Desertfest Antwerp 2023: full review

Written by Featured, Live

October 2023. The world is running amok. Wars and terrorist attacks are still a huge part of the news, so a 3-day sonic escape remains a tried and tested remedy for the ambient gloom. For nine years, the Desertfest Antwerp team has been treating us to doom, psych, sludge and all sorts of fuzz rock. Each year, our totem board (and its plethora of stickers) announcing DESERTFEST ANTWERP has taken pride of place outside of the TRIX venue. The music complex remains the perfect place for the magic to happen, with its three venues: the Vulture Stage for new discoveries, the Canyon Stage for established bands and the Desert Stage for headliners, completed by a merch area (for spending money and chitchatting) and food court (all hail the French fries-mojito combo) to make the event as cozy and practical as it is appealing. But it also and mostly the fact that the entire stoner community makes one in this temple of music. This is what Desertfest Antwerp is all about: the neverending pleasure of catching up with friends and people you come across each year, sharing all the fun, decibels and Cristal Pils. Desertfest 2023, and so the sonic ride continues… (PHOTOS: Sylvain Golvet)

DAY 1 – Friday 20th October

Let’s be honest: the excitement of bumping into every friend makes us miss the Sabbath-worshipping opener Sabbath Worship Margarita Witch Cult and retro lovers Siena Root. We really get into the festivities with post-everything unit This Will Destroy You. And what a treat! Melancholic buildups interspersed with a neurotic tumult of guitars weave a poetry that’s both ethereal and cathartic. The music is delicate and luminous in its most experimental passages, while the swirling guitars keep the emotional appeal strong. With wet eyes, we let ourselves be tempted by Poland’s Moonstone as our first discovery act on the Vulture Stage. Following in the footsteps of their compatriots, the trio’s doom is far more abrasive and atmospheric than on their last album (“Growth”, 2023), which drew inspiration from the likes of Pallbearer and Type O Negative.

Then comes the first clash of the weekend. To choose is to give up, they say. Big mistake: in this case, you had to split your schedule and watch both acts, starting with Carlton Melton’s hypnotic set, followed by Quicksand’s ’90s revival. A gnarly trip awaits on the Vulture Stage: Carlton Melton is a peaking motorik pulse coupled with John Carpenter’s menacing atmospheres. It’s a desire to explore space metaphysics all while studying mankind after ditching them into hostile territory. Another room, another atmosphere: tonight, a packed Canyon Stage is welcoming Quicksand for their “Slip 30th Anniversary Tour”. Surprise: Stephen Brodsky joined the lineup, and his versatile shredding blends perfectly with the New Yorkers’ sharp and crystal-clear (like a pilsner) post-hardcore. The prolific guitarist has been on all fronts this year with Cave In, Mutoid Man and now as a guest on this tour. And we want more! Walter Schreifels and Sergio Vega’s smiles and positive energy fuel the euphoric audience, who’s ready to sway to their sharp grooves. The feel-good moment of the festival.

Since we’ve all already seen Truckfighters multiple times, it is time for another discovery with Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds. Behind this weird monicker hides Brian Tristan, founder of the Gun Club, also guitarist of the Cramps and Nick Cave. The man’s pedigree alone was worth a trip to the Vulture Stage! We’re sailing between neo-western and psychedelic blues, sounding groovy and eccentric enough to pique our interest. We barely have time to climb the steps to the Canyon Stage and hydrate before today’s other legendary outfit Nebula gets on stage. Dressed all in white, Eddie Glass is a real eye-catcher, and it’s great to see him in top form, churning out riffs by the mile. A huge thumbs up goes to drummer Mike Amster, whose tight and sharp pummeling fuels the Californians’ unstoppable grooves. Crowdsurfers are aplenty, heads nod… yet there’s something missing, despite the unanimous positive feedback at the end of the gig. Was the show too predictable? Or was it all on the mostly Flemish audience, who’s renowned for being more static?

DAY 2 – Saturday 21st October

This feeling is confirmed on the second day, as Icelandic trio The Vintage Caravan are having a hard time waking up a static crowd, whereas they take over every meter square of the main stage and stir up the crowd with their hits “On The Run”, “Midnight Meditation” and “Expand Your Mind”. One thing is for sure: the muddy sound of the Desert Stage didn’t help. Mantar also suffers a few technical setbacks, but the power they unleash is such that you can’t help being blown away each time around. Erinç is like a machine gun behind the kit, to which Hanno responds with chainsaw riffs and, leaning under his microphone, delivers his tense screams to make sense of his anger. Their performance is hypnotic, violent, dirty, vicious, brash and impudent: in short, thsi is Mantar.

On the other hand, King Buffalo doesn’t suffer from the same sound issues. The trio already made a strong impression at Hellfest this summer, but the show they put on that night is close to perfection. Like the geometric shapes moving in the background, the entire set lays on the slow dynamics between their repetitive patterns. Sean McVay’s crystalline almost whispered vocals and Dan Reynolds’ round and feline bass deliver bliss to an audience already in trance. Their albums might be another story to some of us, but I must admit that their live shows are nothing but sublime magic carpet rides.

Under the radar for many, Bordeaux trio Red Sun Atacama plays at the same time as their well-established compatriots Year of No Light. And yet, the French part of the audience gathers massively in front of the Vulture Stage for what turns out to be the band’s consecration. Somewhere between feverish punk and hypnotic blues, the trio literally melted the walls of the Trix. A milestone has been reached, and the performance is sure to go down in history. Another band who made an impression is La Muerte (“What, you missed La Muerte? They killed it!” is probably the phrase I heard most this weekend), whose raving feedback was matched only by their reputation. Other advice was less helpful, such as checking out Khan. To me, their psychedelic stoner rock was more sleep-inducing than intoxicating.

