May 17, 2016
It hasn’t been two weeks since I saw Elder in Berlin and there’s still some leftover cosmik debris from their DesertFest set rumbling through my head but they’re blowing through Brussels so I’m all in and committed on this random Tuesday night. Traveling solo I roll into Gare du Nord which is a seedy desolation row train depot and reminds me of my own Port Authority in NYC which is the high water mark for the weird and surreal but it’s just another side of the rue so I amber down to the docks in the Northern Quarter business district which is dead quiet and ghostly. Magasin 4 is a burned out warehouse surrounded by junkyards and tangled rebar and inside it’s all busted concrete and punk flyers and I feel like I’ve been here before. It’s real deal and no-nonsense so I take in the scene and hit the bar and order the Kriek lambic in broken French but end up with a Grimbergen Triple but I keep quiet because this is as good a place to start as any. The dudes from Elder are rapping with some punters and another cat is selling records in boxes with titles like DOOM and BRUTAL PROG and CRUST. I find my place and wait for it all to coalesce and it’s familiar but also new and I hear Flemish and French and English and ain’t that a damn fine Belgian brew. Carousel from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania take the stage without anyone noticing and they bust into some amped up twin-guitar machine head rock from ‘72. I realize I forgot my plugs but it’s all good and I plunk down the 2 euro coin for the cheap ass Maes pils in a cup and it ain’t the Grim but what else is? I wanna get as close to the essence of Elder as possible so I’m dead center up front and they start at 9 on the dime cause there’s a curfew so let’s go and don’t get left behind but why there’s a cut off in this dead zone neighborhood is beyond me. The set resembles their Desertfest jam from weeks back and it’s harsh and loud up front with the stage volume low and clean and you can see up close how well oiled the band is. “Dead Roots Stirring” is urgent and scrappy and it’s an epic prog masterpiece I’m ranking right alongside “Close to the Edge” in stature and pure ass-kicking awesomeness. Everything else is smash and grab and the band encores with “Spires Burn” which wasn’t played in Berlin so the added bonus is a gift and damn they’re leaning hard in the pocket and having a shit ton of fun cause it’s all smiles and whoops and hollers. The power surge coming at me is devastating and my beer tumbles off the stage because it’s shaking and the rafters are about to come down but I give it all a nevermind cause this shit right here…
Photo by the Rock File
DesertFest Berlin #5
April 28-30, 2016
After the epic experience of Roadburn 2014 in Tilburg, Holland, the Rock File decided, during our final night in Amsterdam–a night of triple vision and secret pacts and manic doses of the fine Belgian elixir La Chouffe–that we’d once again convene in a far off land in search of the Hard & Heavy. A new saga was in order, so we jumped at the chance to jam econo at DesertFest Berlin, billed as “The Ultimate Heavy/Rock/Psycho/Doom Festival in Berlin.”
Bring on the Berlin fuzz.
Day 1: Hallo Berlin, The Divinely Decadent
I’m traveling from Brussels, and my concert club mates (Cool Steve and Evil Kel) are coming in from Pennsylvania and New York City. Because of the horror, insanity, and all-around inbred calamity that descended upon Brussels on March 22, travel through Brussel-Zaventem airport is still difficult come festival time, so I hop the high-speed ICE train to Berlin. Six hours, 43 minutes projected travel time, rolling through the east Belgian countryside, crossing over into Germany at Aachen (former stomping ground of Charlemagne) changing trains at Cologne, and the final push into Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Good thing I’m carrying a big read; “Europe Central” by William T. Vollmann, a historical fever dream of brutal European mindscapes, mad dictators and exiled artists, set between the first and second world wars. It’s a heavy tomb, so I make sure I’m close to the bar car.
Pay the ticket, take the ride…
I pull into Berlin Central, meet up with my mates, and hitch the S-Bahn to Friedrichshain. Berlin; epic, fantastic, mythic. Spilling out into the streets makes us want to take on the whole town–that singular feeling when you’re a stranger in one of the world’s great cities and everything is possible, unknown. We’re together in Berlin on this day, and it feels ordained, aligned, true.
Open up, let it in.
The streets of Friedrichshain down by the river Spree are alive with raw energy. Squatters and punks, art kids and selfie kids, family units and shopkeeps, the beautiful/not-so beautiful, and that dude with the €1.50 wurst parachute-cart. Apparently, anything goes in this town.
Find the hotel, settle in. The Wi-Fi works like it’s 1996, but we didn’t come here to dial-up. There’s a copy of “The Teaching of Buddha.” A good sign? Somebody says take it home, but we realize that’s totally not what the buddha would do. Who needs the bad karma?
To The Freak Fest
The Astra Kulturhaus, home of DesertFest, is a rambling hash of warehouses, food trucks, merch tables and makeshift beer garden. Homemade sculptures, scrappy graffiti. Littered with freaks. We’ve come to the right planet.
