Camden is a part of London famous for attracting the weird and wonderful. The market and surrounding shopping area are packed full of goths, hipsters, punks, and artists – sometimes all gathered at the same stall. So, the influx of metalheads for the first bank holiday weekend in May barely raised an eyebrow from the locals. For the relative definition of “ordinary” that Camden operates within, it was an ordinary weekend.
For the metalheads, however, it was excellent. Camden played host to one of the best festivals in the metal calendar: Desertfest! An epic display of all things stoner, noise, sludge, and doom, it packed out famous Camden venues The Roundhouse, Koko, the Underworld, and the Electric Ballroom, as well as smaller sites the Black Heart and The Devonshire Arms, for a loud and heavy weekend of down-tuned devil’s tritones, spliff-inspired riffs, and of spaced-out psychedelic trips to higher planes of consciousness. Sadly, there was no way I could see everything, much as I wanted to. I tried my best to experience as much as I could, but occasionally I had to bring myself back to this plane of reality and eat food.
First up were British black metal horde Winterfylleth. A somewhat odd choice for a festival dedicated more overtly to stoner/doom and noise, their brand of atmospheric nevertheless went down well among the audience in the Electric Ballroom. Sadly, they didn’t play any of the music from their new album, but instead, wreathed in scene-setting smoke-machine fog, they rewarded the eager early-afternoon audience with tremolos and blast beats. Vocalist Chris Naughton’s mic didn’t seem up to the challenge of bringing his sinister howls to the fore, which somewhat muddied their sound. Despite this, however, they still managed to rouse the passions of the crowd with the sing-along sections in songs like set-opener “Gateway to the Dark Peak/The Solitary One Waits for Grace”.
Check out Winterfylleth’s full set at Bloodstock 2017.
Seeking a bit more fuzz – and a beer – I went over to the Black Heart. I’m a sucker for an odd band name, and seeing Casual Nun on the line-up tickled me. Sadly, I didn’t manage to get in purely because the queue to get upstairs was out the door. For all that my press pass allowed me to queue jump, I’m British and there are rules. So, I found a hot-dog stand selling half-metre long hot dogs, and handmade lemonade, and was back at The Black Heart in time for Melting Hand. It’s safe to say my own didn’t melt, but I myself nearly did. The upstairs room was packed, and it was a small mercy I’d ended up with a spot near the drinks bar. Melting Hand offers riffs for lightyears and a bassline denser than a black hole, and managed to fill what space there was between the tightly packed bodies with their unique brand of stoner rock. To give you a more accurate picture of what they sound like, their line-up features members of Luminous Bodies, BONG, and Terminal Cheesecake, so the three of those bands having a jam fest isn’t too far off the truth.
My brain having been firmly pushed out of my ears by Melting Hand, I took the time to put it back in before heading off to see Graveyard. One of my favourite bands from the last few years, I was excited to see them at Download festival in 2016 before they were literally (and rather unceremoniously) rained off part-way through their set. They then spent most of the intervening time on hiatus for a variety of reasons. So, to see them not only active, but just prior to the release of album number five, was incredibly exciting. You can read my interview with them elsewhere, but their live set was brilliant. Short on audience banter, they still managed to not only pack Koko up to the rafters, but to set that audience alight with their set. Starting slowly, with “Slow Motion Countdown” from Lights Out, they moved quickly into “Please Don’t”, the lead single from their upcoming album Peace.
Check out Graveyard’s new video for “The Fox” here.
Two other songs were debuted, including upcoming single “The Fox”. Suffice it to say that hearing them live has me very excited for Peace. The rest of their set was a healthy mix of songs from the last three records. The bluesy jams did most of the talking, and filled Koko with an easy, laid-back atmosphere, putting smiles on a lot of faces. Not only are Graveyard back, but they are in the rudest health. As Jonatan Larocca-Ram (guitar) said, they had fun making Peace, and they definitely brought that onto the stage – for all that they may not have talked much to the audience, you could still feel that they enjoyed playing those songs. This was especially true when they played my all-time favourite “Ain’t Fit To Live Here”, and closed with “The Siren” – the audience singing along showed that the band didn’t need to banter with them. The music could do all the talking they needed it to.
While I left Koko with a very big grin on my face, it was soon wiped off (physically, not mentally) by the mosh pit for Napalm Death. Confession: I’m not very familiar with Napalm Death. This didn’t matter though; the energy they give off is palpable. Nearly 40 years into their career, you’d be forgiven for thinking they may want to slow down. Fat chance. They gave their performance absolutely everything. Their fearsome set was made of rarities like “Standardization” from their new compilation Coded Smears and More Uncommon Slurs mixed with fan favourites like “Scum” and perennial hit “You Suffer”.
