04.28.13 — 11:13PM GMT — Sunday — Holiday Inn, Camden
The photo above is of my wristband for this year’s Desertfest. You’ll note it’s not attached to my wrist. I got back just a little bit ago from the Electric Ballroom and had meant to ask at the front desk of the hotel for them to cut it off with scissors, since it’s pretty sturdy material — it’s had to be to last these several days — but forgot on my way up and wound up just pulling it off around my hand. I feel like I should have it framed.
Late nights beget later nights, so I’m not gonna waste time here. Day three was no less righteous than one would have to expect after the first two. Here’s how it went down for me:
The other day I received a vehement recommendation to check out Throne, to which I responded, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure they played last year and were cool.” Turns out they did play Desertfest 2012, at The Underworld, but this year the trio moved over to The Black Heart, which was where my day began with their unpretentious Sleep riffing and nodding rhythms. They still didn’t have an album for sale downstairs that I could find, but The Black Heart was, as it has been this whole weekend, packed out. On my way through, I watched a couple seconds through the doorway in the spirit of Roadburn and found myself still persuaded by their languid pacing and largely-unfrilled stonery. I had finished my cup of coffee about two minutes before they started playing, so it was a cool way to wake up.
Meanwhile, at The Underworld, Brighton/Manchester-based Blackstorm were dishing out a pounding the likes of which I’d not yet seen here. They were a band about whom I knew next to nothing, but their double-guitar uptempo crushcore was a longer way away from what Throne were doing at The Black Heart than the street that divided the two acts physically. I arrived part of the way through their set, which the five-piece delivered in lively fashion, with lots of movement, a swinging mic stand and big, chunky riffs set to breakdown beats. “Then You’ll Drown” was a burly basher, and I caught “Run with the Wolves” from their late-2012 EP, The Darkness is Getting Closer, which was distinguished by the dual vocals of guitarist Neil Kingsbury and frontman Karl Middleton. They were tight and had it together on stage, though my head was already preparing itself for the cleaving it would no doubt receive from who followed them.
Suddenly I had to wonder why I bothered bringing earplugs in the first place. British trio Conan weren’t through the second verse of “Hawk as Weapon” from last year’s low-end raging Monnos (review here) before I felt like they’d melted in my ear canal. Guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis, bassist/vocalist Phil Coumbe and drummer Paul O’Neil just released their set from last year’s Roadburn as the new Mount Wrath CD and vinyl, and while that’s definitely a satisfying listen, I was glad to see them in-person again, because no matter how loud you turn up a record, I don’t know if there’s any way to do justice to what Conan are live. Beastly heavy. Heavy to whatever degree hyperbole you might want to put to it, and while that heaviness and Davis and Coumbe‘s tones are still the star of the show, the three-piece also have grown as a stage act since I last had the good fortune to see them. Coumbe‘s low growls and Davis‘ shouting worked especially well together, and in addition to “Hawk as Weapon,” “Battle in the Swamp” and “Grim Tormentor” from Monnos, Conan also played two new songs, “Foehammer” and “Gravity Chasm,” which continued the warmongering gallop of the earlier album tracks that set up an excruciatingly slow finale, all the while keeping their fury front and center and proving there’s more to their heaviness than what comes through their amps. The other day, when I got stopped by that customs agent, he accused me of trying to illegally emigrate to the UK. I’m still not planning on it, but Conan make a solid argument in favor of doing so.
