Desertfest 2017 at various Camden venues, London - live review

Sleep and Candlemass raise the rafters in Camden

Art for Desertfest 2017 at various Camden venues, London

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Sold out on its sixth outing and with a celebratory vibe spreading throughout Camden from its Black Heart locus, Desertfest is an object lesson in how to grow festivals organically, its ethos and spirit as much as a draw as the bands themselves. Colourful both visually and audibly, tribal rockers VÔDÛN [8] bring their enigmatic ritual to the Underworld’s early arrivees, blending exotic melodies with inventive percussion and intense, sludge guitars. At the Electric Ballroom, psychedelic French power trio GLOWSUN [7] expand their desert rock with lengthy instrumental compositions and pummelling distortion. STEAK’s [7] suspension-bearing riffs and Kyuss-styled grooves that seem determined to nudge all your pleasure centres feel like a distillation of the Desertfest vibe (not least due to Desertfest founder Reece Tee on guitar) as a packed Underworld roars its approval.

At the Black Heart, reality is about to dissolve into the almighty sensurround of resurrected noise crew TERMINAL CHEESECAKE [9]. With a guest vocalist from Pigs PigsPigs PigsPigs Pigs Pigs dressed in a onesie and holding his mic like it’s dripping retch-inducing Ayahuasca down his throat, the layers of reverbed repetition and seismic rupture of tracks like Blowhole eradicate all rational thought and pull an ecstatic crowd into their maw. LOWRIDER [9] are possibly the most charismatic showmen of Desertfest’s first day, showing off both classic tracks and cuts from their upcoming sophomore album with equal proficiency and power. ZOMBI [8] aren’t the most charismatic, but their 80s synth soundtrack, all sunsets over neon skylines, is an immersive precursor to the synthwave boom and sublime in its own right. Twenty years after debuting with the Amusing The Amazing EP, John Garcia’s SLO BURN [8] barrel through a confident Ballroom set that peaks with the crowd-popping classic Pilot The Dune.


Opening up the Black Heart on day two, BRULE [6], deliver a set packed with the quintessential stoner rock tropes, but offering little beyond that. The silhouetted figures of CELESTE [7] may lack overall dynamics, but their post-black squall is still epic and exhilarating, the LEDs on their foreheads making them seem like an astral construction crew drilling down into various strata of your psyche. If there’s any part of you left unquivering, INTER ARMA [8] are ready to mop it up, their gradual build to mammoth, pulsing riffs, dredged up from the deepest seams of the earth, have such a transformative effect you’d swear some long-dormant part of the brain has just been activated.

BLACK SPIDERS’ [9] Ballroom performance is a bittersweet affair. The sheer energy they bring makes them one of the weekend’s highlights, yet their brilliance only adds to the tragedy of their impending breakup. Despite totally filling the Black Heart so early in the evening, Welsh doom dispensers MAMMOTH WEED WIZARD BASTARD [6] play only half an hour of their allotted 45-minute slot, leaving the Ballroom rammed for the we’re-not-worthiness of JOHN GARCIA’s [8] own set. He’s in high spirits, performing a platter of solo stuff and Kyuss hits, punctuating the set with shout outs to his wife and a teasing “We don’t play Green Machine anymore,” before unleashing the Kyuss classic. SCISSORFIGHT [8] are in riotous form tonight with frontman Doug Aubin stirring the Underworld crowd into a frenzy while the band whip up a storm behind him with chunky bass riffs and masses of charisma.

The camp and comedic party rock of TURBONEGRO [8] initially feels incongruous to the Desertfest bill, but as their set progresses their catchy punk is a tonic for comatose minds while Brit Tony Sylvester spearheads Turbonegro 2.0 with a few “Bruvs” for the London massive and an absorbing whip-round of their best loved tunes.

Crushing stoner metallersBONGZILLA [7] headline the Underworld with one of the most despondent performances of the festival, wailing wildly over heavy, downtrodden guitars, while EARTH SHIP [7] close out day two on whiskey-soaked riffs that, while solid, become somewhat monotonous as time progresses and in the packed-out, hot room, it’s a little too much.


VENOMOUS MAXIMUS [7] and their groove-laden riffs fill out the already sweat-soaked Black Heart nicely, giving Sunday an injection of fun before ELEPHANT TREE [8] and their wicked sense of humour take over the Underworld. Heavy and melodic, the London-based band are engrossing and their setis given an extra boost by a cool little Black Sabbath cover. The apocalyptic assault of BOSS KELOID [7], helped by Alex Hurst’s savage vocals, pulls a one-in one-out crowd. An on-off project for Converge man Jacob Bannon, WEAR YOUR WOUNDS’ [7] cacophony soon settles into an engrossing, intense and rhythmic showdown fleshed out by a wall of soundscape guitars.

With Wino still barred from Europe, former vocalist Scott Reagers takes the reins for doom legends SAINT VITUS [6] at the Roundhouse, but aside from a muffled PA that renders all but the last few songs near-indistinct, his vibrato lacks Wino’s weathered gravitas, most noticeably on closing classic, Born Too Late. Pioneers of Cascadian black metal, WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM [9] follow, making a long-awaited appearance back in London and, while they seem a little out of place in today’s lineup, their tone is crystal clear and the vocals stunning. Their set ends too soon and many are left wanting more.

Despite their dark, crushing style, the masses of hair with MAMMOTH STORM [7] attached cause a commotion in the Black Heart, heads banging viciously to their visceral rhythms and doomy guitars. As bonkers as the band’s name, PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS’ [8] Matt Baty is a flailing sweaty amalgam of Mick Jagger and Barney Greenway, spitting out psych-driven squalls and jokes about Buckfast. Over at the Roundhouse, CANDLEMASS [9] are back to full, thunderous form. A full-throated Mats Levén proves that the search for a frontman to match Messiah Marcolin is finally over as classic tracks such as Bewitched and Cry From The Crypt resonate amongst an enthralled crowd. Meanwhile, YURI GAGARIN [8] let their instrumental mastery do the talking at the Underworld, blending technical solos with long compositions, combining to let the band border on the edge of prog.

Distilling everything that Desertfest stands for into a trailblazing sonic behemoth, SLEEP [9] fill the lofty Roundhouse with a dense, transcendental bong hit that climaxes midway with the titanic Dragonaut and guzzles every last drop of gas with the molasses shift of Cultivator/Improved Morris marking another chapter in the stoner legends’ legacy.

Desertfest isn’t over yet, though, as THE SAMSARA BLUES EXPERIMENT [7] range from a more blissed-out version of the festival headliners to languorous jams recalling Ancestors, but bolted to captivatingly sturdy grooves. DEAD LORD [9] are contenders for Thin Lizzy’s good time rock’n’roll crown and the Swedes close out Desertfest in terrifically fun fashion with frontman Hakim Krim a delight to watch, and the celebrations continuing late into the night downstairs at the Black Heart.