Desertfest London 2023
|Event:||Desertfest London 2023|
|Written by:||musclassia, omne metallum|
Musclassia: Desertfest is the pinnacle of the stoner/doom scene in the UK, and yet despite being a pretty major fan of the genre, I’ve only been once, and only for one day (back in 2019 to see Om). I was out of town in 2022 and had to miss a very decent line-up containing the likes of Elder, Earthless, Truckfighters, and a beastly final day main stage line-up including Electric Wizard, Yob, Conan and Dvne. This year, I was available, and was tempted by another solid roster of bands. Ultimately, I elected to get day tickets for Friday and Sunday, the appeal of NOLA icons Corrosion Of Conformity and Crowbar not prevailing over my need to be somewhat conscious of my spending at the present time.
The Friday also tempted Omne Metallum down to London, although our largely nonoverlapping schedules meant that we saw little of each other once the first bands started playing. The fact that I spent most of the Friday on the stage featuring the least stoner-ish bands might be a mark against my true desert scene fan credentials, but the range that Desertfest managed to offer was pleasantly surprising. With the same venues in use as for the likes of Incineration Festival and Deathfest, Camden ‘celebrated’ the coronation of a new king by bringing the noise.
Table Of Contents
Omne: Desertfest has many incarnations worldwide, having hosted some of the biggest names in the stoner/doom genres on both sides of the Atlantic. Its London incarnation has been running for eleven years now, taking place across the many stages situated within Camden. While this provided plenty of convenience for punters, I can't lie that it was a shock to the system to emerge from the laidback tones of some of the bands and right back into a busy metropolitan area.
Still, stepping out of the tube station I was immediately hit by the smell of reefer: ah, Desertfest was really here... no, wait, Camden normally smells like that, my mistake. While I was only attending the first of three days, I had plenty on my list and had been anticipating this for a while. After meeting up with Matt (who was to be doing two days this year) for a few beers, it was time to get to the music.
Musclassia: Desertfest happened on the same weekend that the UK decided to forget that we’re in a cost-of-living crisis and splurge its last few pounds on an event of questionable importance. Thankfully, the main event occurred on the one day I opted against attending, so there were no public transport disruptions to navigate when going to meet Omne for a pint or two before the first bands came on.
Terror Cósmico 15:00-15:45, The Underworld
Musclassia: First up were Mexican duo Terror Cósmico, whose record Miasma I reviewed last year. As stated at the time, the guitar/drum double act play stoner metal, but there’s plenty of other styles integrated as well, including sludge and extreme styles. There was one song with vocals on Miasma, but they either played it after I left or not at all, as everything I caught was instrumental-only. The set was mostly fine if unexceptional, but I did ultimately end up leaving the venue 10 minutes later than I had initially planned due to being captivated by “Tonalpohualli”, an excellent long-form jam that was remarkably compelling. I did still miss the last few minutes in order to get a good spot for the band on next, but Terror Cósmico made for a good start to the festival.
Omne: Opening the day's proceedings were UK debutants Terror Cósmico from Mexico, a two-piece instrumental group whose mix of psychedelic prog had a mixed reception. This kind of music requires a tight and on-point mix in order to allow the intricacies to be heard. Alas, the sound was hit or miss, which, in turn, meant the band were also. Luckily, the sound become more consistent the longer they played, to the point they were given a good send off by a pleased crowd as they finished their debut performance on these shores.
Spaceslug 16:00-17:00, Electric Ballroom
Musclassia: The announcement of stage times a couple of weeks before the festival brought the painful realization that my two most anticipated sets, those of Spaceslug and Kurokuma, would be entirely overlapping. Ultimately, I opted for Spaceslug, because a) I’d already seen Kurokuma 3 times; b) I hadn’t seen Spaceslug before, and was still salty over their 2020 show at The Black Heart being ruined by Covid; and c) on this Friday morning, Damnation Festival announced that Kurokuma would be playing there, giving me the opportunity to catch them later this year. I did still slightly regret missing them when I was subsequently informed by Omne that they had played their as-yet-unreleased sophomore album in full, but I was happy with my choice to see Spaceslug.