And now for the First Festival Beer.
The large Schneider Weisse, because we’re in Berlin and it’s what you do and goddamn if it’s not the best slug of beer any of us has ever had. We’ve traveled long and hard for this moment and it’s sweet and true. The golden delicious brews of Deutschland are gonna suit us just fine, thank you much. Meeting your best friends across oceans and continents, time zones and countries, and sharing that first toast is one of life’s great joys.
Overheard: “There’s always a crusty dude with a Clutch shirt on.”
Mind Riot: Do you have issues with the modern world? Does it seem like one long airport security line, and you’re always bringing up the rear? Well, lay those burdens down friend, and commune with the heavy-psych mystics assembling in Berlin. Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin…
Our first band is Baby In Vain from Denmark and they’re laying down the quiet-loud-quiet jams with solid hooks and pretty good melodies too. Next up is Sweden’s Spiritual Beggars who are working the Dio/Rainbow template like any self-respecting blue collar band should. We are rolling, gentlemen.
Noch ein bier bitte?
A conversation brews with some excitable boys from Sweden who tell us they’ve come to find the source. But of course. It’s all very mysterious and Nordic, and makes perfect sense. They also give us our first proper recommendation of the festival before disappearing into the crowd: “Do not leave Berlin without seeing Rotor, under any circumstances.”
Mental note taken.
The hordes gather for Mothership and we wonder if this could be some sort of P-Funk/Stoner Rock nexus. Imagine the venn diagram on that deal. Intriguing, I know. The Mothership dudes look a bit rough, like their ship just landed from Dallas and they didn’t get a chance to acclimate to the new space-time continuum, or just freshen up. But the singer is confident and shouts “Let’s boogie” and off we go into a gritty, full-tilt Texas jam. These cats came to play; their set is tight, focused, and a whole lotta heavy.
Overheard: “This type of shit is gonna save rock and roll!”
Wandering the beer garden, we check out the food options, which turn out to be top-notch. There’s tons of vegan options for our man Evil, and we soon realize Berlin is world-class for the herbivores among us. There’s a line at the Mecklenbörger truck, and a lovely gal from Salzburg recommends the veggie burrito jam.
How do you say no to something like that?
Bring The Avant-Noise
We’d been following Pelican since it’s devastating 2003 debut Australasia, so we’re pretty amped, and make our way up front. The band takes the stage with zero fanfare, just a bunch of guys from Illinois. This should be good.
And it is.
Really good, in fact.
It’s precise, instrumental hardcore; mechanical and mathematical, fluid and dynamic. The set feels like one long song, the band only breaking to catch an occasional breath, and ends with a 10 minute exodus of screeching feedback.
A new bar is set.
Overheard: “Singing would be unnecessary.”
Overheard: “The Germans, they like the Wo Fat.”
Wo Fat hit us like a mountain of dense gunk. They sound like their name, and Dallas, Texas is coming on strong here in Berlin. The iconic Truckfighters are up next and the main hall has reached peak metal mass. A small sliver of space in the back is all ours and we get a good feel for this fuzz-drenched trio.
Overheard: “Fuck yeah Sweden.”
Drained but still buzzed from a rad first day, we wander into the neighborhood around Astra Kulturhaus. By chance, we stumble into Paule’s Metal Eck, a sleazy hard-rock bar not far from our bunks. It sounds a bit obvious, but a higher power directs us–the Hotel Buddha?–and it’s reeling at 2am and we’re not about to call it, so we score some tall Beck’s and take in the scene on our first full night in Berlin.
Overheard: “Don’t make your band logo look like the Spinal Tap logo.”
Day 2: Pure Rock Fury
Up at a metal-respectable hour, we head out for the essential coffee infusion. Our command of German is laughable, in that American tourist, never learned another language sort of way, but we do our best and try scoring some sympathy points. English is everywhere in the capital, so it’s hard to stay focused on picking up some of the mother tongue, and we humbly accept our fate as bumbling Americans and move on, trying our best not to piss anybody off.
Drei really big kaffee bitte?
A stroll down the strasse to the East Side Gallery, a long stretch of the Berlin Wall that became an artistic expression of German reunification just after the wall crumbled. It’s an open-air gallery with a heavy historical presence.
Mind Riot: The ghost of the wall finds you–in lines that snake across cobble stone streets, in free-standing pieces left as sculpture–as you walk through plazas and rail stations, without realizing you’re crossing any lines at all. It’s surreal to think this city, so transparent and open-minded, was once closed off to its own citizens, a kafkaesque maze of blockades and fortifications.
