Things Learned At: Desertfest

Toby Cook on the heaviest festival of the year. AIEEEEEEE! "It was a good fucking time, and that is what Desertfest is about, ya shitters!" Photo thanks to Fabio Santini

Have a good time, all the time (originality is overrated)

You have a beard, you want to stroke it; you want to stand near the back of the room and watch a man play homemade string instruments over endless techno drum loops, whilst another recites poetry about the Pauli exclusion principal in Quranic Arabic. Hey, man, that’s cool, enjoyment is totally subjective and all that, but dude, you’re in the wrong place, that’s not what Desertfest is about. No, what Desertfest is about is a relatively small community of riff worshippers coming together to rock-the-fuck-out. This isn’t to say, of course, that Desertfest is somehow lacking in diversity or originality. Far from it, inarguably this year’s edition featured the most diverse collection of bands so far, many of whom are practically unmatched in their field – the likes of Boris, The Body and The Earls Of Mars to name but three. Sometimes, though, it’s not about being diverse or particularly original, sometimes it’s simply about being a really fucking good live band. Take the lumbering heavy blues of Sasquatch; take the fuzz-tastic groove of The Midnight Ghost Train; take the unexpectedly awesome Wolfshead, whose entire set felt like a dirty homage to a record collection that mostly contained albums by Sleep and the Hellacopters. And yet all three were, for many, undoubted highlights.

What Desertfest is about, friends, is having a good fucking time, plain and simple. Is the trucker cap riff-n-roll of Sasquatch going to make it onto my stereo? No. And neither is the fuzzed-up, Orange Goblin slowed-down stomp of The Midnight Ghost Train. But did they both moved their packed, sweaty audiences into a pint-spilling, head-banging frenzy? Hell yes! And as for Wolfshead? Any band who can get their audience to shout out their song titles in French, before launching into ‘The Garden’ (aka: ‘Le Jardin’), a crushing Sleep-esque dirge that contains the lyrics "I used to want to be a man of substance, instead I’m just a man of substances", is alright by me. Dude, that’s what Desertfest is about.

Groove sucka!

A lot was said pre and post festival about the diversity of this year’s line-up, certainly in comparison to last year, which often felt like rather narrow variations on a stoner-y, doom-y theme. And yet, whilst at first glance there may appear to be little similarity between the likes of Necro Deathmort, Eagle Twin, Monkey 3 and Spirit Caravan, the real genius of this year’s line-up was hidden in that most intangible, but instantly noticeable, of connective undercurrents: Groove. Yes, The Groove is deaf, dumb and blind, kid, but it sure makes you sway real hard… Y’all.

The same thing that made a packed to the rafters Black Heart bounce like your dad at a Skrillex show during Necro Deathmort, was the same thing that sent bearded heads nodding metronomically and purposefully during Eagle Twins astounding set at the Underworld, despite the duos proclivity for seemingly melon-squashing time signatures and staggeringly intuitive interplay. It’s the same thing, too, that made you rock like the asylum inhabitants in Midnight Express during Monkey 3’s effectively restrained space rock onslaught, whilst also compelling you to release your snake-hipped inner hippy and gyrate like Robert Plant in a Spirograph throughout Spirit Caravan.

Are we allowed to blow our own trumpet?

It certainly goes without saying that the Quietus was immensely proud and honoured to be asked to curate a stage at Desertfest, yet given the assumed Desertfest audience I have to confess I felt a small amount of trepidation. Would people who turned up mainly to buy a Kvelertak t-shirt "get" The Body? If the wandering blues jams and subtly tantric travails of the Samsara Blues Experiment were your reason for coming, are you going to have a mental fucking breakdown trying to work out just what horrific planes of reality you’ve been sucked between during 11 Paranoias?

As it turns out my fears couldn’t have been more unfounded. Slabdragger drew one of the biggest crowds of the weekend (more on that later); most people I spoke to counted Årabrot as one of their festival highlights; 11 Paranoias and The Body seemed to both cave in the very walls of the Underworld, whilst simultaneously constructing some sort of horrifying sonic cocoon that far from protecting you only served to further tare the last vestiges of your sanity to shreds; and on Hey Colossus one punter was heard to remark: "Well I dunno what the fuck I’ve just seen, but it was great!".

Thanks, Desertfest, for taking a chance, it certainly paid off.

Dragged. Into. Sunlight.

