Deep in the heart of Camden Town’s infamous walks, devout masses gathered to witness and worship the sweet, ecstatic rage of amplified mayhem. Hidden in plain sight amidst the hysteria of a weekend rush of tourists, performers and local pariahs, festival-goers bustled like a well-structured colony of ants around the area’s central intersection, barely recognisable amidst the crowd were it not for the festival wristbands tied to their wrists. The seventh edition of London’s very own Desertfest had begun, and here I was, a sole wanderer paddling upstream in search of a semblance of meaning, and words to make sense of the whole damn mess.
Truth be told, I had no idea where I was going. I decided to trust my past experience with music festivals to scrap the plans and tackle this particular beast head-on. Candour was my weapon of choice for the creature. I was a naked fishing worm submerged in deep waters, wishing for the experience to swallow me whole and reveal its inner workings. I collected my fishing permit at the reception, and set sail on my hunt for the distorted sound-waves of the Desert creatures. Stranded on an isle in the middle of a busy intersection, holding on for dear life at a traffic light regulating the flow of reckless vehicles roaring and crossing from all sides, I was quickly faced with the need to come up with a plan to get the mission on track. The first crucial instinct of the weekend thus kicked in. ‘If lost, spot a bushy beard. If there is a shirt with an illegible logo sweating underneath it, follow it.’ You will be surprised how resourceful your brain can be when your survival instincts kick in to give it the extra push. Surely enough, I was saved by a flock of beards and ended up at the first venue right on time for the first show at The Electric Ballroom.
Winterfylleth stormed the stage, eagerly awaited by a crowd ready for a bit of black metal to bleaken their sunny afternoon. Surely enough, the band were glad to oblige and delivered the goods with great conviction and the gloomiest of faces. Blast beats and razor-sharp tremolo-picked guitar riffs stormed for the next hour. A rush of excitement jolted through my body as the first song moved into full-gear, though the high of hearing the bands’ dark, anthemic extreme metal quickly faded, as it most often does after a couple of songs into a black metal concert. Unsurprisingly, the usual problems quickly became obvious once my drifting mind began to focus on what made the show un-engaging. Epic black metal often suffers from an imbalance when it is moved to a live setting. The combination of the genre’s crass, raw distortion and the ambitious, almost symphonic aspect to their sound often struggle to find the same harmony than in a studio setting. Such was the case for Winterfylleth, who were plagued with a murky live sound. Looking around, my eyes met with equally disengaged audience members looking around, looking down on their phones, and I decided to move to the next show.
I skipped back to my starting point at the Black Heart in search for the next show. I inspected every corner of the bar and its adjacent alleyway. Casual Nun were nowhere to be found. The first tenet of my improvised survival guide proved useless in this narrow concrete alley, as I was surrounded by an open field of beards, but I knew the next best plan that was to ask one them for directions. “The Black Heart venue?” – the beard rustled, “just head straight ‘round the end of the bar, take the door on your left and go up the stairs, mate!”. I thanked the beard, squeezed my way across the room, opened the door only to find a queue reaching all the way down the stairwell. The queue shortened at a slow but steady pace of two people every couple of minutes, a decent but frustrating pace for the privileged scumbag journalist I pass myself as. One thing made itself crystal clear from then on: Desertfest was no place for random walk-ins. Show up five minutes into a set and you’ll find yourself five minutes into a fifteen minute waiting line to the show, at the very back of a venue jam-packed with tree-sized audience members. A dense atmosphere comprised mostly of human sweat turned the room into the world’s most densely populated sauna, complete with bar service and a live band performance. Across the small, dark room, Casual Nun’s battering, noisy set raged on. Though the view was severely restricted, you know a great show is taking place when you hear it. Electrical jolts were bouncing across the room, conjured up by Casual Nun’s mind-melting, heavy krautrock incantations. Some room eventually cleared up and I was eventually able to pave my way closer to the action. The energy grew more vibrant, the electricity in the air was palpable, every part of the experience elevating the show from good to great. Casual Nun’s music is what happens if you dose up your local punk band with LSD and lock them into a practice space for a full week. Set them free, hear them out and they will open up your third eye and spit right into it.
