Various venues, Camden, LONDON
28th-30th April 2017
Review by Nathan Slack
Photography by Miguel de Malo
Additional photo by Carina Martins
Back in the late 90’s, when I first started to take the train into Kings Cross from Peterborough, Camden used to be awash with Goths, Punks and Metallers who travelled into the capital from all around to buy New Rock boots, corsets, band merch and legal highs. The weekends in particular saw hundreds of grebo’s fill Camden Town’s streets. We bought black nail polish from the Black Rose, that random but cheap CD downstairs at Resurrection Records, that Fear Factory shirt from Metal Heads and had Snakebite and Black from the iconic goth pub The Devonshire Arms.
A lot of things have changed in Camden in that time, Doc Martins have just opened up where the old Black Rose used to be for one, the Goth shops having pretty much gone the way of the legal high stalls. The sea of Goths and Metallers have been replaced with a tidal wave of tourists and the infamous Camden punks that used to loiter around the bridge, given ASBO’s and moved on. So it’s with great enthusiasm that I walk across the cobbles of The Stables and head towards The Black Heart for the start of Desertscene’s 6th offering of Desertfest London, passing fellow metal fans left, right and centre just like back in the day.
The brethren are definitely out and out in force today and I swell with pride and am genuinely excited to attend my first fest in the city where I live and at the amount of world class Doom ahead of me.
We may be spoiled when it comes to gigs… I mean… who doesn’t play London, right? But, in recent years we haven’t had anything that quite spanned 3 days apart from Desertfest.
This years event seems only to be bigger and better, moving from the glorious Koko to the one of the best music venues in London today, The Roundhouse. The old Astoria will always have a sticky place in my heart but its The Roundhouse that has to be my favourite venue to hear some ear splitting metal in, simply due to the awesome acoustics. You can’t argue with the lineup either with Bongzilla, Saint Vitus, Wolves in the Throne Room, Candlemass and Sleep ending the weekend in epic style.
That’s all ahead of me, right now it’s time for an early pint in The Black Heart before I catch my first band of the day, Grave Lines. Great beer on tap here as usual, particular favourites are the high strength Defender which puts you along the correct path and is a great first beer…and second and third for that matter but also Black Pearl a milk stout with coffee essence to give you a nice kick.
Wristbands on and suitably lubricated we mooch over to The Underworld for the start of Desertfest London 2017.
There’s a good sized crowd early on for Friday’s openers, the UK’s Grave Lines and the band seem grateful to all for turning up where most people might still be at work. They open proceedings with 2 of the best Sludge songs I’ve heard in a long time. Totally blowing me away with their track Drug Cold which has a slow dirty grind to it which reminds me somewhat of early 90’s Grunge turned Sludge band, Fudge Tunnel. That’s definitely a good thing and I recommend you go listen to Fudge Tunnel when you get the chance. They do move into a more faster tempo in later songs but it’s the slow doom that really shines here and makes me glad I came down early.
Back to the bar in prep for American Stoner 3 piece, The Well. Female singer and bassist, Lisa Alley’s long wavey hair hangs in her face as they sail through their tight set. Though nothing wrong with their style of Stoner Doom, to me it seemed nothing greatly spectacular or outstanding either. Personally similar bands like Blood Ceremony or Jex Thoth do it far better and with slightly more ingenuity and intriguing elements. It was packed though and their set never the less went down well.
We stay put for the follow up, Death Alley’s stand in, Blind River, not sure what to expect. What can I say about them.. I loved them. They instantly put me in a great mood and the lead singers infectious smile creeped across the room by their second song. More than a little drunk, I think they seemed to just be happy to be there and made the most of their short set. Upbeat Rock blasts out and I can’t help but enjoy their performance. If you find yourself in Barnet on the 15th of July, Blind River and fellow Desertfest band, Vodun are playing Metal Brew festival, a small but raucous out door event run from a local cricket ground. Check it out.
It’s time for some grub so leaving The Underworld with a squint we head down into the Stables for a medium rare Honest burger and beer. Set up now for the rest of the evening we head into a packed Electric Ballroom for 1000 mods. They have a great crowd in front of them that give a great response to their kind of slow tempo bluesy Stoner Rock. To be honest I don’t often find the acoustics that great in the Ballroom and the Americans leave me uninspired and didn’t cross me as anything special. Seems to me though that I’m perhaps in the minority.
