This is maybe my fourth Desertfest, but even so, as I skip out of work early and head straight to our local for a couple of ice breakers I’m as excited as Boris Johnson at a swingers party (allegedly). This excitement lasts right up until just before headliners Om (oops), and then right through till the end on Sunday night.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. . .
It wouldn’t be Desertfest without a large contingent of Swedes on stage, and in the crowd, and so it is that Vokonis that have the honour of kicking off my Desertfest 2019 over at The Underworld, which is already pretty full. Somehow from listening to their music before this weekend I’d got the impression they were a sort of aggressive stoner rock band, but that’s entirely wrong. Live, it is obvious they are progressive sludge metal, very much in the mould of Baroness, and especially Mastodon. Guitarist Simon provides the blunt, barking, hardcore style vocals for the heavier parts, whilst bassist Jontes does the more melodic bits, when the band get all Pink Floyd-ian. I have to admit, I much prefer the more melodious parts, and just like Mastodon, I think one good singer, with a better range would be better than several limited ones – Jontes at least can carry a tune, though. Anyway, they rock pretty damn hard at times, there’s enough musical invention to keep the crowd listening, and even they inspire a bit of headbanging here and there.
Next up are a band I’ve really been looking forward to seeing, Portland’s Blackwater Holylight. I’ve only recently properly explored their fine debut from 2018, and with their beguiling melodies running round my head this week I couldn’t wait to see them in the flesh. I was not disappointed! Filled out to a five-piece now, the band manage to perfectly convey the album’s mix of drama, sensuality, vulnerability and heaviness. Like a lot of the acts on Friday’s bill there’s not a lot of obvious choruses, with mood and atmosphere being key to the band’s sound, but that does not prevent them from being captivating, almost transcendent at times – and they perfectly answer the never asked question “what would The Breeders sound like if they played psych-metal?” In fact, I find the occasional swoosh as the smoke machine puffs out another white cloud into the front rows distracting and a bit tawdry in the face of their very real emotion. I’m not sure if they played any new tunes, but certainly the best moments were all from that debut album, especially the fabulous Zeppelin-esque ‘Willow’. Near the end of the set there is some instrument swapping and a few smiles between the band, who up till that point had either been terrified or incredibly nonchalant, I couldn’t quite decide. As the band relax the better the actual performance becomes. Every song is met rapturously by the crowd and it’s safe to say a lot of eyes will be on this incredibly promising act to see where they go next.
One band who look neither terrified or nonchalant are L.A.’s High Priestess, although it takes a while before I can set eyes on them, as it’s already one-in-one-out at a busy Black Heart. It’s the trio’s first time playing London and they’re all smiles, genuinely delighted to be here and to bringing us their sprawling, doom-tinged classic rock. So sprawling, in fact, are their songs that not many get aired during their set, but I’m lucky enough to catch two highlights from their debut album – the soaring ‘Firefly’ and the deathly ‘Despise’. The twin harmonies of Mariana and Katie don’t quite gel live but that’s more than made up for by the drumming of Megan – a true performer whose every stroke and strike is an event, as she tosses her hair wildly in time. (She has what Darcey Bussell would call great arm-ography). Once she caught your eye it was hard to look away. I love to see bands so obviously enjoying themselves, and thanks High Priestess, we did too. (Chris Ball)
Releasing the excellent ‘Slave to the Grave’ album last year, Alastor bring their slice of doomy metal to the RidingEasy Records stage and proceed to reveal why the album is so alluring. Despite the band members half-heartedly dabbling in black eye liner, giving their appearance a tad towards the comical, it is the quality and delivery of their thoroughly absorbing and atmospheric metal, which is the real winning formula. Current album aside, the band have plenty to offer, none more so than the killer ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ which brings their set to a thunderous and epic close. (Andy Little)
A race now, back across the road in the rain to catch another L.A. act, Zig-Zags at The Underworld. Whilst the band have been operational since 2010, and worked with both Iggy Pop and had Ty Segall produce for them, the current line-up, in support of new album They’ll Never Take Us Alive is only now really grabbing attention over in the U.K. Much has changed since their inception, with only singer-guitarist Jed remaining from the original trio and the band’s very obvious move towards a more metallic, thrash sound, and away from their scuzzy garage roots. Well, actually they’re still scuzzy, looking like they haven’t changed clothes in a week, whilst living on burgers and beer, and despite all having relatively short-hair they remind you of the drunken, snotty misfit kids who brought us the Bay Area thrash sound of the early 80’s. Yes, welcome to another thrash revival! The opening song on said latest LP is called ‘Punk Fucking Metal’, and that’s what you get, non-stop for the whole set. Riff after riff, with that distinctive, jagged, rattling style made famous by Metallica and Exodus. Sure, Zig-Zags aren’t original, but all tunes are their own, I never once heard any outright theft, and they ‘bring it’ with a tightness that belies the band’s sloppy image. Every tune, every riff brings huge grins from all the thrash lovers in the crowd, but special mention must go to the vicious ‘That’s Why I Carry A Knife’ and latest single, ‘Killer of Killers’. Most fun band of the weekend, no doubt.
From good times to end times over at The Electric Ballroom, where Wovenhand bring their apocalyptic alt-rock. David Eugene Edwards is a man with a presence and music built for bigger rooms. Possibly the only genuine rock star of the weekend, in his cowboy hat and shades, he emanates an other-worldliness akin to Jim Morrison. The band are presaged by Native American chants, ramping up the trance-like, ceremonial vibes. Live, Wovenhand eschew much of their more esoteric drones and folky moments and concentrate on the rockier numbers like ‘Hiss’ and ‘Crook and Flail’. Driven along on simple, bombastic drumming the music has a relentless, steady charge, like an endless buffalo stampede as Edwards intones every word with preacher-like precision. Wovenhand, again, are not a band heavily reliant on choruses, instead sucking the listener in with the intensity and passion of their performance, inviting you to lose yourself in their atmospherics. They are not to everyone’s taste, possessing a slightly tortured, Gothic demeanour that some way find rather po-faced, but I find them riveting and spiritually uplifting. And then someone dropped a pint down my leg and I went home in a huff. (CB)
Bringing the RidingEasy Underworld stage to a close is Cincinnati 70’s retro riffy rockers Electric Citizen. A band whose recorded product this reviewer finds, production wise, a bit flat (especially the Helltown album), so fails to kick you in the groin and heart like great rock records do. With little expectation, it is great to report that they are a different proposition live. Vocalist Laura Dolan is a mix of Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks and other great theatrical performers you regularly used to see on Top of the Pops back in the Seventies, while the rest of the band are also clearly having a ball. Fifth member keyboardist (I am unable later to find her name on the band’s Facebook page) relishes the freedom to explore and groove beyond the limited room behind the keys, while clutching and shaking a tambourine. As for the music, it explodes to life with dynamic energy and the band deliver a proper Friday night rock ‘n’ roll party, which has the place truly engaged in rocking out. Now they just need to find a producer to transport their live, pure-uplift rock goodness into a fully realised album. (AL)
Main Photo: Eliese Dorsay, Blackwater Holylight, photographed by Simon Kallas.