For those who worship the slow and psyched out riff, Desertfest London is a must go to festival on the UK heavy music calendar, with a reputation for amazing bands big and small becoming more solid each year. Now in it’s eighth incarnation, Desertfest London 2019 sees three legendary headliners grace Camden town; Meditative doom icons Om, in what is a rare outing these days, emotive Belgian post-metal masters Amenra celebrating their 20th annivesary, and legacy fuzz rockers Fu Manchu – a name synonymous with desert rock. From the headliners down to the smaller names, Desertfest is full of interesting bands, and with plenty of wild cards from other heavy subgenres thrown in to keep things varied.
Set in the midst of the busy and vibrant city life of Camden, Desertfest London is spread across five fantastic venues – The Roundhouse, The Electric Ballroom, The Underworld, The Black Heart and The Devonshire Arms, all within a safe walking distance, situated by the infamous Camden market, leaving attendees with no campsites, muddy fields or over-inflated festival food and drink prices to contend with. We at Astral Noize had the proud privilege of being invited to cover the festival…
Kicking off Desertfest London to an already packed crowd at The Black Heart are Israeli trio The Great Machine, channelling some Kyuss desert rock vibes. Over in the Underworld, Swedish trio Vokonis impress with their energy and big stoner grooves, but we can’t help but notice the drummer is wearing his own band shirt! Opening up the Electric Ballroom is the sensual stomp of Jaye Jayle; a band we were already delighted to see at Roadburn recently. Their songs are built on pounding percussion from a tiny stripped down drum-kit. Vocalist and keyboardist Evan Patterson enraptures the crowd with a vocal sounding somewhere between Nick Cave and Mark Lanegan. Afterwards, we’re dragged back into the Underworld where Swedish doom rockers Alasdor are dressed in corpse paint. Their epic, somewhat cheesy, but classic sound owes much to Grand Magus and King Diamond, and they provide a fun and dedicated performance.
One of the most spectacular and peculiar acts of the whole weekend are Portuguese outfit HHY & The Macumbas. This strange unit includes two drummers facing each other in battle, with a synth and electronics maestro droning away on top. In front of this chaos is a masked, suited stranger with his back to the crowd, dancing rhythmically and triggering samples. It’s all percussion based with influences from Can and Harmonia, with an epic set that melds into one – putting crowd-goers into a sonic trance. Props to Desertfest for taking a risk on such an outlandish act. Grave Miasma definitely stand out as a fairly against the grain choice at Desertfest, and they even allude to the fact themselves when they announce “this is not our usual crowd” (in full death growl mode of course!) Somehow the hometown blackened death troupe slot in nicely, adding a theatrical touch and a sharply contrasting pace that suits the bigger stage at the Electric Ballroom. As they warm up into the performance the crowd are slowly won over. After technical difficulties cause delays, Wovenhand‘s set divides the crowd. Their psych-tinged Americana blues rock is repetitive and drawn out, testing the patience of many metalheads tonight. Whilst vocalist and guitarist David Eugene Edwards has a commanding stage presence, his washed out vocals become indecipherable and samey.
There is a palpable buzz in the air as a quickly filling Electric Ballroom awaits Friday’s headline act. The legendary Al Cisneros-led act Om, whose meditative swinging grooves captivate the audience, who rock in unison to a cosmic lullaby. Droning vibrations from the low master of low-end melds perfectly with the jazzy drums, creating a trance-like daze. As the crowd shuffles out, Desertfest London feels like it has properly kicked off. Those who are still in the mood for a party are treated to an excellent midnight mass from punk rockers The Shrine. Whilst their songs may be excessively cheesy and revelling in glam rock attitude, their high energy stage domination can’t be faulted, as the guitarist and bassist spill into the crowd, providing a barrel of fun and laughter.
Elephant Tree begin day two at the Electric Ballroom, hitting all the right marks with their blues-via-stoner metal approach and soothing harmonised vocals – an excellent way to ease into the day. Following are the progressive majesty of Dvne. Their playing is tight and technical, with deep and dynamic songs taking influence from the likes of Tool and Isis. Flashy bass arpeggios and atmospheric synths add wonderful flourishes to their sound, but it’s their interesting song transitions that hold the crowd’s attention with songs that twist and turn. Arabrot‘s sound has changed in recent years; the Norwegian trio showcase songs from their latest album The Gospel, with an abrasive post-punk attack. Dressed in Amish clothing, their bitter and noisy racket goes down a treat.
Time for some proper doom over at the Underworld as Glaswegian trio Headless Kross take the stage. Their sound is akin to a less groove based and doomier EyeHateGod, taking their venom and spite, combining with even slower riffs. Back at the Electric Ballroom, Stoned Jesus are making their long-awaited debut at Desertfest and relishing the opportunity to do so. The opening notes of ‘I’m The Mountain’ ring out over a thousand heads, with vocalist and guitarist Igor Sidorenko bathed in the glow of a single spotlight; he looks every part the heroic rock star. Needless to say if you’re a fan already, but the audience is besotted throughout. As well as producing one of the most entertaining and energetic sets, Glasgow duo Acid Cannibals are the most interactive band of the weekend. Singer and guitarist James Dead stops between songs to give impassioned Buckfast fuelled speeches, ranging from socialism to sectarianism between each frenetic punk’n’roll song, some of which the Londoners can actually understand. Both tongue in cheek and cathartically heavy, and played out to an intense light show, the Underworld is certainly woken up as the band walk off stage to a wall of feedback. Doom legends The Skull have a great reception in the Underworld. Their classic take on old school doomy heavy metal is precision tight and beaming with effortless confidence, with harmonised guitars galore.
