Saturday 4 May 2013

Lost in Riffs: Desertfest 2013

Last weekend I spent a hell of a heavy weekend in Camden. Saw some amazing bands and drank some terribly terribly expensive cider. I've never been to Desertfest before - but I adore the genre (s). For those who don't play the genregame the bands at Desertfest fall between riffy hard rock (stoner rock) and all-out face busting heavy heavy heavy heavy metal that is very heavy (doom/drone/stoner/sludge metal). Call it what ye will - most bands on the bill are irresistible, irrepressible and amazing. My travelling companion and fellow riffeater was Aidan Barnard gentleman of Bristol town and artist.


We missed Bristol's own Turbowolf - erring on the more danceable edge of the spectrum I'm sure they would've been a hoot but given they're local the time will arise to check them out on home turf. After getting our wristbands and such we discovered the Electric Ballroom. I've never been to Camden - so it was all completely new to me, as were we ourselves to the people at Camden market who probably didn't expect to be surrounded by so many beards (author excluded sob). The Electric Ballroom was our first port of call, just to scout it out more than anything. Very interesting venue altogether - the large balcony above the stage was grand and afforded amazing hassle-free views of the stage if you couldn't be bothered to get into the scrum. What was the deal with the man in the bathroom handing you paper towels, though? Awkward. We hadn't intended to see them but House of Broken Promises were playing - formed out of ex-Unida members they were livelier than they sounded on record but nevertheless came across just like a radio friendly "hard rock" band not terrible but not very Desertfesty.

We then scooted over to the Underworld - which has amazing sound and is a dyed-in-the-wool snakepit of a venue. Terrible facilities, beautiful performance space and the kind of prices that makes your wallet want to die. Two pints for just under £9? I COULD WEEP. Anyway - we managed to see a good half of Abrahma - heavy psychedelic riffing from Paris but the singer was a little weak. Not bad though would certainly see them again.

On the lead up to Desertfest I listened to all the bands playing and Lowrider were easily one of my favourites. Essentially picking up where deserty bands like Kyuss finished in the late nineties they came out with one phenomenal album and split. Reforming exclusively for Desertfest they were top of my list and so I rushed over to see 'em at the Ballroom. Unfortunately the sound was cock. Which is a bit of a bummer really - as they themselves played magnificently. Let's... uh... hope they exclusively reform again?

After AN INCREDIBLY SPICY FALAFEL at a place just next to the Underworld we drifted into see Pagan Altar. One of the older bands there - they were culty, very British and a little flaccid. Everything was a trifle nwobhm and I found myself scuttling off and leaving Aidan to it.

I don't remember how or when exactly I got into Dozer but I've been listening to them for years and years. Swedish epic stoner metal with astonishing catchiness I love 'em to pieces. Again exclusively reformed for Desertfest I got in early at the Ballroom and planted myself right at the front. Amazing from beginning to end it was just brilliant to finally hear it live and the crowd seemed stuffed with people who were equally as enthusiastic as me. More than an hour of it would've been marvellous. Unfortunately due to bollocks timing I missed out on seeing Wo Fat at the Underworld afterwards but Aidan managed to catch the last quarter and said their blues-infused riff doom boogie blew up the Underworld. Not literally. That would be horrible.

We moseyed back to the Ballroom to catch a bit of desert rock legends Unida who, whether through genuine lack of spice or our worn-down riffglands after the day (surely not) but they just didn't spark much interest in us - so we retreated to the balconies to watch the heaving crowds from above and convalesce. On the Sunday a bandana'd Geordie called Luke asked me quite directly if I thought they "seemed bored" on stage - I said I thought it was John Garcia's "thing" to be motionless throughout and Desertfest was lucky to have him sans giant sunglasses. I'd seen him with the unbeatable Kyuss moons ago but his inactivity worked for them then...

We drifted back to the Underworld for a glance at Ufomammut who turned out to be one of the highlights of the day, if not the weekend, if not the year, if not etc. Full to the brim the room was humming with noise, the long slablike riffs melted into the air and everything was bathed in red light and sound. Deeply meditative - from a higher vantage point you could see everyone nodding in slow perfect unison. It's the closest I've got to profound religious (riffligious?) experience - an entire room enraptured in an overwhelming fog of drone generated by three awesome Italians. More of that. Need more of that.