Stepping out of the psychedelic sauna, I realigned my senses with a bit of fresh air and some friendly chatter with old friends before setting off to the next venue. Fortunately, the Underworld was a fairly easy venue to find, and I had taken the precaution of coming early for a proper view and a proper Freedom Hawk experience. Old-school hard rock and heavy metal made a case for itself in the Underworld that afternoon. Fronted by a voice straight from Ozzy Osbourne’s better days, the Virginian band filled the room up with riffs and grooves blessed with the spirit of the olden days of heavy rock ’n ’roll. The sense of familiarity brought by such a talented act is nothing unheard of, but it is comforting, and what the band does is done well. Armed with a great sound, terrific musicianship and a vibrant, contagious thirst for fun, Freedom Hawk shone proudly upon the stage that day.
Back to the Black Heart I headed, following the advice from an earlier discussion with a friend. I was on the hunt for something new, something different, and what I had heard about Snapped Ankles was too intriguing to miss out on. A curious mind is too weak to miss out on a promise of a krautrock-influenced act where the members are allegedly dressed up as trees. The band had set up half of their gear in front of the stage with the crowd. Beside the various electronic percussions laid out on the table stood two sturdy tree branches standing upright like microphone stands, hooked up to tiny black boxes taped to their side. I already knew that I had come to the right place. The time for the show had come and a door to the right of the stage opened up, letting out a group of green, bushy sasquatch-like figures. The hairy beasts took place and proceeded to beat out the most curious sounds out of their instruments, their minds synchronised to a tribal sense of rhythm. The persistent grooves were catchy, and the whole show was looking like some shamanistic ceremony put on by mystical creatures. A minute into the show, one of the beasts stationed in the crowd turned and locked eyes with me. Placing a drumstick in my hand, he moved me towards one of the wooden poles and nodded, motioning so as to instruct me to play. I was caught off guard. Nonetheless, I carefully locked my mind into the groove of the song and proceeded to beat the stick to the rhythm of the song. A faint bouncy sound on the speakers followed every hit on the branch. The band member turned and nodded with approval, gesturing me to keep going. I played the whole song. Then the next. Then the one after that. It was then that I had come to terms with the fact that I would be spending the entire set playing along with the bushy creatures I was so curious to see. The crowd was getting into the groove, a small portion of the audience joined in with the band members in their ritualistic dance. Our city-life personas had left us, the entrancing song and dance had lifted it from our minds, connecting us with our primal relationship with the wonders of music as force for blissful union. I nudged a few nearby audience members to hand over the drumstick but found no takers – that is, until a hand emerged from several rows behind, belonging to a young lady eager to join in on the fun. After a full hour of trippy tree punk music, the band finished off their set with triumphant success. The green creature who had handed me the drumstick turned to me, shook my hand with a firm grip and disappeared backstage. There goes one of the most peculiar shows I’ve ever had a chance to be a part of.
I rushed back to the Electric Ballroom, where Eyehategod had already started spewing their rusty, filthy southern sludge to a packed room. As expected, yet another long queue awaited me in front of the venue, though this would not deter me from seeing this show. Thankfully, the line moved at a fair pace and I soon found myself in squeezing into a decent spot to watch the spectacle. Vocalist Chris Hillard may have cleaned up, but neither his vocals nor his bands’ sound have followed suit. Eyehategod are just as vile and heavy as they’ve ever been, and they certainly are a force to be reckoned with. The dilapidated, bluesy rock’n’roll sound of the dirty south was raging in full blast, and the crowd was loving it. Music does not always paint a pretty, positive picture. For most, this is pretty much an accepted fact we have learned to accept, though rare are the bands whose sound encompasses and wallows so deeply in the unredeemingly bleak, sick and nihilistic aspects of humankind. From the band name to the song titles and lyrics, every aspect of the bands’ sound and imagery has more than enough reasons to keep a teenage fans’ parents up at night. Eyehategod’s live performance, however, paints a slightly different picture. In spite of all the raw pain and anger instilled in the music, one finds hope and positivity from the bands’ show. To hear Chris Hillard – whose life has led him to hell and back – engage with a crowd of strangers with all of the love and humble gratitude one can find in a man’s heart, is truly inspiring. Though I had originally planned to skip to the next show before the set was over, I simply could not get myself to walk away from the bands’ powerful and deeply cathartic sound, and neither could anyone else, judging from how many people stayed until the end of the set.
