Desertfest London declares itself to be “the UK’s premier stoner rock, doom, psych and sludge festival”, but this year’s edition also throws in some welcome curveballs, such as punk hardcore legends Discharge, who headlined The Underworld on Friday night. Sprawling across six venues in Camden Town over three days, consider if you will a more compact and heavier version of Camden Rocks Festival – only with more beards!

The Underworld, Camden – 5th May 2023 (Photo: Mandy Bang)

Margarita Witch Cult @ The Black Heart – Bandcamp / Facebook / Instagram

We arrive in a bright and sunny Camden on Friday afternoon some 30 minutes before my first must-see band of the weekend, Margarita Witch Cult. Thankfully, there’s no queue to gain our festival wristbands and we hurry inside The Black Heart, pausing momentarily to swoon over the fact that they serve Buckfast here – something I’ve never noticed before – and I’m all too aware that I may well need to imbibe some of the monks’ delightful pick-me-up tonic for a little energy boost later in the day. MWC have the unenviable task of being the first band to play the festival but there’s an enthusiastic queue forming on the staircase leading up to the live music and, luckily, we manage to squeeze into the 170-capacity room, which is absolutely rammed by the time the band take to the stage.

Hailing from Birmingham, Margarita Witch Cult’s Black Sabbath-influenced riffs are well received as instrumental, “Aradia”, sets the tone of what’s to come. Heads nod in unison as their recently released second single, “Diabolical Influence” (or “Diabolical Infant Whales”, as I call it – seriously, listen to the song and maybe you’ll hear what I do), is devoured by a crowd hungry for this trio’s thunderous stadium doom. “Death Lurks At Every Turn” is a rabble-rouser with an infliction of gallows humour as singer/guitarist, Scott Vincent, reminds us that, “No matter what you try to do / You’re getting older”. The song is bookended by a guy in the audience appreciatively yelling, “Fuck, yeah!”, before Scott states, “You might recognise this one…” Sadly, what follows is not a Table Scraps cover (Scott’s other band), but an unexpected rendition of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”. It’s a fabulous re-imagining with a slightly slowed tempo and a riffy break that has me wondering if they’ve segued into another song – they haven’t but simply offer an alternative take on how the song might have sounded if Tony Iommi was the guitarist in Billy Idol’s band. “Annihilation” is a thrashy burst of NWOBHM before “The Witchfinder Comes” opens up with a familiar riff locked in the vaults of any self-respecting 1980s’ metal kid’s record collection. Apparently, the song was inspired by Amicus and Hammer Horror movie marathons during lockdown, which sounds like a pretty good way to spend one’s time to me. For a band that’s only performed a few club shows in London so far, they are welcomed as if they’re beloved old friends playing to their home crowd, which is joyous to witness – particularly when they’ve said in interviews that it was their goal from day one to play Desertfest. Scott openly admits, “My heart hurts…” – in a good way we hope – and the band finish with a furious flurry of Sabbath riffs named “Brum Rock” – and today it certainly does! The band’s debut, self-titled album is available now via Heavy Psych Sounds Records – do yourself a favour and check it out here.

Margarita Witch Cult’s set list: Aradia / Diabolical Influence / Death Lurks At Every Turn / White Wedding / Theme From Cyclops / Lord Of The Flies / Annihilation / The Witchfinder Comes / Sacrifice / Brum Rock

Bad Breeding @ The Underworld – Bandcamp / Facebook / Instagram / Website

After an afternoon of sternum-shaking, heavy riffage, it’s refreshing to witness a band with an energised punk edge. Stevenage’s Bad Breeding are seven plus years and four albums into their career, but tonight is my first encounter with them. Frontman, Chris Dodd, prowls the stage as if he’s been chained to the 9 to 5 grind against his will all week, while guitarist, Angus Gannagé, brandishes an eye catching flying V guitar. Rather worryingly, a trumpet also makes an appearance at the beginning and end of their set but thankfully there are no questionable faux ska/pop punk moments – just a solid heads down, backs to the wall set of serious, hardcore punk songs, which echo back to anarcho-punk originators, Crass. A wall of reverb swells for opening track, “Rebuilding”, and although I can’t particularly make out any of the lyrics barked in quick succession, a little scan of their website reveals thought provoking essays that provide the backstories to individual compositions and other meanderings on life in small town Britain, broken by over a decade of Tory divide-and-conquer rule over the poorest and most deprived communities. During “More The Merrier”, which is a delight of jagged-edged guitars, the dance floor erupts into a swirling cyclone of bodies. There are noticeable sound issues during their set and at times it feels like the band are two different parties happening on the same street, with Angus’s blistering guitar work seemingly somewhat out of step with the rolling Slayer-esque drums of Ashlea Bennett and pounding bass of Charlie Rose. It’s messy and uncompromising, just as it should be.