While I’ve (consciously or unconsciously) avoided all the “witch” acts of the weekend (Margarita Witch Cult, Witch Piss, Dead Witches, Satanic Witch), Cult Of Luna remains the unmissable headliner of this Saturday. No matter if you’ve already seen them many times, the colossal wall of sound they deploy commands respect. Every time. We can only make out silhouettes of the band through the thick smoke on stage, only to focus on their crushing, visceral music. Cult Of Luna is still going strong after 25 years and seems to be pushing the limits of sound time and time again.

To close the second day, we’re still sad about The Great Machine being canceled and replaced on short notice by a bunch of whippersnappers who had the brilliant idea of giving away a record for every purchase of a red hat. It’s a good thing they didn’t have a case of Borat underwear to clear. Hell, we would have looked silly.

DAY 3 – Sunday 22nd October

On this third day, I confess I wasn’t really willing to see Apex Ten, for their album “Aashray” hadn’t left me with an indelible memory back in May. But on the sound advice of the Lords of the Valley — those orange-wearing aesthetes you get to meet at any stoner bamboozle in France — I ended at the Vulture Stage. This band is more than worthy of a closer look, with their improvisations sitting somewhere between Elder and Electric Moon. We cannot recommend enough the “Chem-trails Live” album released in 2022, to embrace their potential fully. All in all, they provided us with a great way to get off the ground without necessarily landing.

We truly feel like staying in the cosmos, and who better than Monkey 3 to put us in orbit? Spared the sound problems of the main stage, the Swiss bring Pink Floyd back to life in its most celestial version. You can see the joy on Boris de Piante’s face. His Gilmourian solos are expressive without ever overpowering the rest of the band. This is sublime, to the point of tears. Literally. We may have made this journey many times before, but the landscape through the porthole is as magnificent as ever. What if the horizon wasn’t the source of all things? Other desert rock legends — shamelessly planned to play a packed Vulture Stage — offer a meditation where infinity meets the depths of our soul. Attending a Yawning Man concert is like crossing paths with a shaman. The trio draws sonic arabesques conducive to introspection. Fully focused on their charismatic but quiet leader Gary Arce, we lament the absence of Mario Lalli, whose bass lines were second to none in transporting us on this immobile journey.

The Sunday is synonymous with hard-hitting rock, starting with stoner rock locals Fire Down Below. With bangers like “Cocaine Hippo”, “California” and “The Last Cowboy”, they have what it takes to set the Canyon Stage on fire. They know their classics from Kyuss to Fu Manchu, and their fervor is such (the last song is played in the audience) that we leave ecstatic and eager to keep the rock’n’roll debauchery going with Duel or The Atomic Bitchwax. With the latter being also scheduled on the Canyon Stage, the mid-sized venue becomes the ultimate party spot on this last day of the festival. There’s no stopping Duel and their kerosene-fueled proto-metal: they set the venue on fire, its size suiting the band better than bigger outdoor stages. It’s finally starting to smell like sweat! We also come out drained but happy and wet from The Atomic Bitchwax set a bit later on. We already knew that “Forty-Five” will follow “Hope You Die” and “Giant”, and that “Birth To The Earth”, “War Claw” and “Kiss The Sun” were inseparable, didn’t we? And this is exactly what we came for, right?

However, today’s unexpected buzz is generated by none other than Howling Giant. Seriously, these guys truly delivered tonight, starting with a huge dose of fun and grins. The crowd of connoisseurs returns the favor by singing along at the top of their lungs. It’s hard to pigeonhole their mix of heavy and stoner rock, but their enthusiasm is so infectious that you can’t help getting hooked. Naturally, the Vulture audience starts chanting “Godzilla” in unison — yes, the cult Blue Öyster Cult song they covered as part of the “Dominance & Submission” tribute album). Even the band seems surprised by what just happened…

The other stunner on the lineup is undoubtedly Shellac, who treats us to far more than a regular rock show. Forget any form of rationality: Shellac completely deconstructs the codes of music, tracks and live performances. You might think you’re hearing snatches of melodies cobbled together, but you’re actually dealing with real mathematicians of sound here. Meanwhile on stage, the absurd and the extraordinary fill in the blanks in between songs. Shellac melds music and jokes, engaging the audience by educating them and asking questions about social issues. Shellac is THE Meta concert.

As the doomy icing on the cake, Poland’s own Dopelord is unrivaled. The cake is served upstairs, in the (rammed) rock shelter of the Canyon Stage. Let’s Doom’n Roll! The crowd headbangs as one man. The choruses of “Children of the Haze”, “Night of The Witch” and “Reptile Sun” are chanted along like doom incantations, while “Headless Decapitor” turns the pit into an evil cauldron. Dopelord has mastered the variations between heaviness, punk-laden swerves and acres of psychedelic haze. Real “Doom Bastards”.

If we had to sum up this 2023 edition of Desertfest Antwerp, we would remember the feel-good moment of the weekend QuickSand, the delicacy of This Will Destroy You, the motorik pulse of Carlton Melton, the perfect skills of King Buffalo, the consecration of Red Sun Atacama, the dirty fury of Mantar, the Pink Floyd revival of Monkey 3, the fun of Howling Giant and the 3.0 concert of Shellac. Apart from the price of the French fries and red hats (!), please don’t change a thing, Desertfest: we feel at home each and every time. The final word goes to Mantar frontman Hanno: “And don’t forget: life is good.”

Bisous and see you next year.

Last modified: 17 November 2023