If this is the first time you visit Merchants Of Air, the following festival review might look somewhat strange and unusual, almost fiction-like even. So, perhaps an explanation might not hurt. My name is Serge. I am the founder and chief in staff here but I am also a writer, one who recently finished his first novel. 'Cecilia's World', my debut, is a book about the world of alternative music, about life and about love. The main character is Cecilia, a sixteen year old girl who moves to a new city and gets acquainted with the local (and international) underground music scene.
Spoiler alert: at one point Cecilia volunteers at the VAR, a big venue where she gets familiar with the hussle and bussle of the music industry. The VAR is a completely fictional venue but it is inspired by Trix in Antwerp, the venue where Desertfest took place. In the book, a big stoner rock festival is mentioned, but there is no detailed write-up for that particular festival, mostly because it would probably add another 25 pages to a book that is already 355 pages long.
During the second day of Desertfest 2017, I decided to turn my annual Desertfest review into an extension of 'Cecilia's World', following the young girl throughout the festival. She will see the bands I have seen. She will hear the conversations I have heard and she will buy the records I have bought. In that aspect, it will be a rather normal festival review, just from the point of view of a volunteer who does not really exist. If you enjoy reading this review, I am quite positive that you will like the book as well. You can order it here, there will be digital and printed versions.
As had happened before, Johan had volunteered to pick her up and bring her back home again. Throughout the past months, the teacher had become a friend of the house. In fact, Cecilia's mother trusted him more than most of the younger boys and men. Besides, she still thought Johan had a girlfriend. He had never told her that that was a little lie. Why would he? Nothing bad had happened, on the very contrary. Cecilia stepped in the car, excited to plunge into a weekend of heavy psychedelic sounds. Discovering bands was her second favorite thing in the world and obviously, this weekend would guarantee heaps of new names.
"Cecilia, come on in."
"Hey Walter. Big crowd already."
"Oh, it will be bigger."
Walter gave Cecilia a volunteer bracelet and a time schedule before he quickly disappeared into one of the rooms. She looked at the schedule. Today, the Vulture Stage would be her workplace. She met up with the other volunteers and noticed that Kaleidobolt were already setting up. The party was about to start soon and would only come to an exhaustive halt on Sunday night. She looked towards the merchandise room which was already filling up with shirts, records and posters. The money in her pocket started itching.
The doors opened and calmly the visitors entered the venue. Some walked towards the Vulture Stage while others checked out the food trucks in the garden. Shortly after, Kaleidobolt climbed on stage, ready to kick off the fun. The band came up with a mix of vintage hard rock and progressive jazz jams and they did a decent job, but opening a festival like this on an hour like that is always an ungrateful task. Several people had already gone upstairs, where Caronte blasted their furious doom metal through the speakers. Cecilia watched them for a few minutes and she liked what she heard. Later, while throwing cups into the garbage bag, she overheard people saying that Caronte was an extremely early highlight.
In the big hall, dubbed 'The Desert Stage', All Them Witches delivered a smashing set of groove loaded hard rock, something Cecilia would be hearing a lot of during the weekend. In the already big crowd, she saw Johan nodding his head along with the "swampy blues" but for the girl it was time to take her place behind the bar again. There, Grime violently pounded the last sleeping audience members awake with their thick, filthy guitar riffs and skull bashing drums. Apparently, this musical extreme was a bit too much for the young girl and after a while she asked Walter if she could go for a little walk.
"Sure, take it easy. We still have two and a half day to go. Go upstairs, Minami Deutsch is about to start. I think that's more to your liking."
And it was. According to the booklet, Minami Deutsch started playing on the streets of Tokyo. Now, they entertained a surprising amount of people with their gentle but immersive krautrock. Cecilia loved it. For her, this was definitely the first highlight of the weekend. She took in a large part of the concert and before going back to her duties, she quickly visited the merchandise area to buy a first record. Through the opening and closing doors of the different rooms, she could pick up flashes of Lowrider but she promised herself to take it easy. Johan had warned her up front, "Desertfest is exhausting".
