Live Review: Desertfest London 2023

Heavy metal is not a religion. But if it were, Black Sabbath would be its founding fathers, the primal deities, the overlords, the Great Old Ones, the primordial clay from which the first humans were molded (you get the point).

Worshipping at the altar of Sabbath is something done by a staggering number of bands around the globe. Although they are widely recognised as the progenitors of heavy metal, Sabbath’s musical influence is most keenly felt in the stoner, doom, and psychedelic subgenres. It’s under these particular banners that [roughly 50] bands from around the world graced the premier venues of Camden, London to spread the good news of Sabbath and the genres they spawned at Desertfest 2023. All hail the riff…

Friday 5th May

Kicking things off at The Powerhaus is Iron Jinn who play to a small crowd. One of many Sabbath acolytes, Iron Jinn have all the fuzzy heft of their chosen deities, but with melodic sensibilities informed by more mainstream bands like 1000mods or Valley of the Sun. Unfortunately, they do little to distinguish themselves, so it feels quite generic without much in the way of fun.

Tim Bugbee

This is also true of Spaceslug. Their sound crawls across a packed Electric Ballroom, and is exactly what you would expect from a band with such a name. The bass rumbles and snarls, the drums are heavy, and the growls from the vocalist sound suitably alien and slime-coated. Pleasingly filthy in all the right ways, even if they stick firmly within the genre boundaries.

Sam Huddlestone

Playing with stoner-doom genre boundaries is Kurokuma. They have the audience at the Underworld completely in thrall with their sludgy, post-metal sound. Inventive guitar melodies, bolstered by reverb and other intricate pedal effects practically soar over a colossal rhythm section that shakes the walls of the venue. Definitely ones to watch, especially if you can experience them live.

If English folk-horror was a black metal band, it would sound like Dawn Ray’d. The metal is blisteringly hot, and the folk music woven through it is superb. Simon Barr’s violin is on fine form, sounding like a banshee keening at the death of Albion under the jackboot of the Tories, and his harsh vocals are suitably demonic. Occasionally his clean vocals get a tad lost in the mix, but otherwise the only real flaw in their performance is its brevity. Truncated by necessity, it feels like there isn’t quite enough time for their political message to fully unfurl its wings. And theirs is unmistakably a political message, one that deserves to be heard on bigger stages across the UK (that is, fuck the Tories, punch fascists, anarchy in the UK now). But the audience don’t care. If Barr’s clean vocals are occasionally lost in the mix, the audience are paying rapt attention – there aren’t even any mosh pits, despite how heavy their black metal is. A passionate speech from Barr about how the rich are really buggering everything up, and a fantastic performance of ‘Go As Free Companions’ as the finale make for a truly rousing climax.

Tim Bugbee

Returning to the Underworld after some time in the sun, the political theme keeps going with Discharge. Contrary to Dawn Ray’d, concision suits Discharge well – many of their songs come in under three minutes in length. Their snarling, filthy, d-beat/hardcore style makes for a mosh pit that swallows most of the floor area, egged on by vocalist Jeff Janiak, who sports a massive, shit-eating grin when he isn’t screaming into his mic. If you think they may appear out of place on a bill mostly devoted to stoner/doom, you are sorely mistaken. Not only does their interview in the program proclaim them as Sabbath freaks, but their basslines and riffs are just as intricate, ominous, and hefty as any other band on the bill. Plus, their particular d-beat racket was a considerable influence on the punk scene that made Camden famous. So, it’s only fair that they get to play on its most famous stage.

Attaining a state of ecstasy without the involvement of a spiritual belief and/or psychoactive narcotic isn’t easy. But listening to Ecstatic Vision just might help. Theirs is one heck of a sound, completely decimating the Black Heart, and it’s all thanks to a saxophonist who wields their instrument like a weapon. Yes, you read that right, they have a saxophone. Courtesy of Kevin Nickles, this is part of how Ecstatic Vision stand out from the crowd. Nickles really puts ‘ecstatic’ in the band name, making as much melodious noise as possible and clearly having great fun in the process. If he isn’t bolstering the melodic lines, he is improvising in a frankly breathtaking manner. And when he’s quiet, it’s the bass’ time to shine. Other bands on the bill make their bassline rumble ominously, giving the riffs just a bit more sledgehammer heft. Not so for Ecstatic Vision. This bassline sings. It’s glorious. It is, in short, ecstatic. Coming off like Hawkwind meets Clutch meets a strong dose of psilocybin, Ecstatic Vision are the closest thing to an aural acid trip you’re ever likely to encounter.

