Review by Emily Castles
It’s officially British summer time, and yet London is drowning in storm after storm. The plus side… it makes for a great indoor festival. Camden is once again flooded with old school hard rockers, complete with flared jeans and fringed jackets. Famed for bringing together bluesy rock, 70s metal riffs and witchy doom – Desertfest is back again with a superb three-day line-up featuring bands from across the globe, stomping their pointy cowboy boots all over the Roundhouse, Electric Ballroom, Powerhaus, Underworld, the Dev and the Black Heart. The Wild West vigilantes are taking a stand against the monarchists who are attempting to hold London hostage this weekend. Who will win – metalheads or royalists? If you look to the streets of Camden, you will find only one answer…
Opening up Powerhaus (still Dingwalls to many) are Dutch band Iron Jinn. Powerhaus is a luscious venue (perhaps that’s why they were charging £9 for two diet cokes poured out of an unrefrigerated plastic bottle) with lots of cushioned seating and tables at the sides. It’s early days for the festival, and there is only a small crowd here this afternoon – but the band, who have just released their self-titled debut album, put on an intriguingly erratic, experimental show.
Shortly after, we find cosmic rockers Spaceslug over at the Electric Ballroom, which has already begun to draw in a sizeable crowd. The guitarist is a Jack Black sort of figure, bouncing around the stage in jolly bliss – shouting out in a thick Polish accent ‘Hey London, we’re Spaceslug from Poland, ready for a rock n roll show.’ With tracks including ‘Proton Lander’ and ‘Grand Orbiter’, this otherworldly band are good fun.
They are followed by Ohio stoner’s Valley of the Sun with an eclectic concoction of groovy riffs and hearty American vocals. Swiftly taking to the Ballroom stage afterwards are the legendary Church of Misery from Tokyo. Significant players on the doom scene for almost 30 years, the Japanese legends are one of the most anticipated bands this year, and they do not disappoint. Famed for their 70s-style hard rock riffs and murderer-inspired discography, we are taken through the likes of ‘Richard Speck’ and ‘Ted Bundy’.
Lead vocalist Hiroyuki Takano, only in-post since 2015, makes for a wonderfully captivating frontman with some impressive dance moves – from wide-legged stomping to quick-stepping around an imaginary box. Tatsu Mikami, bassist and the only remaining founding member, has his guitar so low down that it’s practically scraping the floor – but the riffs coming from its strings are not to be messed with. This is heavy stuff. With baggy t-shirts and flares so long that they do well not to trip over – the band look like high school dropouts, and yet they put on one of the most brilliant and memorable sets across the whole weekend.
Someone that is most certainly not wearing baggy clothes is Kadavar bassist Simon ‘Dragon’ Bouteloup, who is impeccably turned out in a skin-tight black ensemble, complete with cowboy boots and a large ten-gallon hat – he makes for an interesting watch with some very wiggly dance moves. Frontman Christoph ‘Lupus’ Lindemann, wearing an interesting neckerchief which is giving more 00s boyband than wild west, has a wonderfully tuneful voice – demonstrated in songs such as ‘Die Baby Die’ and ‘Last Living Dinosaur.’ The Berliners are great fun this evening, with lots of toe-tapping riffs and singalong moments.
Of a similar ilk, but perhaps slightly more sombre, are today’s Electric Ballroom main meal Graveyard. The Swedes from Gothenburg have cemented themselves as influential figures in the hard rock, psychedelic game. Fronted by the impassioned vocals of Joakim Nilsson, and groovy melodic riffs – we finish the first day of the festival in classic Desertfest fashion.
There’s more drizzle in the air than a lemon loaf cake this morning, and metalheads are quickly piling into the Underworld for an early session with Wren to escape it. Travelling all the way down from… well down the road, these London-based post-metallers conjure up a desolate landscape with atmospheric riffs and haunting vocals.
They are swiftly followed in the murky depths of the Underworld by Milton Keynes duo Tuskar, who impressively pack a punch despite having just drums and a single guitar – their own brand of distorted sludge sets the crowd alight. Meanwhile, over at the Electric Ballroom, Swedish unit Dozer riles up the crowd following the recent release of their new album Drifting in the Endless Void. Considering that their previous full-length album was some 15 years ago, you might call this a bit of a comeback – and these new punk-ish, sci-fi themed tracks really make waves this afternoon.
They are followed by a band that brings with them a certain stench. The air begins to feel thick, noses begin to twitch and a suspicious lighted object is being handed from band member to band member. Ah yes, it’s the aptly named Weedeater.
Frontman Dave ‘Dixie’ Collins is a deadringer for Seasick Steve, with a scraggly gray beard and an oversized t-shirt hanging off his slight frame. You get the feeling he’s just come from the pub, WhatsApped his mates to come over for a jam, and is just having a nice Saturday afternoon doing his thing.
