Not being a fan of London whatsoever, it was going to take something special to leave my safe haven of Bristol. That thing came in the form of Desertfest. Don’t be fooled by the name, you won’t find any pyramids, camels or even much sand in the middle of Camden. What you will find are two things: tourists willing to throw themselves into oncoming traffic, just for the sake of having a few likes on Instagram, and the elite of stoner, doom and psychedelia coming together for a weekend of big riffs, big hangs and big buds.
Taking place across five venues – The Electric Ballroom, The Underground, The Black Heart, The Devonshire Arms, and a Brucie bonus of The Roundhouse on Sunday – it’s a very disorientating experience being in a festival situation with the general public carving their way through the centre of it. Mad props to the beat box dude outside though, who goes longer than all of the bands on the bill. Every time you swapped venues, he’d be out there doing his thing, whilst people gawp and again, try to get more of those sweet social media likes. Anyway, rant over; there’s a reason I braved Camden:
Grave Lines. Photo credit: Falk-Hagen Bernshausen
There’s nothing like a shot of misery to kick off a festival, and Grave Lines have it by the sack-load. An insanely bleak 45 minutes or so that leaves you feeling hollow and empty inside, they have some unfortunate sound issues throughout meaning you can only hear guitar for most of the set, but if you’re a fan of sloths playing Mastodon riffs then that is hardly going to be an issue. Their angsty performance leaves you feeling almost uncomfortable, with the droning riffs and the monotone, near terrifying vocals painting a picture of despair. It’s fucking heavy, and a great way to chuck Desertfest’s cold audience in at the deep end.
The Well would have been right at home on the soundtrack to Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, especially during Dr Gonzo’s botched toaster/bath tub suicide attempt scene. A stark contrast to what proceeded them at The Underworld, they replace those harsh greys with every bright colour imaginable. For the most part, their vocal harmonies are astounding; a welcome change from being yelled and snarled at for 45 minutes. There’s a point towards the end where their energy starts to wane, but considering they were detained by UK customs all night, you can hardly blame them, so top marks considering the circumstances.
The Well. Photo credit: Falk-Hagen Bernshausen
The journey from The Underworld to The Black Heart is nowhere near as adventurous as Bask, the band I make the short trip to see. The North Carolina natives are an amalgamation of sludgy riffs, vast soundscapes and blissful serenity; a real Jekyll and Hyde of a band where heaviness and ambiance coexist in a symbiotic relationship. My enjoyment is cut short as I have to bail (we’ll get to why later), but they make such an impression that they are possibly one of my favourite finds of the festival.
Decked out in war paint and tribal garbs, Vodun are right up there with local takeaway joint and general stomach-saviour King of Falafel as one of the highlights of the festival. Although lacking a bassist (legit heard someone whine about this), they sound huge, and make up for the lack of low-end with boundless energy and a deeply captivating presence.
Vodun . Photo credit: Jessica Lotti
Drummer Ogoun is like a mini Igor Cavalera, mixing solid metal foundations with a heavy tribal twang. She also sets her drum kit on fire, which is pretty rad, if a bit cheesy. Leading the procession, Oya, represents was would happen if you put Skin from Skunk Anansie in a Gundam suit made of soul, shamanism and relentless energy; she doesn’t stop once. Fair play for keeping it up for an hour or so; I for one don’t have anywhere near the required stamina levels for such a task.
Further afield than merely across the road this time, Dystopian Future Movies had just started at the Devonshire Arms when I arrived, and if it wasn’t for the cheery atmosphere, bright lighting and all round fun times, then this could have been something special. The band themselves are solid, capturing the very essence of dread, but this is more music for when you’re on your own in a dark room with a solitary candle in the corner; the setting really did them no favours, but with the cards they were dealt, they at least do enough to pique my curiosity upon my return to the south west.
My first foray of the weekend to the Electric Ballroom is for a band that epitomise the word ‘fuzz’: Lowrider. The entire set is like drowning in a sea of slow, stoner grooves; the effects are so addictive that one day you might find yourself selling your body just for another fix of those sweet sweet fuzzy riffs. Although I wasn’t the hugest fan of them going into this, the Swedes do more than enough to convince me otherwise, with the only bad point coming not from the band, but the guy who knocks my pint over my shoes and causes me to have a wet sock. Not many things worse than a wet sock; I guess being on fire is worse, but only just.
Slo Burn. Photo credit: Falk-Hagen Bernshausen
Closing out the day is the first of two appearances from John Garcia over the weekend; you know, the dude from Kyuss. Not unlike the aforementioned desert rock juggernauts, Slo Burn are that just-right mix of spacey riffs, crunchy tones and the soothing lullabies of Mr Garcia himself. Being a huge fan of his other bands – Unida, Hermano, and of course Kyuss (I’m sure there’s more somewhere) – I was great to see the man himself in the flesh, and he doesn’t disappoint.
There are very noticeable peaks and troughs throughout their time on stage though; the lows are quite monotonous and generic, but during the peaks it’s easy to see why they’re held in such high esteem. If I’m honest though, the whole rest of the set is just anticipation for when they play “Pilot the Dune“, at which point, the Electric Ballroom explodes like a nuclear warhead. It’s a more than fitting way to cap off day one of what was turning out to be a very special weekend indeed.
Check back for the lowdown on the rest of the weekend soom!