The first interesting discovery when seeing this set was that the hushed vocals that dominate their albums are actually performed by the drummer; the only time the guitarist stood up to the mic was for the harsh screams in the chorus of final song “Half-Moon Burns”. The vocals didn’t translate quite as well live as on album, and I did also find the music felt more typically stoner doom than I’ve found it to be on record, but I enjoyed this set plenty enough. I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of “Ahtmosphere” from the 2019 4-Way Split, but the set otherwise seemed to mostly focus on Lemanis and Time Travel Dilemma, along with a song or two from 2021’s Memorial.
Kurokuma 16:15-17:00, The Underworld
Omne: I was torn on whether to see Spaceslug for the first time, or to stay put and see a band who had yet to fail me live in Kurokuma. I chose the latter and was immediately rewarded when the band came on and announced "We've finished recording our 2nd album and we want to play it for you": hell to the yes! To say I was excited was an understatement, given my anticipation for a follow-up to my 2022 album of the year Born Of Obsidian. Playing a tight and powerful set, if this set was anything to go by, the new album is going to have sludge fans on their knees worshipping the band. The sole downside to this decision was that the audience was decidedly flat, wanting to hear and experience as much of this yet-to-be-heard music without missing anything due to moshing. This was solved when the band closed with the crushing "Sacrifice To Huitzilopochtli", when the crowd came alive.
It would appear my day had peaked early.
Wyatt E. 17:15-18:00, Powerhaus
Musclassia: This was the first of 4 sets I saw in the Powerhaus venue, a location I had never been to before (in either its current iteration or under its previous Dingwalls name), and it was one I had a lot of trouble finding, but thankfully I made it there before Wyatt E.’s set started. I had caught a snippet of them at Roadburn 2022, but had minimal memory of it, but I was so fond of Āl Bēlūti Dārû that it felt imperative to see this show. I was surprised when the band looked surprisingly casual during their soundcheck, given their costumes in promotional materials, but after the soundcheck, they got changed to be in the proper vibe for the set. I assume the set was just Āl Bēlūti Dārû in full, as it was composed of 2 long songs, and these tracks were captivating, heavy drone permeated by Middle Eastern melodies, all with a good enough live mix to balance the heaviness and the folksy ambience.
Valley Of The Sun 17:30-18:30, Electric Ballroom
Omne: Because change scares me, I was planning to be at the Electric Ballroom for the rest of the day, kicking off with Valley Of The Sun, who, though taking a while for the sound to gel (with the first part of their set having too much low end), hit their stride in convincing fashion once the mix cleared up. The band were on fire, and their desert rock vibes made up for the seven-year absence away from the UK. The first date of a month-long tour, the band should please fans old and new with their strong mix of classics and excellent new additions in tracks off of The Chariot. Ferrier made it look effortless, while Pilot was a ball of energy during cuts "Hearts Aflame" and "Devil I've Become". If there was one band of the day that should be bigger (with a sound that seems built for mass popularity), then it's Valley Of The Sun.
Musclassia: I only caught the final 20 minutes or so of this set, but it was enough to tell that the American group were solid pros on stage; I was informed by Omne that they encountered sound issues earlier, but those had clearly been resolved by the time I arrived, as the heavy rocking tracks came through with perfect clarity.
