It’s 3.30pm on Sunday afternoon as I open the tiny door that leads into Camden’s Purple Turtle door and I’m immediately hit by a wall of heat and noise. Welcome to DesertFest! The heat is created by all the bodies crammed into this small venue, and the noise is created by XII Boar cranking out their stoner-ish biker rock. The Stetson’s show this trio are sons of the south (although in this case I think it’s Hampshire) and their denim vests and fine line in filthy stage patter show this Boar is at home with the hogs. The band are playing tracks from their debut “Pitworthy” and that title song’s long, sophisticated stoner breakdown displays chops somewhat obscured by the bands image. A lot of their other songs start well but fizzle out, but you cannot deny that they incite good times and are a fine intro to the festival.
It’s a mere 60-second dash across the road into Koko to catch Karma to Burn, and the West Virginian instrumental riff machines invite mass headbanging right from the off. The band are playing material from latest album “Arch Stanton“, complete with footage from Sergio Leone movies which should make for a pretty cool experience, however, I hate to say it but it’s just too damn loud! I mean painfully loud! I’ve been to hundreds of metal gigs and would never countenance wearing ear plugs but Karma to Burn force me to the back of the venue. Anyway, without the visceral thrill of being down the front I find their instrumental onslaught bores me after a while so I move back to The Purple Turtle.
I savour the quiet for five minutes but here comes a Desert Storm from Oxford. I’m unfamiliar with them and as they troupe on stage I note they look like a hardcore band, all short haired dudes, but it turns out they are just about everything but hardcore. The band move through so many genres throughout their set that they are impossible to pigeon-hole. Several of the songs find gravelled throated singer Matt Ryan bellowing in death metal style over widescreen stoner rock with expansive Jimmy Page-esque riffing and blues-based grooves. Clutch and Triggerman are obvious touchstones. Like both of those bands, Desert Storm songs are stories; wild, fantastical and desperate tales. I love bands that do this, and it’s soon clear that I love Desert Storm. And then they play ‘Horizon’, which sounds like Down, just to reinforce it!. Not every song is totally great; ‘Jackal’, a pretty old number, is faster and meaner and ditches the blues influence, and it becomes obvious they’re better when they’re slower and funkier.
The best bits? There’s a cool breakdown and Gary Moore-esque solo in ‘Queen Reefer’ that utterly floors you before the big riff kicks in again that I can only describe as majestic. ‘Collapse of the Bison Lung’ is a pounding, chest-thumping epic and is the first classic of the day. And ‘Enslaved in the Icy Tundra’ is the second, a shape-shifting Mastodon-tastic prog metal song of such immense power I thought the walls were gonna blow out. Phew!
Back at Koko again and Acid King are proper old school US doom a la St Vitus. Apart from the stratospheric solos virtually everything is played at a hobbled, lumbering pace. Every note is taken out and inspected for impurity in an impressively single-minded effort to slow the spinning world whilst bashing your ears in a manner akin to Chinese water torture – drip, drip, dooooooom. Some time towards the end of their set things get trippier with the excellent ‘Coming Down From Out of Space’ and from somewhere a pungent fog of dope smoke emerges – that’s dedication in the tightly run smoke-free zones of today’s venues! That’s about as atmospheric as it gets though as Acid King are a charisma-free zone with no audience interaction, and apart from a couple of spacey images on the back screen the most flashy thing about them is the vocalist’s flares.
A band who do know about presentation are Ufomammut, and I get myself positioned centrally behind the mixing desk for the best view in the house well before they come on. Unfortunately they’ve barely started when severe technical issues for guitarist Poia bring things to a halt. The atmosphere has palpably dissipated by the time they get things straight but the band do their best, bringing all the choicest, heaviest cuts from “Ecate”. Bathed in red light and with clever, eerie footage projecting behind them this does feel like a proper show and during “Daemons” it looks like the band are appearing live from a blood soaked cavernous underworld. Still, that sound and volume does the bands subtler elements no favours, with the synths and samples struggling to make any impact. If I didn’t know the songs from “Ecate” so well I may well have found their sound merely a dirge.
I take a risk now and leave Koko, knowing that as tonight is a sellout I may not be able to get back in for Sleep. However, I decide I want to check out some more smaller bands and I head across the road to the Turtle to catch The Wounded Kings. They have a super-fuzzed, super-charged doom vibe similar to Electric Wizard, which is fine of course, but I find their songs a bit drawn out and samey and I have to admit I am more of a fan of ex-vocalist Sherie Neyland than the returning George Birch. There are vague traces of gothic drama to their sound which keep threatening to bloom into something more unique, but they remain earthbound and somewhat staid, forcing me to seek something livelier before I journey home. It may well be that by now I’m suffering from doom fatigue so I head to Our Black Heart, my fave bar in Camden (coincidence?), to experience Short Sharp Shock. SSS, a hardcore band which sounds agreeably off-message and the perfect pick-me-up after dining on dirge for several hours.
I turn up to find the upstairs venue deserted at the supposed kick off time – “What have I done?! Sweet Jesus, what have I done? Does this mean I’ve abandoned Sleep for nothing?” Luckily they turn up 15 minutes later and immediately cheer me up no end with their classic crossover stylings. SSS are angry, brutal but entertaining, and if that’s the order of the day then it seems only right that lead shouter Foxy should resemble a less ginger Frankie Boyle. The small but enthusiastic crowd party like it’s 1986, SSS bringing to mind Stormtroopers of Death, early Anthrax, D.R.I. and all those other bands whose baseball caps we wore back in the day. They put a smile on my face, even when Foxy hectors us about the Gulf War (not exactly topical) and processed meat. It wouldn’t be hardcore without a little bit of politics.
So with that smile still plastered to my mush, and many ciders flowing through my system, I head on home, happy with my day out. Sure, not every band was amazing but the atmosphere and just the ability to see so much has been brilliant and I’m determined to do it again next year, if the metal gods are willing.