Desertfest London 2014

author AP date 06/05/14

Normally, our festival features tend to begin with a lengthy preamble detailing the look, feel and atmosphere of the festivities, as well as the available amenities. But as it turns out, Desertfest London is a festival only in the sense that a large assortment of genre specific bands have been bundled up across three days, playing concerts at three venues (the Black Heart, capacity 80; the Underworld, capacity 500; and the Electric Ballroom, capacity 1,000). Arriving in Camden Town in north central London, there is little here to suggest that a festival is even taking place, apart from the signage hovering above the entrance to the Underworld, the makeshift ticket/press booth inside the World's End pub situated above, and the assortment of showcases and signings going on in the Vans Store.

Not knowing what to expect then, it is admittedly a little disappointing to find a near-total lack of a canvassing atmosphere, so we decide it's up to ourselves to make the weekend about more than just watching bands - and so we quickly delegate the Black Heart's downstairs area to act as our hub given its excellent assortment of beers (the other two primary venues offer little beyond the usual selection of watered down piss); and it is here, crowded around a small round table we spend our breaks people watching, pouring pints into our bellies, and conversing.

FRIDAY, APRIL 25

Rewind. As my Revolution Music colleague and I are about to board our SAS flight bound for London Heathrow at Copenhagen airport, a dry voiced announcement lets us know one of the sun shields in the cockpit of our Airbus A320 is malfunctioning, and that the pilot refuses to fly the aircraft in that state. Alas, the 40 minute delay this induces, as well as the additional delay introduced by the heavy air congestion around Heathrow airport, necessarily means that our plan needs re-writing: there is simply no way that, given the hour's Underground transit to Camden Town, we are able to make it in time to watch Sasquatch and Zodiac as planned; instead, having collected our press passes painlessly, we quickly seek out the closest pub and feed ourselves a pair of soggy, disgusting burgers.

Ed Mundell's Ultra Electric Mega Galactic

Here we rendezvous with Rockfreaks.net's British photographer Lauren Harris (whose work adorns this article) as well as former writer and current web designer Nick 'NB' Bishop over a pint, before heading into the Electric Ballroom to watch Ed Mundell's Ultra Electric Mega Galactic - an instrumental stoner/psychedelic/space rock trio formed around Mr. Mundell on the drums, whom you may recognise as the guitarist of Monster Magnet between 1993 and 2010. Awash with green and purple visuals, the performance is not as focused on Mundell's proficiency behind the kit as you might expect, with lengthy freestyle jams full of massive riffs and trippy solos (courtesy both of bassist Collyn McCoy and guitarist Rick Ferrante) instead dictating the proceedings. McCoy's full immersion into this tradecraft, as well as his strange yet cool, aquatic solos; and Mr. Mundell's excellent percussion keep us well entertained until the clock strikes 21:15, and we're off to see the next band. [7]

That, it turns out, is not The Machine as intended. Upon entering the Underworld, we are told by security: "They're cancelled. Until midnight. Still at Gatwick airport. Playing at the Electric Ballroom." Fair enough, and so we head into the upstairs area at the Black Heart instead to catch Swedish retro-proggers Horisont; the room so jammed with people it's one in, one out we are told, and the temperature in there so high Ms. Harris can't get one shot before her lens has fogged up. Nonetheless, the Swedes are putting on one hell of a show - a far cry from their Copenhagen show 10 days earlier - with vocalist Axel Söderberg especially sounding absolutely phenomenal in the likes of "Writing on the Walls" off last year's "Time Warriors", aired early. There's a different level of intensity to these proceedings, conjured by the sweltering heat, the psyched audience and the band's own burning desire; and with a sublime sound mix that affords a great, heavy presence to Magnus Delborg's bass grooves without compromising on the rich, Maiden-esque melodies of Charles Van Loo & Kristofer Möller; there's little here to hinder a stunning display of vintage rock brilliance. [8]

Next on our agenda is the coveted opportunity to experience the re-united iconic stoner/doom trio Spirit Caravan, whose most celebrated member is of course none other than Scott 'Wino' Weinrich (most notably of The Obsessed & Saint Vitus) on guitar & vocals. Backed by what looks like the visualisations from Windows Media Player anno XP, they're busting out some of the most quintessential stoning music in existence with a performance also deserving of that label. It's not long before Wino has ripped one of his signature solos to finish off a song and asking whether "anybody's got a joint?"; an enquiry promptly answered by one such illicit roll landing on stage, and Wino telling us they'll "take a little smoking break". The man looks positively badass with his bare torso, bulging beer belly and rustic Indian style leather vest as he sucks the weed out of the thing, and even more so when he and his compatriots Dave Sherman (bass & vocals) and Henry Vasquez (drums) are producing one searing Southern groove after the other. In terms of the performance, Spirit Caravan look somewhat drowsy, but then the slow burning nature of the music not only justifies, but also requires it. I suspect better familiarity with the group's back catalogue would make the experience that extra notch better, but it's certainly not with frowns on our faces that we head out to the bar following the surprisingly driving rock'n'roll banger which finishes the set. [7½]

