All photos by Angelique Le Marchand.
So much for gentle introductions: It’s 2.15 on Friday afternoon and I am in an already crowded Underworld faced by a large, topless and heavily tattooed man who is staring wildly at me whilst jabbing out monstrously heavy doom riffs. It’s Oli from London/Brighton collective Grave Lines who is part of the band’s front three, a veritable moving canvas of hair, sweat and tattoos. Too aggressive to be classic doom and too sludgy to be classic metal, Grave Lines sit in their own damp, blackened tomb of filth where St. Vitus, Sabbath and early Celtic Frost collide, slowly, like the end of an evil circus train wreck. As it turns out, things don’t get heavier than this for me today and it’s a baptism of fire I am happy to go through, ears now thoroughly prepped for all the noise to come.
It’s a quick stroll over the road to Our Black Heart, stopping to help some confused visiting German metal fans on the way, to catch Blown Out, already in full swing when I squeeze my way into the room. The visual differences are profound – this instrumental psych trio look like a bunch of youthful academics bent over a particularly tricky maths equation. It’s heads down all the way as they create a swirling mass of sound – a never ending loop of multidimensional psych exploration. It’s cacophony so all encompassing that I seem to be the only one in the room who notices when the fire alarm goes off. I edge back towards the door, partly as I prefer my heart red, rather than black and burnt to a crisp and partly as I have a hot date with three beardy brothers who make their own beer. ..steady, girls!
I am though, stopped in my tracks outside the Electric Ballroom, where despite Pontiak (for it is them I seek) supposedly being on stage at 3.30 the doors are still firmly shut at 3.20. Not great organisation there guys. Anyway, the doors open pretty much bang on 3.30 and I wander in, and after being given some free booze, which lightens the mood a bit, I catch the Carney brothers sound checking. Their current release The Dialectic of Ignorance is a real grower and I am really looking forward to seeing these guys for the first time. I am a bit concerned that their new slower, brooding songs won’t go over well live, but I needn’t have worried.
They start off with a few more classic stoner rock-ish type numbers, all underpinned by fantastic three part harmonies and sterling guitar riffs and solos. It’s all good, but once they deliver the triple whammy of ‘Ignorance Makes Me High’, ‘Tomorrow is Forgetting’ and ‘We’ve Fucked This Up’ from said latest album I am sent into raptures. Those harmonies just swell and keen, the bass hypnotises and the solos get ever more animated and just so damn timeless, perfectly lightening the brooding grooves the brothers lay down so confidently. It’s all over way too soon, 45 minutes over in the blink of an eye. I could have listened to this genuinely beautiful stuff all night – and it’s a shame the venue is still only half full to see it.
However, by the time Greek stoner stalwarts 1,000 Mods hit the Ballroom stage the place is packed – it’s only 5pm, but the place is boisterous and ready to rage. After the experimental(ish) soundscapes of Pontiak it’s back to a much more meat and potatoes stoner approach from 1,000 Mods, but they do it very well, and the crowd obviously love them. Unfortunately, despite their own sound check the band’s sound is pretty awful for the first few numbers, reduced to a very rumbly bass solo with vocals on top. Once it gets straightened out you can hear how good this lot are at their job, even if that job is largely being a Kyuss and early QOTSA tribute act. Occasionally they make a slight sonic left turn and they are all the better for it to my ears, but everyone seems happy to just nod their heads and drink along. I’ve had worse times!
After a very quick spot of refuelling it’s back to The Underworld for Vodun. Refuelling is slightly extended as we (I’ve been joined by Andy Little now, who will be your guide for the remaining two days of the festival) keep bumping into people we know and having a natter. It’s one of the best things about the festival, actually!
Vodun are another act I have never seen before, although I am well aware of their latest album Possession and also their fearsome live reputation. Well, there’s no doubt Vodun are an act with a great image and some talented musicians, but for me they are less than the sum of their parts. Obviously Chantal Brown (a.k.a. Oya) is a fabulous singer, with a rich and soulful banshee wail that reminds me of both Skin and Lisa Kekaula of The Bellrays, and she is an arresting presence, too, on stage in body paint and African style clothing. Drummer Ogoun, is also an impressive and skilfull drummer, but they just don’t have the songs to complete the package yet. Despite a fantastically boisterous and good natured performance their tunes just seemed to plateau very early, with no great choruses or game-changing bridges that elevate your mood. They play a new number near the end of the set which has a dazzling, unusual percussion intro from Ogoun, but once again, after that it just sort of bombs along like a day-glo truck with no driver. To be fair the rest of the crowd goes ape-shit crazy for them, so maybe I am just a tough crowd, but then that’s what I’m here for, right?