Theirs was a raw, uncompromising sound, full of furious buzz-saw guitars and howling shrieks from vocalist Barney Greenway. He threw himself around the stage like a man possessed, and the audience responded in kind. I’ve only ever experienced one mosh pit before, in a much smaller venue in Cardiff. I think it will be a while before I try again. For all the fun and respectful places that mosh pits are, where those who fall are picked up, people often neglect to mention that mosh pits hurt. I’m told it’s a good pain, akin to that bestowed by exercise, but I’m yet to see any benefits from either. Granted, the pain of mosh pits is no secret, but I still felt like I should have been wearing body armour, especially after a particularly meaty arm flailed into my stomach. Winded, I made my way to the edge of the crowd and watched the elder statesmen of grind deliver the rest of their excellent set.
Slightly battered and bruised, but grinning from ear to ear again, I made my way home to sleep it all off in preparation for doing it all again the next day.
The carnage of Napalm Death’s live performance can be seen in this very video.
Saturday brought more sunshine and more music. If I have any regrets about going to Desertfest, it was my decision not to take any shorts. Half-melted, I made my way over to the Electric Ballroom to take in the madness that is The Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. They’ve been on my radar – mainly because with a name like that, how could they not? – but I’ve never really sat down and given them a proper listen. That was my mistake. With new drummer Serra Petale in tow, they look like two mates who formed a pub rock band and accidentally made it big. They’re much, much better than that. They rock and they roll, and the passion and energy they gave off indicated that although they opened the stage at 14.30, they could easily have gone all night, baby.
Bassist Louis Comfort-Wiggett, sporting some of the best sideburns you’ve ever seen and a much-loved Slade t-shirt, provided a solid bassline thick enough to walk on but clever enough to be an entertaining listen. On top of this, guitarist and vocalist Johnny Gorilla was able to rock out to his heart’s content on his guitar – though it never came across as self-indulgent. Their chemistry with Petale was palpable, allowing their music to really shine. If you imagine Slade or Status Quo passed through a filter of AC/DC and no small amount of booze and weed, you’d be in the ballpark of their sound – but it’s far better than my odd description can give you. Of all the bands playing this weekend, they were clearly having the most fun.
Spirits much buoyed by the witty banter and excellent music, I made my way back to the Black Heart for a break and discovered a couple of printers who had set up their stall. Arrache-Toi Un Oeil (French for “take a look”) are a printing duo from Paris comprised of Emy Rojas and Gaspard Quiniou who make prints for bands at festivals. I will let you look up their portfolio for yourself, but suffice it to say you can easily get lost looking at the gorgeous psychedelic artwork they create.
Tearing myself away from the prints, I went to see Cattle at the Underworld – now clearer after being so rammed for Wino’s acoustic set as to be off-putting. I couldn’t stay for the whole thing as, for the second time this weekend, the music was pushing my brains out of my ears. But this was at least an interesting watch. Cattle consist of two drummers, a bassist, a vocalist, and a synth player. They play noise rock. Taken as a whole, it’s an odd show to watch. The drummers engaged in a furious tub-thumping bash-off that provided a mad, polyrhythmic tempo for the rest to follow. The vocalist sounded like a messenger from a far-off planet whose warnings of doom were being distorted by the space-time continuum. The bassline rippled through the audience like the after-shocks from the Big Bang. But, in quoting the Simpsons – specifically the “Buy me Bonestorm or go to Hell!” line – they demonstrated that they didn’t take themselves too seriously. It all sounds just as weird as it actually was, but in a noisy, dissonant, trippy, and ultimately very fun way.
But enough of tripping out. Back down to Earth I needed to come. So, surfacing from the Underworld, I ascended the stairs in the Black Heart and found myself at the top of a mountain. Not literally, of course, but that is how Mountains can make you feel. Their fuzzy stoner metal exhibits a lot of Black Sabbath worship, but when it sounds this good, what’s to worry about? Underpinned by melodic prog stylings, and given a bit of sludgy heft here and there, it was a relatively simple set made of good music and good fun. It’s still heavy music though – certainly heavy enough to topple the monuments of stone from which the band take their name.
Wiipe away those “Ghost Tears” and watch this Darkher video.
After a lengthy break to bring myself back down to earth, I headed over to The Devonshire Arms to catch Darkher. A dark folk artist of some renown, Jayn H. Wissenberg’s haunting music is better suited to cathedrals and caverns than the small stage of a punk-rock pub. But she really made the best of it. Her drummer and guitarist were both absent, so Jayn alone performed on her guitar. It was a truly bewitching performance. Jayn looked as though she had just stepped out of a gothic production of Macbeth, her long red hair trailing languidly over floor-length black robes.