Earth Moves 18:45-19:30, Powerhaus
Musclassia: This was the portion of the afternoon where I had no one specific lined up to see, but went to catch Earth Moves on a friend’s recommendation. My tracker of bands I’ve seen informs me I saw them supporting Conjurer in 2019, but I must confess I don’t remember it at all. Their post-rock/post-hardcore/blackgaze sound was a smidge out of place for the festival, and that might explain why they had such a sparse crowd watching (it appears most Desertfest attendees were either watching or queuing to watch Church Of Misery, based on the one in/one out queue to get into the Electric Ballroom that Omne encountered), but as one of the few witnessing their show, I enjoyed Earth Moves quite a lot. It was a good mix of atmosphere and riffiness, and although they did have microphone issues that caused unfortunate frequent high-pitched feedback sounds (before the mic gave up altogether in the last song, the vocalist screaming the final lines acoustically), frontman Jordan Hill put a lot of himself into the set, prowling the stage with an anguished expression. I would definitely be game to see these guys again, and hopefully if it were at a more fitting festival (such as ArcTanGent), there would be more people watching too.
Church Of Misery 19:00-20:00, Electric Ballroom
Omne: After a break on the Electric Ballroom stage, on came Japanese doomsters Church Of Misery, whose brand of murder mysteries-meets=doom was something I was looking forward to. Apparently so was nigh-on everyone else at the festival, for the venue was rammed to an uncomfortable level. Deciding to play it loose, Church Of Misery lent into groove on cuts such as "Born To Raise Hell (Richard Speck)”, and had people bopping along as they blazed, I mean, haze. Deciding to continue the theme of airing as-yet-unreleased new material, the band tore through some killer cuts (no, I’m not ashamed of that pun) from their upcoming record that shows a lot of promise. The vocalist seemed worse for wear, but it befitted the band's less sonically static approach and helped add to the performance. A strong showing and one that ensured I got my full-on undiluted doom fix for the day.
After hearing those around me moan that the Ballroom was at capacity and was doing a ‘one in one out’ policy, I gambled on leaving Church Of Misery slightly early so as to eat some food and return just as they were finishing and beat others back into the venue. Alas, this worked out about as well as Quibi, for there was a big queue to get back into the venue once I had finished eating. Since I had no one else I wanted to see, I rejoined Matt and saw Sum Of R.
Sum Of R 20:15-21:15, Powerhaus
Musclassia: I saw Sum Of R at Roadburn 2022, and I enjoyed their set a lot, but I was suffering from fatigue, what with it being well past midnight when they went on stage. Here, not only was it at a far more suitable time, but I had the experience of knowing and enjoying their 2022 album Lahbryce, which I assume they played in full, since they opened with “Sink As I”. There were 3 people on stage (one less than at Roadburn) and none of them playing guitar, but what a sound they produced; the bass must have had an incredible pedal board going, since there was both meaty distortion and higher-pitched melodies coming from it. On top of that, the drum grooves were compelling, and Marko Neuman’s vocals outrageous. This was a spellbinding show, offering the same kind of hypnotic vibe as Dark Buddha Rising and Oranssi Pazuzu, but also delivering the same kind of compulsion to headbang furiously when the heavy grooves kicked in that Amenra accomplish with their own music. This was the standout show of the Friday, although I would later discover it to have stiff competition for ‘best of Desertfest’ with several groups on Sunday.
Omne: Sum Of R were, well, you know how punk came to be as a counter force to what was seen as pretentious prog? Well, hand me a leather jacket and call me Omne Ramone, coz I was desperate for some power chords. I tried my best to give it a go, but they weren't really my thing, sounding like an art student was let loose in a recording studio after ingesting Ozzy levels of psychedelics. I left around their third song.
Kadavar 20:30-21:30, Electric Ballroom
Omne: I had assumed Kadavar would be packed, so headed off to the Underworld to catch Discharge, but lo and behold! The Ballroom had no queue and I managed to get in to see Kadavar with only 1 song missed. I'm glad I did sack off Sum Of R, for Kadavar put on a blinding performance, with the sound, for the first time today, being perfect and the band on fine form. Tearing through a hit-packed set, the group were making their case for being the band of the day, letting the music do the talking for the most part, the likes of modern classics "Die Baby Die" and "Doomsday Machine" resembling what might have been Sabbath songs had they delved more into blues that drugs.
