Words & Photography by Luigi Sibona
The sunniest weekend of the year set the stage for the all-mighty Desertfest and what better way to enjoy Britain’s rare glimpses of sun than to stand in dark rooms and get my face filled with riff after riff after motherfuckin’ riff. For the 7th year running Camden Town was transformed into the greatest inner-city festival for all things doom, stoner, sludge, grind, and most notably, anvil-heavy. Here’s a run down of all the incredible bands I was able to catch over the raucous three-day riffgasm that was Desertfest.
A ghastly one to kick things off, the ever-misanthropic Eyehategod, hailing from America’s sludge central, New Orleans, opened up the weekend for me in style at the Electric Ballroom.
Having been leaders of their scene for coming on three decades now the sludge titan’s were on rip-roaring form, which was ace to see knowing that that Mike Williams has been hit or miss live in recent years.
Leaning heavily on their detuned, reverb-heavy bluesy riffs and Williams’ retched vocals, Eyehategod weren’t for the mild-mannered but with that swinging Louisiana groove keeping up the backbone you couldn’t help but nod along.
With a greatest hits setlist and a genuinely nihilistic edge, they’re a band that have remained challenging and vital for 30 years now and it’s clear to see why. Those ear-bleeding, apocalyptic riffs were a great precursor for the onslaught to come.
I have a tried and tested rule; if Napalm Death are on the bill, they are likely to be the best act you’ll see. And, at only the second band in, the weekend’s benchmark was set. With ragers (in every sense) ranging from their monumental back catalogue to the terrific material off their most recent record, ‘Apex Predator – Easy Meat’ (‘How the Years Condemn’ being conspicuously massive), Napalm were on the form of their lifetime. Having just caught them stealing the weekend, again, at this year’s Download, I can tell you this is no fluke. The band are tight as any unit you care to mention with the auditory onslaught coming thick and fast and that signature groove pulsating through every last organic life form in the Electric Ballroom.
Special mention has to be made to Barney Greenaway, a genuine hero, not only to me personally but to our scene at large. Not many dudes will take the time at a grindcore show to vehemently denounce those who dictate what a woman can and can’t do with their body, government slum housing, the very idea of a nuclear ‘option’, and decry the rise of far right groups with their blistering cover of the Dead Kennedy’s ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’.
Put simply, one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen and one of heavy music’s most important bands. The fact they’ve remained as uncompromisingly savage, relevant and crushingly powerful after 30 years should not only be applauded but it should be marvelled.
Puppy manage to always be a line-up standout and their killer set made a wicked case for being one of the bands of the weekend.
One of the UK’s most exciting and innovative young bands, Puppy are really unlike any other band going. Armed with their potent witches brew of big, fuck-off Black Sabbath riffs, Beatles-esque pop hooks and a dash of fuzzed-up 90s alt rock à la Weezer, Puppy opened Saturday up in staggeringly good form. They’ve been the next big thing for a couple years now and every time I catch them live I’m freshly amazed time and time again.
They’re a hard band to describe and an even harder band to sell but you’d be damned have caught a more kaleidoscopic, unique and fun band over the whole weekend.
They made a hilarious point of slowing down their riffs a touch to ‘fit in’ with the Desertfest sound. Good for a laugh but when you hear how utterly massive the riffs on ‘The Great Beyond’ and ‘Demons’ are (two of the biggest riffs of the decade), they put even the crustiest of Desertfest alumni to shame.
Also, with so many wonderful Euro and American exports making up Desertfest this year, it’s important to champion your own and when they’re this rad, that’s a damn easy task.
I called them as hidden gem of the fest but with how they managed to pack out The Underworld at 14:25, and with their debut LP tantalisingly near, it seems they’re not so hidden anymore.
Keep your eyes peeled for an anarchic and hilarious interview we had with the lads coming soon.
Even with the killer set Puppy layed down only earlier, Japanese doom heros, Church of Misery easily take the mantle for most fun band of the weekend
The band clearly loved being there as much as the audience did, which, by the raging hoots and hollering filling the Electric Ballroom, was a hell of a lot. They had such a dynamic stage presence and their songs (which I had previously never been a massive fan of) take on a life of their own live. They sounded great, they looked great and they went down a total storm.
Stoner metal fan favorites, Weedeater, took to the Electric Ballroom on Saturday to provided the bonged out soundtrack so suited to Desertfest. After an iffy start due to some technical issues, Dixie Collins was ripping out the chunkiest of basslines like no man’s business. A whiskey-swilling, head-banging good time was had by all.
Mastiff sound like what I imagine getting crushed in a cataclysmic rockslide would sound like. I was unfamiliar with the Hull five-piece till I was sat in Desertefest’s press tent, minding my own business wading through my photos, when Jim Hodge, gravel-throated frontman of Mastiff poked his head round and declared, “anyone want to interview Mastiff?”. Somewhat bemused, I said, “alright then…” and I got to know this grisly outfit and I’m glad I did.