Jessy Lotti

But it is Swedish retro-rockers Graveyard that steal the night. They open their set with mournful ballad ‘Hard Times Lovin,’ and continue with ‘No Good (Mr. Holden).’ Interspersing their usual energetic set with these slower, sadder numbers casts the band as bluesy troubadours in a New Orleans dive bar. As it is, they have the Electric Ballroom entirely under their sway. The crowd know all the words to every song and sing along in full voice, so even if the vocals occasionally get lost in the mix, it doesn’t matter. This in itself proves that of all the bands to surface from the recent hazy waves of retro-focussed bluesy rock/metal, Graveyard deserve to be the biggest name. It also highlights something mentioned in the program – that a new album is long overdue. What really sets Graveyard apart, other than their inventive psychedelic melodies, is their energy. Not the furious punk energy of Discharge, or the third-eye-opening vibes of Ecstatic Vision, but a supercharged, blues-rock energy all their own. The band’s internal chemistry is as tight and palpable as it has ever been, as is the chemistry between the band and the audience, the latter becoming clear when they launch into fan favourite ‘The Siren’ and indulge in a call-and-response vocal exchange with the enthusiastic crowd. But more than anything else, they are just so much fun. They aren’t theatrical entertainers – no pyrotechnics or fancy stagecraft here. They let the music do the talking, and when it is this energetic and enjoyable, that is all that’s needed.


Saturday 6th May

Forget coffee: it is riffs that wake metalheads up. For those crammed into the Black Heart in the early afternoon, such riffs come courtesy of Tons. Their music is exactly as heavy as their name suggests and the crowd is bludgeoned awake. The Italian sludge outfit exhibit a YOB-style doom-laden sound with a hefty bassline and even heavier drums. It is the musical equivalent of having an elephant stamping on your skull. At least, that is how it feels to have a hangover forcibly evicted by sheer force of riff. 

Tim Bugbee

Over at the Underworld, Wren are serving up one heck of a racket. It is not often that band names are so apt for the music they make. Small as wrens are, they make up for this by being incredibly loud birds. The band may only have four members, but they make some serious noise. No mosh pits here – this is music to  pay attention to. The sludgy post-metal offerings that Wren make is a little like listening to Cult of Luna’s angrier, noisier younger brother. It is not the most accessible music of the weekend, but  is nonetheless a rewarding live experience.

Tim Bugbee

Weedeater serve up cannabis-soaked riffs to an eagerly packed Electric Ballroom crowd. Their particular brand of stoner doom comes off like Black Sabbath and Electric Wizard had a lovechild born under the sign of the bong. The riffs are gargantuan, the bass rumbles with enough force to shake even the upstairs seating area, and the vocals sound like someone trying to order a pizza after one too many joints. But lest you judge a book solely by its cover, Weedeater also exhibit a swagger and groove that is very reminiscent of Clutch. All in all, it is a perfect soundtrack for huddling up indoors away from the rain.


Back at the Black Heart, High Desert Queen make light of the day’s royal celebrations. Sounding a lot like Monster Magnet, with funky melodies and a little swagger in the riffs, they are one of the most straightforwardly melodic bands on the festival’s bill. It is a good sound, but because is is one all too familiar to everyone in the crowd.

Over at the Underworld, Grave Lines present a much more engaging prospect. Starting with an expansive synth melody that leads into a spoken-word intro that is layered with reverb, they quickly have the crowd entranced. That reverb effect in the vocals continues while the guitars get underway with some deft tremolo-picking. It’s a truly doom-laden experience, with a sound like a mix between Grave Pleasures and Cult of Luna. A guest spot from Caroline Cawley of fellow festival act Church of the Cosmic Skull is an interesting addition, though her voice is occasionally drowned out by the heaviness of the music around her. Alas, the gloomy atmosphere Grave Lines conjure mixes too well with the weather outside – a more upbeat tonic is needed.