A visit to the Topographie des Terrors, an indoor/outdoor history museum located on the former grounds of Gestapo and SS headquarters. The level of intense detail/historical perspective is overwhelming. An extremely somber and profound experience. We leave silent, humbled.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say we came to Berlin just to see Elder. We’d been trying to see them for ages, but somehow always missing out. One of the stranger moments in Rock File concert-going history came after trying to catch them in Brooklyn in 2014, which ended up downright bizarre; turns out there’s another Elder that bares no resemblance whatsoever to the Massachusetts riff-mongers we’d been searching for.
And so it goes. So yeah, we’re fucking psyched.
The band bursts into “Compendium,” the first track from its latest album Lore. It’s flawless, incandescent psych-rock from another twilight zone. Moments of clarity, crystal blue resurrection. No song under the 10 minute mark. Keep that shit coming, fine young gents from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, you’re the best thing to come out of that great state since the transcendentalists wandered the wilds of old New England. “Dead Roots Stirring” is staggering. Like, I can hardly stand up. Not nearly enough beer in this joint for this goddamn song.
By the end of this pitch-perfect and passionate set, all we can do is acknowledge the moment with a metalhead nod.
The bar has risen, once again.
Overheard: “This is the sound of rock and roll today.”
The Swedes have got monolithic doom down to an evil science. And Monolord absolutely purrs. Their riffs are prime evil, thick and slow, and they’re really fucking loud. At some point, a jam downshifts to an almost impossible grind. It’s ridiculously heavy.
Overheard: “What the hell’s in the water up there in Sweden?”
None More Black
Expectations run high for Electric Wizard; their albums are massive odes to the original doom aesthetic, and they hail from England, motherland of the sound we all crave. So maybe we’re aiming a bit too high because the band comes off as somewhat static, and the upsidedown crosses are a bit cartoonish. It doesn’t help that a drunk kid in front of us decides to use me as a kickstand and it gets a little touch-and-go and, well, we decide moving on is the right play to keep the non-aggro vibe from turning all dark and nasty.
We meet Pim and Sjoerd from Holland who become instant festival friends, and there’s bonding over Clutch (which becomes a recurring theme at DesertFest), the heavy-fuzz aesthetic, fine German brews, and how Berlin is one cool jam after another. They’re a laugh riot and we’re all happy to be out on the tiles. Somehow we end up at the metal bar from the previous night, and go long and hard into Berlin’s early morning light.
Overheard: “Ever since Zeka, nobody’s passing the weed.”
Day 3: Minds Sufficiently Blown
Another brilliant Berlin morning, and the the extra large coffees from our favorite Turkish cafe.
A trip to the Bauhaus-Archiv for some proper German modernism. It’s an impressive museum, all monochromatic and stark lines and perfectly curated. Afterwards, a good part of the day is spent in the Tiergarten, and the afternoon ends with a much needed Metal Nap™ at the Victory Column.
Sludge (noun): mud, mire, or ooze; slush.
Fargo, North Dakota gives us Egypt, our first band of the last day of Desertfest 2016. It’s hard driving, 18 wheeler blues rock. None of us have ever been to Fargo, but we all agree it’s probably a lot like Egypt–heavy with the sludge.
Overheard: “I knew the nuns were nuts at my school, even before I was listening to AC/DC.”
Fuck Yeah Berlin
Rotor, from Berlin. Looking forward to what the local boys have to offer. Come highly recommended from a couple of manic Swedes.
A bunch of average German Joes in t-shirts and jeans amber up to the stage. No leader, no singer, no costumes, no stage mics, no backdrop, no strobe lights, no videos. Who needs all that bullshit anyway?
Not these guys, apparently.
No stage banter either. Not even “Hallo Berlin,” which you’d think, it’s a hometown crowd and all. Maybe that’s just not what the Germans do, get all “Fuck yeah” on local turf. Totally respectable. These dudes came to play, so fuck all that other weak shit.
And play they do.
Busting headlong into the set, it’s immediately apparent this band is the real fucking deal. Just the facts. Full-on instrumental Fuzz Prog (just made that one up). Killer grooves, sweet melodies, kick-ass jams. The whole thing.
Just fucking rad, and that’s all.
Mind Riot: Rotor is keeping it real. Which gets me thinking…what exactly does “keeping it real” mean, and when should it be employed? The term gets thrown around a lot, mostly for not-real shit like celebrity shenanigans. You’re certainly not “keeping it real” if you’re a billionaire athlete extolling the virtues of pumping your own gas, or an A-list actor taking a bit part in some indie flick to “get back to your roots.” Slumming it with the rest of humanity is not “keeping it real.” Not so, not anymore. Rotor is “keeping it real” by doing their thing without any ballyhoo. They’re making a humble attempt at grasping the sublime. So here’s the new deal: “Keeping it real” is now reserved for “moments of transcendence in art and your place in said paradigm.” If you’re lucky and/or inspired enough to create something transcendent, you’re “keeping it real.” No more, no less. Everything else is now categorized as “doing stuff” or “moving shit around.”