It begins, as it often does, with men in black striding onto a stage. Serious looking men, with serious haircuts and serious guitars. Then they start to spot mates in the crowd and nervous grins and waves are thrown out. Wren are opening the Saturday at the Underworld at the sold-out Desertfest and expectations may be a little high. It starts well with the band digging into ‘Chromed’, the opening number from their latest album Groundswell. Full of lunging riffs and bleak, barked vocals, it has the aggression required to shake some life into the still emerging, but healthy-sized audience. You can see the crowd willing them on, necks craned forwards, waiting for the big payoffs, the moments where the bands muscular post-metal lets rip, but unfortunately those moments are rare; there’s too much pressure and not enough release. The lack of any sort of sympathetic light show does Wren no favours either, and despite some heroically powerful drumming, the band fail to really impose themselves.
Swede’s Dozer, over at the Electric Ballroom, are more typical, classic Desertfest fare, and return from a long hiatus with excellent reviews under their belts for new album Drifting in the Endless Void. The band was put on hold, partly, as some members have been concentrating on recording and touring as Greenleaf, who impressed at last year’s festival. So is it more of the same, only the name has changed? Well, not quite. Dozer colour their sci-fi themed songs with post punk melodies, a heavy bass thunk and classic guitar lines, eschewing the more soul-inflected sound of Greenleaf. You need to be an aficionado to appreciate the differences, maybe, but even lumbering stoner archetype ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ is merely a gateway into much bigger and occasionally weirder, things. At one point they go into a heads-down, psychedelic charge and it makes me wish for Monster Magnet so bad it’s actually distracting, but it passes and I just enjoy the big dumb freak show.
I find myself catching some of Weedeater at the Electric Ballroom while I’m waiting for something else to happen. I usually avoid bands with “weed” in their name as they tend to be cliché heavy, but hey, I’ve had a few ciders by now and there are beardy dudes with loud guitars on stage, so I’m not too unhappy. Bassist and vocalist Dave “Dixie” Collins looks a lot like Seasick Steve from where I’m standing, even sounds like him when chatting between songs, of which I know exactly zilch. Here’s what I hastily wrote whilst they were on – it sounds like the witch from Hansel and Gretel got stoned, ate most of her gingerbread cottage then got pushed into her oven by the kids, whilst in a sugar coma. Then sang about it in hell. I hope you find that illuminating.
A band I was looking forward to, and nobody is going to call clichéd, surely, are Lowen, on at the Devonshire Arms. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve wandered down to the Dev during Desertfests to catch a band, only to be thwarted by a huge queues running round the block, so this time I leave plenty of time and get inside just as the band are sound-checking. You know it’s going to be good when people stop what they’re doing and wander down the front to watch a sound-check, and those that don’t are stopped from their bar-chats by the incredible voice of Nina Saeidi, whose warm-ups are enough to set the place a-buzz. Playing material, I think, almost entirely from their A Crypt In The Stars album, Lowen transform a grungy pub in North London, by turns, into a pre-Christian Middle Eastern temple, a vast alien desert wilderness and a doom metal paradise. Whilst the band rage around her, Nina stands mainly still, emanating an ancient priestess calm, launching into vocal ululations that have grown men around me shaking their heads in wonderment, with tears in their eyes. This isn’t just another average doom metal act with a great female singer, though. The band can mix it up and are full of sonic surprises, with guitarist Shem Lucas occasionally leading the band into black metal squalls, and savvy enough to know when to ease off to really let space and air into these epic songs. Pick of the bunch is probably ‘Ashurbanipal’s Request’, but really every single second is utterly magnificent.
Back over at The Underworld I’m pleased to catch up with Grave Lines, who I haven’t seen since the release of their very good Communion LP. They don’t disappoint. Whilst you can hardly accuse a band as blackly nihilistic as Grave Lines of playing a festival set, they do largely stick to their more direct, traditionally heavy numbers. Unlike Wren, the band has enough balance between contemplation and chaos to make for a captivating show. They are also gifted with buckets of charisma, with both singer Jake Harding and guitarist Oliver Irongiant having magnetic stage presences; and is it just my imagination or are there a larger amount of ladies down the front, pulled in by that magnetism!? Communion highlight ‘Gordian’ gets an airing, and although I would have liked a couple of earlier tunes you can’t complain at the set-list, especially when they are joined by Caroline Cawley from Dystopian Future Movies for a dramatic run-through of one of the tracks from their joint Beholden To The Flame EP. A class act.
For possibly the only time all day, I get to stay put at a venue to see Belfast bruisers, Slomatics, for the very first time. Stupidly, I know I’m going to enjoy them when I see their backline of Orange gear, and the squalling feedback roar they summon from the off is like a white-noise Zen garden. What does surprise is the near operatic vocals of singing drummer, Marty, which I hadn’t picked up on listening at home. The bottom end of the band’s sound is like a Wagnerian apocalypse, if that end of the world is having the munchies when you’ve just run out of hobnobs and Tayto crisps. Best tune comes early for me with a spirited run through of ‘Buried Axes on Regulus Minor’ with a bass sound so low it threatens your bowels. Like a crazy mix of Hawkwind and The Melvins, it’s great fun.
I reluctantly duck out early to go and see Telekinetic Yeti at the Powerhaus, as I’m a fan of their last LP, Abominable. It turns out to be a bad move and a disappointment. The Iowan duo struggle manfully against a very muddy sound, and with only two of them, despite a pretty decent light show, it isn’t a fair fight. There’s plenty of hair tossing and shape throwing from guitarist/vocalist Alex Baumann, so without the volume up it would look like a good show, and the band’s punkier numbers later in the set almost pull you in and win you over by sheer aggression alone. I leave thinking they would have been much better off in a smaller venue, and also pissed off at the former Dingwalls’ inability to stock their bar properly. Once again they’ve run out of cider way ahead of the end of the festival. Bloody useless!
I grab a coffee and head over to catch some of headliners, Corrosion of Conformity, at the Ballroom. The band is already half an hour into their set, and there’s a celebratory air in the room, people swaying, grinning and grooving in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere all day. They are playing ‘Senor Limpio’ and then kick into ‘Wiseblood’ as I find a space, and that will do me just fine. It really is a swinging old time, with the band’s charming mix of Blackfoot and Black Sabbath really hitting a sweet spot. ‘Who’s Got the Fire’ follows and the only niggle I have as the gig proceeds is that we get nothing from their latest, the excellent No Cross No Crown album. Considering it’s the big, billionaire-sits-in-chair-and-puts-on-an-expensive-hat party down the road in Westminster you’d think they’ve missed a trick, really. At one point the avuncular singer, Pepper Keenan, even refers to his band as Coronation of Conformity, but still, alas, no ‘Forgive Me’ or ‘The Luddite’. Oh well, we do get the classic ‘Vote With a Bullet’ to close out the set, and then a wonderfully rousing, and damn funky encore of ‘Born Again for the Last Time’, ‘Albatross’ and ‘Clean My Wounds’, which sends the bloke in front of me into some of the meanest dad-dancing I’ve seen in a long while. Yee, and indeed, Haw!
See you next year Desertfest!