It’s that time of year again – Desertfest returns to take over London, or rather, much of Camden. The home of all things heavy in the UK’s capital is always replete with a community that favours more colour in their hair than on their clothes and boots to stomp around in whatever the weather, but for three days there’s yet another noticeable jump in black t-shirts with unintelligible logos, long hair being whipped around by London’s changeable climate, and the smell of… umm… y’know… freedom? Yes, it’s that time again, and everyone couldn’t be happier.
I write all that as a hypocrite using wanton hyperbole not because I doubt it, but because in over a decade living in London (and obviously making Camden my second home), I have not once indulged in attending Desertfest. There are tiresome reasons (excuses) I could give, but let’s not bother with those: I’m stupid, I should have supported and attended before, and the three upcoming days were fantastic.
Without further ado, let’s turn back time to me stepping out of Camden Underground station and heading to get my festival wristband on Friday afternoon. The day is going to be a busy one with some fantastic talent from around the world on offer across all the venues. It’s immediately noticeable that, like many festivals this year (and perhaps ongoing), there is a larger percentage of homegrown talent performing. There’s two ways to look at this; sad that some larger acts can’t/won’t play, or, that those acts often play festivals such as these, so smaller bands performing means festivalgoers are exposed to more new, underground stuff AND it makes those touring big bands all the more special to catch during the three days. I think you can guess which way we at Echoes & Dust lean.
I find my way to my spiritual home – aka The Black Heart – to catch GNOB. Based around East London, the band formed in 2014 and perform a mix of psychedelic stoner with a distinctly non-Western flourish that makes their heavy meditations all the more enthralling, original, and colourful. It’s easy to get lost in their swirling rock fuzz and they are the perfect opening to my Desertfest experience. Any band that transports me to some unknown place that lifts me up both physically (on the riffs) and mentally (riding high… ahem) is surely the epitome of what the festival embodies in not only the local and national, but international, scene. GNOB cover themselves in glory, making waves of sound that could as easily submerge you in blissed-out mellow riffs as it could pummel with their immense volume. It’s a memorable start, but I have to leave a little early to cross the road – through the temptations of merch and beer – to the Underworld.
I manage to squeeze through the crowd near the front just before Kurokuma bludgeon London with their first sledgehammer notes. The band have finished up writing their sophomore album, and in a bold move, the three-piece are using this stage as the time to debut the material. The Underworld is very full, which is immensely pleasing, as I had the impression that the Sheffield trio were still criminally underrated. Well, that might still be the case, but among the Desertfest fraternity, nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps a handful seem crestfallen they won’t hear a litany of tracks from the band’s debut, much acclaimed LP, Born of Obsidian (only released last year, after all), but everyone else is clearly extremely excited to hear what the members have been conjuring up behind the scenes since. Well, it’s nasty, nasty loud music, isn’t it? It goes down a storm. Sludge meets psych meets doom meets influences from world music that are on the tip of your tongue but get snatched away by the sheer heaviness (and tempo, at times) the trio produce. The band are extremely tight with their performance and in a scene that sometimes overly allows for looseness – sometimes a little too much looseness, if you ask me – their taught, no nonsense, precision-focused harrowing set is a darkly woven balm to the bright sunlight that’s happening outside The World’s End.
Powerhaus? Powerhaus…? I am stumped. I am old. What is this?! OH – Dingwalls! You should have just said already. Anyway… I find myself outside Dingwalls and manage to grab a drink, asking others about their experiences thus far, despite only being at the beginning of the three-day extravaganza. People seem delighted – with the line-up, the venues, the organisation, and the welcoming atmosphere of London. Many are ironically enjoying the juxtaposition of Desertfest’s 2023 edition as a certain “celebration” elsewhere in the city that just so happens to be happening this same weekend. A chance to be merry and toast the mighty riff and the crumbling auspices of empire. Onwards!
Dingwall’s – “Powerhaus” – is a venue that I feel is so often overlooked in the London music scene these days. Across the three days of Desertfest I’m privately hoping a few promoters enjoying a long weekend off from their own heavy hustle might be converted to using the place more once again. Wyatt E. are the first international band on my list today, hailing from Belgium. Another three-piece, this incredible group also happen to share some similarities with the first two acts E&D have witnessed so far – mapping non-Western musical influences onto the “traditional” doom and drone Desertfest might expect. I stand absolutely transfixed for their whole forty-five-minute set, lost in the astral haze their ritual invokes. If you haven’t listened to their albums Exile to Beyn Neharot (2017) and āl bēlūti dārû (2022), then get that oversight resolved ASAP. With strange chord progressions and liberal use of semi-chanted/sung scales and Moog synthesisers, the band cast a spell on London, and despite starting with a small crowd seem to have magically summoned more into their thrall. I only managed to catch half of their set at a previous Roadburn, so it felt a real treat to hear them put down a marker of quality so early in the festival.
