Festival Review by Emily Castles
The clouds hang heavy above Camden Town this Friday morning. The crowds queueing for their wristbands outside The Black Heart are far more varied than other festivals like Bloodstock or Incineration. Here you see the regular metalheads, bearded and tattooed, alongside old-school power-flower hippies, all standing behind unlikely couples in anoraks from Mountain Warehouse. Desertfest is a ‘heavy’ festival that brings bands and fans together from across the spectrum, from doom to stoner to space rock. There is clearly a huge and hungry audience for music of the ‘depressive’ kind.
Opening Desertfest at The Black Heart are The Great Machine who have ‘rode here on camels’ from Israel (as stated by frontman Omer Haviv, wearing a baseball cap covered in eyeballs). He goes on to add: “We hope you enjoy the festival, everyone is after us!” Their high-energy performance opens things up with a monumental bang and sets this tiny room above a pub alight; doom riffs with groovy string-bends proving reminiscent of early Motörhead.
Blackwater Holylight then take to the stage. This all-female group have travelled all the way from Portland, Oregon; lead vocalist Allison Faris tells us that this is their first time on UK and indeed European soil. Slow riffs with haunting vocals offer a chilling set; just imagine if someone had given Kate Bush a distortion pedal.
Alastor follow on the same subterranean stage; the band providing the only glimpse of corpsepaint this weekend – maybe it’s a Swedish necessity. Contrastingly most of their songs resemble metal/rock power ballads – think early Ghost or The Cure.
R.I.P. create quite a storm as we head further into the day. Exploding onto the stage with a bandage facemask and wielding a scythe-come-mic, the lead vocalist Fuzz is a shocking sight in his Persil white leather trousers and a glittering set of metal teeth. The Portland crew are fast, groovy and completely bonkers.
Electric Citizen also bring an otherworldly presence to Desertfest – fronted by Laura Dolan whose eerie but addictive scary-little-girl vocals provide a cutting edge to Zeppelin-esque riffs. She tells us that she is a futuristic robot, come to visit us – an ‘Electric Citizen’ if you will. Dressed in a leather boilersuit, waving her arms as though casting a spell, she is a wonderful presence with ‘Beggar’s Need’ a particularly catchy number with a wonderful 70s groove.
Friday evening ends with the almighty OM over at The Electric Ballroom which is bursting at the seams a full half-hour before the trio are even due on stage. There is no one quite like this band; their latest album Advaitic Songs opens with ancient chanting and explores the Book of Exodus. Many of the songs they perform tonight are from this album; ‘State of Non-Return’ has enchanting riffs which transport you to ancient streets with pilgrims and travellers whilst ‘Sinai’ takes you on a journey ‘Through the Red Sea’. These songs are lullabies, soundtracks to other worlds and eras, spells that send you to sleep and transport you to dreamlands. Their performance reflects this; the focus is not on Al Cisneros and Emil Amos (also of Sleep) but the sound filling the room, the story being told, and the emotion filling your soul.
Kalloused open The Underworld on Saturday, with the lead vocalist spending the entire set in the pit rather than on the stage. Despite this, crowd interaction is minimal, instead opting for contemplative pacing. Despite some catchy guitar work, the whispering vocals and metalcore screams fail to get the crowd going.
Following this fairly straightforward set, The Underworld welcomes Norway’s Arabrot. Wild West hats, white shirts, braces and a vocalist who manoeuvres his guitar like an air rifle during instrumentals – this is captivating stuff. Lead singer Kjetil Nernes is a storyteller, taking us on a journey though his conversational sound on tracks such as the powerful ‘Sinnerman’. He acknowledges the absence of the band’s keyboard player (his wife), Karin Park, who has been unable to travel due to a personal loss. The set is still strong, enriching and profoundly different from anything else – rough and ready vocals with a cowboy edge, and slow heavy riffs which are often dance-worthy.
Over at the Electric Ballroom this evening, Stoned Jesus take to the stage with a contrasting set. The Ukrainian trio are a bunch of peace-out, Earth-loving dudes who provide a hypnotic backdrop – perhaps the desired effect is ‘stoned’ after all? The singer humorously tells us ‘I know you all want ‘I’m The Mountain’ but is it alright if we play the rest as well?’ When they eventually do get to this habitual crowdpleaser, the crowd indeed goes wild. Heavily distorted power chords combined with delicate string picking – the band produce a dreamy, even sleepy atmosphere. This, my friends, is all about the chill factor.
