Due to Britain’s richest family pocketing £100 million from public funds to under-write some antiquated ceremonial cosplay verifying a system of hereditary power and elite privilege built upon theft, slavery and genocide, much of London is currently bedecked in red, white and blue, the colours of the Union Flag and the long-faded ‘Cool Britannia’ brand.
But not the northern edge of NW1. For running parallel to the pageantry, posturing and piffle, this weekend Camden is playing host to an altogether more egalitarian celebration, the 11th staging of DesertFest, the UK’s premier stoner rock, doom, psych, punk and sludge weekender. As a result, the spiritual home of BritPop is painted 50 shades of black.
FRIDAY, MAY 5
This means that while dissenting anti-monarchist voices elsewhere are silenced via legally-questionable arrests by the capital's institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic police force, on Friday night Bad Breeding paint an unhappy, inglorious portrait of modern Britain, a reality-based counter narrative to the media’s uniformly sycophantic commentary on the world’s most expensive tourism ad.
Bad Breeding, it’s fair to say, are not a band entirely attuned to the archetypal ‘Beards+Bongs+Bass+Booze’ DesertFest vibe. 'We are actively dissuaded from believing in solidarity and altruism by the ruling classes and the system of late capitalism that we live under,' runs one section of Atoms, an essay accompanying the vinyl edition of the group’s most recent album, Human Capital. 'The road ahead will be more treacherous than that already behind us… the desire of the wealthiest to preserve what they have hoarded will solidify and likely be enforced by violent methods.'
If holding such beliefs surely torpedoed the possibility of Bad Breeding receiving an invitation to perform at Windsor Castle this weekend alongside Take That and Katie Perry, they also mark out the Stevenage quartet as somewhat unlikely post-work Friday night party-starters. But the original Palm Desert scene grew out of punk rock-inspired DIY ethics and rebellious, anti-authority attitudes, and those descending into The Underworld are treated to one of the weekend’s most committed, passionate performances and a clutch of furiously uncompromising highlights from one of the finest, fiercest punk albums released last year.
Germany’s Kadavar are a much more ‘on brand’ DesertFest booking, and with the Electric Ballroom still buzzing from Church Of Misery’s well-received early evening set - a performance so well-attended that the full-to-capacity venue had to adopt a 'one in, one out' policy resulting in a sizeable queue up Chalk Farm Road - their appearance is greeted by roars of anticipation. Introduced by a tone-setting airing of The Beatles’ 1967 single All You Need Is Love, the Berlin group’s warm, fuzzed-up retro-rock sound is as welcoming as a bear hug from a life-long friend, and from the moment the rolling riff of Last Living Dinosaur kicks in, Kadavar deliver a set-of-the-day contender. The stomping mid-song breakdown in Come Back Life tees up the set-closing one-two of Doomsday Machine and a spacey, hazy Purple Sage, which successfully evokes the free-wheeling, experimental rush of London’s fabled UFO Club.
Back at The Underworld, a fired-up Discharge are a much spikier, nastier proposition. Given that Metallica, Anthrax, Machine Head, Napalm Death and many more have covered songs by the veteran Stoke-on-Trent punks - fronted for almost a decade now by New Jersey-born vocalist by Jeff 'JJ' Janiak - they’re a band that most metal fans, even if unfamiliar with anything beyond1982’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing, understand are influential. But tonight that seems to translate into lots of people showing up for 10-15 minutes in order to say they saw Discharge, rather than to actually watch Discharge, and the crowd thins out substantially by the time Decontrol closes the set. That said, if there was a wilder pit anywhere this weekend, we didn't see it.
Those who exited early in order to catch Graveyard at the Electric Ballroom may have regrets. A reliable regular fixture at DesertFest events in London, Berlin and Antwerp, tonight the Gothenburg quartet are polished, professional and - sorry - unforgivably boring. The likes of Bird Of Paradise and It Ain’t Over Yet are undeniably tasteful and classy retro blues jams, but when a former colleague wanders over to mutter, “It’s like watching Eric fucking Clapton”, en route to the exit it’s not intended as a compliment. Maybe it makes more sense when you’re stoned, but observed while stone cold sober the Swedes are decidedly heavy going, and not in a good way, and they close out DF ’23 day one in anticlimactic fashion.
SATURDAY, MAY 6
The following afternoon, back at the Ballroom, fellow Swedes Dozer show how it should be done. On the day that the legendary Frank Kozik, owner of their former label Man's Ruin sadly passes away, the Borlänge quartet's set serves as a mighty elegy. Released just last month, Drifting In The Endless Void, the group's first album in 15 years, might be their best yet, and given its UK premiere here, seven-minute-plus opener Mutation/Transformation is an absolute monster worthy of comparisons to Kyuss, while 'legacy' cuts Feelgood Formula, from 2003's Call It Conspiracy, and Born A Legend, from 2006's Through The Eyes Of Heathens sound more vital than ever. A UK tour is long overdue.
