It has been already two weeks since Desertfest London and we’re still trying to deal with the aftermath of this colossal experience. The post-festival depression is still going hard on us and we only have 6 months to wait until the Belgium’s edition. Whilst being a completely different event, it beholds a unique vibe of its own. Concerning London’s prime festival, so much can be said about its’ connection with the local desert music scene, which serves as the main engine for all of what will surround us in the following days. Not to mention the community, with whom we don’t often get the chance to acknowledge its involvement in the scene. So many things can be said about all of this, band’s performances and an endless stream of desert storms bludgeoning the London crowd.
Everyone working in the festival was amazing, from the security staff, to the promoters, the bands (f you were feeling especially brave). All of the venues had a different feeling between them: The Electric Ballroom and The Roundhouse hosting the top acts, while The Black Heart and The Underworld were the true heart of the Desertfest and underground spirit. The Roundhouse was the biggest novelty to this edition of the festival and ended up sold out with almost four thousand people celebrating under the spell of the legends who Sleep are.
With all of this out of our way, let’s start talking about the music. After a long morning spent in the airport and getting to the hostel, we finally arrived at The Black Heart where we could see the gathering of stoner fans in the street, we immediately felt at home and without thinking twice, we went to see Blown Out inside. This power trio evoked the warmth of the desert with psychedelic nuances in an ecstatic trance submerged in all the riffage and fuzz provided by the guitar of Mike Vest. So good starting out with such power and heaviness.
Bruxa Maria would come up next in The Black Heart, and seeing there are always hard choices in Desertfest running order, our photographer went to catch a bit of Pontiak at The Electric Ballroom to get some photos, and while he was at it, I took his short time to meet a few press colleagues and taste a Camden ink beer by referral from a local staff member. This Gill Dread’s project, whose experimental obscure sound sets a different mood in this venue, showcases a small collective with so much energy in the effects, to such an extent that the pedals at their hands would gain new life ascending from the ground. That setup was in charge of Matt Cargill and it really got stuck in the back of our mind until this day just as much as the hi-hats. The (portuguese) name really suits the obscure tonality given and the constant rhythm shifts that just make you want to headbang with your whole body.
Back to The Electric Ballroom, 1000mods were starting. We caught them two days before in Portugal, so the same line-up comes as reassurance as this is a hyped band as thousands of faces attend the venue, an electric ecstatic crowd expecting an opportunity to face this concert as a complete party. The new album works very well live, very powerful, and justifies the band’s growth entirely as the crowds surrender in awe to the presence of the band’s wall of sound. Next in that stage would come Glowsun, last second substitute of Stoned Jesus, as personal reasons made them not able to perform. They were also with 1000mods in Oporto two days before and under such short notice, a better choice would come hard to get. This french trio always provides a great experience so as we could see them once again owing the audience with their hard heavy psych riffage.
Nothing like meeting Chantal from Vodun, moments before their gig in The Underworld and talking about Portugal and vacationing there next summer, who would’ve imagined? They really did perform a voodoo on the crowd, as it was a much needed palate cleanser by that point in the afternoon. After catching them the first time at the closure of Belgium’s Desertfest, truth be said that they hadn’t impressed much that time, blaming maybe on the time schedule or mere tiredness, but this time it really had an effect. We had the chance to joke around with Chantal about it afterwards calling her Beyoncédelic (which has caught on since that day), with her clean vocals making a juxtaposition to the instrumental weight on that whole spectacle with the costumes and sonority adjacent that bought Africa and made the party happen within the hearts of the audience. Step aside hon, we got a new powerhouse in the psychedelia world.
And if Vodun left the temperature very high in The Underworld before, Steak were grilling the place by the time we got there. Much like our Vodun’s experience, this second time watching Steak, felt much better. Maybe because they’re in their own element, being a local band, and the venue itself absolutely had something to do with this. This band often seems like “our friends playing Kyuss”, but with their superb new album and the frontman charm, they are gaining their own character and ended up as the biggest surprise of the day. A personal shout out to the sound technician of Underworld, a very sweet girl with such good ear that didn’t disappoint the acts being held there.
