Desertfest @ Camden, north London – 28-30 April 2017


If a never-ending spiral of stoner, sludge and doom sounds like your bag, then the annual Desertfest pageant in Camden, north London is not to be missed. Paul Castles made the trip to cover the first two days for Midlands Rocks.

Anyone looking to ease themselves gently into Desertfest 2017 would have been sorely disappointed when confronted by the festival’s opening act Grave Lines. With some people still digesting, if not eating their lunch, these newcomers cracked on with an overpowering exhibition of whopping railtrack riffs that almost impelled the early arrivals to The Underworld to take a step back for their own self-preservation. As opening acts go, Grave Lines could scarcely have been more impressive and this four-piece – made up of disparate elements from the likes of Casual Nun, Throne and Sea Bastard – are worth keeping more than one eye out for.

Grave Lines Pic: Falk-Hagen Bernshausen
Grave Lines
Pic: Falk-Hagen Bernshausen

The first step into the Electric Ballroom was to catch 1,000 Mods who may sound like a Paul Weller tribute act… that is until you hear these Greek guitar wizards fire up the engines. Spreading hypnotic grooves like strawberry jam, 1,000 Mods delivered a consummate set full of supercharged patterns such as ‘Road To Burn,’ reaching a peak on the magical spine-tingler ‘Vidage’.

1,000 Mods Pic: Falk-Hagen Bernshausen
1,000 Mods
Pic: Falk-Hagen Bernshausen

Glowsun stepped into fill the void created by the untimely late withdrawal of Stoned Jesus. The French trio though proved to be much more than a ‘supersub’ as they transformed the Electric Ballroom into a psychedelic temple with a grandiose Gallic exhibition of magnificent artisan riffery.

Climbing the crammed staircase at the nearby Black Heart was a challenge in itself. On shoehorning myself into the venue the dangerously distressed sound of Khunnt could be detected bouncing off the walls like a broken bottle. The Tyneside tyrants unleashed a jaw-dropping barrage of brutality that was about as palatable as dried egg shells on toast. A truly invigorating experience.

The Picturebooks seem to have the Stars and Stripes running through their bone marrow to such an extent that even when performing in their native Germany, many have assumed they’re good ol’ American boys. But while the skateboard/biker influence is clear to see, the key to this Teutonic twosome’s appeal is the unbridled joy immersed in the contours of such feelgood therapy as ‘Your Kisses Burn Like Fire’ and ‘Need That Oooh’. Visually the pair are stunning with singer and guitarist Fynn Claus Grabke carving out shapes with the same degree of dexterity as a professional chainsaw sculptor with drummer Philipp Mirtschink bludgeoning his oversize kit with monstrous sticks similar to those usually swung with vigour by the big fella at the head of marching band.

The Picturebooks Pic: Tharira Rates
The Picturebooks Pic: Tharira Rates

While a fantastic showcase for emerging bands, Desertfest is far from ageist.  That was reinforced early on Day 2 when the extraordinary Ken Pustelnik, at 71, was quite literally banging the drum for Groundhogs. It’s hard to permeate the fractions when you consider this bunch started out in 1963, probably before 90% of the appreciative audience that thoroughly enjoyed their easy listening blues swagger at the Electric Ballroom, had even been born. The riffs served up, including several from their near iconic album Split, were certainly among the warmest and refreshing of the whole festival.

While female artists were sadly a little thin on the ground around Camden, there was no getting away from Brume singer Susie McClellan whose inimitable style, almost puppet like in movement, was one of the early attractions at The Underworld. A tour de force of extremities, switching from china doll fragility to a cauldron of animated angst in seconds, Brume certainly left a favourable impression with all those gathered at The Underworld.

When it comes to hiding your light under a bushel, the French quartet Celeste take things to a whole new level. They performed their entire set at The Underworld encased in darkness, only the four red spotlights strapped to their heads offering the most cursory of illumination. The effect for all but those in the front row or two was to watch transfixed as these four red lights bobbed around the stage while the crowd was unceremoniously soaked in a sea of nihilistic negativity in the form of an impenetrable aural wall of intense back metal.

While the riffs flowed with the ferocity of the beer pumps on New Year’s Eve, Inter Arma ensured the mercury levels continued to trip off the scale, no more so than when the Virginian heavyweights unleashed such unforgiving beasts as ‘An Archer in the Emptiness’ and the shuddering epic doom monolith, ‘Transfiguration’.

Scissorfight Pic: Jessica Lotti

Desertfest ended for me with the incomparable Scissorfight whose first UK appearance in well over a decade had caused as big a buzz as anything at this year’s festival. Performing before a packed Underworld crowd, the US powerhitters went about their job with enviable energy, newly appointed frontman Doug Aubin storming the stage with a rush of testosterone.

Scissorfight’s sound is bold and brash and of course the crowd loved it none more so than when the New Hampshire boys launched into a pulsating final few favourites headed by ‘New Hampshire’s Alright If You Like Fighting’. With Doug waving the New Hampshire state flag wildly above his head the pit descended into one momentous stomp. Barely had the crowd paused for breath and they were at it again with the grinding ‘Blizzards, Buzzards and Bastards’ with ‘Tits Up’ topping things off brilliantly.

It was no surprise a few days later to see Scissorfight hail their Desertfest date as quite possibly their finest hour – something no-one who witnessed it would dare contest.