Back behind the bar at the Vulture Stage, Cecilia happily shook her hips along with the heavy but melodic sound of Black Lung. It was an excellent concert and the people seemed to enjoy it. Johan came in and walked to the back of the room to enjoy the concert but he quickly disappeared into the merch area. He waved at Cecilia but she did not notice him. She was too busy handing out drinks and collecting plastic coins.
After the concert, the room emptied again. Upstairs Gozu was about to play but now Cecilia grabbed the brush and collected all the rubbish. A few remaining audience members sat down on the wooden benches to enjoy the quiet, a burger and a fresh beer. For Cecilia and her colleagues there was a hot meal backstage. They talked about the concerts so far, about their own musical preferences and about either work or school. Cecilia however didn't really feel like talking a lot. She was getting tired. After all, she had already finished a day of school. After she finished her food, she walked to the Desert Stage to see and hear what Radio Moscow was all about. She could not make it past the door since a large crowd had gathered to witness the psychedelic blues rock legends enchant everyone.
-16- closed down the Vulture Stage with an overwhelming bombardment of sludge metal and noise rock. Much like Grime earlier that day, -16- blasted their music through the speakers with sheer ferocity and brutality. It was amazing, this time Cecilia was impressed, but just not enough to buy a CD. By the end of the destructive set, most people were already walking upstairs to see Belgian sludge masters Steak Number Eight do their very best to set the Canyon stage ablaze. They did and for a short while Cecilia stood at the back, listening and watching the outrageous audience. Then she left to once again clean the Vulture Stage and wait for Johan to drive her home.
"Did you have fun?"
"Of course, although I have to say that a bit more variation couldn't hurt."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, there was a lot of stoner rock and sludge metal today. That's ok, but I would have greatly enjoyed some drone ambient or space rock."
"Minami Deutsch was different."
"True, and they were the absolute highlight of the day for me."
"For me too. I bought the record."
"How is Desertfest going?"
"Pretty good. It's great fun."
"That's good. By the way. Johan called this morning. He can't pick you up, he's got some errands to run before he can make it to the festival."
"That's ok, I'll take the tram."
On Saturday, Cecilia took her place behind the bar at the Desert Stage, the biggest one in the whole venue. It was always packed to capacity, even with the first bands. Since the day promised to be busier than the previous one, Cecilia promised herself to work a little harder and miss a few bands. She was sure that she would catch up on a later date. Still, she strolled into the Vulture Stage where A Supernaut delivered a highly enjoyable set. They did not seem to mind that they had to open, on the contrary. With their gloomy rock and roll sound, A Supernaut quickly got the audience shaking their behinds.
Upstairs, another Belgian band, Hidden Trail, was about to deliver a groovy set of stoner rock but Cecilia decided to stay downstairs and focus on the task at hand: deliver drinks to fans of The Vintage Caravan. This band from Iceland had been on Desertfest before, pleasantly surprising the audience in the Vulture Stage with their vintage hard rock. Now, opening the main stage, The Vintage Caravan showed a matured but equally impressive set, which Cecilia only heard. Johan saw the bigger half and spent the rest of the concert at the bar, talking to his student.
"One after another."
"Yeah, I just heard that they're breaking records on beer consumption. Thousands of liters will pass through people's stomach this weekend."
"I know. I heard they found a half naked drunk guy on the parking lot last night. Feel asleep while peeing."
"Well, that happens. I've seen a guy who could barely walk but perfectly balance two full cups in his hands. He drank them, sat down, fell asleep and was carried out by his friends."
"Oh, the one with the "Fuzz Off" shirt? I saw him get carried away."
"Guess what. He walked back in a hour ago and ordered two beers."
"Tsss, young people."
For Cecilia, King Hiss was the first real highlight of the day. With their heavy and intense stoner rock, these Belgians almost effortlessly set the Canyon stage ablaze. They pretty much blew the roof off the place. As pretty much every band on Desertfest, King Hiss was blessed with an excellent - but loud - sound, which undoubtedly helped them get over with the crowd. The second highlight followed immediately after, when Stoned Jesus electrified the main stage, also with an energetic array of stoner rock. This day was already promising to be better than the previous one and, according to what Cecilia overheard people say, Sunday was going to be even better. But now, it was brushing time, which was not an easy task with hundreds of people tripping over the brush.
