’s unavailability to tour with both the UEMG and Sasquatch) the threesome set off on a space mission like no other with the guitarist’s solos and Voivod-by-way-of-The Stooges barrage of riffs and virtuoso solos. Crowd interaction is minimal and Mundell’s playing could be considered by many here to be overly self-indulgent and inward-facing but McCoy is eager to please with some pleasant between-song banter and one hell of a show himself at the helm of his 4 strings. Altogether, if you dig Grand Funk Railroad, the MC5 or even a bit of good old Jimi Hendrix with your acid tabs and hashed out jams, this new band of Mundell’s will tickle your pickle all night long.
After taking in a much needed sit down and a cheeky pint or two amidst the Black Heart’s swelling throngs of punters, there was now only one thing left to do…
As Spirit Caravan hit the stage it’s like Scott ‘Wino’ Weinrich and co have catapulted Camden back in time to a land of chopper bikes, pirate radio stations and bad meth trips. The trio are powerful, commanding and genuine as hell as they strike up a mighty array of Orange amps over at a packed Electric Ballroom. Always cheerier in style than Wino’s most famously associated act Saint Vitus and more multi-facetted than his earlier doommerchnats The Obsessed, Spirit haven’t actually played a show together since 2002. You certainly wouldn’t know it though and after a 42-date cross-continent tour, their brand of grooving stoner rhythms is tight and refined beyond belief. Finishing said tour at DesertFest in London is something that Wino is vocally proud of and the ‘Van pull out all the stops to show everyone here that there’s no substitute for their raft of experience.
Opting to push drummer Henry Vasquez right to the front of the stage is a wise move and pays off with the power of his delivery and monstrous tom hits whilst Wino trades the bluesy hard rock approach with Dave Sherman’s ballsy bass attack and heavy metal growl. Many will be disappointed by original drummer Gary Isom’s absence, but Vasquez makes this band what it is today and his blistering mass of writhing hair and heavy-handed guile is a sight to behold.
Material old and new is given the dusting off of a lifetime and you can practically taste the ’70s air of cheap liquor, chewing tobacco and burnt road-kill as a shirtless Wino owns the crowd like he was born to live on every one of the world’s stages. There is no man alive who can play guitar quite like the Master of Maryland – unscrupulously heavy yet adept and bluesy all at once, it’s an unmistakable hurricane that meets the ear on this wet Friday night in London town. As Dave Sherman’s whiskey-belching drawl dedicates ‘Fang’ to the recently deceased Jason McCash of The Gates of Slumber, there’s a metallic sense of redemption as his inhuman rasp filters the air into sorrow-laden mire, several inches thick.
Hearing the likes of the timeless ‘Dead Love/Jug Fulla Sun’, ‘Fear’s Machine’ and the spine-chilling ‘Melancholy Grey’ reminds you just how incredible that ‘Jug Fulla Sun’ debut really was. It’s an ever more intense feeling still as the likes of ‘Healing Tongue’ and ‘Cosmic Artifact’ blast in front of the consciousness and the audience is simply spellbound by Wino’s near-spiritual aura. There comes a point as I’m frantically tapping out notes to shape into this very review the following day that I feel almost ashamed to not be giving this unholy trinity my undivided attention. It’s a privilege, no; it’s an honour to be in the room as these legends play. Anything less than being here is a mere injustice to their plight and their status in this scene today and in yesteryear.
Proceedings take a lengthy halt as Vasquez obliterates his snare skin and goes off in search of a spare from the bowels of the venue. Wino and Sherman solo for a lengthy period and share a joint thrown from the crowd but are clearly put out by the whole affair. Finally reigniting the fire with ‘Black Flower’ and ‘Retro Man’ shows they’ve lost no momentum however as the ‘Elusive Truth’-era material demonstrates the perfect culmination of Wino’s heavy finesse, Sherman’s low-end shovel and Vasquez’s almighty patter.
The inclusion of ‘Brainwashed’ from the ‘Last Embrace’ compilation album is an unexpected treat and as Wino drawls out every last syllable, you’re forced to believe the words that falls from his whiskered lips as a Christian would the gospel. As Spirit Caravan leave the stage as deserved heroes, it’s less than five minutes before they storm back, clearly against stage management’s wishes, to play a further two blistering numbers to a drunk, happy and bedraggled crowd who lap up a precious few bonus seconds in stoner heaven.
Due to a metric fuck ton of travel problems, Dutch fuzz masters The Machine have only just arrived at the festival at midnight and completely missed out on headlining The Underworld. Granted a last minute slot in the Ballroom after Spirit Caravan in place of the mandatory opening night after-party, they proceed to rip DesertFest’s premier venue a new one with their fearsome and gas-guzzling punked-up rifforama. Snorting the cosmic space dust as much as wielding the metallic axe, the power trio put on a respectable last minute show in front of a healthy yet fading crowd until 1am. With David Eering’s Kyuss-esque guitar sound full enough to belie their late appearance; it’s a commendably huge performance from a top notch European act worthy of their headliner billing.
Phew! Well it’s only the end of Day1 and I’m knackered already! My apologies on the lack of Horizont or Sixty Watt Shaman coverage, but without my trusty body-cloning device, I can sadly only be in one place at one time this year. With Day 2 already just around the corner with some bed-shitting heavy music looming, I can barely wait to get started!