3rd May 2019
Review by: Ryan Whitwell
Photography by: Ryan Whitwell (Shotison.com)
Desertfest London in 2018 reinforced my love for all things doom/stoner/psych and this weekend would be no different as Camden Town’s best rock/metal venues hosted some amazing talent from around the world.
My weekend actually started on the Thursday before, drinking stout in The Black Heart with friends and saying “Hi” to the various faces I recognised from other gigs and previous Desertfests in both London and Antwerp.
Today would start with a hefty dose of high energy fuzz from Cheshire-based 1968 at The Black Heart.
Brilliant tone and shed loads of bass are a great way to start Desertfest, and that’s what 1968 offered. It’s always a good sign when the sound woman tells the bassist to turn his amp up! Very rare to have a venue wanting more noise, but The Black Heart was seemingly going all out this year and rattling plenty of eardrums! There was a great response from the crowd after each number I witnessed during the set. The setlist was a cracking one, opening with Expressway, Acid Wolf and Blackwing. I was actually a bit gutted that I had to run off after only a few numbers to see another act, a feeling I’d get quite often today!
Next for me was Blackwater Holylight, from Portland, playing at The Underworld.
The tone was a bit more chilled, with some smooth grooves and great tones. A few bigger sounds slipping in the mix too to keep the set from stagnating, although the look on the faces of the front row was evidence that the chilled tone was going down especially well. Lots of head nodding with eyes closed as the four women on stage delivered some very well worked music, making use of two guitars and a keyboard but never overdoing it. One person would later tell me they found them “mesmerising”, which I agreed with.
Stopping in on their European Tour with Cities of Mars, LA’s High Priestess worked really well with the Black Heart’s smaller space.
After the intro, the vintage rock toned three-piece went straight into Banshee, a number with a mix of big riffs juxtaposed with softer vocals. It’s a peculiar mix, but draws you in with expectation using brief pauses before the tones shift, from softer drums and vocals, to full ensemble with the occasional guttural scream. With the two string hitters Katie Gilchrest (guitars) and Mariana Fiel (bass) at either side, it was hard to ignore drummer Megan Mullins’ enthusiasm at the back. Hair flying and everything in full motion with some great expressions throughout, even during the softer phases.
A quick walk up the high street to Electric Ballroom for Portugal’s HHY & the Macumbas, a band I had not heard of before a photography friend at the festival mentioned them.
An experimental, jazzy vibe was present, with two drummers seemingly riffing off of one another amid some blasts of synths. Vocalist Jonathan Saldanha stood in front with his back turned and his signature mask on the back of his head. The opening number was lengthy, and Jonathan stood with back turned for the duration. Later in the set (as I was heading out to the next act) he would turn and commence adding vocals to the ensemble. The band offered a peculiar feeling, though not uncomfortable, but are hard to pigeonhole into any one genre. It’s stoner, jazz, dance, psych and probably lots of other things all rolled into one act, and it works.
Then it was time for a band I was really looking forward to seeing again. London-based Orbital Junction would be opening The Dev’s stage today.
I have been following this hard rocking four-piece for a while now and I am pleased to report that they absolutely smashed it at Desertfest! Loud, fuzzy, and energetic with some big hitting numbers in their high energy set. The venue was at capacity when I left, a testament to the growing fan base these guys are building. I would be spotting a fair few of their t-shirts in and around Camden over the next couple of days. The band had great energy, giving it both barrels to the packed and sweaty Dev. A new number, Mary Kelly, was a highlight for me as it was a bit dirtier, a bit fuzzier, and the subject matter makes it a bit darker too. If that new number is any indication of the direction these heavy stoner/hard rock slingers are heading, then I’m on board!
Back to the Electric Ballroom for London’s Grave Miasma.