Kudos to whoever handled scheduling the bands’ timeslots for putting Conan and Toner Low right next to each other. I’d never seen the Dutch three-piece before — they’re now in their 15th year and have just released their third album — but they actually share a lot in common with Conan in terms of their general ethic. They are unreasonably loud, unremittingly heavy in tone and seem like they’re ready to follow a riff anywhere it might lead them. The difference is aggression. Where Conan are all beheadings and mayhem, Toner Low are purely stoned. Toner Low played in the dark but for a psychedelic lightshow setup they placed in front of their drummer and a sheet with projected falling pot leaves on the guitarist/vocalist, but yeah, they’re about as stoner as stoner gets, working in elements of more primal drone here and there, but keeping a solid foundation of riffs at hand at almost all times. They brought their own rigs, which made sense for the bassist since her gear was different from what seemed to be on hand, but the guitar — which seemed to be actually coated in resin from the look of it — ran through an Orange half-stack and amp they brought, and there’s been so much Orange around Desertfest I can practically taste it. I can’t argue with their having done it, though, since Toner Low sounded unbelievably good. I bought their new record and am looking forward to checking it out.
Naam beckoned. I won’t lie, there was a part of me that was like, “Why the hell would you go to London and see a band you can see in New York?” The other part of me was all, “No way dude, this is gonna be awesome. Naam have a new record coming out,” and that part of me won. Once a trio, now a foursome and tonight playing as a five-piece with the addition of a second guitar — not that they were lacking texture before, but more never hurts – Naam‘s universe seems to be in permanent expansion, both in terms of their lineup and their sound. Tonight was the best I’ve seen them play, and I’ve seen them play a few really killer shows. The integration of John Weingarten‘s keys along with Ryan Lugar‘s guitar/vocals, John Bundy‘s bass/vocals and Eli Pizzuto‘s drums is complete, and to show that, “Starchild” from last year’s The Ballad of the Starchild EP was the highlight of their whole set, though “Beyond” from their forthcoming sophomore full-length, Vow, came pretty close. They’ve nearly perfected a balance between stoner riffing and Hawkwindian space rush, and not surprisingly, their heavy psych went over huge at the Electric Ballroom. Naam are just starting a two-month European and UK tour that will have them in this part of the world for a while — perhaps it’s telling of their relative receptions that they’ll be in Europe when Vow releases — so I imagine they’ll only further solidify, but already they played a headliner’s set, closing as always with “Kingdom” from the EP of the same name (it also appeared on their 2009 debut LP), the layers of which shimmered with psychedelic vibes prior to a full-on freakout at the end of pushed-over drums and guitar destruction. Awesome.
Here’s a direct quote from my notes on Truckfigters‘ set: “Everyone in the world who’s never seen Truckfighters live is a jive sucker and that’s that.” More or less, that covers my feelings on the matter. The Örebro trio — Ozo on vocals/bass, Dango on guitar and now Poncho on drums — are easily the most energetic and engaging fuzz rock acts I’ve ever seen, and before they were through perpetual opener “Desert Cruiser,” both Ozo and Dango had gone past the monitors at the front of the stage to be closer to the crowd, who were singing along loud enough to be heard over the instruments. But Truckfighters – who are fresh off a tour with Norwegian blackened punkers Kvelertak and shortly headed to Australia and New Zealand for a run of shows — aren’t just getting their cardio in, they’re also nailing the material and delivering it with a genuine sense of spontaneity and the impression that anything can happen at any given moment, such as Ozo jumping into the crowd during closer “In Search of The” or the band launching into “Chameleon” after someone in the crowd requested it, jamming on “Desert Cruiser” or unveiling two new songs, the first which fit (“fett?”) well with the bounce of “Monte Gargano,” which came later, and the second which had a fuller, fuzzier shuffle in the beginning and wound up thicker but still moving, with a quick bass and drum break to set up a return to what seemed on first impression to be a solid hook. “Majestic” was welcome, and from their audience interaction to the tightness of their performance — at one point Dango fell on stage after jumping off the drum riser and didn’t even stop playing as he got up — there are few records supposedly coming out before the end of this year that I’m looking forward to as much as the new Truckfighters.