It’s back over to The Underworld to catch Vodun, who are next and are one of those bands that I went into the weekend knowing nothing about. So it was with no preconceptions I watched them take to the stage. Covered in glowing day-paint and a multicoloured bandana the guitarist bursts into 60’s influenced rock mixed with psychedelia and more than a little bit of African tribal music. Lead singer, Chantal Brown, owns the stage and belts out track after track reminding me a little of Skin from Skunk Anansi in pitch and tone. By song 3 sadly, I’m starting to get a little desensitised and Vodun, though spectacular and totally not what I was expecting, start to feel more than a little samey and for me petter off in the latter half of their set. Great none the less but maybe changing tempo to some more downbeat songs might have broken things up more and allow Ms Brown to express her full vocal range.
Steak are up next and it seems a reoccurring theme that I just can’t seem to prise myself away from The Underworld. Several times over the course of the weekend I try to get into see a band at The Black Heart but sadly arrive much too late to be able to even get up the stairs to see them. So Steak it is then! Very familiar to the rock/metal scene in London the cock sure Londoners swagger on stage to a great cheer. Often seen with Orange Goblin this small band seems on the rise and have great potential to improve with every album. Been a while since 2014’s Slab City so come on boys! Don’t prove me wrong! They actually remind me of early grunge exports Bush in production and general style, with a hint of Paul Weller in singers voice. More Stoner sure but it’s there. Stand out track of the day is Rising, with it’s slow rumbling intro and soulful melody. It’s a treat to hear live and kicks off the first mosh of the weekend. Cracking set boys!
We leave them as they start their last song to get a good position for Lowrider back over in the Ballroom. The Swedish lot take to the stage and I’m there, front and centre waiting for something to kick-off. People start to move around me as if expecting a bigger sound or a faster tempo set and I was too to be honest. What we got instead was something that promised a lot but just didn’t deliver. Wether it was the poor acoustics or maybe they where just plain boring…but I quickly stepped out and decided to hang back more than a little disappointed at the clean cut Swedes who where just plain formulaic and dull. Rough bikers they ain’t.
On to the Dev to fulfil a promise to Night Shift Promotions to watch hard working Hungarian Sludge band Apey and the Pea play the free stage in the tiny venue. It’s a bit of a squeeze to get to the front and the band seem to be running very late into their evening set as I think just plain logistics of getting their kit in and through the crowd prove to be a real test. It doesn’t help that the ladies toilets are right next to the stage and desperate drinkers are pressing through the bands crew so they can take a piss. The band rise above it though and are true professionals and deserve to be far bigger than they are. They came on my radar in November last year when they landed a slot as main support for Stoner/Sludge legends Weedeater. People whispered about them then and where asking who the hell they were as they blew everyone away with tracks off their last LP, I am Hell. It’s the same tonight, newest single Slaves starts off the night and is one of their heaviest songs to date but its the more Down influenced tracks like Pothead and Abraham that still really shine here. Managed to linger afterward and chatted to the singer and told him that I was excited to see them again at the Underworld opening for Bongripper in July. If you’re thinking of catching that show I strongly suggest that you get there early and you wont be disappointed as they are far better in a bigger venue. Oh well… always next year right?
Sadly I was having so much fun with Apey and friends in the Dev that by the time we got back into the Ballroom, John and his Slo Burn/Kyuss not Kyuss band where just finishing up. Only managed to catch the last 2 tracks of their set unfortunately, but what I did hear sounded really great and the venue was packed to the rafters. It was a great first day, with great beer, great bands and good friends.
Nursing our hangovers we head back a little warily to the Underworld yet again to catch the first band on, blackened Doom band, Monolithithan, from Bristol. They play a great stripped back style with just one guitar, no bass and a female drummer to boot. Going into their set, I’m already a fan and its their track Sea of Trees that really shines here. Nerves and some tech issues hamper their set somewhat but their material is so damn good that they bring it home. Check out their new album, The Waning Moon.
I dash out for a quick bite to eat and quickly reenter The Underworld being greeted with a pitch black stage as French Blackened Doom band Celeste come on with red lights attached to their heads. Apparently they look like complete geeks in the light but manage to create an atmosphere with their uncompromising doomy black metal. They head bang through their set like Cyclops from X-men and pull no punches. I truly enjoyed their set and love how they can be opening for black metal bands yet still play a stonking set here at a Doom festival.