Bad Breeding set list: Rebuilding / More The Merrier / Prescription / Joy Ride / Exiled / Human Capital / Whose Cause / Venerable Hand / Devotion / Red Flag Rising / Burn This Flag / Endless Impossibility

Discharge @ The Underworld – Bandcamp / Facebook / Instagram / Website

I’m chatting at a table with friends as Discharge set up when suddenly the opening riff of Metallica’s “Seek And Destroy” is played from the stage. Suddenly everyone leaps up from the table and bounds on to the dance floor in anticipation and my friend, James, admits he’s been listening to Discharge exclusively for weeks. For the uninitiated, Discharge are old school, formed in Stoke-on-Trent in 1977. And, like most bands that have been around for decades, their backstory is pretty difficult for newcomers like me to follow – frankly, that’s what Wikipedia‘s for. Bless my dear gig buddy, Antoni, who did attempt to educate me and, in the name of research, advised me to check out anything from 1980-82, i.e. a slew of EPs and their debut album, 1982’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing, plus selected career highlights too numerous to namecheck.

“A Hell On Earth” is a brief stab at reminding us of the horrors of Armageddon and sees the first stage diver of the set. Extra security have been hired by the venue, fearful that the crowd are going to kick off but one of said security seems to be down with the band and nods along and looks rather happy to be here. During “Hatebomb”, shirtless mohawked singer, JJ, teeters on the edge of the stage, thrusting the mic into the audience who enthusiastically yell the lyrics. The musicianship is tight and a wonderful cacophony of oblivion or death drums, shredding guitars and rumbling bass loud enough to awaken Satan. Speaking of which, I scribbled a note: “Satan jumps rope to this beat” – I’ve no idea if that’s a quote from the band or if my Buckfast-soaked brain got a little poetic. Thirteen years of Tory rule in the UK gets “Never Again” spat at it in rage and disgust as we realise Hell is truly empty and all the devils are here. On a more pleasant note, “War Is Hell” is sweetly dedicated to Bad Breeding who clearly left an impression and it’s good to see the older, life-weary punks respecting and appreciating their younger counterparts – a true sign of humility and community. JJ gleefully helps folks up on to the stage to enable them to leap back off into the safety of the rabid crowd and amusingly declares “It’s a swimming pool up here”. During “Decontrol”, a guy at the front of the crowd excitedly plays air drums and with that the band are out of here. No encore, no bullshit, no song outstays its welcome and every track is swiftly executed with the precision of spiked integrity and long may these old punks continue to thrive.

Discharge set list: The Blood Runs Red / Fight Back / Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing / The Nightmare Continues / A Look At Tomorrow / The End / A Hell On Earth / Cries Of Help / Ain’t No Feeble Bastard / Protest And Survive / Hype Overload / New World Order / Corpse Of Decadence / Hatebomb / Never Again / State Violence State Control / Realities Of War / Accessories By Molotov / War Is Hell / War’s No Fairytale / You Deserve Me / The Possibility Of Life’s Destruction / Decontrol

Zetra @ Powerhaus – Bandcamp / Instagram / YouTube

Zetra offer up a mellow Deftones-esque vibe, minus the shouty bits, and ease us into Sunday’s Desertfest shenanigans at Powerhaus (fka Dingwalls). It’s not one of my favourite venues, despite having multi-level floors which allow vertically-challenged gig-goers a better view of the stage, as it also provides at least three opportunities to break one’s ankle on the poorly illuminated steps. According to metal weekly, Kerrang!, Zetra are a mysterious London duo who all your favourite bands love. Singer/guitarist, Adam, stands barefoot and on tippy-toes while Jordan performs synth/vocal duties. They wear flowing black garments, death metal make-up and studded wristbands and white chains decorate their mic stands – but don’t let any of that put you off. The music is wildly melodic set to a Dr Avalanche-style drum beat, which propels them into goth-metal-drama territory. Their press release reads: “Zetra are a shadowy vessel for intricate storytelling by way of fuzzed-out guitars and majestic melody. A unique amalgam of introspection and euphoric sonic elevation”. They’re certainly one of the big surprises of the weekend and if you’re heading out to see A.A. Williams on her UK tour, do get there early to catch Zetra’s support slot from 20th to 26th May.

Boris @ Roundhouse – Bandcamp / Facebook / Instagram / Twitter / Website

There’s a steady stream of Desertfesters heading north to the Roundhouse as we make our way to see the extremely prolific and seemingly permanently on tour, Boris. It takes a while to get past the irritating security checks and the band have already begun as we enter this 3,300-capacity legendary venue. Exhausted festival-goers litter the sides of the dance floor like sleepy bears awaiting the season’s change and the arrival of Uncle Acid’s leaping salmon swimming upstream. I watch the theatrics of Boris from the barricade looking almost side on to the stage and suddenly realise why I often have a bad view at this venue – the stage is way too low! The Japanese band – named after a Melvin’s song – have released a staggering 29 albums since their formation in 1992 and are purposely difficult to classify. The bulk of their set this evening is culled from their Heavy Rocks (2022) and No (2020) albums as the band effortlessly blur the lines and weave between experimental rock, avant-garde metal, drone and dream pop, with white noise distortion and even a touch of ’80s glam/hair metal wailing histrionics and the odd rumble of thrash thrown in. On first seeing Takeshi with what appeared to be a double-necked guitar, I was instantly worried that we were going to be bombarded with musically accomplished, yet ultimately wanky, guitar solos. My rolling eyes of concern subside on realising the cumbersome musical invention simply allows him to switch easily between playing bass and rhythm guitar. A belly dancer, Holly Amber, is introduced and performs a routine during “Nosferatou”, her outfit resplendent with gold sequins and bells which chime in time to the music as she moves. The act noticeably arouses the interest of a few men around me who decide to get a closer look. Guitarist, Wata, plays keyboards on “(Not) Last Song”, the quietest song of their set. With a melancholic edge, it holds the attention and is their most mesmerizing composition of the night, with a heartfelt and pained vocal performance. Elsewhere in the set, dry ice envelops lead singer, Atsuo, as he holds his arms aloft and inspires the crowd into a fevered chant of “Boris! Boris!”, and for a moment it feels as if we’ve slipped into a Conservative party conference. Shudder.