Year Of No Light 22:00-23:00, Powerhaus
Musclassia: The last set of the night I caught was a band I’ve already seen twice, Year Of No Light. A band I enjoy hugely on record, I had the same experience here as I did the previous times; it’s very impressive seeing so many people on stage and how they shift between instruments, and the sheer volume is powerful, but I do wonder if there’s perhaps ‘too many cooks’. With sometimes 3 guitars, bass, and electronics, there is a tendency for their songs to turn into an amorphous wall of sound live, a vague melody just about emerging from a muddy cacophony. It’s less of an issue on the really heavy songs (such as opener “Hiérophante”) or the more synth-heavy ones, but it does ultimately hold them back from being quite as extraordinary live as other post-metal powerhouses such as Cult Of Luna and Amenra. Nevertheless, it was still a good show, and a solid ending to the Friday for myself.
Graveyard 22:15-23:30, Electric Ballroom
Omne: Thanks to some archaic tradition on these Isles that one sperm must grow up to wear a crown, I had to leave Graveyard early owing to train timetables being altered. However, I hoped to make the best of it and enjoy what I could. The band strode onstage and enthralled the enthusiastic and packed audience with their blues-infused classic rock. "Hard Times Lovin" meant the band started off on one hell of a strong foot, keeping the vibe going with an early airing of "Hisingen Blues" and "Uncomfortably Numb". The sound was clear and the band in fine form, making the fact I had to leave early that much more painful; alas, I had to tear myself away after "Please Don't", which was ironic in its own way. Hopefully next time our paths cross I'll be able to stay for the full showing.
With that, my day and first time at Desertfest drew to a close. The day felt like it had flown by and it was hard to believe it was already time to leave, but I guess I was having so much fun that I lost track of time. Band of the day? Either Kadavar or Kurokuma for me, don't make me choose please.
Musclassia: Omne and I ultimately had very different days, pretty much avoiding each other after Terror Cósmico, save for a brief encounter for Sum Of R, who we responded about as differently to as possible. It was time for a day off before going again for Desertfest’s final day.
What can I say about Saturday? Not much, because neither of us were there!
After a day off to celebrate the king or whatever you’re meant to do on coronation day, it was back to Camden for the final day of festivities. There were less bands here I was set on watching, and there was the added complication of the Roundhouse making journeys between stages more arduous, but the allure of seeing Weedpecker and King Buffalo live for the first time was enough to get me out of the house again.
Blood Ceremony 15:00-16:00, Roundhouse
The first band playing on the Sunday was Acid Mammoth at the Underworld; I did watch their first song, but given how long the queue to get into the Underworld took, I left early towards the Roundhouse expecting a similar queue to enter for Blood Ceremony. As it turned out, even by leaving so early, I only got in at the exact moment Blood Ceremony went on stage; I also left here early, since I was desperate to see Weedpecker back at the Underworld afterwards and feared similar queues. I was perfectly happy to see only one song of Acid Mammoth’s pretty run-of-the-mill stoner doom, and while Blood Ceremony’s retro psychedelic doom/rock was more interesting, it still didn’t grip me enough to cause any hesitation in leaving after 3 songs. The sound was also a tad quiet, which didn’t help the relative lack of impact, although I did enjoy the flute solos from Alia O’Brien before I left.