Inter Arma are another band that are a band of contrasts and not any one thing. I’ve heard some real proggy Doom from them but what I’m hearing tonight is Doom that comes across as a slow Death grumble with definite black metal influences too. I can see them opening for Asphyx, Grave or Autopsy and enjoyed them so much I bought some merch off them at their table afterward. I gave Paradise Gallows a listen, their last studio album from a year ago when I got home and have fallen in love with them. Give them a go!
I really wanted to leave The Underworld at this point to catch at least some of John Garcia at The Ballroom but the queue to get back in was pretty large and slow and Scissorfight were my main draw for the day. The cheeky stoners from New Hampshire stomp onto the stage in the UK for the first time in about 15 years I’m told and ever since they were announced to play here I’ve been loving their back catalogue. So it’s with great anticipation and excitement that myself and the rest of the expectant crowd greet them onto the stage. They blaze through their greatest hits and the crowd can’t quite believe that they are finally hearing these songs live. Tracks like Acid for Blood, Blizzards, Buzzards, and Bastards, Tits Up and We Ain’t Leaving. It’s the latter song that really shines as lead singer Doug Aubin barrels off the stage into the mosh pit which goes totally berserk. I’m proud to have been in that mosh and personally Scissorfight were the best band of Desertfest 2017. The band certainly enjoyed their performance too stating on facebook later that it was one of their best shows they have ever performed. I have nothing to compare it too but I can believe it.
Turbo Negro…they shouldn’t work at Desertfest but they so did.
Part Thrash, part grunge band you have to admire the balls of the events organisers putting them into a headline slot at a very historically macho metal festival. They certainly put on a great and slightly camp show, sadly I only caught a small portion of their headline set due to their clash with Scissorfight. I quirked an eyebrow at them on stage and smiled from ear to ear, before stumbling back to catch Bongzilla close The Underworld
Bongzilla Part 1
Bongzilla… they were very very f**king stoned man. Clearly off his face, the Sludge bands singer Mike “Muleboy” Makela tells the crowd that if anyone sees them walking around, to bring more weed so they can get high together. I can’t help but smell it as each track sludges into the next and it hypnotises you into a gibbering stooper. Lacking any melody what so ever they never the less put on a stonking show. We head home for the second time having gone way passed the hair of the dog.
Bongzilla Part 2.
More than a little battle wary we prise ourselves out of bed and head to the Black Heart for one last time. We try to get there early to catch a friends band, Wizard Fight but the rooms packed out and queuing down the stairs and into the pub, so one last pint of Defender it is then and a catch up with friends just out for the day.
We toy with watching Elephant Tree as I fear that Bongzilla might be too stoned to play but sticking with friends we trudge down to The Roundhouse where a lot of people are camped out for the day. We hear Greenthumb early on in their set and it’s still their best song. Their set sounds immense coming from a mountain of orange amps and my fears seem unfounded. For some reason though their set finishes 15 minutes early… maybe they where just very very very f**king stoned man!
The main draw for today, Wolves in the Throne Room, Beltane Tour reaches Desertfest. An interesting selection yet again but you can’t deny that they are world class at what they do. It’s with great pretence, with banners, smoke machines, moody lighting and burning incense that WitTR take the stage. I’m prepared to be transported to another realm of existence and they don’t disappoint.
Unfortunatly we are damn hungry at this point and head to The Stables for some awesome streetfood by the canal. Back in the day this area was under used and just sold brick a brack so I guess not all change is bad! So yeah whilst Saint Vitus were on stage we were stuffing our faces sadly. But as our friends said, Saint Vitus without Wino just ain’t worth bothering with, so there you go. We do head back in for the start of Candlemass’s set though.
Maybe it was just me..more than a little desensitised by this point and damn tired but Candlemass were more than a little disappointing and sounded a little flat. A shame but others seemed to really enjoy them so maybe I’m wrong, maybe my bed was just calling me at this point, but no sleep till after Sleep, right?
Sleep, they headlined last year too so a few people are perplexed to see them back in their old slot yet again but they are in definitely capable hands. The wall of sound emanating from the massive stacks of amps makes you feel the music as well as hearing it. As my wife turned and said to me… I can feel it in my nipples… lucky her, but I get what she means. The waves of rolling riffs from Sleep’s repetitive songs keep hitting you in the chest over and over. It’s the best sound I’ve ever heard at The Roundhouse and everyone goes nuts as they twang that Dragonaut riff.
It’s a glorious end to another awesome weekend of the very best of Doom, Sludge and Stoner. Long may it continue breathing life back into Camden Town and see you next year!