Kadavar follow on the Electric Ballroom stage with similar mellow levels – but with far more catchy, 70s style riffs – ‘Die Baby Die’ in particular is so nostalgic it almost hurts. Groovy baby, from the affable Berliners.
The night comes to end with Amenra, in London to mark their 20th anniversary. What a monumental, transcendental experience this is for the heaving Electric Ballroom throng. To the backdrop of a black and white flickering film of mist, ruins and ravens, the Belgians begin their story. We are taken on a journey of suffering and heartache; this is the soundtrack to human misery. Colin H.van Eeckhout stands with his back to us, singing the lyrics as though they are his last; truly haunting. The guitars are delicate and beautiful with intricate string picking and chord progressions, dispersed with ferocious explosions of heavily tuned-down sound. It picks you up, and drops you down.
Amenra’s latest album Mass VI is a masterpiece in opera-style storytelling. ‘Children of The Eye’ is a gut-wrenching portrayal of suffocation, fight and attack. They also perform ‘A Solitary Reign’ – a stunning, goose-bump-inducing beauty of a song about loneliness and distance as van Eeckhout tears off his shirt, to reveal the Church of Ra symbol tattooed down the full length of his back. This movement, together with the likes of Wiegedood and Oathbreaker, concerns a distinct mindset of desperation and despair. Here he bears this burden and privilege, etched onto his back like an inescapable parasite feeding on its host. What a pleasure to witness this extraordinary band tonight.
The final day of Desertfest 2019 begins with the youthful Mountain Caller opening The Black Heart with low-slung sonic brutality. The sludge trio formed in 2017 and quickly scored a killer opportunity to support OHHMS and Boss Keloid. I managed to catch the London leg of the tour back in November of last year. Since then the band have only gone from strength to strength and this morning they are tighter and heavier, although still very much in their infancy – we are told to check out their Bandcamp page. “Thanks for being the best people” the bassist announces “The people who come to see the first band of the day! OK, I’ve run out of small talk now.”
On the Sunday Desertfest’s main venue switches from the Electric Ballroom on Camden High Street to the iconic Roundhouse, a mile up the road. This glorious venue is, as its name suggests, is in the round. There are several bars. There is upstairs seating. There is a rather luxurious luggage drop-off area. This is as fancy as a metal gig is ever going to get.
Earthless take to the stage early afternoon. The psychedelic rock trio from San Diego are almost jazzy in their dedication to guitar solo tangents and string bends – it’s sporadic with little separating song from song (Was there more than one? I couldn’t say for certain.) Their set is one long soundtrack of prog rock.
Luckily, a bunch of other Americans come and shake things up with some hard-hitting stoner vibes in the form of Witch. Think slowed, tuned-down, distorted riffs with Sabbath-style echo vocals. This is something straight out of the 70s with the riffs to match. With a set including ‘Hand of Glory’ and ‘Seer’, Witch are certainly witch-y thematically, but they are far too toe-tapping and wiggle-worthy to be defined by the name.
They are followed by All Them Witches whose latest album ATW was released towards the end of last year. The Nashville outfit are all about the atmosphere – although that atmosphere is ever-changing during their set. ‘Diamond’ is gloomy with guitar twangs that remind me of The Lost Boys opening track. It’s heavily palm-muted verses are cut by haunting and delicate open strings. On ‘Blood and Sand / Milk and Endless Waters’ Charles Michael Parks Jr. offers an eerie, indistinguishable, grumbling voiceover like a bogeyman telling a horrifying bedtime story, but with light guitar riffs and fun little runs. Each offers something different but with the same stoner bass tying it all together in a trance of, whilst not quite complete misery, something far from cheerful.
This final day of Desertfest 2019 offers a much more mellow, easy-listening experience compared to the previous days – The Roundhouse was a far cry from the ancient chants of OM or the gut-wrenching howls of Amenra. However, that’s the beauty of this amazing festival. It presents a truly complex, thoughtful and provocative programme of music that oozes intellect and melodious sophistication.