An hour hardly seemed like enough time for a proper Colour Haze set. Back in September 2012, the ultra-influential Munich heavy psych trio rolled through London and did a full three hours, complete with guest appearances, keys, and so on. Still, I’ll take what I can get, and when it came to “Transformation” from She Said (review here) — my album of the year last year — I still heard the horn parts in my head even though no one was playing them live, so I’m not about to bitch that the experience was somehow lacking. It wasn’t. Colour Haze were a complete 180 in terms of presence from Truckfighters, mostly subdued, no jumping, no running around, plenty of grooving, but less about getting the heart rate up than giving the audience something to shut its eyes and get lost in. As guitarist/vocalist Stefan Koglek, bassist Philip Rasthofer and drummer Manfred Merwald jammed past “Moon” from 2008′s All and into “Love” from their ’04 self-titled, they were so locked into what they were doing that the real miracle of it seemed to be they didn’t lose the crowd in the slightest. An extended take only gave everyone watching more to dig on, so that by the time “Peace, Brothers and Sisters” and “Tempel” came around, the Electric Ballroom was suitably hypnotized. Seriously, I just wanted to give them money. Like, “Here, Colour Haze, I have 50 Euro left over from last weekend. Please take it.” I’ve seen them before — their set at Emissions from the Monolith in 2006 changed my life (ask me about it sometime), and at one or two Roadburn fests along the way — but even though this felt like a sampling, it was ultra-satisfying to watch these godfathers of the modern European scene do what quite simply nobody does better. As I already knew I wouldn’t be staying for the entire Pentagram set, Colour Haze were sort of my closeout for Desertfest, and I couldn’t have asked for a warmer farewell than that. They were masterful.
I got a press release earlier this week that oft-imitated doom pioneers Pentagram had a new guitarist in the form of Philly-based Matt Goldborough, but that the lineup was otherwise the same as when Victor Griffin was still slinging axe, with Sean Saley on drums and Greg Turley on bass with frontman/defining presence Bobby Liebling on vocals. Of course, lineup changes are nothing new for Liebling‘s band — their legacy is as much about tumult as it is about the riff to “Forever My Queen” — but Griffin‘s presence brought a certain legitimacy to Pentagram‘s recent run and their 2011 Last Rites comeback album (review here), and his departure, whatever the circumstances may have been, changes the context of the band, Griffin – who also played today with his new outfit In~Graved – being one of very few others who’ve done time in Pentagram who can lay reasonable claim to the material. He may well have come out to guest on guitar (I recall seeing the band in 2009 when he wasn’t with them and that happened), but if he did, I wasn’t there to see it. I stayed for about four songs and then had to split to come back to the hotel, write and pack for my flight out tomorrow. For the portion I did catch, however — “Day of Reckoning,” “Forever My Queen,” “Treat Me Right” and “Livin’ in a Ram’s Head” — Pentagram were tight and Liebling was Liebling. There are few things as much fun to watch in a concert setting as Bobby Liebling flipping out to a guitar solo. Like he hasn’t been staring at them for 40 years now. Awesome. Turley and Saley have the material on lockdown, and as the new guy, Goldborough more than held his own on guitar, a younger presence giving some freshness to what might just as easily have come across stale otherwise. I’ve seen worse from Pentagram, and though one can dream of this or that reunion lineup, the simple fact that they exist and persist is to be… respected? Maybe. Probably. Definitely gazed at in astonishment. And so they were.
I have work to do. As in, for my job. And so I know that Desertfest, as blissful as it has been, must be over. My plan is to write up some concluding thoughts for this whole trip tomorrow on the plane, and I’ll include a thanks list with that, but before I switch off to picture-sorting mode, I just want to say it’s been an absolute pleasure and an honor to be back here in Camden this weekend, to see the bands I’ve been lucky enough to be here to see and to meet the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet. This place is awesome (but for the weather), the music is great and I feel like even more than last year, Desertfest is developing a genuine vibe all its own. I was beat today, t-i-r-e-d, but at the same time, I knew I wanted to take as much of the proceedings in as possible, because when I’m back home slogging away in the office, I’m going to miss it.
More to come tomorrow, and more pics after the jump. Thanks as always for reading.