Moving on to the Powerhaus, The Necromancers provide that tonic, resurrecting the afternoon from its dreary rain-soaked miasma. Their brand of stoner rock is built on bass lines that gallop instead of rumble, Iron Maiden-style, which in turn propels their riffs and vocals into the stratosphere. If the vocals are a little strained, and the songs a tad over-long, these are minor quibbles in the face of how much fun the band and audience are having.

Sam Huddlestone

At the Electric Ballroom, New Orleans sludge legends Crowbar well and truly live up to their name. Experiencing their live show is like being battered with the metal rod of their namesake. The sheer energy they bring to the stage, even after thirty years in the business, is incredible. The riffs they wield hit like sledgehammers, and the crowd eat it up. They are so self-assured, so exactly in sync with each other and the audience, that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were born on stage. The vocals get lost here and there, but honestly, that is mainly because Kirk Windstein is essentially trying to yell over a thunderstorm. Long may they reign.

Tim Bugbee

Bringing the evening to a close back at the Powerhaus are Church of the Cosmic Skull. A beguiling synth melody kicks off proceedings as figures dressed in white robes take the stage. Theirs is a lysergic trip through the kind of proto-metal that might have been conjured in a jam session between Jefferson Airplane and Iron Butterfly. It is incredibly catchy stuff, with blues-rock riffs, melodies underpinned by Hammond organ and synths, and an incredibly tight internal chemistry. Imagine living in the psychedelic world of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ and you’d be on the right track. 
The audience is full of their worshippers, all of whom are the kind of hippies your grandparents disapprove of, so the atmosphere is one of utter devotion at the altar of this particular church. Regardless of the devotees the band are clearly having a great time on stage. Rather than just going through the numbers, like some bands. these energetic preachers seem to genuinely enjoy performing their weird and wonderful music. In a just world, they’d be touring with Ghost and converting members of Papa Emeritus’ congregation to their psychedelic cause. For now, they have to settle for preaching to enraptured festival-goers.

Sam Huddlestone

Sunday 7th May

Some bands advertise the music they play with their name alone, wearing their genre conventions proudly. Acid Mammoth are exactly that kind of band. The riffs are just as heavy as the feet of the titular pachyderm, the bass line rumbles like the earth during a stampede, and overall, it is very enjoyable. But aside from how heavy it is, Acid Mammoth’s sound does little to push the envelope, so it does not hold much interest for long. 

Tim Bugbee

Over at Camden’s most famous venue, The Roundhouse, there are rituals afoot. Specifically, those conjured by Canadian occult-rockers Blood Ceremony. Theirs is a surprising set for two reasons: one, they have managed to make a flute audible in a rock concert setting, and two, in so doing they have made playing a flute on stage cool

An explanation is needed here: flutes are not, by their nature, metal. They play over pastoral cinematography in a fantasy film. So, to play one in a rock band is a bold move, and to make it a central part of your melodies is even bolder. The only other artist who has done it to the same degree as Blood Ceremony is Ian Anderson, of your dad’s favourite prog band Jethro Tull. The flute solos come courtesy of lead singer Alia O’Brien, who cites Tull as a major influence, and they appear in those moments where her voice isn’t soaring over the crowd or when she isn’t playing the heck out of a Hammond organ. 

It’s all very occult and psychedelic and, much like Church of the Cosmic Skull or the much-missed Purson (who would themselves be tearing up a Desertfest stage in a just world), it’s also very fun. If O’Brien’s voice is occasionally a little reedy, and her organ sometimes surrenders to the guitars in the mix, these are all minor quibbles in the face of just how much everyone is enjoying themselves, both on stage and in the crowd. 

Tim Bugbee

Over at the Devonshire Arms, Wall are a guitar-and-drums-duo, formed of two brothers who also perform in Desert Storm. They play a fuzzed-out instrumental stoner-doom that feels like the titular brick edifice is falling on your ears. It’s loud, heavy, and utterly glorious. The only reason they can’t open up a sizeable mosh pit is that the venue is literally too small for one. Wall might be pure Sabbath-worship, including an actual cover of ‘Electric Funeral,’ but their music nevertheless hits all the right buttons.

