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Things Learned At: Desertfest
Toby Cook , July 8th, 2015 16:42

Toby Cook reports from Camden, London.

"Praise Iommi indeed"

Sleep. It's no exaggeration to suggest that Sleep are the band that Desertfest have been waiting to book since its inception only a few years ago. Nor do I think it is unnecessarily harsh to say that there were more than a few attendees who bought their tickets solely due to the booking of the Californian sonic titans. But could they really match up to expectations?

Whilst I missed the group's much lauded comeback in 2009 at whatever-ATP-it-was, seeing them fill (and I do mean fill) the main hall at Alexandra Palace, in support of Slayer, several years later was without doubt one of the most truly enlivening and joyous performances I've had the privilege of experiencing. Until, that is, the trio rocked up at the Koko and proceeded to conjure a performance that made their Ally Pally gig look like a warm-up.

Transcendental is a much overused word when describing Sleep, but not this time. New song 'The Clarity' slotted into the set as if it'd been written in the same sessions as the likes of 'Holy Mountain' and 'From Beyond', whilst those songs themselves seem to have taken on a renewed energy; in an almost intangible but very real sense Cisneros, Pike and Roeder seem to have grasped the notes and the riffs of their original oeuvre and imbued them with some unknown entity that has brought them wafting into the now – they're the same songs, Jim, but not as we know them. Somehow there is a vitality, a newness to tracks like 'Dragonaut' that not only defies their 20 year existence and familiarity but at the same time, and via sonics alone, tells us both were Sleep are from and where they're going as well.

Follow the smoke toward the riff filled land, and onwards into astral eternity.

Guitars aren't always necessary. Except for when they absolutely are

It hopefully goes without saying that the Quietus was once again extremely proud and honoured to be asked to curate a stage at Desertfest for the second year in a row. Whereas last year's booking policy for the tQ stage ran roughly along the lines of: "Choose 'actual' bands; stay away from laptop-y things", however, this year pretty much zero consideration was given to that singular stipulation, with spectacularly varied results.

I can virtually guarantee you that Desertfest and the Underworld have never before seen the likes of communal noise-inks Sly & The Family Drone. With their intimidating and gloriously ramshackle henge of amps and equipment set up in the centre of the floor, whilst a few curious early arrivals unwisely departed before the drums got handed out and trio's clangourous, yet oddly rhythmic, blast of noise reached its joyous peak, those who stayed witnessed something unique. Joined mid-set by Palehorse vocalist Nikolai (whose own, guitar-less band threatened to structurally damage the venue earlier in the afternoon), by the time the group finished – with de facto leader Matt Cargill balanced atop their amps in his pants – the slack-jawed masses were left in no doubt of the fallacy that guitars are always necessary. There are limits, however.

As I may have mentioned before trying to describe the music of $hit & $hine is a bit like trying to play Mozart with a dead fish, and despite the revelatory, psychotomimetic throb of their latest LP, the suitably awkwardly titled 54 Synth-Brass, 38 Metal Guitar, 65 Cathedral seeming like a near perfect fit for a post-Sly, tea time lead-in to Anthroprophh, what the trio ultimately delivered proved tedious in the extreme. The lo-fi, techno-esque build that threatened to take-off into a warped, sonic equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting never took off, with the group instead becoming immersed in the exercise simply making time stand still. I'm not saying a Les Paul and a Marshall stack would've saved, or even particularly have improved proceedings, but fuck me, they couldn't have hurt them.

Noothgrush were more than worth the (nearly 20 year) wait

In a festival of many coups, the addition of sludged-up, doom-heavy grinders Noothgrush was in some ways perhaps the biggest; over the course of their 20, fiercely independent years the quartet have never before managed to make it over to these shores. To say there was an air of wild, yet slightly nervous expectation would be an understatement akin to suggesting you were only mildly excited to see Sleep. From the beaming look on vocalist (and Ghoul drummer) Dino Sommese's face, it was clear the band were as excited that they'd finally arrived as the sweaty, denim-clad warriors stepping over each other to get closer to the venues small stage. And that's where the fun ended. Although technical issues threatened to derail the chaos early on, by the time the likes of 'Diseased Mammal', 'Stasis' and 'Made Uncomfortable By Others Pain' blasted through the room like a skin-peeling backdraft of furious punk energy, it'd been long forgotten.

In another 20 years, you'll be telling your kids about this one.

Further broadening their musical scope hasn't diluted the original message of Desertfest one iota. In fact, it's only enhanced it

When Desertfest landed on the festival calendar back in 2012 the 'Desert' prefix could hardly have been more appropriate – that's not to say that the line-up wasn't oozing with superb acts, featuring as it did the likes of Orange Goblin, UFOMammut, Church Of Misery and Corrosion Of Conformity – but excellent as those bands are you'd have had a tough time trying to convince yourself that the curation didn't have an air of 'variations on a theme about it'. Last year's edition, however, marked somewhat of a sea change in booking policy, with the inclusion of bands as diverse as Boris, Necro deathmort, Arabrot and Hey Colossus to name but four. And you'd have had to go a long way to find anyone who didn't believe that the more inclusive scope greatly improved the broader festival experience – in fact, I genuinely heard more complaints about Spirit Caravan than I did about the more challenging acts added to last year's bill.