I can’t feel my face. I mean, I literally can’t feel it; my skin, I can’t feel my skin. What’s happening? I can’t breathe. Where’s the air gone, man? I can feel the pressure drop; I can feel the oxygen being sucked out of here. Fuck. It’s turning bad, dude, I’m going a bit fucking Event Horizon over here… What are these four guys doing? What the fuck is going on!? That blast beat, fuck. It’ll stop soon, won’t it? Yeah, ‘course… It’s not stopping though is it, why isn’t it stopping!? Dude, all I can see is flames from that goat’s skull candle; why are their backs to us. Oh god, that scream! This is crushing me. This is abject, bleak; is this even real?….

…This is fucking incredible! Now I can feel it man, I can feel the vortex buzzing around me; I can feel the searing, purging dirge wash through me; I can feel the writhing mass I’m a part of pulse and contort… What? Is it what? Doom? Post metal? Black metal? I don’t, know – I’m not sure I know anything anymore. All I know is that this is the fiery bile of life wrung out in low keys and high contrast. This is why we won’t save pandas; this is why we’ll burn rainforests and poison our rivers. This is why we are all murderers and why none of us are safe. This is why I’m forever changed….

What? You want to go for a falafel wrap? Yeah, go on, why not.

Time is just a construct

Weedeater and Dragged Into Sunlight finished early. Pombagira turned up late and then spent 57 minutes setting up their 26 cab backline. The Machine arrived an hour after their set was supposed to finish, and Sourvein and (somewhat ironically) Graves At Sea were, err, stranded at sea and missed their respective slots too. And so fucking what? Weedeater (who crammed a Wino-accompanied cover of Skynyrd’s ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’ into their set) were one of the weekends many highlights, whilst (as I may have intimated earlier) had DIS played for any longer I’d still be in a catatonic state on the beer-soaked floor of the Underworld. And as for those bands who arrived late? Shit happens! Kudos to the Desertfest organisers who managed to shift enough things around to allow them to perform nonetheless, and for not depriving us of the opportunity to see at least a little of what they had to offer. Frankly, a running order is not a train table and you are not OffRail (or whatever) – if you had time over the weekend to moan about bands playing late or finishing early it was only because during that moment you weren’t watching another band equally deserving of your time, and you really should’ve been.

Diversity is all well and good, but if you’re going to moan about Spirit Caravan you don’t really get Desertfest, do you

For more reasons that I’ve got space to go into here Scott "Wino" Weinrich has, over the many years of his involvement in some particularly influential bands, become somewhat of a figurehead for the whole stoner/doom scene and it’s no stretch to say that bringing Spirit Caravan to these shores was not only a major coup for the organisers, but their appearance was one of the reasons for going to the festival in the first place. And yet I managed to loose count of the number of people who told me "I don’t really get these old dudes, it’s just bog standard doom", or, "yeah, I dunno, man, it’s kinda dull". Dull? I saw you losing your shit to Ed Mundell’s Ultra Electric Mega Galactic snoozefest, you doom-adverse thunder-cunt!

Watching Wino, bassist Dave Sherman and drummer Henry Vasquez groove, shuffle and sway through their headline set was as affirming an experience as you were likely to have all weekend. Yes, that they had to break for a good seven to 10 minutes to replace a broken snare drum rather destroyed their early flow, but the positivity, the soul and the level of out-and-out entertainment – not to mention the musicianship – hit peaks that were hardly, if ever, bettered. And it was fun; it was a good fucking time, and that is what Desertfest is about, ya shitters!

All hail Slabdragger!

I don’t remember the first time I saw Slabdragger – not like that, it was just that it was so long ago – but the south London based trio’s lo-fi, Sleep-covering-Black Flag style, comic book stoner/doom (and rest assured, I mean that as a total compliment) mesmerised and ensnared me. Their 2011 debut, Regress, was criminally overlooked but they’ve been popping up here and there on bills around London and beyond pretty steadily, to little or no media interest, despite the fact that they rarely put a foot wrong and play like they’re headlining – anyone who caught their opening performance at Supersonic a few years back knows what I’m talking about, where they dove into one, single, decaying riff for what felt like the last 10 minutes of their set, and the thin crowed oozed away knowing they’d experienced one of the festivals highlights.

Well, maybe word had finally spread, because when the trio opened tQ’s stage at the Underworld the place was fucking packed. And I mean packed! And y’know what? They didn’t disappoint. Thunderously heavy and air tight, you might question the wisdom of throwing two new numbers into a half an hour set, but no one cared – these three sons of Sleep sent heads banging and bongs ripping in a way that few other bands managed over the entire weekend. Hails, indeed.

Grow a beard

Or not, who gives a shit – it’s about riffs, not facial foliage. That and "getting toasted, nicely toasted."

Horns up, ya shitters!

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