I run back across Camden to poke my head into the back of Dawn Ray’d enchanting Deserfest and proving that despite their sound not immediately fitting into the strictures I had assumed (wrongly) Desertfest maintained, there is huge love for the Liverpool anarcho-folk black-metallers in London. They’re a band that are deservedly enjoying the underground limelight right now, following on from numerous festival appearances and the release of their superb new album, To Know the Light. The last 5-10 minutes of their set sound typically phenomenal, and I’m sad to have not seen more, but I will see them again, and them’s the breaks when it comes to festival life, as you know, dear reader!
Right… Time for some bone fide legends now. I find myself in the Electric Ballroom somewhat early, so another pint, some notes for Echoes & Dust, and a quick hello to some familiar faces is in order. We’re all here early to get a good spot to watch Church of Misery do their thing. When witnessing a band of this repute live, it’s often almost impossible to review them. They’re not NOT going to be good, so it’s quite how much wants to gush about the evening, the occasion, what they’re capable of and have achieved, their past, and so on and so forth. I’m not going to do that, though. You just couldn’t keep your eyes off them – that’s the key thing to get across.
Consummate professionals isn’t a phrase I often write when describing music in our scene, but Church of Misery are a rare example of it being applicable. The set is full of emotion, verve, and pragmatism, but is also spot on in terms of timing, playlist and ways to get the crowd going. They are placed at a perfect time of day, where the Japanese rockers up the ante of the festival and get a crowd bouncing with energy. Meditation, poise, cacophonous noise are all things I desire and adore, but Church of Misery open the door for Desertfest to stretch its muscles and have people losing their minds. They leave the stage to rapturous applause, their name being chanted, and an audience juiced up and ready to go late into the night.
Happily, Dingwalls is where I’m set up for the final two bands of the Friday evening, closing out my first taste of Desertfest London. Sum of R is the band first up to rearrange my senses once again. Yet another trio, the band are a mix of some luminaries of the contemporary psychedelic, doom, and heavy experimental scenes – a veritable who’s who of Finland’s finest exports into those disparate yet often interrelated genres (see: Dark Buddha Rising, Atomikylä or the supergroup Waste Of Space Orchestra, among many others). Their set is a dalliance with all the genres one might expect at the festival, with added flourishes of noise, electronics, and brief flirtations with an odd, distorted heavy rock flourish.
The three members are very clearly masters of their respective instruments, with their set seeming like a controlled, chaotic experiment, but sounding poundingly heavy and yet strangely, darkly serene. Bassist Reto Mäder may not seem like the obvious focal point what with Marko Neuman’s ecstatic vocal and synth performance and the joyous playing of Jukka Rämänen on drums, but it is Mäder through which all things Sum of R pass, the thundering bass providing the bedrock for the complex, almost-free-form compositions to transcend through and from. Like Wyatt E. before them, I’m somewhat surprised at the sparse crowd at the beginning of their set, as they warm up through their first song. However, as the band leave, there is a roar, and I turned around to find a packed venue. Justifiably so – a mesmerising set.
Year of No Light headline Dingwall’s and indeed Friday’s Deserfest (for me). At first, I worry the French six-piece might not be able to really fit onto the stage. After all, there are two drum kits, three guitars, a bass, a keyboard, and a synthesiser all to find their way onto the diminutive staging area. Yet, somehow, the band, their and the venue’s team manage it. A little cramped? Maybe. Impressive? Sure. Will they destroy London with their gargantuan French post-metal onslaught? You better believe it.
I’ve seen the band a number of times now, but they never ever fail to provide a sense of awe. Perhaps tonight is the closest I’ve seen them come to have that jeopardised, as technical issues plague both the beginning and end of their set. However, when you write music so transcendent as they have for over twenty years, small hurdles get obliterated by towering riffs and crests of pure euphoria. The band level Camden for an hour, transporting all those present elsewhere, and throwing us unceremoniously back to reality once their last notes ring out to silence. I am ecstatic, as is everyone else, but I have a huge smile on my face not least because I’ve witnessed another incredible set from the post-metal pioneers, but also because others less accustomed to the Bordeaux troupe look utterly punch-drunk from the wall of sound they built.
Desertfest London 2023 has started off with a bang. What delights await us for Days 2 and 3? We know the line-up, and that has the Echoes & Dust team salivating, we assure you. But, as ever with festivals, we know there will be some surprises in store – what bands decide to play, maybe some guests. . . who knows?! I couldn’t wait to find out. . .