With OG Palm Desert vets Mario and Larry Lalli, formerly of Yawning Man, having initiated today's royal rumbling at the Ballroom with Fatso Jetson, North Carolina's Weedeater are the second of four US acts to grace the former dancehall's stage today, and arguably the most engaging. Following an opening three song barrage from 2011's Jason... The Dragon (see what they did there?) the trio delve deep into its predecessor, their 2007 Southern Lord debut God Luck and Good Speed, for no fewer than six songs, including a crushing Wizard Fight, their sludgy cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Gimme Back My Bullets and a set-closing slow and low Weed Monkey, introduced by Dixie Collins with the words, "I hope you fucking hate it just as much as I do." Marvellous.
Man cannot live on riffs alone, apparently, and the need to eat means missing out on Crowbar, but Corrosion Of Conformity swiftly dispel any lingering FOMO vibes. Having been forced to drop off last year's festivities, Pepper Keenan's band are clearly keen to make up for lost time, and their set is one of the weekend's strongest. Curiously, they choose to play nothing from their most recent release, 2018's rather fine No Cross, No Crown, but a focus on mid-90s classics Deliverance and Wiseblood was never going to disappoint. There's a welcome and unexpected run through Vote With A Bullet too, before a stunning, soaring Albatross and Clean My Wounds wind matters up magnificently.
Bailing on COC during their set closer to bomb over to The Underworld, Saturday concludes with Unsane sounding blunt, brutal and belligerent, exactly as desired. With limitations to scientific and technological progress meaning humans remain incapable of being present in two locations simultaneously, we've missed out on some prime cuts from Chris Spencer's reactivated noise rock trio - the likes of Maggot, Slag and Organ Donor from the NYC group's self-titled 1991 album being hurled out early doors - but Only Pain, We're Fucked and 'hit' single Scrape sound immense, offering reminders of how visceral and exciting New York's gritty early '90s noise scene was at a time when grunge was beginning to morph into arena rock.
SUNDAY, MAY 7
Based on conversations conducted and over-heard across the weekend, for many, Sunday at DesertFest was always going to be about one band: Boris.
While it's initially disconcerting to hear the word 'Boris' spoken minus its traditional suffix 'is a cunt', it quickly becomes apparent that much of the anticipation for the Tokyo trio's Roundhouse performance stems from the fact that no-one has the slightest idea what's in store. Festival sets are rarely an appropriate forum for experimentation, particularly when artists have 30-40 minutes to make an impression upon the curious and uninitiated, which results, understandably, in most acts delivering sets as predictable as Spurs' end-of-season trophy haul. But Boris' expansive catalogue - 29 studio albums, three of those emerging in 2022 alone, plus myriad EPs and collaborations - makes second-guessing their intentions impossible.
En route to The Roundhouse, which today replaces the Electric Ballroom as the event's largest venue, a stop off in The Devonshire Arms aka The Dev, brings a pleasing encounter with Edinburgh's Earl Of Hell, a likeable bunch with a quick-witted frontman, and hooks, riffs and grooves to burn in the likes of I Am The Chill and Hang 'Em High, the latter prefaced by some crowd-assisted 'Yeehaw!'s.
Boris, predictably unpredictable, are something else. It's genuinely heartening to see The Roundhouse so busy for a band so challenging, and those in attendance are rewarded with the set of the weekend. It's drawn largely from 2020's savage NO set and 2022's Heavy Rocks - not to be confused with the albums of the same name which Takeshi, Wata and Atsuo issued in 2002 and 2011, obviously - which, in theory, should make for a more 'conventional' show, but oh boy, where to start? Picking apart the 13-song set would be reductive as it's an all-in, immersive sensory experience, low drones merging into white noise into blast beats into delicately picked Japanese folk melodies into shoegaze fuzz: it's a lot. During Nosferatou, Londoner Holly Amber shimmers across the stage like a belly-dancing angel en route from Heaven to Hell, after which it seems pointless to do anything but feel the noise as it crashes and seduces and terrifies and soothes in turn. A remarkable performance.
It's to their great credit that headliners Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats are able to follow Boris without becoming a mere footnote. Drawing influence from '70s occult rock (Coven, Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult), The Beatles, Alice Cooper, vintage horror and B-movies, Kevin Starrs' band were such a breath of fresh air when they first broke through with 2011's Blood Lust, and it's tempting to wonder how big they might be now had former Rise Above labelmates Ghost not emerged from similar shadows around the same time. Whatever, with Rise Above boss/national treasure Lee Dorrian looking on, tonight the likes of 13 Candles, Death's Door and Ritual Knife are doomy delights, and a reminder of what a fiendishly under-rated joy the Cambridge band are.
Can we fast forward straight to DesertFest '24 now pretty please?