It was time to get back to The Electric Ballroom, where two major returns would rise. First of which, we had Lowrider, yet again re-formed in Desertfest, just like in 2013. These stoner legends showcased a mind-bending and powerful performance to an astonished crowd, taking every notice of the privilege that is to able to watch them perform live. Their debut and only full-length marks the 17 anniversary and those songs do not seem to age a single day. Besides the mighty Ode to Io, the surprise came by them playing a couple of new songs and the promise that they will return to studio and record the so well desired new record. Frontman Peder Bergstrand seemed very happy to be on stage, always very energetic and smiling, while Niclas Stalfors seemed a little tense, trying to maintain their perfectionism. Thank the rock Gods that they were brought back to life and we truly wish that they can return at full time with the new album out.
Even though we wanted to catch Apey and the Pea’s performance, we took that short break to eat something while we were waiting for Slo Burn. It was the most anticipated moment of the whole day, as this is Slo Burn’s first gig after the long hiatus, and it was exceptionally pleasant to see that none of it’s original members have skipped a beat. If anyone wishes to see Slo Burn, it might as well be with it’s original and true format, how lucky we were?
As “Muezli” starts, you could could grasp the idea of the type of show this turned out to be, an incendiary one. John Garcia is, for many, a god and above all he can put on a show, oh man can he put on a show. Everybody was very enthusiastic and eager for it, either in the front row or in the balconies, which were just as full. By the time “Positiva” started we were in trance mode, eyes closed and in that cathartic space not really knowing if we were in cold England or sunny California. As a band with just one album under their belts, Amusing the Amazing, there’s very little possibility for an extensive encore, even with all the revering from the ecstatic fans. When “Pilot the Dune” ran through the crowd, we knew the end was close, but no tears shed before bed because “tomorrow there’s more John Garcia for us all”.
With such an amazing first night, we woke up in London for another superb day. A little exploration around Camden and found ourselves eating some soup to get strength and vitamins after all of the junk food that we have to eat in such occasions. Unfortunately, even though we arrived quite early at The Black Heart, the room was already full by the time Samavayo started, which doesn’t surprise seeing that’s something that always happens when a festival gets progressively bigger and bigger.
With that in mind, we went to see the veterans Groundhogs at Electric Ballroom, which turned out to be the bluesy 70’s vibe kick off that we needed anyhow. Even though the line-up has suffered changes since it’s inception in 1963, the project still finds way to preserve the original grooviness of the old school. Bands like this one underline the importance to pay homage to those who built the foundation on which the stoner/desert/psychedelic sound that we know and love today is based on. An already well-filled venue at The Electric Ballroom welcomed the Hard Blues with some psychedelia elements provided by these guys that seemed very at ease with the stage and with themselves. The thought “Why aren’t they more well known?” came across several times during their performance, especially during ‘Eccentric Man’, one of their more well know songs. Even if they’re from the U.K., the metal thumb on mister Tony gave some nuances of americana in our point of view, like you could move your hips frenetically at a party in Louisiana.
With that good feeling behind, we proceed to the Underworld, where the curatorship was clearly different, focused on the gnarliest of sound hosted by The Human Disease Promo and When Planets Collide. Sludge, black and doom metal fans were in their backyard. The first piece of music that we were able to catch here were Brume, with a strong and cathartic instrumental and atmosphere, it really shows how well received their new album Rooster was between the fans of the genre.
By the time we got to the Black Heart, we weren’t able to get in to check out Iron Witch, as the venue was already full. You got to be there a few minutes earlier if you really want to see something and for the coming year we need to have that on our minds. Such situation gave us opportunity to check out another Desertfest venue. The Devonshire Arms, a nice rock’n’roll pub with memorabilia everywhere even in the ceiling, and the kick off of the day there was about to start with Monstertone. Sadly, that act started prety late and we quickly had to head back to The Underworld for Inter Arma, a band that we couldn't really miss.
And to be frank, what a surprise it was! Unquestionably of the absolute best sets in the festival. This is a complex band, whose unique blend of sludge, doom and black metal balanced with progressive layers and psychedelic elements, created an atmosphere saturated with hypnotic hooks, spiraling riffage, and ritualistic drumming that transported us to the depths of our minds. If you don’t know Inter Arma yet, you really have to hear Paradise Gallows and Sky Burial.