Down from South-Carolina, the band’s sludge-garage sound births the first mosh pits of the day.
Back over in the Underworld, anyone stumbling over the opening of the Gravelines set may have mistaken it for an East London spoken word night. Plunged into darkness, an eerie voice rings across the devilish depths of this subterranean venue – ‘You awake on your back. Unable to stand….’ Should we be worried? Singer Jake Harding is alone on stage, with a somewhat ‘apocalyptic’ appearance – clothes torn, full of holes – looking altogether rather disheveled. The distorted, fuzzy effects on his voice are otherworldly – alien. We feel abducted, hopeless. Gravelines are a wonderfully moody, thoughtful band – and today the boys from Brighton put on a haunting display with sophisticated riffs and gut-wrenching vocals.
For the rest of the evening, the Ballroom is taken over in a New Orleans fantasia. The city has long been acknowledged as a breeding crowd for underground musical talent, with the likes of Down and Eyehategod emerging from its dark streets in the 1980s – ‘the Louisiana sound’.
First up are Crowbar, who are quick to reference the deep south presence this evening, Kirk Windstein telling us ‘We’ve not seen each other in years – we’re from the same town but end up meeting halfway across the world.
A smarter group of people would have just planned a tour together. Would you guys like that?’ – the cheers from the crowd confirm that they would indeed like this.
A band that has been going for over 30 years, they only seem to be growing in their sophistication and appeal – following the success of last year’s release Zero and Below which they toured with Sepultura and Sacred Reich across the US and Europe.
Kirk Windstein was also one of the founding members of metal supergroup Down, alongside the frontman of our next band, Crowbar’s next door neighbours Corrosion of Conformity. Pepper Keenan also makes several references to the fact that it’s taken a UK-based festival to finally bring the two NOLA bands together.
Corrosion of Conformity is more obviously ‘Down-ish’ than Crowbar – with a distinct southern-groove and twangy vocals. The set is filled with fist-pumping classics – hardcore legends for over 40 years, this performance is a significant highlight for many festivalgoers this year.
We are treated to a taste of Athens this afternoon with heavy riffs from Acid Mammoth. Think long, repetitive, and catchy as hell tunes with 70s style Sabbath vocals. The Greek doom band draw in a significant crowd in the Underworld.
It’s (sadly) the final day of Desertfest, which means the renowned Roundhouse in Chalk Farm is opening its doors for us. The sizable venue welcomes Canadian coven Blood Ceremony to its sacrificial stage early in the day, the ever-alluring Alia O’Brien waving her arms in a flowing black gown with talk of spells and rituals – the gothic Stevie Nicks.
O’Brien’s voice is spectacular and haunting, which combined with her folkish flute-playing interludes, earns the band the description of ‘witch rock’. The band have just released their new album The Old Ways Remain which contains some real crowd-pleasers that we are graced with this afternoon including ‘Ipsissimus’ and ‘Lolly Willows’.
They are swiftly followed by L.A.’s Nebula who don’t offer the same hocus pocus – this is all about the fuzzy, stoner riffs. The performance is moody and understated. They are followed by King Buffalo from New York State, who offer a similar moody and understated show – but without the catchiness and with a slower, more bluesy sound.
A band that is most certainly not understated are Japanese legends Boris who completely dominate the Roundhouse today, body and soul. The Tokyo-based experimental band have been on the scene for decades and have a hardcore cult following – releasing most of their albums through their own independent record label. Incredibly hard to categorise, Boris transcend genre – combining elements of psychedelic rock and hardcore punk. Dressed in flowing black robes with thick blonde strands of hair caressing his face, Morticia Addams-style, frontman Atsuo is a force to be reckoned with.
He tears up the stage like a pocket rocket, throwing himself into the crowd as the tech team rush out from the sides to help feed the cord of his microphone out along after him. His angry, quick-paced vocals nod towards the early punk scene – whilst Wata on keys adds a contemporary, psychedelic angle. Things get even more wild when a bejewelled belly-dancer gets brought out onto the stage, dancing around Atsuo in a haze of smoke. Takeshi takes on both rhythm and bass guitar duties with a double-necked guitar, adding to the surrealism of the entire set. Brimming with attitude, catchy riffs and high-energy absurdism – this is avant-garde musical art.
In a brief interlude before the headliner this evening, and teased by Desertfest promoters on social media beforehand, Motorhead premiere an animated video accompanying Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’. We all stand and watch, but it feels a little random – and apart from having a nice little boogie, it’s unclear what the point was here.
Moving swiftly on, Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats are the headliners this evening and close this year’s Desertfest with their groovy 60s sound. The Cambridge-based group, founded and fronted by Kevin R. Starrs (or ‘Uncle Acid’ himself), recreate the druggish haze of the summer of love in a perfect conclusion to this psychedelic, cowboy-booted festival. Peace out, baby!
For full details on Desertfest 2024 click here.