Weedpecker 16:00-16:50, The Underworld
I’ve been a fan of Weedpecker for a decade now, right since their self-titled debut in 2013, but I had a hint of trepidation before my first time seeing them; this was mostly due to the upheaval in the line-up that occurred in 2019, and my muted response towards IV: The Stream Of Forgotten Thoughts, the album the newlook version of Weedpecker released in 2021. I needn’t have worried though, as this was a stellar show. The sound was incredibly clear, with every element coming through so audibly, and the instrumentals so lush and psychedelic. There were 3 songs from IV, which I hadn’t revisited in the build-up to this gig so that I could see whether experiencing them live would alter my perception if hearing them mostly untainted, and songs that I highlighted as weaker ones in my review, such as “No Heartbeat Collective” and “Big Brain Monsters”, sounded pretty great live. So did all the older ones, with tracks included from III (“Molecule”, “Liquid Sky”), II (“Nothingness”), and the debut (“Sativa Landscapes”). This set was an absolute pleasure from start to finish, and actually outshone Spaceslug’s performance on Friday, which I wasn’t anticipating before this weekend.
Everest Queen 17:20-18:10, Powerhaus
Everest Queen caught my attention when I was searching songs from bands playing in the empty slots in my schedule, and I’m glad they did so, as they were even more impressive live. Having missed Kurokuma on Friday, I got a very similar experience from the crushing, neckbreaking repetitive sludge doom these guys kicked up. This as a monstrously heavy set that was so viscerally cathartic; I ultimately left 15 minutes before the end to catch my other most anticipated set of the day, but I struggled to pull myself away from these guys in order to do so.
King Buffalo 18:00-19:00, Roundhouse
King Buffalo needed to be good to make up for the lost minutes of Everest Queen’s set, but damn if they weren’t just brilliant. The set drew mostly from their trilogy of recent albums, and particularly from The Burden Of Restlessness, which perhaps made sense for a stoner metal festival, given that it’s arguably their most consistently heavy album. There was also one song from Longing To Be The Mountain, but sadly no time for the 15-minute “Red Star” or in fact anything from Dead Star. The sound in the Roundhouse for this set was so much fuller than for Blood Ceremony, despite King Buffalo having one fewer members; both guitarist/vocalist Sean McVay and bassist Dan Reynolds chipped in with synths mid-set when needed. In terms of vocals, McVay sounded pretty much exactly as he does on record, and the guitars similarly replicated the magical balance of mellowness and heaviness that has made the band’s studio output so compelling. This was a fabulous hour’s performance, and the third outstanding set in a row.
Jo Quail 20:10-21:05, Powerhaus
I did see the first half of Jo Quail’s The Cartographer performance at Roadburn 2022, but this was my first time seeing her performing solo. I had some idea of what to expect after seeing a video of “Mandrel Cantus” live, but seeing one person producing so many different sounds from a cello, and managing to create such soundscapes by looping so many different tracks on top of one another, was very impressive in person. Quail’s music resembles neofolk, electronica and drone as much as it resembles classical music, and those portions of the song where all the different layers ultimately come together are really rewarding. She also had very pleasant stage chatter, and made this yet another great experience on the Sunday of Desertfest.
Big Brave 21:50-23:00, Powerhaus
I must admit by this point of the night, a combination of beer and fatigue left me slightly struggling to stay awake and focused. In some ways, the blaring drone of Big Brave was fitting for this state of mind, but ultimately I didn’t have the energy to make it through a whole 70 minutes of this set, waving the white flag after half an hour and going home. I did nevertheless enjoy what I saw of this show; much like at Roadburn last year, the drones themselves weren’t quite my thing, but when the drums entered the fray, their immense force (helped very much by the live production giving them so much presence in the mix) really transformed the appeal of the music, and demanded handbanging.
I’ve yet to do a full Desertfest, but I’ve gotten closer this time around, and the quality of so many of the shows here leaves me thinking it won’t be too long before I finally buy a full weekend ticket, assuming next year can offer up a similarly strong range of bands. The festival offered me the chance to finally experience bands live that I’ve enjoyed the records of for years, and also led to a couple of great discoveries, particularly Everest Queen. Questions can be asked about the queues at some venues, and whether the Underworld has sufficient capacity to serve as the second stage for a festival for which as many tickets are sold as for this one, but overall I’ve come away with very positive feelings towards Desertfest 2023.
||Written on 17.05.2023 by|
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