Everyone flocks to the Electric Ballroom to witness Amenra’s headlining show. Plunging the room into darkness as evocative projector visuals light up the stage, they prove why they are still the most intense band ever. Opening with the percussive cling-clang and alluring clean guitar build-up of ‘Boden’, once those colossal riffs kick in, the crowd lose their minds in a wave of hypnotic headbanging. The sound tonight is particularly fantastic, with every riff sounding larger than life, and CHVE’s vocals being noticeably more dominant in the mix. The Belgian sludge masters showcase many tracks off their latest full-length Mass VI, with CHVE’s clean singing sounding better than ever. The crowd can’t take their eyes off him as he puts so much of his body language and movement into belting out those harrowing screams. Even after such a satisfying climax, there is still room for more as Wrong party it up at The Dev across the road. This US noise rock band consist of members of Kylesa and Torche, with a muscular and raw sound reminiscent of ’90s gems like Shellac and Jesus Lizard. People are left queuing out the door just to get a glimpse, as the lucky ones to get inside are squeezed in tight. Wrong finish their set crowd-surfing and are commanded to get back on stage for an encore. If that wasn’t enough for us Saturday night party animals, Amenra take over The Dev for a DJ set and deservedly let loose, mixing in with a dancing crowd as they shamelessly play ’90s rave anthems and R&B hits.
Opening the final day in the Underworld are local favourites Surya, whose apocalyptic and thought provoking take on post-metal bursts with energy. Projector visuals of nuclear fallout and war casualties add to the atmosphere. Surya’s music is largely instrumental, yet choice screamed vocals and spoken word samples build a narrative to their songs. Adding with their mixture of pummelling sludge riffs crossed with trips into atmospheric black metal, they make for one of the most memorable acts of the weekend. Across town at the Roundhouse, we’re treated to calmer climes in the form of Colour Haze; long-time stalwarts of the stoner scene. Emotive textures, rise-and-fall melodies and a significant chunk of blissed-out fuzz make their performance wholly enjoyable. They are followed by Earthless, whose psychedelic stoner-rock takes a very different approach to Colour Haze; here, we’re in the presence of an old-fashioned jam band, replete with excessive guitar solo after guitar solo. The noodling, while pleasant in its own way, eventually begins to bore even the most committed stoners.
Wren almost cover the entire Black Heart stage with three mammoth-sized pedalboards as huge as the reverberations they create. Their wall of noisy atmospherics engulf the packed out venue as the quartet manage to pulverise the room with a razor tight set. Wren’s sound is bustling but never busy, maintaining a rhythmic edge and energy. They hyper heavy take on post-metal is barely contained in a room this small, and the tightly squeezed bodies aren’t enough to absorb them. Having just released an EP on electronic label Off Me Nut! Records, Kurokuma‘s set is always going to be intriguing. Generic they are not, with their own unique take on the murky sludge formula, setting them apart from the herd. Kurokuma like to build up to a crescendo throughout, amplifying their songs with added instrumentation, such as rattles and bongos, reinforcing the strong percussive foundation, whilst being underpinned by swampy guitar and bass. Following Kurokuma is never going to be easy, but Italian jazz-doomers Messa deliver a shocking, beautiful set that twists hither and thither between haunting verses and thundering choruses. Perfectly balancing their influences, this is what we had hoped to see following last year’s Feast for Water; softer, quieter jazz sections and louder, filthier riffs. Back at the Black Heart, new Liverpool band Video Nasties conjure up something different, fusing together influences of Gothenburg melodic death metal with NOLA sludge. Bathed in a green light, their set is high energy from the first riff, with lead vocalist Damian Von Talbot spewing a harsh yet oh so satisfying shrieking scream. Speaking of spewing, their guitarist even pulls through a tactical puke onto the side of the stage. At least his riffs are sick!
Completing a weekend residency of Amenra magic, CHVE & Syndrome perform an entirely different set together. CHVE’s wonderful singing voice haunts the darkened Underworld, doubling up with droning loops on his hurdy-gurdy, speeding up and slowing down to the cranking of his hand. Syndrome contrasts this well with shoegazy, looped guitar arpeggios and ambient e-bow drones, resulting in a beautiful, melancholic haze. And so we arrive at the big cheese, the final set of the weekend at the majestic Roundhouse. Fu Manchu sound every part the all-American rock band, with each and every song warranting an extended intro or outro (or both). Singer Scott Hill looks like he hasn’t changed his wardrobe in 20 years and the songs sound like they were pulled off the tires of a Corvette… Yet the crowd are living for this moment. There are howls of pure pleasure as they launch into ‘Godzilla’ for their encore, and thousands of fans race toward the mosh-pit for one last dance, one last riff. It’s the kind of experience that affirms the deep-seated affection for metal that brought us here in the first place – Magnifique!
Words: David Brand, David Burke & Chris “Frenchie” French
Photography: Abi Coulson @darktonesphotography