Boris set list: Anti-Gone / Non Blood Lore / She Is Burning / My Name Is Blank / Cramper / Question 1 / Nosferatou / Blood Red / HxCxHxC – Perforation Line / Kiki No Ue / Fundamental Error / Loveless / (Not) Last Song

Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats @ Roundhouse – Facebook / Instagram / Website

I head to the seating area upstairs for the grand finale of Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats as I’m not familiar with their psych/stoner outpourings but am intrigued by their bio: “Imagine the original Alice Cooper band jamming in a cell with early Black Sabbath and the Stooges, whilst sitting on murder charges and you may get a glimpse into their fuzzed up world of exploding tube amps and cymbal smashing mayhem.”

The dance floor below is filling up nicely as the new animated video of Motörhead covering Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is projected on to the stage backdrop. The video ends and receives applause – which I find weird in a cinema (unless members of the production crew/cast are in attendance) and even more bizarre in a gig setting. Unlike me, perhaps the audience here are aware that this is pretty special and something of a premiere for the video, the track having been recorded in 1998 and left somewhat forgotten on a compilation CD for 25 years.

The assembled audience are poised in purple and pink lighting as Uncle Acid’s intro music – reminiscent of a James Bernard-composed Hammer Horror piece – plays, while the backdrop displays the band’s name in a dripping blood red font. Guitars chug and, if you can imagine a couple of thousand people forming a sea and nodding forwards as if they’re a psychically-connected hive mind, then that’s akin to my view tonight. “Death’s Door” is a murky caustic anthem – arms raised, pushing forward into the burning wastelands. Strips of red lighting highlight and move, flashing across the crowd in an epileptic seizure-inducing bliss-out as security rush to the barrier to assist crowd-surfers. A reveller falls in the crowd and is quickly pulled to their feet – there is a sense of community spirit out there on the frontline and tonight we are all comrades in this less of a gig and more of an experience adventure. At one point a guy stands tall on a friend’s shoulders, holding a cup of beer aloft like a champ and I think I’m at a Mission gig.

“Slow Death” sprawls over an enraptured audience with squealing guitars; it urges me to close my eyes and climb the pulsing lucid mindscape. More wine is required but I appear to be glued to my seat somewhere in the ’70s. This is the soundtrack to those weird dreams which hit when I’m overtired but my brain is still racing; it’s that half-sleep phase when I’m neither fully asleep or quite awake, yet somehow oddly able to guide my dreams, which are more like psychedelic visuals churned up by my brain that are often punctuated by vivid nightmarish images that startle me awake. It’s also a great song to make out to, as a couple sat several rows in front of me do just that – this song is definitely on their sexy time playlist.

During “Melody Lane”, the smell of weed slowly permeates the air around me and, instead of wondering how someone has managed to light up without getting kicked out, I simply imagine that recreational drugs would definitely enhance the Uncle Acid experience, as avenues open up in their compositions and invite you into their core to join them on their merry yellow brick road of self-discovery and oblivion.

Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats set list: Mt. Abraxas / Mind Crawler / Shockwave City / Death’s Door / Pusher Man / 13 Candles / Ritual Knife / Slow Death / Crystal Spiders / Melody Lane / I’ll Cut You Down / No Return

Desertfest London 2024 will be happening on 17th-19th May – follow their socials and keep an eye on their website for more info: Facebook / Instagram / Website.

The next Desertfest will take place in Berlin this weekend on 19th-21st May featuring Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats and L.A. Witch amongst others. The New York edition runs over 14th-16th September, with Melvins, Monster Magnet, Boris and Godflesh already confirmed. The final Desertfest of 2023 will take place in Antwerp, Belgium which hosts Shellac, Cult Of Luna and Margarita Witch Cult on 20th-22nd October.

Other bands we watched over the weekend that are worth checking out are:
GNOB: Bandcamp / Facebook / Instagram
Mountains: Bandcamp / Facebook / Instagram
Rosy Finch (see full review here): Bandcamp / Facebook / Instagram / Twitter / YouTube / Website

Review by Mandy Bang @mandybang
Photos by Mark Dans L’Espace
, except where otherwise noted and used with kind permission of the photographer/copyright holder
Desertfest artwork by Callum Rooney

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