Having promised I’d catch their set at The Black Heart later that day, I made a mad dash from shooting Weedeater over to catch Mastiff. These guys swamped The Black Heart with a mix of death sludge, the nastiest end of metallic hardcore and everything horrible in-between. Jim’s lumbering, caustic presence was intimidating to say the least, howling down the mic like undergoing some kind of wild emotional exorcism.
From knowing literally nothing about the band to being bang to rights by their nihilistic avalanche of riffs and misanthropic growls, Mastiff certainly leave an impression. Check out last year’s EP, ‘Bork’ for a taste of what these guys are packing.
Riffs, goddamnit, riffs! This was the big one for me. High on Fire have been my go-to riff machine for years now and I have never had the opportunity to see them live. It was worth the wait.
The great shirtless one and finest riff-writer of his generation, Matt Pike, brought what felt like the hammer of gods down upon the Electric Ballroom. Loaded with a setlist featuring the best riffs this side of Tony Iommi, Saturday closed out in rip-roaring, bang-your-head-till-it-falls-off style.
Pulling from all of their impeccable career (I’ve long since called them the most consistent band in metal) and sounding fucking ferocious, I was in my own personal heaven. With ragers like ‘Blessed Black Wings’, ‘Rumors Of War’ and ‘Fertile Green’ being fired off with impunity, there was no question in my mind that this was one of the absolute highlights of the festival. By the time ‘Snakes for the Divine’ (one of the single greatest riffs of all time) kicked in, I was bouncing off the walls. A fucking world class set by one of the best metal bands you could possibly want.
I had the privilege of interviewing bassist supreme, Jeff Matz, about the new High on Fire record in the pipeline, more on that very soon.
On the Sunday, nursing an anvil-heavy hangover courtesy of the riotous Desertfest afterparties, I descended on sunny Camden town to hang out in some dark venues and listen to some bastard heavy music. Sunday had been a day I was keenly anticipated, hosting two of 2017’s standout bands and it did not disappoint.
For fans of big fucking hairy riffs, Bison brought their fuzzed up sonic assault to The Underworld on Sunday afternoon.
Hailing from Vancouver, Canada, Bison brought a sound more associated with America’s sludgy sound à la Black Tusk and Red Fang. They filled the club with lumbering, rip-roaring riffs to headbang the hangover away. With a setlist of reliable bangers to trash through and material from last year’s record, Bison brought a no-frills, boozy heavy metal show that was just what the doctor ordered.
The least accessible, the nastiest and the heaviest set at this year’s Desertfest. After last years arduous, soul-crushing and incredible ‘Caustic’, Primitive Man’s crushing Underworld set was not for the faint of heart.
A hybrid of doom, death, sludge, noise and post-metal (but somehow less accessible than that sounds…) ‘,Caustic’ was a genuinely horrible undertaking and they somehow manage to be even more savage live.
Primitive Man made no concession to the uninitiated, these guys are hard work. The stuff off ‘Caustic’ sounded apocalyptically massive with those rare moments of sped-up deathy groove, like on the crushing ‘Victim’ hitting like ten tons of bricks.
Primitive Man are a nihilistic band in a way I’ve near-never heard. If you’re a person capable of attaining a Zen-like calm in an empty, godless abyss and you think Neurosis has too many hooks, you gotta hunt these guys out!
If a band were ever suited to steal the weekend of Desertfest, it would be Elder. After last year’s stunning prog stoner epic, ‘Reflections of a Floating World’, Elder their intoxicating, crushing vibes engulfed The Roundhouse in perhaps the greatest display of musicianship of the weekend.
In true psyched out-fashion, it felt like we were watching a band just jam it out for 40 minutes taking us on heady trips through the ether. But just as you feel you might float off into the void, Elder bring you crashing back down with riffing to rival the best of them as on the massive album and set opener ‘Sanctuary’.
Man, it’s just great to see Elder on a stage the size of The Roundhouse. Having been playing shows to Underworld-sized venues over here for the last few years, getting the chance to see their expansive soundscapes play out over such a theatre is an experience that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
If you’re a fan of the spacious, prog side of Mastodon or the Pink Floyd-isms of what Pallbearer were doing on last year’s ‘Heartless’ you will fall head-over-heels for Elder. With their staggering display, these guys proved there are few better suited to Desertfest and, dare I say, possible future headliners.
What a way to see off Desertfest off, with the Space Lord himself! Stoner rock royalty Monster Magnet brought the party to The Roundhouse and what a party it was. Massive riffs, wicked grooves and big, lovely, hazed-up vibes engulfing Camden’s famed theatre.
Still kicking hard since ‘89, Monster Magnet are not letting age get the better of them, with frontman Dave Wyndorf being all the rockstar you could possibly fit on stage. The classics sounded massive, material from ‘Power Trip’ sounding better and ‘Space Lord’ being the biggest singalong you’re likely to hear at a festival like Desertfest.
It was a truly gnarled, haggard and sludgy weekend that housed some of the best bands in heavy music and some rising stars of the underground. Desertfest is a haven for our scene and it’s unbelievably heartening to see it grow year on year. Roll on 2019 for the biggest Desertfest yet, but it’ll be some feat to top this beauty.