"Hey, can I ask you something?"
"Do you know where I can buy some weed?"
"In Holland probably."
"No, seriously. Do you know anyone here?"
"No man, sorry, can't help you with that."
"Damn. Well, I'll have a drink then."
"That I can help you with."
"Great. I'll have a cola."
"You're not from here, are you?"
"No, I live in Poland."
"And you travel here just for Desertfest?"
"Yeah, I have been doing it every year. It's my vacation."
Cecilia noticed how it seemed to be much easier to talk to rockers than to her classmates. In school, she was not unpopular and she made a few close friends but she never felt like "one of the guys". Here at Desertfest, it was different. People were nice, friendly and pretty much always in for a decent chat. While Unsane was setting up in the big hall, the girl tried to check out White Manna and Church Of The Cosmic Skull. She adored the krautrock inspired sounds of the first one but she could not get into the vibe with the second so she quickly returned to her duties.
Walter had told her that Unsane was a legendary band and indeed, the Desert Stage was soon packed to capacity. More than a thousand people were eagerly awaiting this noise rock vehicle to pound them into a bloody pulp and Unsane did exactly that. Cecilia did not go in but she shook her head along with the music, just like everyone else in attendance. This was surely another highlight of the day, if not the entire festival. The money in Cecilia's pocket started itching again.
From then on, Cecilia was so caught up in her soda duty that she missed much of the other acts. Troubled Horse and Beastmaker would still be unknown to her, but Windhand pleasantly surprised her. She knew the band from a live album, recorded a few years earlier, which she had been listening to in the record shop. But here, live on stage, Windhand simply proved why they are such a legendary band. This was an immersive set with all the right ingredients to make it memorable.
Ohhms and Satan's Satyrs seemed to have become the victims of the sheer excellence in the main hall. Cecilia heard people say that both bands did an awesome job but she was way too busy with bottles, cups and coins. Yet, she still managed to walk into the Vulture stage at the moment House Of Broken Promises was delivering an intense and solid hard rock medley. She recognized songs by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Again, only a few people were there to enjoy the rock 'n roll orgy and the band's own songs, mostly because Graveyard was headlining at the Desert Stage. Graveyard was probably the calmest band on this entire festival and heaps of people had shown up to enjoy these delightful rock tunes.
For Cecilia the shift ended there and after cleaning up, she walked into the garden. She was tired and sat down on one of the benches. Many people had already left and the weird noise rock of Dÿse was apparently not suited for everyone. For Cecilia neither was the afterparty as she gladly chose her bed over another night of heavy drinking and headbanging.
"Morning dad, mom."
"How is the festival going?"
"They drank 2500 liters of beer yesterday. The cocktail bar ran out of rum by nine. It's Unsane."
"Well, it is pretty warm for the time of year."
"Yeah, dad, that'll be it."
"By the way, I heard Harry is at the festival too."
"Really? I haven't seen him yet."
"Will you be careful?"
"I'll be good. Don't worry, mom."
Walter greeted Cecilia when she walked into the venue. He said that other volunteers would now work the whole day and that Cecilia was free to roam around until her services were needed. She was glad to hear that and quickly stormed into the merchandise room. She had become an extremely fast record scroller. Her fingers rushed through the vinyl. Then she tried on a few bandshirts and checked out the beautiful posters before she heard the first guitars of the day, blasting through the speakers in the Vulture stage. It was Big Fat Lukum, a Belgian band that immediately set the smallest venue on fire with their groovy stoner rock. The atmosphere was set, this was truly about to become the best Desertfest day of the three.
Upstairs, High Fighter continued the adrenaline pumping riffs in an aggressive way and in the big venue Monolord awoke the last sleepers. During Partisan, she got engaged in a conversation with a man wearing a Ziggy Marley t-shirt. They talked about music, about her teacher Johan and about the excellent food here in the garden. But suddenly, after checking his phone, he rushed off back into the venue and up the stairs.
"This is going to be a definite highlight", he said before leaving.