Scott 'Wino' Weinrich of Spirit Caravan

Following a 20-minute changeover, The Machine's 'canceled' performance then begins, the Dutch trio's ballsy, no frills approach to heritage rock instantly reminding me of The Socks. This is simple, hard-hitting rock music awash with nostalgia with the power to capture a crowd, but above and beyond that the music does little to sweep me off my feet - and it is certainly not up to par with the French band just mentioned. The Rotterdam based trio - comprised of drummer Davy Boogaard, bassist Hans van Heemst & guitarist David Eering - look a little misplaced on a stage this size, and despite especially van Heemst's visible enthusiasm, the whole thing goes down as rather forgettable, all four of us agree. [6]

SATURDAY, APRIL 26

Kjetil Nernes of Årabrot

The day begins with a feverish hunt for bacon near Finchley Road, where we are all kindly accommodated by Mr. Bishop, to quench our pressing hunger. Never go to a supermarket in that state: we return with much more, including croissants, chocolate mousse cake, yoghurt, berries and, importantly, beer - a breakfast of champions, and a worthy start to the lengthiest day at this festival. We arrive in Camden Town just in time to catch Norwegian Spellemannprisen (that country's Grammy equivalent)-winning avant-garde metal/noise rock group Årabrot cooking up a storm at the Underworld. In stark contrast with their Copenhagen show last year guitarist/vocalist Kjetil Nernes is not bare chested, nor is he wearing the scalp of a buffalo; he is instead clad in what looks like Amish gear, which is an excellent fit to the nature of this festival, and no doubt a very meticulously selected outfit with that in mind. The volume is hair-raising as is customary to Årabrot, and the clarity of the sound mix allows the band's Cancer Bats/Every Time I Die-esque tendencies to bleed through the harrowing wall of sound; just as it affords a nice presence to electronics/backing vocalist girl Stian Skagen's deranged flute bits. Årabrot are out to be as noisy (bassist Emil Nikolaisen, for example, spends most of the set facing his amps to generate additional feedback) as they are a powerful live presence, and I must admit to falling head over heels for it on this second occasion. A strong start to this sunny Saturday. [8]

Jason Shi of ASG

There's a bit of time to catch some of ASG's performance at the Electric Ballroom next, but discounting the colourful lighting to which this venue's psychedelic visualisations so heavily contribute, the performance differs little from that which I saw in Copenhagen 9 days earlier. ASG's assortment of heavy riffs continues to impress, but it's their seeming inability to pen a truly memorable song that irks me to no relent. They're fine performers though, and when they do hit their stride in one of the many instrumental passages, or in the chorus of "Blood Drive" (the title track to their most recent album), it's hard to berate them too much. [6]

Some 20 minutes later we're upstairs in the Sauna again, watching Wizard Fight, whose moniker has led us to expect robes, staffs and… well, wizards fighting. In truth, these Hastings natives have no such gimmicks; the trio derives its name from the Weedeater song with that title, and plays incarnate stoner rock with no frills or fanfare, rocking as though in a drug haze in these sweltering confines. Slow, deep grooves and a dazed demeanour are their trademark, and although such tends to sit well with me (and indeed seems to sit well with the 60-strong crowd gathered upstairs at the Black Heart), there's little here to inspire a wow - least of all an epic wizard fight. Not bad, but not enough to glue my feet to the ground. [6]

Hans Eiselt of Samsara Blues Experiment

Instead, we head downstairs for a pint of IPA and, in Ms. Harris' case, some glowing blue sludge which looks every bit as radioactive as it tastes; then stop briefly at the Vans Store, where select members of ASG are grinding out a showcase; before trotting over to the Electric Ballroom once again to catch Samsara Blues Experiment, whose music, despite what their name might imply, is surprisingly straightforward and hard-rocking. There are extensive space odysseys infused into the proceedings, too, of course (after all, without some sort of acidic, trippy or stoning bits they wouldn't be playing at this festival surely), and with no direct light on the band members, the colourful swathes of background lighting coupled with the profuse usage of wah-wah and flanger by guitarists Christian Peters & Hans Eiselt, one is pulled into the hazy jams. This is good, evocative stuff, and the band, completed by drummer Thomas Vedder and bassist Richard Behrens are rocking out sufficiently to keep our eyes peeled as well. Extraordinary, though? Nope. [7]

