After two frustrating years of cancellations due to you-know-what, Desertfest returned to London in triumphant manner at the end of April. Across more stages than ever before, with a line-up that saw a few side steps from the usual classic stoner metal sounds, the three-day event was an absolute blast. If you’re the kind of person who desires nodding approval for your obscure band t-shirt from bald men with beards, then Desertfest is for you.
Japan’s Blacklab play a masterful afternoon set that perfectly melds the doom and punk elements of their sound. The venue is full with heads nodding in perfect synchronicity – man, it’s good to be back. A quick cursive glance across the crowd and the lead singer and bass player from Shooting Daggers are spotted right at the front – that’s enough to persuade me to make sure I catch their set later. A rousing “Black Moon” is a highlight, as is the exuberant between songs chat from Yuko Morino who explains at one point that the two year wait from the originally booked festival was, for both her and drummer Chira Shiraishi, agony. But as she points out at every opportunity, they are so, so happy to be with us in London. We’re happy, too. A cracking start to the weekend.
A short trip over the road to The Black Heart to see Aggressive Perfector is foiled as half of the crowd wanting to see them are still halfway up the stairs to the venue. Nobody’s getting in there. This will become a recurring theme over the weekend – no room at that particular inn.
The Powerhaus is a great venue right on the canal in Camden. It’s a serene spot that lesser festival crowds would spoil, but the Desertfest crowd are a respectful bunch and there’s a genuine sense of community amongst the attendees. I don’t spot anyone being an arsehole all weekend – and when was the last time you went to a festival and could say that? Inside the venue Shooting Daggers are one of the first bands pushing the boundaries of the Desertfest sound. Their feminist queercore punk racket is as infectious as it is downright fun, and tracks like “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” and “Liar” are greeted with raucous cheers.
Back to the Underworld, and Coltsblood play slow, magnificent doom with a bare-chested but cuddly Geoff Capes lookalike (ask your parents) shredding his vocal cords for all they’re worth. It’s glorious stuff. There’s a huge queue outside the Electric Ballroom, so I will have to see Truckfighters another day. I hear they were good, though. A social media post brings bad news – Bonnacons of Doom have had to pull out at short notice. I will have to see them another day, too.
Switchblade win the “best band t-shirts being worn by bands” competition that I have just made up – the bassist is wearing a Swans shirt and the singer has a Trap Them shirt on. Their set is a little lacklustre, though, but at least they like cool bands.
PETBRICK are next up at the Underworld and they are absolutely joyous. Wayne Adams (of Big Lad, not the one from The Mission) pushes out pulverising electronic squeaks and squeals while Iggor Cavalero smashes the shit out of his drums in metronomic fashion. Dwid Hellion from Integrity makes an appearance, as does Warmduscher’s Mutado Pintado for a rowsing version of the Trump-baiting “Gringolicker”. It’s early evening on Friday and the general feeling is that nobody is going to beat PETBRICK’s set for sheer energy and fun.
Hey Colossus are at The Powerhaus and I’ve not seen them in a good number of years, and in that time they seemed to have turned into Nick Cave style storytellers which can be no bad thing overall, but it’s a largely unmemorable set which is a shame. Integrity, though, are 110% energy back at the Underworld. There are crowd surfers, a gnarly mosh, and grins on everyone in attendance, though none wider than on guitarist Justin Ethem’s face. The career-spanning set is frenetic and seems way too short. Gnod close the night at The Powerhaus with pulverising psych-stompers. Leaning heavily on the German sounds of kosmiche musik, the air vibrates with their taut and honed sounds. A great end to a fantastic first day.
Slomosa are on super early in the afternoon, but it’s good to be in the Electric Ballroom after yesterday’s aborted attempt (I mean, what is the point in having a VIP wristband if you can’t upset people and queue jump?!). Their take on the Kyuss-style desert scene sound is infectious, with “Kevin” and “There is Nothing New Under the Sun” absolute stand-outs. Stöner feature two members of Kyuss – Nick Oliveri and Brant Bjork – and they do that thing that’s kind of obvious and not necessary as they play two Kyuss tracks. “Gardenia” and “Green Machine” are met with an almost hysterical reaction by some in the crowd, but it all feels a little underwhelming and even a little trite. The fact they had earlier stumbled their way through a cover of Motorhead’s “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” didn’t overly warm me to them, in all honesty.
Part Chimp playing at The Roundhouse feels a little strange. Their noisy racket is best suited to backrooms in pubs that have strange smells wafting around them, but it’s good to see them play such a prestigious venue after years of slogging away. Never ones to play to the crowd, they open with “Dr Horse” from their Cheap Thriller rarities album from a few years back. The set leans heavily on their ace recent Drool record, and the songs sounds more feral than they do recorded. Singer Tim Cedar is the epitome of nonchalant cool with his hunched over style, while drummer Jon Hamilton is a sprawling mass of limbs as he delivers a masterclass on the instrument. It’s great to see original bassist Joe McLaughin back in the fold and looking so well, too. Good times.