Now it’s time for a short sprint up the road to catch Dystopian Future Movies at The Devonshire Arms. Drummer, Bill Fisher, has described this lot to me as ‘post-doom’, which I was a bit puzzled by having listened to their stuff as for me they have more post-punk/post-rock (more post than most, clearly) sound, with Caroline’s vocals and the bands dead-eyed cool and dry rumble having more in common with early Sonic Youth than any metal inflections. Well, live I totally see what Bill was getting at, as the intense, slow bass dominates the soundscape, they have the ominous edge to their sound of doom without the aggression and a more arty disposition. To be honest the venue does their attempt at mood-setting no favours, as the front half of the pub is just somewhere for weary festival goers to rest their feet and catch up over a pint, meaning from where I’m stood the constant chatter and bustle prevents the band from really being effective. If this had been on in the Black Heart I think it could have been wonderful. Still, great to get a high five from Bill at the end and those at stage front seemed to really appreciate the band.
And now, as they say, for something completely different. Different from what? Different from everything, frankly. The only other time I have seen Terminal Cheesecake since they reformed was at Raw Power a couple of years ago, and one of the things that struck me then was how tight they were, managing to be polished whilst also appearing sloppy, organised chaos I guess being their modus operandi. The echoes crew move forward into the room as one, ready to have our minds blown, eager to embrace the chaos. The band are, in fact, already raging and are so stimulating it takes a while to realise regular new vocalist Neil Francis of Gnod doesn’t appear to be here tonight, and unless I’m mistaken the man stood in front of me in the gaudy, geometric patterned robe is Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs singer Matthew Baty. I don’t know if Baty has had much time to rehearse with the band and indeed it seems he is just improvising his howls and moans whilst the band rage around him. It works. Boy, does it work. I don’t know what songs they played, I don’t even know if there were any songs, it was just the most intense, psychedelic headfuck of the year. Baty’s eyes have rolled back somewhere into the back of his skull and so have half the audience’s. We are gone, lost, fuzzed up and flipped out. I occasionally re-focus my eyes to see what the hell the guitarists are up to create such weird sounds and late on in the set an animal horn is produced and used to strum and blow on the strings of one guitar. The bands grounding in dub and psych creates such a depth of sound, especially in a small room such as at the Black Heart that total immersion is possible for all concerned and I think I left a small part of my jelly-like brain there, forever to be devoured by Terminal Cheesecake.
I think I would happily have left my musical explorations there for the night, nursing a drink at the bar just saying ‘Fuck’ over and over again to my beer buddies, but there’s still quite a bit to see and so we head back to The Underworld for a headlining set by The Picturebooks. Now, I have my reservations about this lot, partly as I find their singles quite cheesy, bordering on cock-rock, lyrically, and partly because they are so desperate to be American that’s it’s comical. Lead singer and guitarist in the German duo, Fynn Grabke puts on an excruciatingly whiny American accent during his between-song banter and has me cringing, imploring him in my head to shut up and play another tune. And to be fair, when they do they are a pretty powerful proposition. Considering there’s only two of them them they produce one of the most visually stunning performances of the day. These guys sweat for every note wrung from Grabke’s guitar and pounded on Philipp Mirtschink’s drums. The sheer ferocity of their show belies the fact that they are basically a blues rock act, but they attack every song with the commitment of a really pissed off and brutal death metal band. You can see why they have been picked to headline as The Picturebooks are getting a lot of press and a fair bit of airplay at the moment and seem to be on the up, but tonight there’s actually less people to see them in the venue than during Vodun’s set, so I am not sure they are a lot of people at Desertfest’s cup of tea.
As we head out, intending to attend Slo Burn’s slight return at the Electric Ballroom we bump into a buddy who’s come from there, with warnings that it is mega-busy and only likely to get busier now The Picturebooks has ended. So deciding on a change of pace, and let’s face it some respite from the guitars, we head over to witness ZOMBI’s set which is closing things up at the Black Heart.
I don’t really know what to make of ZOMBI to be honest. It was certainly brave, although suitably perverse of the organisers, The Quietus, to put a synth-prog duo on as headliners, but for me they are a gentle bow out for the day, rather than a big bang. Neither beat driven enough to dance to (and by this point I was well-oiled enough to throw a wobbly shape or two) nor weirdly malicious enough to create nightmare scenarios for the mind to thrill the dark parts of your soul. Instead they sort of pulse and noodle, sporadically things get more aggressive and the drummer really kicks in, but for the most part you find yourself nodding along whilst your mind wanders, with your ears still ringing with the noise of louder and more compelling bands from earlier in the day.
As ever Desertfest was a blast, and I saw some great acts, but although it’s getting to be almost a cliche to say it now, the best thing about Desertfest is the atmosphere, the camaraderie of like-minded souls getting together in some well-loved bars and venues to rock and roll.
If you missed it this time, go ahead and kick yourself and I hope to see you next year.