With another Chris of Echoes & Dust taking up the reviewing reigns on Saturday, I had a ball (and funnily enough ended up seeing quite a few of the same bands as Mr Ball) although I finished up my Saturday with the inimitable Unsane at the Underworld. With sweat dripping from the ceiling and positively flowing from the brim of electric frontman Chris (another one?!) Spencer’s cap, it was a delirious affair of hammering noise-rock, that put the nail in the coffin of everyone’s Saturday evening. Bludgeoning and proof material from as far back as 1989 can feel as vital as it was when originally written if the belief, passion, and venom still lies within. Essential viewing, in my humble opinion.
Getting into my festival groove sometimes takes a while and unfortunately for the three-day Desertfest, I feel like I only really got my ‘fest-on’ when I awoke on Sunday morning. Three or four strong coffees, a shower, and totally new clothes following the Unsane sweatacular meant I was raring to go. I had my eye on an early start, leading me back to where I had exited last the night before – back to the Underworld, to a grab a beer and see my first chosen band.
Being early sometimes makes me feel silly, but oh boy was I glad for my hardwired need to be prompt when it came to seeing Acid Mammoth. Perhaps because they were opening the day for the Underworld – and indeed much of the festival at that point – the Underworld was already as full as it had been for some of the bands that I had seen on the two days prior mid-set. An anticipated performance, the quartet had come all the way from Greece, and have built up quite the cult status in a relatively short amount of time releasing recorded music. I specify the latter, because it was only while talking to some of their super-fans up front that I was informed that they have been together since 2005. Having been together for nearly two decades would certainly explain quite how tight their live set was. The crowd was enraptured throughout, with the four-piece thundering through some of their post popular material, especially from their break-out 2020 opus, Under Acid Hoof, and debuting a new song as their opener. Immediately the Underworld was baked (in more ways than one) and a special last day was well underway.
A short walk across to The Black Heart was required to watch Bloodswamp. They are a band from London that I don’t think have received half the attention they deserve. The four members were clearly excited to be part of the 2023 edition of Desertfest London, blurring the lines between post-metal, doom, and black metal. The criticisms I had for their debut 2020 opus, Daylight Illuminates a Miserable World, remain: sometimes I feel some of the expansive passages lose momentum and a few of the transitions can feel a little forced, especially when enacting a distinct change in tempo. However, there’s no denying that the band are a force to be reckoned with, as some riffs skewer the listener and refuse to let go, burrowing into the mind. They also play with purpose and fervour – something one might expect from any extreme metal band, but which can all too often be lacking in sincerity. It’s been a few years since their last output and one can only hope they’re due to deliver a new slab of horror very soon.
I then found myself heading off to my only time frequenting the Dev(onshire Arms) during this years’ Desertfest. It’s a great metal pub and it’s always fun to see a gig there, but it’s not the most natural space, I think most would agree (even those, like me, who adore it). The duo of WALL were playing their brand of instrumental melodic fuzzed-out doom, that worships Black Sabbath in a no-f**ks-given, explicit way. The brotherly duo of Elliot and Ryan Cole have been stalwarts of the international stoner scene since they formed Desert Storm fifteen years ago in their home town of Oxford, and their performance as WALL showcased quite what a decade-and-a-half writing together and constantly on the road will do – they were completely in sync as they delighted the crowd that had gathered to watch them and enjoy a rare moment watching a gig with natural light cascading in from Sunday’s glorious weather. Whereas Bloodswamp finished a little earlier than Desertfest’s set times said, WALL finished a lot earlier, which I appreciated due to a very finely balanced and focused set, but also left bemused by not hearing a little more.
I was keeping it a strictly UK underground affair since Acid Mammoth and so it continued as I returned to The Black Heart to watch another excellent duo, in the form of Warren Schoenbright, do their thing. Another UK act that should be receiving a hell of a lot more plaudits than they currently do, the pair play a towering, crushing form of industrial metal that fuses elements of monumental noise and unsettling melody into their sound. They are a fearsome duo, summoning a wave of sonic anxiety many more seasoned bands would be proud of. There are some devotees of the rising London-based duo present this afternoon, myself included, but it’s excellent to see some international visitors to Deserfest London taking the time to see what’s going on in the murkier depths of the city’s burgeoning caustic underbelly. Alex (bass, vocals, loops) and Daniel (drums, electronics) are joined on two (new?) tracks by Seb of Wren, and the added percussion adds even more fuel to the fire. Warren Schoenbright are yet another band on the list of bands I saw on that fine Sunday that haven’t released anything since 2020 – once again, let’s hope that changes as soon as possible.