Finally, a tough choice came ahead, as we opted to go see John Garcia while not avenging the portuguese audience who wanted to see Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard at this year’s Sonic Blast. In retrospective there is a somewhat sorry feeling that assaulted us after hearing through the grapevine just how much they shoveled The Black Heart with their massive and trippy sound.
Electric Ballroom was busting through the seams literally as John Garcia introduces a ‘Tangy Sizzle’ to the most enthusiastic crowd so far. There’s nothing wrong with giving the audience exactly what it wants, and that is throwback to what (just maybe) brought us to like stoner/desert rock and it ends up filling the inevitable void that Slo Burn left on our hearts. Let’s face it, we are never going to see Kyuss in it’s original format, that’s almost a sure fact, and this comes as collector’s item. A few Kyuss songs like as “One Inch Man”, “Thumb” and Hermano’s, throwbacks such as “Kentucky” and “Cowboys Suck” are always well received but “Gardenia” and “Green Machine” really made the crowd go frantic, as you can probably imagine these are some of the most beloved songs in the Kyuss universe. Dropping some new tunes in the midst of it all, he takes time to give out a special thanks to his wife who allows him to be in “10 000 bands” and closes this energetic show stomper with an encore consisting of “Molten Universe and Whitewater”.
A quick bite and Scissorfight that had increased considerably the temperature in Underworld. This is one of those bands whose riffs could cut through wood and the drumming would create a hole in the ground even after a ten years’ hiatus. Scissorfight are back in a big way, and the crowd reaction seems to confirm Doug Aubin as a fit recruit to this crust punk stoner band.
Went yet again to The Electric Ballroom to our very last gig there to see a bit of Turbonegro. When we got there, “Just A Little Boy” by the Swans was playing in the PA which seemed odd somehow to introduce the party punk theatrical costume-wearers that are Turbonegro. They were the odd ball in the lineup for sure but there were plenty of fans it that gave them all that they had.
Leaving half-way through in time to see one of our favourite picks of this day, Bongzilla at Underworld. Not being able to smoke indoors really took a toll on the crowd by this time, as the band, never in the danger of being subtle, would urge the people to smoke some herbalicious joints just so the music itself could transport us to pure haziness as we did without the assistance of that particular herb. If the music is good you don’t need anything besides the music itself, and we swear that we even let go of sore feet.
The set was more focused on the older songs, evoking the swamp sludge metal that their fans are very much used to. The Underworld somehow seemed like the venue most fitting for the band’s legacy of over-the-top, crusty as hell sludge that leaves absolutely no space to breathe. A show encompassed with THC-infused riffs, growled vocals and more reference to marijuana than an issue of High Times magazine, it was one of the best concerts of the weekend. It wasn’t all about the guitars, as the bass and the drums played a crucial part, the bass always very audible against the guitars and the drums, who were more than beat keepers and background, showcasing Mike’s ability in mixing unusual patterns and fills.
The previous days really took a toll on us, so we decided to focus on the Roundhouse for the day. Our feet and backs appreciated the decision, and certainly made it feel like a completely different experience. We got there earlier just in time to check the Sleep merch, which was sold out in a whopping 45 time spam. You don’t need to be an architect to truly appreciate a venue’s design, in this case, it’s hard to measure the functionality of the exposed ceiling for a more clean and ample atmosphere in-door, with this being said, it wasn’t difficult to fall in love with the Roundhouse, one building to remember.
Bongzilla enters the stage and Mike Makela yelled “Y’all high yet? Hope not too much, you got Sleep later!” which made the audience laugh just before giving us yet another sweet heavy sludgy doom metal show. Even with a little bit of trouble in the hi-hats at the beginning (maybe because they were hungover) they gave us a cleaner sound than the previous night and we all praised the lords in that Orange altar and the double back-line format. It was almost too short to begin that awesomely curatorship that went on throughout a day that made so much sense, kudos to that.
