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LIVE REPORT: Desertfest 2016
Jamie Skey , June 6th, 2016 09:42

At Desertfest 2016 Jamie Skey finds no shortage of riffwork, an atmosphere buoyed by a tide of locally brewed fluids, and the unrepentant and unmistakable crushing bombast of Teeth of the Sea

Hell’s Bells! May Bank holiday can only mean one thing: the ale-aided appearance of bearded, pasty-looking folk in tattered jackets having a knees up to deeply unfashionable music: The gentle if eccentric charm of a May Day Morris Dance convention in the Cotswolds this is not. Rather, we’ve just landed at Camden’s annual riff-and-spliff love-in, Desertfest, whose fifth-birthday is bolstered by a grubby multitude of bands with a taste for devastating riffery and outlandish in-joke names like Necro Deathmort and Gurt.

All joking aside, Desertfest is a serious matter for the thousands of metal insiders who gather here. The festival has, in its short life span, won over so many hearts and weed-addled minds that it’s been granted annexes in parts of Europe (Antwerp and Berlin). But Camden remains its spiritual home, and the great and the good of metal, in all their patched-denim splendour, have hit the pavements to feast on some of the genre’s gnarliest exports.

Yes, this weekend’s all about the riffs, and they break over us in all manner sizes and grades of destructivity: riffs hairier than a herd of bison; riffs crunchier than a bus crash; riffs as bottomless as the place where Lemmy now lays.

As booze and riffs go hand in hand, it would be remiss of me to just review the music and overlook the pungent array of London-wide brewed beverages on offer (Beavertown Brewery and Camden Town Brewery), which play a huge role in keeping the stinkingly-ecstatic atmosphere alive. The beating heart of the festival is located in the tucked-away, pseudo-biker bar the Black Heart which peddles a storming host of dangerously delicious beers (hello Black Betty, Gammaray, India Hells Lager, Ink Stout) whose rocket-fuel after-effects mainly serve to crank the riffs and spirits up several notches higher.

On Friday evening, beer bellies are set jiggling to the Clutch-sans-paranoia sounds of Maryland’s Lionize. Among the keg-party ready riffs, the smooth-edged stoners here and there sprinkle some sensimilla-saturated reggae interludes. Three cans of Black Betty (a strong, dark, aniseed-y brew) and a spliff down an alley later, and we’re ready to party hard, and London post-techno savages Teeth Of The Sea duly oblige us with their dancefloor-igniting, trumpet-blasted, monstrous minimalism that sounds refreshingly like nothing else on the bill – or anything else in existence for that matter. We have to elbow our way to the front, as at the back by the bar the sound quality is muddled, and we keep mistaking their incendiary churn for the sort of ‘progressive’ psy-trance nonsense you’d hear at an Infected Mushroom gig. Along the front row, we feel the full force of Mat Colegate’s primitive floor-tom flogging and death-by-boiling howls.

Friday headliners and stoner-rock titans Corrosion Of Conformity, fronted by returned prodigal Pepper Keenan, are just plain belting. True veterans of the scene, they expertly dispatch mostly well-oiled hits from their Deliverance and Wiseblood era, ensuring that all imitators look like Snow Patrol by comparison.

Post-metal pulverisers Pelican play the long game, and as such it feels as if you’re locked into some sort of strange staring competition with their meditative onslaught. After about half-an-hour, I get bored, look away and head for the bar. Over at the Black Heart, Crystal Head are just what the doctor ordered. Essentially, though it’s no bad thing, the riff-rock trio exhibit the same DNA sequence as QOTSA, both musically and physically, mixing strung-out vocals and libidinous chugging. But they deliver their heady melodicism with the kind of nonchalant aplomb befitting of distinguished rock ‘n’ roll rogues. Later, the delirious, ravaging Berlin sludge-punk duo Mantar turn the Black Heart’s upstairs room into an overloaded sweatbox, with rawboned frontman Hanno Klänhardt savagely gnawing at his mic like a rabies-infested whippet.

Sunday brings the two biggest disappointments, but, on the flipside, the two biggest revelations of the weekend. Progressive stoner overlords Elder and psyche-black-metal space travellers Orannsi Pazuzu have both recently dispatched two of the most spectacularly immersive, headphone-candy metal records of the last few years with Lore and Värähtelijä respectively. Live, however, neither band captures the dizzyingly emotional heights and kaleidoscopic introspection of those records, perhaps due to the poor sound quality in both the Electric Ballroom and Koko. However, little-known boogie-rock hippies Siena Root are an unbounded acid-flashback straight back to the heyday of 70s jam-band abandon, channelling the rambunctious, southern-fried grooves of the Allman Brothers and Lynrd Skynrd. Dallas be-tatted grizzlies Mothership, meanwhile, leave everyone else in the dust with their full-throttled hard-rock reminiscent of Kyuss joyriding a stolen Hot Rod with ZZ top.