Gnome wear silly red hats, and so do their fans. Walking into the Underworld to witness their set and seeing this is a strong promise of a good time – and a good time they deliver. There’s a palpable sense of the mushroom in the air, even if no one is sitting on one. Every single member of the band looks like a really fun guy, and they definitely know that the only thing that matters in live music is enjoying playing their instruments to a crowd (silly red hats optional, but strongly recommended). Their mostly-instrumental sound is an absolute blast: accessible, energetic, and hefty in all the right ways. The music sits firmly within the genre boundaries of stoner rock, but it’s so much fun as to elevate Gnome well above their other generic contemporaries.

Over at the Devonshire Arms, Gandalf the Green have brought a touch of Middle-Earth and a love of the halfling’s leaf with them. They look nothing like their namesake, distinctly lacking in long grey beards, shining wooden staves, and big naturals. Nonetheless, they exhibit just as much as power as Tolkien’s heroic wizard. Theirs just happens to be sonic rather than magic. They play exactly the kind of filthy strain of sludgy stoner doom that you’d expect, and they do it very well. Atmospheric reverberating synths mix superbly in with the hefty, feedback-soaked riffs and snarling vocals and, much like watching the extended editions of the original LOTR trilogy, it’s a reliably good time. 

The bravery of a solo performer is always commendable. There is no one else on stage to blame if things go wrong. It’s just you and your instrument. And God help you if you don’t get the audience on board. Fortunately, cellist Jo Quail has the audience at the Powerhaus enthralled from the very first note. Her avant-garde compositions are perhaps a tad out-there for many of the festival’s attendees, as demonstrated in the sadly rather small audience. But for those dedicated fans and interested newcomers, her performance is equal parts electrifying and hypnotic. Her use of loops allows her to exhibit a multi-instrumental approach, layering melodies and harmonies on top of each other, but she is still only playing the one cello. It really is hypnotic to watch.

Judging by her expressions as she plays, she feels this music more than anything else. It’s music as an extension of inner emotion and psyche, experimental by its nature, but primal, with an underpinning of folk sensibilities. However you categorise it, Quail’s music is superb, and one can only hope her audience will only grow bigger over time.

Tim Bugbee

The Book of Revelation discusses four riders on four horses. Sadly, none of them are Thunder Horse, but this Texan quartet do their best to bring the sound of the apocalypse to the Devonshire Arms as the venue’s final act of the evening. The crowd absolutely devour their doom ‘n’ roll sound. Reverb, fuzz, vocals that sound like they were trained on twenty joints a day, heavy riffs and heavier drums: every single genre nail gets hit squarely on the head with a ten-ton hoof, and it sounds great. It is an excellent farewell from the Devonshire Arms.

Tim Bugbee

But the night is not over. At the Powerhaus, one of the most intriguing bands on the bill take the stage. Big|Brave, from Montreal, Quebec, are an experimental drone/doom band. 

And yet that nebulous genre description does nothing to convey the magnitude of their sound. Most of the bands on the bill have heft. Their riffs shake the walls, you can feel the bass or drums in your chest – they make a heavy racket. But that is like being gently wafted by a fan compared to the physical sensation of watching Big|Brave. 

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly hooks his guitar up to an enormous amp, turns every dial all the way up, and is promptly catapulted off his feet when he strums a power chord. Big|Brave are even bigger than that. They are the sonic annihilation that occurs when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Quite how the venue itself remains standing after even the first song is anyone’s guess. 

The drummer attacks the kit like she hates it, bringing her sticks down like she’s trying to bludgeon it to death. The guitars and bass conjure not so much a wall of noise as an obliterating force that lays waste to everything in its path. Somehow, the vocals are audible, a caustic, emotional edge cutting through the explosion of sound. Each song blends into the next, creating an entire set of utter devastation. It is a unique phenomenon utterly unlike any other this weekend. Anyone not already familiar with their music has either had their eardrums and internal organs rent asunder, or has found a new altar at which to worship, this reviewer included. It’s the kind of DNA-rewriting, world-shattering experience that comes along only rarely, and should not be missed if they tour near you. 

Tim Bugbee

In all, 2023 has been an excellent year for Desertfest. The church of Sabbath is still going strong, and its harmonious coexistence with other, more experimental faiths is an encouraging sign that the state of global metal is in the rudest of health. Roll on next year.

Words: Nick Dunn

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