The psychedelic prog rock of Elder seems a little out of place on Saturday’s bill at The Roundhouse. Playing inbetween the noise of Part Chimp and Pissed Jeans, and with Shellac to come after that, the expansive songs and technical virtuosity are anathema to the more minimalist approach to the other bands on the same bill, yet there’s a sizeable crowd for their set which is accompanied by a great light show and trippy projections.
Shellac close the day at The Roundhouse in their usual brusque manner. Opening with “All the Surveyors”, they blast through ten other tracks whilst also encouraging a couple of Q&A sessions that don’t quite bear fruit. Bob Weston can’t even see the people he’s interacting with, so the banter isn’t at its usual level. Todd Trainer does his usual job of freaking people out in the front rows as he glares at them from behind the drums, while Steve Albini seems to struggle for a lot of the set. His acerbic wit is in evidence with a rant about Celine Dion in karaoke bars, but so is his handkerchief which makes an appearance at the end of almost every song to wipe down the sweat. For a while, he seems to be struggling and looks like he’s shaking which is a worrying sight. “Wingwalker” leaves some in the crowd perplexed, wondering why these grown men are urging the audience to put their arms out like wings, and a joyous version of “The End of Radio” closes their set in obtuse manner. Bob jokes about the mistake they made in not realising it was a metal festival when they got booked, having hastily read the invite they thought they would be playing Dessertfest – “There are no sweets in the fridge,” he opines “just bottles of blood.”
A decision has to be made on the Sunday afternoon – do I go and see Remote Viewing at The Black Heart or watch my beloved Everton get thumped by Chelsea on the telly? The football side of my psyche has suffered for far too long so I plump for the joyous escape of music. “There’ll be space this time,” I think – “there has to be.” Only there isn’t. I can hear their harsh, lovely and delirious hardcore from the now all-too-familiar setting of the stairs of The Black Heart and I wonder what would happen if everyone inside the venue just took one step forward. Their set sounds great, but as more and more people arrive and nobody leaves, the decision to self-flagellate my way through a football match becomes easier. From the disappointment of not seeing a band to the highs of three points in the space of an hour, this is starting to be a colossus of a weekend.
Conan’s set at The Roundhouse is an absolute joy and they look to be having the time of their lives. Set opener “Hawk as Weapon” is a huge tidal wave of noise and the air vibrates nicely in that way we’ve all forgotten over the last couple of years of lockdown. This visceral element is why we love live music so much. “Battle in the Swamp” is epic, as are the new tunes they play. A band on top form and seemingly always on an upward creative curve, they embody the very essence of Desertfest and rightly deserve their place on the biggest stage.
Wallowing, by contrast, are in the smallest venue of the festival. I’ll admit to having never stepped inside The Devonshire Arms before this weekend, but that’s something that will change from this point on. I was fully expecting another set-up like The Black Heart with the music venue either upstairs or in a dank cellar, so when I roll up to The Dev and see Wallowing setting up in the corner of the bar it’s nothing but a pleasant surprise. And they absolutely rip the place to shreds. Performing in bee-keeper hats with lasers attached, they tear through their set with an urgency and ferocity that is unmatched all weekend and they are absolutely thrilling. The set of the weekend.
One last visit of the weekend to The Powerhaus to see Poseidon who are in fine form and crank out sludge wonders to the decent sized crowd who lap it all up. That’s one thing that’s obvious about the crowd this weekend, simply the love of music and the joy at being back at a festival. Nothing but positivity everywhere across the three days which is quite humbling.
The last night at The Roundhouse is an almighty double-header of the biggest bands in the scene. Yob are an exceptional live band, and the opening “Prepare the Ground” is pulverising in the best possible way. “Atma” bridges the gap between stoner and stadium rock with aplomb, while the closing “Burning the Altar” is almost absurd in its theatricality and brilliance. Their set is over all too quickly, but it’s not like there isn’t anything to look forward to now….
Electric Wizard close the weekend with a masterclass in aloof cool, spine shredding riffs and spellbinding projections that shift between the occult and the grim reality of Britain in 2022. “Return Trip” and “Black Mass” are obvious set highlights, but a surprise is that they don’t play anything from their last album Wizard Bloody Wizard. Jus Osborn’s vocals sound as wonderfully lackadaisical as ever while Liz Buckingham constantly sways throughout, just as much lost in the maelstrom as the crowd are. A great end to the weekend.
And so to bed.