It was time for Saint Vitus, the grandfathers of Doom from California kick off the set with “Dark World and One Mind”, a classic metal formation that gave us long gray hair swinging and teeth grinding in an old school way. The echoing crowd makes a better experience than any record could ever give, and it was a nice moment to see the appreciation between bands as they gave it up for Sleep and Bongzilla during their show, a real class act. It was exceptionally pleasant to hear Scott Reager’s voice as it was a classic metal voice summoning the demons and the lost childs as you feel each and every stroke in the bass by Mark Adams. Reagers’s return to the band is due to the fact that Scott “Wino” Wenrich reformed The Obsessed and is permanently focused on the project, which led to a set almost only based on Scott Reagers era. The exception was “Born Too Late”, a song that they really couldn’t miss. Just sorry for all the people talking and not appreciating the great show.
For some, it might look like a strange addition to see Wolves In The Throne Room on the schedule, but seeing the shear connection between doom music and black metal, it makes nothing but sense to elevate such a transcendental band among a list of musicians with such similar ambition. The stage was astonishing, as the banners and smoke created the ambiance for a show that estimated complete chaos with the brazing blast beats devastating a crowd intimately surrendered to such a powerful entity. WITTR have the unparalleled ability to balance texture and atmospheric horror between flancs of colour, emotion, without ever losing the characteristic intensity in the scalding distortion. Aaron Weaver’s equilibrium on the double bass drum conquers intensity over technicality. Definitely one of the most pristine acts in black metal today! A strong example of the unnatural strength that cascadian black metal can reach at a crushing pace. The track “I Will Lay My Bones Among The Rocks and Roots” brushed off an epic tale of sensations and pleasure. A closer like this can creep up on you like a breeze of fresh air or a rich landscape pinned by ever-growing dimensions. With such a discretion, you would imagine an entire venue slayed by the truly authentic and cathartic experience that was Wolves In The Throne Room. There is no turning back Desertfest. After WITTR, Oranssi Pazuzu and Inter Arma, this dark side of the metal force is now fully settled, and the benchmark is very high for the next edition.
After another 30 minute pause to unwind, we tried to get some Candlemass merch before their gig, but it didn’t arrive, which was a pity. Candlemass and Saint Vitus mark a change in the underground metal scene for the better, even if we maintain the distance from that time, they are truly precursors of what we now know to be doom metal. What truly stands out from this gig is the classical heavy metal vibe, which is very different from all the day acts so far, not to mention Mats Levén’s voice, which works perfectly representing the band’s oldest work. Even though this year the band often plays Nighfall in full, we were presented with an act very much focused on the bigger picture of the band’s career. Of course it would be a great opportunity, as the album is celebrating 30 years, but songs from the debut Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, especially “Solitude” that establish the exact mood for what would become the most expected moment of the night.
Sleep is the biggest band around, there’s no doubting it. The Roundhouse venue packed and the extra tickets just came in to prove it as a universal truth. When band members from other acts are all packed in the technical areas just to watch them, that reassures every question. Another universal truth is that Matt Pyke would appear shirtless. As the first notes of “Holy Mountain” played by these stoner doom legends, start reverberating across this massive building, it automatically takes you to the landscapes of the Weedian walk. The crowd loses their composure when “Dragonaut” riffs start as people jump up and down mumbling the notes. It’s got to be the biggest joy and validation when people not only know the words but also the notes of a specific song. Instant post-gig depression took over. Sleep’s repetitive riffing, colossal and magnificent sound gave us a complex spiritual journey into a primitive world of pure aural devastation.
After a quick run back to Camden and to the Underworld, and not being able to really grasp the magnitude of the entire concert, we went in to see last 30 minutes of Samsara Blues Experiment right in time to catch tracks such as “Army Of Ignorance” and “Double Freedom”, which were very well received.
So, after all the haziness has cleared, there’s no doubt about what a surprising life experience all of this was. We got to meet great people, see astonishingly good bands that we wouldn’t be able to see back home, play with stunning gear and equipment courtesy from Orange Amps and astounding technicians who supported the acts and the venues, and as Tom Petty said “I think the general public has no idea what roadies do. Bless ‘em all. I just play the songs.”. An impressive festival, no wonder why it catapulted itself to so many other countries, we will surely continue to root for it’s growing and development as one of the world’s greatest festivals.
Text: Alexandra Martins
Photography: Bruno Pereira
Edition work: João "Mislow" Almeida and Bruno Pereira