Famous for showcasing the best in doom metal, sludge and stoner rock, this year the Desertfest weekender brought Prog on board with an all-dayer stage at the Jazz Café. With our first band due on at lunchtime, we’d soon find out if Desertfest would take the weird and wonderful world of Prog to its bosom.
London’s Landskap open the day. Splicing Sabbath’s heaviness with psychedelica, their set proves why a prog stage is such a perfect fit for Desertfest. Their music sits within doom and sludge parameters, but singer Jake Harding’s clean vocals evoke the West Coasty croon of The Doors. Their early time slot means that the crowd reaction is always going to be reserved, especially if some audience members have had particularly late ones the night before, but thankfully this doesn’t stifle their energy.
Equal parts heavy and mesmerising, UK prog newbies Sumer exemplify how exciting the young prog scene is, their Saturday afternoon slot pulling in a diverse crowd, from metalheads to veteran proggers. With three guitarists onstage, there’s potential for an overload of sounds, but Sumer’s weighty and transportive post-metal is technically adept, expelled with enthusiasm and heartwarmingly presented with humble disbelief at the reaction they receive.
Next up are the poster boys of nu-prog, Messenger. High-spirited and with main man Khaled Lowe cracking jokes throughout, they bring their heaviest set today. As they play Somniloquist, the sizeable crowd experience the full range of Messenger’s sound that swings from waltz-time progression to a heavy riff crescendo that gives anyone in the crowd with longer hair a chance to stretch their neck muscles. The set closes in a psych frenzy, with drummer Gomez topping it all as he pulls a full-sized gong out from behind his kit.
Russian duo iamthemorning are the biggest gamble of the day with just a piano and cello in their weaponry. However, their set from beginning to end is beautiful. Marjana Semkina’s voice is so powerful and full of emotion that the crowd stand transfixed as she glides back and forth from the mic in her flowing dress. During Gerda and KOS there’s not a peep from the crowd who are both in awe of Marjana and enthralled by pianist Gleb Kolyadin. As they finish, many look rather disappointed that the experience has come to an end.
Sweet Billy Pilgrim might look like they belong in a Hoxton hipster haunt, but their jangly electro folk-pop has lured in the proggers while also appealing to the mainstream, as they were nominated for a Mercury Award for their 2009 album, Twice Born Men. Today as their usual four-piece expands to six, they let the music do the talking, and it’s one hell of a conversation. There is so much going on sonically in Sweet Billy Pilgrim, from 10cc to Prefab Sprout and even a country twang or two. But the glue that holds it all together is the dual vocals of bespectacled frontman and brainchild of the project Tim Elsenburg, and more recent addition to the band, American Jana Carpenter. Together, their vocals entwine beautifully, particularly during the jaunty Coloma Blues, a notable high point taken from their recently released new album Motorcade Amnesiacs, with its uplifting chorus. In the midst of the Desertfest chaos, Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s set is a refreshing livener.
When Prog put this bill together there was just one headline choice: Amplifier. Before their set even begins, the Jazz Café is packed, so much so that frontman Sel Balamir, while soundchecking, is encouraging the ever-growing crowd to move further into the venue to make room for the people gathering by the door. The quartet are the best-dressed band of the day, in their Octopus shirts and ties, and by the time the first note of Named After Rocky hits, everyone in the venue is nodding their heads. This is Amplifier on (Interstellar) overdrive, getting their Zep on massively, with a bit of Sabbath evilness thrown in for good measure. The performance is a joy to watch with core-shaking bass from Alex Readhead (at one point startling/deafening Sel) and tag team guitar solos from Sel and Steve Durose building on Matt Brobin’s phenomenal kitwork. Sel’s rifflord stompabouts are becoming Angus Young-mythical as he sizes up the crowd during Motorhead and Black Rainbow. Throughout their set, the energy of the audience matches the band’s continual ramp-up until Sel eventually jumps into the crowd to party with the punters.
With a dazed horde still lingering long after the lights go up and an 80s club night prepares to welcome a whole new crowd, we get an inkling that Prog might be back next year…