We didn't get into the last band Bong as the huge queue to the afterparty seemed to take forever to shorten. When we finally got in - The Black Heart had sold out of decent booze and it was too crowded to move. We did meet John though. Not sure who he was but his Swedish friend ranted to me about how appalling the music scene was in Sweden despite the sheer wealth of good bands that seem to come from there. 


Despite an early start we got mislaid (blame the Euston Tap) and missed Throne whose "Heavy Lies the Crown" single has been playing on loop in MY MIND FOR WEEKS. Early on in the day we bumped into supremo heavyking Ed Gane - the man behind Beyond the Wall of Sleep and a chap very much in the know. He told us that we'd missed out on a great act in Throne (fucking Euston Tap and your awesome spiral staircase) but that his schedule was all about Bongripper who we should endeavour to see.

We caught a good chunk of Glowsun who Aidan decried as "by-the-numbers stoner rock" which isn't too much of an insult given that by-the-numbers stoner rock is about twenty times better than most modern music. They built up some good atmospheres and had a gorgeous light show - worth seeing again and I think they created quite the buzz.

After that it was time to get truly heavy - and so down to the Underworld to witness Conan. We weren't alone. In fact, the Underworld was full to bursting - they perhaps would've fitted better in the Ballroom but their mind-crushing soul-destroying ultra heavy deathy doom works much better with the Underworld's sound. Their slow torturous crunching was like an inversion of yesterday's Ufomammut - the sound of the bowels of the earth. Horrendous and terrifying and captivating. Very good basically.

We hung around the Underworld for a stoner onslaught from both Toner Low and Belzebong playing one after the other. It was rifftastic. Rifftacular. I literally am unable to come up with a better description for both than the title of Belzebong's album: "Sonic Scapes and Weedy Grooves". Aidan procured a t-shirt of the album art - or thought he had. It's a long story, but needless to say, he didn't have the last laugh.

After this came Truckfighters who I'd heard a bit of before and knew them to be good but had apparently came unprepared for how absurdly energetic they are. The guitarist was like some feral Angus Young beast - hopping and jumping about. After hours of brilliant yet motionless riffing it was amazingly compelling - I'd see them again in a heartbeat despite not knowing the songs so well. Although hopefully the next time they roll around I'll have boned up.

After this we hopped quickly over to The Shrine - regrettably the only band we saw upstairs at the Black Heart. Again, their energy was intoxicating and they VERY QUICKLY got the whole room jumping and thrashing about. Utterly without pretension - very pure rock 'n' roll.

Despite some stiff competition I think Germany's Colour Haze were one of the highlights of my weekend. Very precise songs - performed beautifully. I was completely spellbound - I recommend you go and absorb them immediately. I could've watched them for hours and hours. Afterwards we hung around for awhile to catch the legendary Pentagram who are the forefathers of this entire scene and for whom we owe everything. Unfortunately the well-travelled Bobby Leibling seemed lost and the whole thing was a bit awkward.

Cutting our Pentagram visit short Aidan and I finished off Desertfest with Ed Gane's hot tip (pardon the innuendo) Bongripper - a doom band of no small renown who stormed the Underworld. At the time I seemed to feel that they combined the earlier Underworld bands perfectly - the weight of Conan and the long epic riffy odysseys of Toner Low and Belzebong. It was masterful really - but due to some unfortunate tube timings we couldn't stay to the very end. 

What an amazing festival that was, the first of it's kind I've been to and definitely not the last. A weekend of supreme heaviness and the glorious joy of likeminded silly folk. On the tube back we spied a group clutching a Bongripper vinyl and made conversation and they turned out to be in the band Torpor a magnificently heavy bunch that I hope drift down Bristol way soon. Also a load of kids in Kreator shirts who seemed terrified of us. Lord knows why, I essentially just look like someone's drawn Matt Lucas's face onto a bewigged potato. Actually I see why that's frightening.

Next up for Mssr Aidan & Owen's riffy adventures Acid King & Earthless/Atomic Bitchwax are playing Londontown in Mid-July and after the glory we saw this weekend it's easy to see us venturing back to the capital.


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