Desertfest is a festival best known for promoting acts from across the entire rock and metal spectrum, from heavy to stoner via progressive. 2016 marks the fifth anniversary of this brand, now present in London, Berlin, and Antwerp. But to truly appreciate the road that led to this edition, one needs to look all the way back to 2009, when Desertscene started promoting Truckfighters. They played the first editions in London and Berlin in 2012, and celebrated this year along the likes of Electric Wizard or Russian Circles. Knowing this, I expected to immerse myself in a weekend full of noise, overdriven guitars and black t-shirts – all of this and even more was present in abundance.
If you know this and that about London, Desertfest should capture your attention just with its location. The festival was spread across a few landmarks in Camden – The Koko, Electric Ballroom, The Underworld, Our Black Hearts, and The Devonshire Arms. Now that’s quite a bunch of iconic venues that should convince just about anyone; as a point of reference, Maybeshewill ended their career in The Koko mere weeks before, while a few months ago Electric Ballroom hosted Mono, Sólstafir and The Ocean on a single night. The history and gigs in these venues could probably inspire a dozen of essays on their own. To top that, central Camden is also well connected by public transport (which is horrible or great, depending on if you are from London or not) and features many fantastic restaurants to keep you nourished throughout the weekend. As for moving between venues, a few minutes of a walk usually had everything covered. Does it get more cozy than that?
Actually, yes. The venues themselves had a very sensible selection of beers (usually priced reasonably), and, since the line-up was very intense, pubs like The Underworld and Our Black Hearts had areas mostly shielded from the sound where you could rest a little and, rather peacefully, considering the context, enjoy a fresh pint. Having mentioned that, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the general quality of sound engineering across all the venues (save for Devonshire, as my schedule did not allow me to attend). I generally preferred staying in the back half of any given venue, which resulted in loud(although not overwhelmingly so), crisp and enjoyably mixed music. That’s quite a feat in my opinion, given how many different bands I enjoyed on that weekend without any worthwhile complaints. The only quirk I noticed was a result of partnering with Orange Amplification. Don’t get me wrong, I love their amps and sound, as they are very often present in music featured by Arctic Drones. It’s just that listening to a bunch of bands employing the very characteristic overdrive of Orange’s bass amps is an unusual experience. Then again, especially the bigger bands employed some other sound equipment to ensure a fresh breeze of diversified sound.
Planning a festival spread across up to four different venues on a given day seems like a challenge, but I was genuinely impressed with how well and smoothly everything worked out. The first thing I noticed was the rather jam-packed timetable. Seeing all the gigs was physically impossible, as the choice was mostly between seeing fewer concerts in full, or more of them by carefully navigating between the venues while skipping bits of the performances. This turned out to be very enjoyable for me, as with all the love I have for music, I simply can’t appreciate each and every band or genre. After a bit of research, I was able to roughly estimate which concerts could potentially satisfy my appetite for discovery (the lovely printed festival guide sold for a single pound was of great help and a splendid collectible!). This turned to be much more intense than expected (starting at 13:30 on Sunday with first notes from Dog Days and ending at 23:00 with last notes by Electric Wizard was just as exhausting as it was thrilling), but, as a reminder, the venues had plenty of places to sit and plenty of beer, even if the floors were soaked in it as the British custom dictates.
The only hiccup I observed was the capacity of the venues. It’s usual for concerts in London to be extremely crowded, which was not an issue this time, but a few times queues formed outside The Underworld, as the place was just completely filled. The security explained that they would need to wait for some people to leave for others to go inside, leaving the disgruntled fans with no other choice but to enjoy some fresh air in the meantime. Given how rare this was and how many people could be observed at Desertfest, the rivers of people flowing between venues as gigs ended, I admire how rare situations like this were. A few probably might remain with a bitter memory or two, but the vast majority probably didn’t run into any unpleasantries.
Let me start by saying that Desertfest is a magnificent, joyful, three day long musical feast. There were many highlights throughout the weekend and no gig left me disappointed. Obviously, some bands were just spectacular. I could spend a long time describing how beautifully unsettling Electric Wizard are live (I honestly would not recommend the audio-visual experience to those of faint heart), about the tremendous energy brought by Russian Circles, or just how astonishingly heavy, yet refreshing Pelican can be. But we all know these bands all too well, and festivals are a great opportunity to expand one’s horizon by listening to various acts previously unknown.
The festival started for me rather late on Friday with Lionize (my daily job quite enjoys eating through my time), but what a start it was! They came from across the pond with a powerful, vintage rendition of r, and judging by the fans’ reactions, they just loved it. Short, vigorous tracks comparable to bursts of electricity jolted me right into the weekend atmosphere of Desertfest. Between their relentless shredding and splendid vocals, it’s hard for me to pick my favourite thing about this band, but luckily they are coming for another tour to Europe somewhere between summer and autumn.
Rotor have been playing since 1998 and over the course of year developed some very interesting melodies that shine live. They’ve accumulated more than a few releases, thus I’m pretty sure fans of instrumental rock, stoner or psych will each find among them some pleasant tracks. The latest album seems particularly intriguing, so I recommend giving it a spin (it’s available in full on a popular video service).
Monomyth spread their progressive tracks across several thick layers of sound, only to weave them together in a most beautiful fashion. The psychedelic influences are noticeable in their approach to instrumental rock, giving their compositions a very captivating appeal – best enjoyed if you can fully immerse yourself into the winding river of their music. No wonder they were offered the honour of opening Electric Ballroom on Saturday, to the joy of everyone present.
Combining the tags they use to describe themselves would result in “heavy stoner booze rock,” which seems very fitting for a group that riffed and shredded on a stage directly above a pub. Their music makes me think Southern rock, but with a more progressive side to it. In any case, headbanging to this is a joyful way of entertaining yourself, whether you have a pint at your side or not.
While Switzerland is said to be a really fantastic country, you are not allowed to play louder than 100dB there. This was just enough motivation for Dog Days to open the last day of Desertfest London, where there are no such silly rules. Their freshly released debut album, in addition to having some very intriguing cover art, is almost 43 minutes of instrumental, slightly sludgy, and definitely awesome rock. Definitely the best discovery I’ve made during the festival, hence they come highly recommended.
I must admit I wasn’t instantly drawn to Elder, the progressive/psychedelic trio from Boston, and their lengthy compositions leaning towards harder categories of rock. But with each passing minute my appreciation for their music grew, forcing me to enjoy their performance to the very last minute. Having explored a little, their older material seems more stoner-ish, and I definitely like the slower riffing on Spires Burn/Release.
Desertfest was a great weekend, beyond any shadow of doubt. Some spectacular bands came to play there and there was plenty to be found from any genre or direction you may desire -as long as it is more or less – but rather more – heavy. All the headliners delivered fantastic performances, but what’s even more amazing is that every band on the line-up had some lovely music to offer. Many fans tend to skip early gigs, for whatever reason, but I personally am so very happy that I made it to the Sunday opening gig by Dog Days – such a great discovery, otherwise probably impossible. Of course all of this was possible thanks to incredibly smooth organisation. There were no delays, no unpleasant surprises, and they even managed to book one of the very few sunny days London has to offer. Combine all of that with Camden’s atmosphere and its legendary venues – there’s really no good reason to skip the next edition of Desertfest.