Friday, 29th April
With some kind of insane shifting in time due to an unmentionable plague, it’s been three years since the last instalment of Desertfest London and two years since the celebration of its tenth anniversary was originally due to take place. But racing to and from the compact but notorious Black Heart stage to the mighty Roundhouse through the gauntlet of Camden’s zombie tourists, it feels like just yesterday we were last here.
This year seems to be the most stacked line up in Desertfest history, especially with the addition of the decent sized Powerhaus venue, plus an extra day of bands at The Roundhouse and Electric Ballroom to choose between. The organisers have really pulled it out the bag with several bands, such as the mighty Corrosion of Conformity, Khemmis and Somali Yacht Club, being replaced last minute. Despite offers of refunds the weekend’s been sold out since 2020, so it’s no surprise that from the slightly chilly day one there is a decent-size queue waiting to get wristbands at midday to enter the ubiquitous Black Heart. It’s not long before this special corner of Camden is awash with black leather and denim. There’s a couple hours to go before the first band hit the stage at The Underworld and the beer is already flowing as excited and sometimes frustrated chatter fills the air concerning how the fuck to make the decision of who to see. Today there are four venues to choose from, with the Electric Ballroom being the largest, where Swedish legends Witchcraft will headline and French psychedelic rockers Slift will open. There is also a plethora of genres and talent spread over the stages of the Black Heart, Underworld, Powerhaus and The Dev. What better way to spend the May bank holiday weekend?
The first decision is easy enough at least, since they are the sole band to open up the weekend of aural punishment, and it’s Blind Monarch over at The Underworld. As the first doomy note of the tenth Desertfest rings out it feels like it’s only been the blink of an eye since the last edition. The music takes over the mind and hurls the audience into a torrent of hypnotic devastating doom that is loud and malevolent as fuck. Did we mention their debut was recorded in a derelict building?
There are many jokes being made over the weekend about splitting in two but with a dynamic duo of photographer/writer and writer Astral Noize are indeed able to achieve this. Next up over at the Black Heart London’s own Gevaudan play a set of miserable doom that pulls you into their almost Shakespearean play of melancholy. The theatrical performance, coupled with powerfully emotive vocals, perfectly complements the wailing riffs. The act as a whole is a unique and gripping experience to witness.
Meanwhile Japan’s witchy doom duo BlackLab, recent signees to New Heavy Sounds, carry on the Iommi worship with fuzzy riffs coupled with howling banshee vocals. Being hyped after listening to the recorded material it was a little disappointing that the sung vocals didn’t come across as clean when live, but the disturbing facial contortions and riot grrrl attitude oozing from the tiny singer and guitarist Yuko Morino makes up for it.
Coltsblood, a trio described as ‘unfathomable doom from the North’ are the next unsurprisingly heavy-as-fuck outfit to hit the stage and they hit it hard with menacing, repetitive blackened riffs, a formidable baseline and a kick-drum that dredges the depths of doom. The accompanying echoing snarls and howls add to the brutality and they are barely visible behind a smoky red haze, which adds an eerie atmosphere to the hellish soundscape of pacing and tonal fuckery, frantic distortion and drawn out feedback. Effortlessly colliding a visceral mix of melancholic doom akin to My Dying Bride clashing with sudden frantic d-beat drumming and vicious black metal, they are jaw-droppingly good. The only let down is the meagre size of the crowd and it’s clear that the dreaded clashes have begun with Truckfighters following Slift over at The Electric Ballroom.
Shooting Daggers rile up the audience down the road at Powerhaus with their exciting brand of old-school punk taking on sexism and oppression. Their music is laced with guitar riffs that inject a slight stoner doom flavour, and they encourage the audience to get involved for their last song of the set which leaves everyone feeling adequately energised.
Another of the clashes back at the Black Heart are Dungeon who take to the stage with unparalleled degrees of attitude. The lovechild of punk/thrash and NWOHBM they menacingly spew out each vicious track into the sweat bucket of a venue. Heading outside after the explosive set comes as a refreshing relief.
The smallest stage of the weekend is at The Dev, where Black Orchids play an intimate set replete with beautiful melodies and deeply expressive vocals from Kay. It’s an emotionally intense performance with songs that each had their own unique character.
Next up it’s time for our first band at The Electric Ballroom, and gracing the stage are Swedish quartet Lowrider. The desert rocking Swedes open up with some chilled and filthy stoner rock, bolstered by heaps of bluesy groove and percussion that provides unadulterated yet controlled aggression. Frontman Peder Bergstrand also announces a guest appearance from Elephant Tree’s keyboard player Johnee. From the balcony the hypnotised crowd look like a sea of bouncing heads and swaying hips that move that with the ebb and flow of a vibrant and dynamic set. It’s safe to say Lowrider are on fire.
There’s a slight crossover with Petbrick starting up as Lowrider end, and after the chilled stoner atmosphere of the latter the abrasive noise of the former is alarmingly jarring. The iconic due of Igor Cavalera (of Sepultura fame) and Wayne Adams (of Bear Bites Studios) blend samples, loops, synths and intense screams with Igor’s dynamic and powerful drumming to create a fine balance of perplexing and invigoratingly horrible noise at an extreme level of decibels. The Underworld is the perfect spot for them as they comfortably pack out the venue and fill the stage with their face-to-face set.
Hardcore trio from the U.S.A. Integrity are another name and style that stand out like a sore thumb on the bill of stoner and doom and they rip The Underworld a new one. The blend of hardcore punk with dashes of d-beat riles up a grinning maniacal crowd that soon start moshing before relentlessly climbing on stage to create a barrage of stage dives. The buzzing Underworld shows that some punters fancy a bit of gritty energy in their stoner-fuelled weekend. These guys formed way back in the late ’80s but it seems they still know a thing or two about getting a crowd going and keeping them there.
There’s a race to make it to the photo pit for the beginning of the second Swedish act of the day and it’s none other than Witchcraft. As they rarely tour, and with us having never seen them before, they were set to be a highlight of the weekend. Having slimmed down from a quartet to a trio they play an arguably lacklustre set of familiar songs that are well-received but have little of the ‘magic’ that their moniker promises. The enthusiasm (or lack thereof) of the tracksuit-clad and only remaining founding member Magnus Pelander is clear as he weakly jokes about “no one buying the latest album”. Whether it’s becoming restless from the poor performance or the poor sound, the constant babble of the back half of The Electric Ballroom is also somewhat of a distraction from what should be a magical experience. We already feel bad to have missed the fantastic Alunah who just released their latest album Strange Machine to critical acclaim. This guilt is magnified by the poor prior performance and especially when we hear how The Dev is so full to the brim that some latecomers are forced to watch vocalist Sian Greenaway dazzle through the windows.
For the few stragglers who can muster the energy for the afterparty back at the Electric Ballroom, the extra effort proves worth it as Londoners Steak light up the stage with an explosive and enthusiastic set. The softer and more mature tone seen in tracks from latest release Acute Mania show they have brought a psychedelic and even progressive tone to the usual balls-out heavy rock they are known for. To some this may be a disappointment, but for us it is a refreshing change. The additions of clean vocals and melancholic guitar in amongst the riffage and party-ready style makes for a surprisingly dynamic set and a great end to the first day of the three-day fuzzfest.
Words: Abi Coulson and Soozi Coleman
Photography: Abi Coulson (Darktones Photography)
Day Two Here!