This year, however, Desertfest outdid itself. There was the long-form, almost 'post-crust' of Agrimonia and the sweeping, sludgy post-metal of Minsk; the communal, semi-naked rhythmic-noise insanity of Sly And The Family Drone and the almost techno-punk of $hit & $hine; there were even two whole stages dedicated entirely to the bullet-belted, denim and leather brigade, that featured stunning performances from the likes of Angel Witch, Cancer and Amulet. And that's without even mentioning the Prog stage. But did they go too far? Did the broader, more adventurous booking policy only serve to dilute the original Desertfest message and to distort and confuse the overall 'vibe' of the weekend by attempting to be all things to all metallers?

Did it fuck. Far from watering down the character of the festival, if anything this year's edition seemed to carry with it an intangible but noticeable strut, a confidence that comes from the knowledge that you're now – and justifiably – an 'established' festival; that you can take over half of Camden for an entire weekend; that you can book Sleep, $hit & $hine, Amulet and Iron Walrus on the same bill and not only will the crowds come, they'll dig it like Garfield digs lasagne. Or something like that.

When DJ-ing between acts, don't play a track by a band whose former vocalist is setting up on the stage directly in front with his new band, you twat

As proud and, honestly, excited (not to mention surprised) as I was to be asked to be asked to DJ between bands on The Quietus' stage, (I say 'DJ', I actually mean turn up with a laptop to play, via iTunes, the sort of stern and eclectic muck I'd play in my bedroom if I was trying to get rid of you) it was hard to escape the feeling that I was a complete fucking charlatan – I'd coned my way into Desertfest the way George Costanza conned his way into the Yankees. "But hey, it's not yet even one in the afternoon, Sex Swing are still setting up and there's only about three people in here," I thought, "so who really gives a shit if I throw on something by The Body, or Skitsystem, or Admiral Angry… Or Dethscalator?"

Well, Sex Swing vocalist – and former Dethscalator growler – Dan Chandler, apparently. Forgetting what I'm sure is one of the biggest faux pas in DJing, it seemed like a great idea to treat the myself and the three early arrivals to the chaotic, drug-damaged blast of 'World War II Hitler Youth Dagger' from their brilliantly titled Racial Golf Course, No Bitches album, only to be almost immediately greeted by the sight of Chandler mouthing to his band mates (something like) "fucks sake… Yeah, that's me" whilst carrying a look on his face that said: "who's that cunt in the DJ booth, I'm going to fucking nut him!" By comparison, later playing one of Pombagira's 14 minute psychedelic dirges went down pretty well.

For fucks sake, get there early

Dopethrone. Torpor. Iron Walrus. Vintage Caravan. Sex Swing. Palehorse. Dungeon. Consecration. XII Boar. All of these bands had finished their sets before 4pm, many of them opened their respective stages and finished before the Football kicked off. But did you see any of them? Did you bask in the un-washed, stoner dirge of Dopethrone? Were you floored by the calculated immensity of Torpor? Did you have your brain melted by the throbbing sax of Sex Swing?... Or were you sat at home, determined to finish another can of supermarket brand larger and do another five bong hits, before slouching into the Black Heart for a pint just as it's getting dark?

I get it, festivals can be pretty long days – especially for the thirsty and the horticulturally augmented – but there's a good chance, especially at a festival like Desertfest, that lower down the bill there are going to be at least one or two superb bands that you've never even fucking heard of. Maybe it's the internet fault; maybe YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Facebook etc. etc. have ruined our (musical) hunting instincts? And maybe I'm out of touch, but fuck it, is not one of the greatest joys in life discovering and becoming utterly captivated by a random band you checked out purely out of curiosity?

I say it is. I say next time you see Torpor footing a bill, you get your ass down there and check 'em out. You won't be disappointed.

Why did you ever question the wisdom of booking Obaké as tQ stage headliners?

"O-what?" "Obaké who?" "Huh?!" "Hang on, you mean Bong aren't headlining?" To say that there were some eyebrows raised when it was announced that Austro-Italian-Hungarian experimental sludge/doom quartet Obaké were going to be filling the headline slot on the Quietus' stage is not an unfair observation to have made (albeit a somewhat surprising one, given our championing of the group over recent years, and that their most recent album, Mutations, placed so high in last year's AOTY list. With competition coming in the shape of Eyehategod, playing over the road at the Electric Ballroom, I'll admit to degree of trepidation as to the size of crowd they'd draw. As it transpired, my concerns were ill founded to say the least. In a crushing, hour log set that blurred the lines between the symphonic and the sludgy, the brutal and the blissful, Obaké took the continually growing audience on a trip that journeyed out to the gnarled edges where headbanging riffs lurk as often as it glided to the outer-rims of the 'avant', allowing you to pat your smug self on the smug back for 'getting it'.

If there's any justice they'll have gained plenty of new fans at Desertfest, and it won't be too long before we see this unique quartet back on our shores for a heading gig of their own.

Listen to Sex Swing

No, seriously: Why aren't you listening to Sex Swing?

Horns up, ya shitters!

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