Whilst it’s true that the twin disciplines of doom and stoner metal are not known for innovation and experimentation, the same cannot be said for the festival built upon those two mighty pillars, Desertfest, which is coming to Camden for a seventh year. So, as we rightly welcome its return this May, we shouldn’t be surprised to see some changes. Last year’s Friday line-up made a turn into extremity with the booking of Napalm Death as headliners, with a vicious eyehategod set preceding them on the main stage. A nihilistic double-header of anarcho-grindcore and nasty sludge was certainly a change of pace, if not necessarily a traditional fit for the boozy, party atmosphere of Desertfest, and this year’s Friday bill, especially on the main stage, also holds plenty of stylistic left turns.
Headlining the first night are Sleep offshoot Om, whose spiritual doom will provide an almost polar opposite mood to last year’s main attraction. Exploring religious themes with a slow, meditative reverence, Om take the weed worship of Sleep’s ‘Holy Mountain’ and make it clean and pure. Full of arcane biblical references and middle eastern influences, Om will bring the day to a very mellow, but quite possibly uplifting close.
Although Om play it very straight, I’m not sure how much they’re using the imagery and exotic ancient vibe purely to set a mood; but the same cannot be said of Wovenhand, a band so genuinely steeped in Old Testament fervour that even the heathens amongst us may feel the spirit in their presence. Wovenhand are certainly not metal of any stripe, but their mix of Americana, folk, rock, world music and more is delivered with such intensity by mainman David Eugene Edwards that the band, like his previous act, 16 Horsepower, have been taken to the hearts of many metal fans. The bands doomy, fly-bitten desert atmospheres are a good fit for this festival, and there are other acts on the main stage who fit the ethos, if not the traditional sonic template of the genres. Similarly, the openers at the Ballroom, Jaye Jayle, bring a dusty, gothic sound, think Earth via krautrock, whilst Portuguese oddballs HHY & the Macumbas eschew guitars completely and summon a spooky, voodoo-dub party. Completing the roster and sticking out like a sore and bloody thumb are London’s own Grave Miasma, who will shatter the sacred reveries conjured elsewhere with the blackest of black metal.
That main stage line-up is incredibly diverse, with many of the acts reliant on feel and vibe it would be fascinating to stick around all day to experience the full palette of sounds, but if you’re looking for more traditional Desertfest-style rock thrills then, fear not, there’s lots to enjoy across the other three stages. You will no doubt have your favourites but if you’re looking for top tips then I’d start with The Riding Easy stage at the Underworld where several of the label’s fabulous roster will be kicking our asses. LA’s Zig Zags have morphed from a psych garage outfit into the world’s best thrash metal party circa 1986; Sweden’s Alastor dazzle with full-on, almost theatrical Sabbath worship; Blackwater Holylight give us alt-flavoured psych metal; and headliners Electric Citizen rock NWOBHM-style with a side-order of doom and Girlschool attitude. Speaking of which, there’s been a lot of talk recently about gender splits in festival line-ups, with some festival bookers getting called out for not doing enough to promote and include female artists. Breaking down Friday’s line-up, we have the afore mentioned Blackwater Holylight, Laura Dolan leading Electric Citizen and the very promising High Priestess playing The Black Heart. . . but that’s about it. There’s a smattering of females in bands across the other two days too, but I think Desertfest needs to try harder in future. I know this type of rock music is still a real sausage party, but with this festival forever branching out into wider musical territories I think they should and could have more female artists on the bill.
Anyway, back to the music. Over at The Black Heart Sweden’s Skraeckoedlan top the bill, and they’ll be hoping their their strange sci-fi prog-fuzz translates well in such a small venue. They’re a band with big ideas and a real artistic vision so it will be interesting to see if they can still “bring it” in a room above a pub. No less ambitious are Blackpool’s Blanket whose epic, swoonsome post-rock has already won them a lot of fans during their brief existence. More trad and trusty riff worship will be dealt out by San Diego’s metal warriors Great Electric Quest and Cheshire’s 1968, who released the rather fine Ballads of the Godless LP last year to much acclaim on the scene.
Over at The Devonshire Arms, a shout-out must go to fellow Essex boys, Whoremoan, who have snaffled a headline slot by playing solid gold stoner-rock in the mould of the greats. By all accounts their punky, rambunctious racket is a joy to behold live, so if you want to end the day with an old fashioned, beered-up, sweaty headbanging session then you know where to be.
So there we have it, a brain-frazzling, mind-melting selection box of rockers, seers, psychos and musical explorers. Get your shorts on, grab handfuls of cash for all the great merch, make sure you’re fully and regularly hydrated. . . and I’ll see you at the rock show!