Following a fix of bluesy, psychedelic rock, it's then decided it's dinner time, and, still reeling from the horrific quality of our burgers the evening before, we're determined to improve our opinion of British burger craft by sampling another exemplar at the Diner - just around the corner of the pub where our hunger was so dismally quenched yesterday. Our munchies quelled, and our thirst for microbrewery beer quenched, it's time to head into the Electric Ballroom once more to see Wilmington, NC's Weedeater - one of the primary draws at this festival for me personally. They're set up in an unorthodox way, with session drummer Travis Owen positioned in the centre, his side to the audience; and guitarist Dave Shepherd & bassist/vocalist 'Dixie' Dave Collins on either side. Why Owen is not a permanent member of the band baffles me, but if this is an audition of sorts, then surely he will be soon. The man is a raging maniac, starting the set by throwing his hi-hat into the audience by attempting to hit it with his foot; and then proceeding by slamming his drums so hard you're surprised they don't need replacing several times during the 45-minute set - all this whilst flipping and throwing his sticks around in best Ray Luzier fashion and never losing one.

Weedeater

His antics make for quite the spectacle, whilst Dixie's own intrigue stems from his constant swigging of Jim Beam and the resultant gravelly growling whilst looking like Baroness' John Baizley on acid. Indeed, besides looking like Baizley, Dixie exudes the same sort of authority from the stage, which only lends to the trio's collective power. The sound mix is loud, clear and heavy as fuck; the lighting is simple yet effective; and with ASG's Jason Shi and Wino joining in on cameos, Weedeater's performance borders on the otherworldly. Especially the take on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Back My Bullets" featuring Wino on additional guitar turns into a stoner metal piece of the highest calibre, and with the exception of Shepherd, Weedeater are doing some serious rocking out, cementing this as one of the consummate highlights of Desertfest this year. [9]

In between, we decide to go to the Underworld to see what all the buzz surrounding The Body is about; and following 10 minutes of atmosphere building, ominous samples, the American sludge/doom/industrial metal duo comprising guitarist/vocalist Chip King and summer Lee Buford proceed to baffle us in just one second with music that, in all honesty, sounds like torturing a cat. We are so dismayed and annoyed by this anticlimactic farce, that we leave after one minute, and so I will leave my grading of this abomination out and focus instead on the evening's last act:

Kvelertak are, for all intents and purposes, the odd one out on the Desertfest bill, as although stoner metal certainly plays a role in their music, their energetic, punk fuelled black'n'roll is in a league of its own here. I'm not going to complain of course, as their unadulterated energy adds a new dimension to these festivities. It's all textbook Kvelertak: to the tune of "Åpenbaring", vocalist Erlend Hjelvik emerges on stage with a stuffed owl with glowing orange eyes on his head, before "Spring fra livet" next delivers the explosion of energy for which this band is so renowned in the live setting. Kvelertak are the liveliest band at Desertfest yet, just as their audience (a lot of which looks to be one-day ticket holders) is the craziest, and guiding us through a selection of the best material from both of their albums, Hjelvik looks like a man possessed as he ploughs from one side to the other and stands on the hands of the audience during "Offernatt".

Erlend Hjelvik of Kvelertak

Witnessing the exhilarating response from the audience, Kvelertak look positively stoked, with finger playing guitarist Bjarte Lund Rolland's ecstatic expression giving their enthusiasm away. There are loads of other musicians watching from the side as well, which is a testimony to this band's success, the respect they now command in the metal community, and the gold vein which they've hit with their unusual mixture of genres. As ever, there's so much to talk about - from guitars flying through the air to Hjelvik waving a massive flag over our heads; to the enormous moshpit which rages on for the entire duration of the set and the wall of death which takes place during "Tordenbrak"; but above all it's this sense of togetherness that a Kvelertak show is all about that proves most impressive tonight. It's a powerful, if a little routine-like showing from one of the best bands in metal right now, and a fine ending to day full of excellent performances. [8½]