Blinking back into the light, I head to my first and only set at the Roundhouse. This is one I have been salivating for. Despite having been involved and reviewing in the heavy music scene for two decades, and being a massive fan of them forever, I have not – somehow! – ever managed to see Boris live. Desertfest London is helping me change that, albeit in a venue I often dislike.
Now, I will admit that being such a prolific trio who delight in being audio chameleons, I have, over the ways, become wary of the band. Whereas I delighted almost every time in their doom/drone and the sonically malformed collaborations with the likes of Merzbow and Sunn O))), I have been, shall we say, hit or miss on other sonic explorations. In an admission that may be sacrilege for some, I confess that I only really like Pink, rather than adore it. And as Boris have sometimes only upped the relentless pace of recording/releasing over the years, I have – at times – not managed to keep up (something I weirdly pride myself in doing with as many bands and labels as I possibly can) or felt that some material was embryonic and needed more time to gestate and breathe. And/or, just felt a little uninspired with some of it. However, in the past few years, I have been truly excited once more, with the legendary Japanese band dolling out quality record after quality record.
I’ve found my way near the front quite easily due to my aforementioned need to be early, and as the band come on to rapturous applause and dive into their set, I realise I’ve made quite the mistake. Much like The Terminal in Koepelhal at Roadburn, it might be cool to be at the front to see the band up close, but one almost utterly sacrifices sound quality. You can hear most of everything just about fine, but the equilibrium between instruments and vocals is completely off. If you’re at the front, no matter what alchemical mixing master you might have working their magic in the booth, it’s going to sound somehow both muffled and blaring, and overall unbalanced. After a few songs, I resign myself to my fate (the crowd is so dense behind me at this point, working my way backwards would be tantamount to leaving), and become irked at The Roundhouse’s insistence on pumping dry ice out every twenty seconds. I realise like I’m sounding one hundred years old at this point in the review, but many others were muttering similar criticism around me – we came to see Boris, not flashes of an arm every now and then through dense mist.
The set is fantastic, though, with the band focusing primarily on their two most celebrated recentl LPs – No (2020) and Heavy Rocks (2022) – as well as ‘Blood Red’ from their split with Rocky and the Sweden. The band are consummate performers at this stage, holding the packed Roundhouse in the palm of their hand. Perhaps I was actually somewhat surprised at some of the onstage theatrics (including a belly dancer during ‘Nosferatou’), but it largely added to the spectacle, rather than subtracting. Seeing Boris live was not disappointing, but where I put myself was. My fault, but the band definitely delivered.
Last band up, then, to close out my inaugural Desertfest experience. . . Despite being tempted by BIG|BRAVE, and tempted I truly was, I had seen them relatively recently and I received a tip that something special was going to happen at the Desert Jam Session at the Underworld. So, I wandered back over to the venue where my day began to see an old-school sesh that is surely the music that sits at the very heart and soul of what inspired the creation of Desertfest years ago. I make no secret about the fact that I’ve never been the biggest desert rock fan and that my brief flirtation with stoner rock, and even stoner metal, was largely over quite soon after it began many years ago. Of course, there are exceptions in my taste. . . but largely – ironically given my presence at the festival and others founded on similar tenants – I don’t really see too much of the foundation genre(s) anymore. But what a treat the Desert Jam Session proved to be.
Fatso Jetson took to the stage and immediately showed everyone how it was done. They had played earlier in the festival, received with much love as always, so coming back on to stage was met with a hero’s welcome. Having warmed up an audience that steadily built as word got out that an old-school desert session was in the offing in central London, the legendary Sean Wheeler took to the stage, looking incredibly dapper and supremely mischievous. His voice is as silky as ever, and he guided – like a conductor – the remainder of the session, as Fatso Jetson created the sonic tapestry to his free association singing/banter.
After blowing minds with his mental and vocal gymnastics, the Marlon brothers of the UK’s own Sons of Alpha Centauri were invited on stage. Here was where the true jam began, as the expanded band played with traditional blues, stoner, and desert rock, with the unusual added punch of touches of post-metal and doom – and even commercial post-hardcore – thrown into the mix. It was a heady brew, and it was incredibly impressive to see the troupe of musicians deftly react to one another’s ideas, whims, and movement. This section of the jam was a shot in the arm for anyone starting to bliss-out to the laid-back rock of earlier or who had started flagging at the end of an intense three-day festival.
As the SOAC guys left the stage to much applause, members of High Desert Queen, a band on tour supporting Fatso Jetson, replaced them. Their style returned the session to a slightly more meditative state, and as Sean got down into the crowd to start a conga line, he began a ritualistic refrain that had the whole audience singing or humming, prompting many to sit down on the floor (eww. . .) as the set came to its climax with the refrain echoing in everyone’s heads and long into the night.
It was a set filled with fantastic performances and true showmanship, and was the perfect way to end the festival. See you next year, Desertfest!