A bit different for Desertfest, as these guys have a distinct death metal vibe. The skulls on the mic stand are a hint, but the sound confirmed it, with some furious fingers on running over the lead guitarist’s fretboard as he leaned out, headbanging over the photo pit at times. The aggression and intent from all of the members was pretty obvious, regardless of the festival’s name, these four horsemen were all too willing to bring a furious apocalypse of death metal to the Electric Ballroom!
A quick jog upstairs in The Black Heart to get a taste of London’s One for Sorrow.
Heavy as you like! I managed to squeeze to the front (just) and witnessed Joe Thompson screaming the vocals in very close proximity to the front row at the Black Heart. It was a superb effort from the singer, constantly leaning into every word and getting plenty of aggression out. Alas, I couldn’t stay longer, which is a shame, but what I saw was brilliantly heavy and had a fair amount of the NOLA tone about them.
A band I knew little about besides some interesting press photos featuring low riders and baseball bats, R.I.P had made the trip from Portland, Oregon, to play Camden’s Underworld.
Madness descended as the white gimp mask of R.I.P’s scythe-holding singer came out. A huge response from the packed out Underworld greeted them as they stepped on stage. The band themselves sounded great. Big, fast, no fucks given kind of attitude. Fuzzy as hell with an old school metal tone, the street-doom dealers delivered plenty for the crowd to move to. It’s doomy, but faster and looser if that makes sense? The fans loved it though!After the opening number, the singer removed his mask to pull some interesting faces as guitarist wailed on.
Colorado’s Wovenhand were next up, delivering their unique blend of Americana and hard rock to the Electric Ballroom.
With The Doors on the PA beforehand, it was a good mood-setter for what was to come. We had to wait as there was an issue with a pedal board, but once things got going Wovenhand proved to be a solid booking for the festival. David Eugene Edwards oozes that American mountain music vibe, but the music itself is harder to pin down. The set was solid, with a blend of country, bluegrass, hard rock and a touch of doom, it’s a great mix. They were a standout act on the day and from the way the Electric Ballroom had filled out I could tell they were a popular act as well. The vibe felt more like one of appreciation, with the front row intently listening to the music and taking it all in.
A change of pace next as Whoremoan were ready to rock The Dev.
Raucous hard rock from the Essex-based band, but all the best things are from Essex, innit. The Dev was packed once again, with plenty of headbanging and beer spilling as the band cracked on with some heavy riffs and big basslines. Nice and fuzzy, which was expected, but the tempo was perfect for those inclined to give their necks something to worry about with high energy headbanging, and there were a few that couldn’t resist. Very much a Fu Manchu vibe for me, which sounded and felt great in the tiny Dev.
A band I have wanted to see for years, Om, were about to play their headline set at the Electric Ballroom.
One word, “Yes!”. Big bass and riffs that are so heavy and slow that they’d have no trouble sinking the Titanic. I have been a fan for a while but this is my first live experience of Om.
Sporting his lovely Rickenbacker signature bass, Al Cisneros is a bit of a legend among the Desertfest collective thanks to him being a member of the awesome Sleep. The smell of weed made its way forward towards the photo pit as the massive vibrations made their way to the back of the room, resulting in a lot of nodding heads in the Ballroom.
The gentile sounds from Robert Lowe’s synth and keys gave a warm tone. I love the subtlety of those elements, nothing was overpowering, even Emil Amos’ drums were not abrasive. It all flowed together nicely and was a great way to wrap up the first day.
After Om, there was a bit of a wait before one more act took us past midnight. LA’s The Shrine would amp up the atmosphere for one last blast of heavy psych fuzz.
Playing as part of their current European tour, the fuzzy threesome brought bags of energy and attitude with them. I loved the stage presence and interactions between singer/guitarist Josh Landau and bassist Corey Parks (you may know her from Nashville Pussy). There are elements of that west coast sleazy sound in their tone, especially in the new track “Dance On A Razor’s Edge”, which adds to the raucous rock and roll attitude this band has. Great stuff!
So that was day 1. Two more days to go, with a lot of great bands and a few surprises in store!