LIVE: Sleep / Candlemass / Wolves In The Throne Room and more @ Desertfest, London

By Glen Bushell

Now in its sixth year, Desertfest always presents one of the most diverse line-ups from the world of heavy music, and 2017 is no exception. Of the number of Camden venues featuring bands, this year also included The Roundhouse, where most of today’s action takes place, but we will get to that later. With a variety of things to keep us occupied, picking and choosing who to watch was a hard decision, but what we did catch plenty throughout the Sunday.

Starting early in The Black Heart, Wizard Fight get the day off to a suitably aggressive start. Battling through sound issues, their crushing blend of sludge and doom, with some classic heavy metal riffing thrown in for good measure is the best Sunday wake up call. It is then a quick dash across the street to the confines of the hallowed halls of The Underworld for Hark, who with every inch of floor space taken up by eager eyes and ears. They are one of the best-kept secrets in the UK metal scene right now, and will soon be taking on these venues on their own.

From there, with our appetites for bottom end guitar tones suitably whet, it’s a short walk up to The Roundhouse for the first time today for Bongzilla. Playing their second set of the weekend, and returning to London for the first time in more than 10 years, they are on perfect form. “Ya’ll high yet?” asks vocalist Michael Makela under a shroud of green lights and smoke, before lurching into the slow burning drawl of ‘Greenthumb’. Even if you choose not to indulge in such delicacies, Bongzilla’s hypnotic sludge metal is enough to make you lucid in itself.

Back down at The Underworld, Wear Your Wounds are preparing to offer something different to the Desertfest faithful. Being their first ever UK performance, and seeing Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon in an entirely different setting, it proves to be incredibly special. It is a personal project for Bannon, using a softer vocal delivery over droning guitars reminiscent of Swans, laced with a Pink Floyd style progression. Bringing their recently released self-titled LP to life, ‘Wear Your Wounds’ and ‘Goodbye Old Friend’ are emotional trips into the ether, and it is honour to witness their UK debut.

While many of the bands today lean towards doom, stoner, and sludge, the highlight is without a doubt Wolves In The Throne Room. They are somewhat of the sore thumb on The Roundhouse bill, but their “Cascadian Black Metal” is caustic and aggressive, while maintaining an otherworldly feel. This rare UK appearance may even be too fast for the stoner and doom fans in attendance, yet there is an appreciation for the potent hypnosis of ‘Queen of the Borrowed Light’ and ‘I Will Lay Down My Bones Among The Rocks and Roots’. Usually more suited to smaller venues, they fill the room with their rich and layered sound, and their hour-long set goes by all too quick.

This means that despite being a veteran band, Candlemass have a tough act to follow. And sadly, they fail to live up to expectation, seeming weak by comparison to the stunning display we just witnessed. Their latter material borders on very standard metal, losing the magical feel of their earlier doom work. Candlemass can still play, though, and no one could take away from them given how tight they deliver each track. Of course, ‘At The Gallows End’ is still a classic, and on another night, Candlemass could have owned this show.

Lastly, it is down to the almighty Sleep to close Desertfest, and they do so in majestic fashion. For the 90 minutes they are on stage they methodically trawl through their slow, brooding back catalogue. ‘Holy Mountain’ and ‘Dragnoaut’ are monolithic slabs of towering stoner rock, with Matt Pike stacking up riff after riff at searing volume. Sleep are the masters of their craft, and truthfully, nobody does it better. Al Cisnero’s dry and dusty vocals mimic his looming bass lines through ‘Antarticans Thawed’, locking in with Jason Roeder’s pummelling beats. Even though each track sits around the twenty-minute mark, they blend into a seamless trip of riff-filled bliss until the final, crushing notes ring out. It was the perfect end to one of the most unique, well-organised festivals the UK has to offer.