But with guitar in hand (occasionally bowed in a delicate, sensitive way that Jimmy Page would be jealous of), she enchanted the audience. All thoughts of how cramped and hot it was were dispelled as she played and sang. Her set mixed tracks from her debut album Realms and its predecessor EP The Kingdom Field, all of which she played delicately and beautifully, without fuss, and without theatrics. To illustrate how powerful Jayn’s performance was, it wasn’t until later that someone pointed out that the drummer and other guitarist were missing that I even realised they had been.
Somewhat hypnotised by Jayn’s performance, and making a mental note to continue my appreciation of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s music (and excellent band name), I made my way home.
Sunday started, as all Sundays should, in church. Or, more accurately, attending the sermon given by doom group Chrch. And they really bring the doom. An interesting mix between the funeral-doom of Bell Witch and the sheer heft of YOB and Electric Wizard, their 45-minute set was made up of 3 songs. They took the festival’s theme of “tune it low, play it slow” to its absolute extremity. But it worked. The audience was the quietest and most reverential I’d seen all weekend - even Jayn H. Wissenberg hadn’t silenced her audience – but it’s almost as if they were at… well. You know what I mean. Thick, sludgy riffs crawled across the audience for what felt like days as the vocalist uttered her unearthly howls from beneath a funereal veil. Her clean vocals, when they surfaced from the abyss, were somewhat lost beneath the crushing guitar, but this was ultimately a minor concern. Doom has never felt so tangible. Let us all read from the book of Chrch, attend upon their sermons, and embrace the abyss that looks back into us.
Feeling in need of lighter fare, I decided to install myself at the Roundhouse just in time to watch Elder. Their heavy, prog-psych filled the space – the Roundhouse is easily the biggest of the venues – to its fullest, even if the band themselves seemed dwarfed by it. It’s trippy and heavy in equal measure. It’s so prog, so psych, so space-rock you really do feel at times as if you’re on a floating world. At least, I certainly did after being crushed by Chrch and their riffs. Elder’s music is some of the best I’ve experienced at truly embracing the listener, and swallowing them in its embrace. Pulling this off live is a tricky thing to do, especially in a venue as large as the Roundhouse, but Elder made it look easy.
Hawkwind certainly turned things "Upside Down" at Desertfest London. Here’s the proof.
After a break, I returned to enjoy Hawkwind’s set. The grand high priests of space-prog were on top form. Their far-out psychedelic jams were masterfully played. The chemistry between Dave Brock and Richard Chadwick was electric, and the newer members of the line-up fed off this to make for an almost flawless performance. The heavy bass lines and thumping rhythm section occasionally seemed unhinged from reality in a swirling mass of prog tempos and sheer, unadulterated fun. Mostly, however, they provided a solid grounding for the guitar, keyboard, and synths to help the audience experience the sonic reality of dimensions beyond human understanding. My main gripe, and it is a personal one, is that some of the songs went on a tad too long, to the point where watching the dancer they had on stage felt strained.
Hawkwind have been in business for nearly 50 years, and the fact that all the musicians involved can still play as well as they ever did should be embraced and enjoyed. So many of the bands playing this weekend owe their existence to Hawkwind, and watching them play, it’s easy to see why. They make tripping out with music look not just easy, but so much fun. Sadly, they didn’t play established (and personal) favourites ‘Silver Machine’ or ‘Motörhead’, but the music on display was so very good that this didn’t really matter. The whole venue felt buoyantly happy as the swirling images on the cannabis-themed backdrop to ‘Assassins of Allah’ helped remind everyone of Hawkwind’s loyalty to Timothy Leary’s ethos of ‘turn up, tune in, drop out.’
Monster Magnet is awesome. That is all.
Closing the weekend were Monster Magnet. Dave Wyndorf’s powerhouse of stoner jams didn’t do much in the way of theatrics, or audience banter beyond Wyndorf’s small acknowledgement of Hawkwind’s influence on his band, but the audience wasn’t there for that. They were there to enjoy the music. Wyndorf’s mic occasionally failed him, but the band still managed to pull off the catchy songs with appropriate heft – you could feel the bass riffs at the back of the room. Their set deftly mixed old and new, with songs from latest album Mindfucker following fan favourites like “Dopes to Infinity”. Closing their initial set with the classic “Spacelord”, it was very fun to watch the audience sing along. The encore gave us “Powertrip” and “Spine of God”, and thunderous applause when the lights went up.
If Desertfest has a downside, it’s the price of beer in London. It’s a grumble common to all festivals, but it felt particularly punitive paying £4.50 for a can of decent beer. However, this is a small complaint in comparison to the quality of the acts on display. It’s been nearly fifty years since Black Sabbath’s use of the devil’s tritone forever changed the rock landscape, and those who worship at its altar are ever more fervent in delivering excellent offerings to their god. From the packed-out pub rooms to the rafters of the Koko and the Roundhouse, rumbling basslines shook the earth, and spliff-based riffs rang out loud and proud. Roll on 2019.