So here we are, the annual metal pilgrimage to Camden for Desertfest, over ten years now since the first fest graced the halls of the Underworld, the Black Heart and the now-deceased Purple Turtle. What was then an insurgent festival, dipping its toes in the oasis has grown to be a scene behemoth now taking in large venues the Electric Ballroom and Chalk Farm’s Roundhouse.
This clustering of venues, big and small, gives Desertfest a range of personalities – cosy and familial in The Dev and Black Heart, expansive and somewhat commercial in the big venues. Whichever is your vibe, Desertfest likely has something for you – running a range from feel good stoner, gnarly sludge, death metal and occult fuzz rock this year.
The Desertfest crowd got out nice and early for Kurokuma, a band known by many round these parts from a brilliant Black Heart set a few years back. Now graduated to the bigger stage of the Underworld, this rowdy three piece found a large and receptive crowd waiting for them. Sheffield’s Greatest Metal band ™ immediately set about showing their steel. No Jamiraqui covers this time, just straight into a rendition of newest release, Born Of Obsidian, a sludgey monster of an EP that manages to bridge thrashed guitar and a psychedelic vibe that shows their stoner roots.
Today they start the fest with a bang enticing the entire crowd to headbang along to massive riffage. Dual vocals and pulsing bass lines compete with crashing percussion and squealing guitar. Live the Born Of Obsidian record may have less of the Chaos AD gone psych feel but, on the encore, Jake Mazlum (guitar/vocals)still manages a Cavalera-esque ‘un, dos, tres, quatro’ to ignite the first pit of the weekend. A highly recommended band.
After Kurokuma’s triumphant set we dashed over to Powerhaus (FKA Dingwalls) by the lock for the transcendental drone of Wyatt E. Suitably attired for the occasion in their Babylonian cosplay, this is a band who truly have embraced the desert. Less metallic and doomy than on previous live shows I’ve seen, this was a meditative experience for those at the front, and a tediously sociable experience for those at the bar.
The second long form track began with a bass riff that clear influence and desertfest alumni Al Cisneros would have been happy with. As the ever-increasing tone grew and grew, thankfully the bar chat was silenced and replaced by bowel bothering levels of drone. Distorted vocals heralded a psych doom wig out that the crowd had been anticipating for forty-minutes, built to a huge crescendo before a slow drum beat closed this particular voyage to the desert.
Earth Moves are a band that have always been hard to categorize. One of Brighton’s finest, they can mix a chaotic screamo tendency with a very sincere frontman and post-rock beauty (Oceanic and Cult of Luna shirts were represented on stage). Today, as ever, they’re on eclectic form, shuffling drum rhythms leading jagged riffs and anguished vocals. They’re not shy of getting heavy when it’s required though, catching some tremendous, big bluesy riffs at times.
Big bluesy riffs you say? This year’s first foray into the Black Heart was due. Vinnum Sabbathi a Mexican stoner doom band making a Euro/UK tour out of invitations to Desertfest and Bristol’s Astral Fest were a rare treat not to be missed. The Black Heart was absolutely rammed and hot to match as this groovy posse started early, looking to get maximum value and volume to match out of their timeslot. This was a brilliant hour, the crowd totally absorbed in the full package of fuzzy guitars, an overwhelmed bass rig, hard hitting drums and space comms samples.
The front row set the tone for head banging, hails, horns and the rest as Desertfest 2023 hit blast off and straight into warp speed. Massive credit goes to the organisers for getting such a far flung and brilliant band over to the UK. If Desertfest has an altruistic side, then it is exactly sets like this from bands that would not otherwise be able to get to us and that we should applaud. The band were clearly delighted to be on stage and the crowd absolutely reciprocated. Wonderful.
Without a clear preference we found ourselves back in the Powerhaus for Sum Of R. A three-piece featuring Swiss psychedelic explorer Reto Mader and Jukka Ramenen from Finnish nutcases Dark Buddha Rising, this is a niche prospect that understandably has a modest but fully committed congregation. Synth, heavy bass, cymbal heavy percussion and grating vocals combine to make a dissonant whole. Not for me, but many of those present seemed to enjoy it!
French post-rock behemoth Year Of No Light were my headliner of choice for the night at the Powerhaus. Previously seen at the cavernous Koepelhall, Tilburg, this was an opportunity to see them in a much more intimate setting. They nearly ripped it to bits.
A six-piece set up with two kits, they were barely able to fit on the stage, let alone their colossal sound fitting in to the venue itself. A setlist that took in the majority of their outstanding 2021 release Consolamentum while also allowing some of older and heavier material was simply sublime. Highlights were the absurdly good Interdit Aux Vivants, Aux Morts Et Aux Chiens and the wonderful Stella Rectrix to close. Next seen on these shores at Arc Tan Gent and Core festivals in August, this is a band to watch out for, cerebral and intense, beautiful and devastating Year Of No Light are absolute masters of their craft.