The streets of Camden had grown darker by the time I stepped out of the Electric Ballroom. London’s hip subculture hub was still bustling with life, and bars were slowly but surely filling up with early birds eager to get their Friday night started during Happy Hour. My next stop was the Koko, and I hadn’t the faintest idea where I needed to be heading. I remembered, however, the first rule in my festival survival guide and I proceeded to follow a bearded fellow down to the venue. The walk, however, proved to be longer than expected, long enough to spark a suspicion that I was inadvertently stalking a poor soul on his way home. Thankfully, my instincts had not failed me and we both reached our intended destination. As a first timer in the prestigious Koko, I was rendered speechless by the venue’s magnificent appearance. Though I was already late to the party, I couldn’t keep myself from exploring the old theatre’s numerous floors and admire the prestigious red and gold balconies from which the crowd was observing the show. Down below and onstage, Graveyard were well into their set and were well prepared to earn their spot as a festival headliner and the final act to play the Koko. Going back to my previous observations regarding Freedom Hawk’s throwback hard-rock style, Graveyard is nothing new to our ears; but what puts these Gothenburg cats up on stage in such a prestigious venue – in front of so many people – is the fact that what they do is done very well. Zeppelin-esque Blues Rock of this calibre is hard to come by. The sound is punchy and colourful, the songs are catchy and hard-hitting, the setlist impeccably paced and balanced; Graveyard come off as a class act from top to bottom. The party was in full blast and the band had their audience in the palm of their hand. I would have loved to stay, but I had somewhere to be. I still needed a proper spot for the last show of the evening.
I ran my last trip back to the Electric Ballroom and caught the terrific last half of Warning’s set. Though I only got to hear the last three or four songs of the night, I had heard enough enough to be swept away by the gripping emotion conveyed by the heavy down-tempo soundscapes and the frontman’s incredible melodies. It was blissful and it was beautiful while it lasted. Alas, the experience was all too short-lived. What was to follow would crown the evening with a set of a slightly different nature. Napalm Death were to storm the stage as the last band of the night, a band with a notorious aversion for long, down-tempo songs.
Britain’s Grindcore veterans are a bit of an odd choice for a Desertfest headliner. With that being said, you simply can’t go wrong by booking Napalm Death. Surely enough, crowds flocked to the Ballroom, filling the room ahead of the show’s scheduled starting time. The crowd was warmed up , pumped up and ready by the time the band showed up on stage. The final hour promised and proved to be a heavy one. Barney and the band jump right into the action and unleashed wave after wave of musical chaos and destruction. The crowd reacted instantly and a giant moshpit turned a portion of the venue into a war zone. You’d think you were witnessing the start of a riot, were it not for the smile shining on everyone’s faces. Thirty-seven years into a career of boundary-pushing extremity, the devastating sound of Napalm has yet to find its match: The breakneck songs are played faster still; the brutal, pummelling sounds are pushed to even greater levels of brutality. Barney Greenway, looking fresh and energetic as ever, still shows no apparent signs of ageing, still barks like a madman, and still dances like a spasmic drunkard. As usual, the man took the time to properly introduce each track as they progressed through their set-list at breakneck speed. One of the issues with being both a political band and a grindcore act is, of course, the fact that people can barely understand a word of you’re barking at in your songs. Napalm Death are a conscious and a conscientious band, however, eager to get their message across to their fans and audiences. Two dozen songs later, the band made the final send-off for the night with a
their classic and ever so sadly relevant ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ and ‘Inside the Torn Apart’ as the closer.
The night thus came to a close. Back on the streets, I had a look around the lively street corners of Camden before heading down to the tube station for the trip home. The first day as a lone wanderer in the Desert had been challenging but rewarding experience. Though not every show proved to be as great as the next, it felt like each and every one of them had unveiled something new and crucial to my understanding of what makes a live performance great. My battered ears were ringing, crying in agony; my whole body was covered in sweat and bruises from the Napalm Death show. Scantily clad youngsters heading to the clubs were staring at me on the tube platform. I looked like hell, but my mind and soul was cleansed, reinvigorated by the sounds of sweet, heavy music banging at my eardrums, and the rush of adrenaline permeating my whole being.