He was right too. The Canyon stage was about to become the decor for a massive ritual by Belgian post metal masterminds Hemelbestormer. They played four songs, and much like the guy with the Ziggy shirt, Cecilia watched the whole thing with her mouth wide open in amazement. Hemelbestormer delivered a rollercoaster of riffs, soundscapes and drums, much to the delight of the crowd. Halfway through their set, several people left to see doom metal legends Church Of Misery but Hemelbestormer easily managed to entertain the majority of the people.
So did Church Of Misery, the Japanese pinnacle of doom metal. Cecilia watched the remainder of the show and enjoyed it as much as everyone else. She saw some familiar faces banging their heads and almost in tears because of the sheer power and quality. But once again, several people left early to find a good spot for the Dool concert upstairs. That one was yet another highlight. Gothic doom rock from an insanely high level, fronted by a charismatic and energetic frontwoman. Near the end of their set, they came up with a surprising cover of 'Love Like Blood' from Killing Joke. For Cecilia, and plenty of other people, this was certainly a top-5 gig.
Sunday was a busy day with loads of people walking the stairs from gig to gig, leaving only a handful people in the Vulture stage. After Dool, the horde walked to Saint Vitus and after Saint Vitus they climbed the stairs again to see Mantar. For a while Cecilia walked among them. She loved the traditional doom metal of Saint Vitus and she was amazed by the axe wielding battle doom of Mantar but she knew that the best was yet to come. She felt it. It could have been Kadavar, who delivered an intense array of old school hard rock. Heads were banged, no doubt about that, even Cecilia engaged in the joyous action of "hair everywhere".
But when she finally stepped into the Vulture stage, for the first time that day, Cecilia and a few other people were about to be awestruck by Spirit Valley. This had very little to do with stoner rock, doom metal or noise rock. No, here was a band that opened with Suicide like electronics, only to suddenly blast out in a whirlpool of new wave, post punk and psychedelic rock. Suddenly, the vulture stage had transformed into an eighties party. Cecilia saw familiar faces, the guy with the hat and leather jacket, the guy with the Ziggy t-shirt and Walter, all dancing wildly.
"That was awesome."
"Yeah, it was. Who would have thought that a non stoner rock band would win a stoner rock festival?"
"Well, they became my number one discovery here. But of course, there is also Conan."
As much as Spirit Valley had set the vulture stage ablaze, Melvins wrecked the Desert stage. Cecilia forced herself a way into the crowd to see King Buzzo and friends cover a Beatles tune and simply having tonnes of fun with their own music. For a while she enjoyed the intense set, until nature called. At the toilets, fueled by The Melvins' pounding rhythm and a bit too much alcohol, a guy wearing a Dopethrone shirt was flirting with one of the sanitary women. Cecilia grinned. She was already happy that it wasn't Harry.
The girl had been free all day, simply walking from stage to stage, buying records, eating delicious food and chatting with passersby. Often she sat down to message Christian, Jeffrey or Lisa. But in the end, it was time to indulge herself in the caveman battle doom of Conan. Where Melvins had wrecked the Desert stage, Conan just destroyed the Canyon stage. Earplugs were a necessity, certainly for Cecilia, who was quite attached to her hearing abilities. But of course, Conan is not just music for the ears. Conan simply takes over people's entire body and won't let go until it hurts. That is exactly what happened and after an hour Cecilia's body was feeling the effects of three days Desertfest. She left the venue behind her and started walking to the tram stop. Conan was still raging like a madman.
You might have guessed it. I was the guy with the Ziggy Marley t-shirt. I happen to be the only one in attendance who knew and knows Cecilia pretty well. I created her half a year ago and I spent many evenings writing down her story. A few days ago, I finally managed to get that story approved for publication. If you liked what I wrote for Desertfest, you might like the book as well, even more so because there are way more genres and bands in the book ànd it has a neat "coming of age" story too.
You can order the ebook, as well as a printed copy. Just go to the 'Cecilia's World' tab on top of this page or just click here. You can also visit your favorite ebook retailer. They should have it by now. Thank you for reading and see you at Desertfest 2018 (or earlier of course. I don't know about you but I'm not going to sit and wait until October 2018 to see another bunch of awesome bands.).