SUNDAY, APRIL 27

Gabriele Fiori of Black Rainbows

Day three: our morning bacon consumption is through the roof, with 16 rashers of the Danish divided between three of us, and signs of wear and tear from two days of festival going are beginning to manifest themselves. No matter, we're off in the early afternoon to grab a few drinks at the Black Heart before the day's first act: Black Rainbows. Their low-resolution projected backdrop initially has me mesmerised, but my attention soon turns elsewhere when it dawns on me that not only does the Italian trios's music go hard - they're also an extremely lively band to watch, with vocalist/guitarist Gabriele Fiori headbanging and brandishing his instrument like he means business. Very rock'n'roll. Although the opening riff to the group's second song sounds curiously similar to Puddle of Mudd's "Control", they really play a mixture of psychedelic rock and stoner metal, full of fuzz and riveting heaviness. It's a good way to start the day to be kicked into gear like this, and as such I feel energised as we head to the bar to await the next band to play here at the Electric Ballroom. [8]

Anthony Meier of Radio Moscow

As Radio Moscow take to the stage they appear just to be a slightly younger version of the previous band: three members - no surprise at this festival - with stock visuals and mundane lighting. However, as they start to play, the differences become clear enough. The woven waistcoats, long hair and long solo jams conjure quite a Woodstock vibe whilst the music itself is a very pleasing throwback to the ‘70s, many of the numbers commencing with bluesy opening riffs and minimal, sometimes Clapton-esque, vocals before launching into long, fully psychedelic rock spectacles. The band look fittingly relaxed on stage, as Parker Griggs and Anthony Meier, whose bass is given ample space to shine in both the mix and the arrangement, trade appreciative glances mid-jam. The audience, on the other hand, might as well not be there for all the attention they get. [7½] NB

Hideki Fukasawa of Church of Misery

We head over to dine at a French restaurant who have some steaks on offer, where we jokingly discuss who from the Rockfreaks.net staff should sleep with whom, before Elder's 7pm performance at the Electric Ballroom. By this stage in the afternoon, there’s a fairly large audience inside, though not yet approaching the crowd accrued by Kvelertak the night before. Elder starts to woo the masses with a set that swings between the haunting soundscapes of Opeth (minus the vocals) and a “Crack the Skye” era Mastodon groove and atonal vocal style. Though the trio is slightly awkward on stage, and the stage lighting is, if possible, even more pedestrian than before, this is a much more energetic affair than we’ve seen so far on Sunday. Even during some of the more technical licks, guitarist and vocalist, Nick DiSalvio, headbangs along and the other band members seem to be having a blast. The audience rewards this and there is a good reaction when the band reveal a new song, featuring a rather beautiful passage towards the end, which alternates a soulful high-pitched solo with a very simple chugging groove. So far, it’s the most enjoyable act of the day (since the spectacular morning fry-up, at least). [8] NB

Church of Misery have impressed me both times I've had the pleasure of watching them, but these occasions have been in more intimate confines than those offered by the Electric Ballroom. The Japanese quartet is not suited to a 1,000 capacity venue, it quickly turns out, as all of their intimacy, and most of their intensity is lost in this larger room. It certainly does not help, either, that a lot of their signature groove is lost beneath oceans of bass, meaning that brilliant tracks like "Brother Bishop" lose much of their riveting character. They look cool as ever though, bassist and longest standing member Tatsu Mikami slinging his instrument so low it's almost touching the ground and striking its chords with violence; Junji Narita pounding away at his kit; guitarist Ikuma Kawabe trying his best to penetrate the thick mix; and vocalist Hideki Fukasawa sporting a belt buckle with all the semblance of a chastity belt as he sways from side to side like a man lost in his music. After I've attended to our injured photographer, who has been unfortunate enough to have a door slammed in her face, the sound has admittedly improved. But the performance still lacks that sweaty intimacy I'm accustomed to from this band. [7]

Takeshi of Boris

A drink and a chat later, it's time for Japanese cult icons Boris to close the program at Electric Ballroom - and they do so in some style. Armed with undoubtedly the best light show at the festival - swathes of blue, red, purple and turquoise dancing behind the band who appear as silhouettes, Boris look every bit as enigmatic as their reputation would have them, and were it not for drummer/vocalist Atsuo Mizuno's constant "Wooo!" exclamations from amidst the darkness and smoke undermining their heavy credentials, they'd be one of the most elusive, mysterious rock band's I've ever watched. I have seen them before but sadly I don't remember much from that occasion (it was at Roskilde Festival one time), so I am not entirely unsurprised to find the band's music is actually not the doom ridden drone I was expecting, but rather, straightforward heavy rock of a rather trippy character. Guitarist/bassist Takeshi Ohtani looks awesome as a silhouette, wielding his customary double-necked instrument (one is a bass, the other a guitar); and the music, lights and atmosphere of this show have me spellbound from beginning to end. Fantastic stuff; and an excellent way to conclude this festival weekend. [8]

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