Psychedelic rock events are slowly and surely becoming my new favorite thing, which meant that when a new edition of Desert Hel was announced for April 28th-29th, 2023, at On the Rocks in Helsinki, we were definitely interested in checking it out. This was doubled when familiar names like POLYMOON and JESS AND THE ANCIENT ONES were announced, and deepened as intriguing bigger names like KALEIDOBOLT and GREEN LEAF were also available for a first-time sampler! Unfortunately, POLYMOON‘s schedule didn’t end up syncing up, but luckily, FROM GROTTO were able to step in and replace them!
This 2-day event was set in the small basement venue of On the Rocks near the Helsinki central railway station, making for easy access, no matter where you came from. We showed up early in order to get a good spot, as well as to check out the scene. We couldn’t have foretold with any certainty as to whether there would be a merch table, so we were pleased to see a selection of shirts from a few of the day’s bands, as well as some patches, pins, and albums. Even better, there was a festival shirt with this year’s logo on it. In fact, if you had wandered in off the streets, you might have heard the heavy stoner grunge/extreme music playing and thought you were at a metal festival.
Doors opened at 18:00 and Friday night was kicked off at 19:00 by ZOMBIE EATER. Labeled on Facebook as a sludge band, they came on stage to massively feeding back sounds as the band were presented a shot and we soon answered the question of whether we’d need our earplugs with a reverberating “yes!” Hell, even with the earplugs in, I had to shove them in further than usual, as it seems On the Rocks‘ regular sound system was buffed up by quite a few extra amps on stage. Rocking the vocals was, again to our surprise, the drummer. Granted, the vocals was mostly screaming, so a heavy and extreme stoner sludge act was indeed the first serving. We were impressed that the floor had filled out quite well; this wasn’t exactly dance music but people were definitely moving and swaying along. Personally, I’d have probably liked the band better without the vocals, but the music was pretty good. That said, in a less tender mood, that screaming might be just what the doctor ordered.
The feeding back was endless, even when the band paused between songs to sip their beers. Admittedly, while I didn’t favor the vocal style, the drummer was very entertaining, looking in the most energetic moments like Animal from The Muppets going full force. He also made a solid joke about how the sun is shining and the Finns have come into a cellar for this show, and made jokes about the band members. Their songs were a good length, meaning they didn’t get to play a whole lot of them in their set, but my seat was buzzing the entire time. During the last song, they pulled a guy on stage, tried and failed to get him to drink all of his beer, and then encouraged him to stage dive. The crowd was too nervous to do it properly, but they did at least catch him. Oh, Finland… Well, while the vocals were intense and loud, it was admittedly pretty fun.
Next up was FROM GROTTO, who, as mentioned, were stepping in to fill the slot left by POLYMOON. This was the only band of the night that I’ve seen before and whose sound I knew, so we knew that this night would have at least one psychedelic rock band. They took the stage right at 20:00 to a surprisingly still feedbacky but considerably more diverse-sounding intro, with only their drummer on stage. Echoey guitars soon followed as the intro sounds died out, with bass joining in soon after. Having listened to their Noita soundtracks so much, it’s easy to forget the heavy note, mostly in the drums, that you can find in their regular material. It was starting to seem like a drummer night, as again, this guy was working.
They greeted the crowd after a second, peppier song, leading into something a little smoother and groovier; granted, these guys never seem to squat long in one sound. They have such a great vibe of just sitting back and jamming in their music that it’s hard to imagine some of this stuff is practiced. They wished the crowd happy Vappu and the guitarist wondered why the next song’s name was “Samba,” and they also performed the new single that came out in the past week or so, “Shigir.” Their set was full of psychedelic groove and weird twists and turns – delightful as ever!
The crowd was getting rowdy for KALEIDOBOLT and we were given a respite from feeding back amps for an intro that I found I was at a loss for words to describe. They had pretty ripping energy, as if you stripped the weird groovy psychedelic ambient sounds from FROM GROTTO and were left with a more straightforward energetic psych rock, though it certainly crawled around enough to be telling some strange stories.
The night’s seeming rule of beastly drummers continued with yet another maniac at the kit, though this time, the whole band were equally maniacal. There was a fake-out in the more laid-back intro to the next track, though there some ominous energy lurking in there that suggested that this song was going to pick up, and of course, it basically became a thrash song before it was over. The bands were getting more and more unpredictable as the night went on. Again, there was a heavily invoked feeling of music created by jamming. If the previous act invoked a Zen groove in their wild psychedelia, this was like pure madness unleashed, with all three band members truly punishing their instruments. Don’t take the comments on the thrashing insanity to mean that there weren’t psychedelic elements though, because there most certainly were, worked deep into the chaos, that seemed to increase in frequency as the show went on. They did tease some slower and more ambient moments as well. Really, what an unpredictable bunch, yet they managed to play astoundingly well for all the intensity.
An ambient intro with spoken words and, of course, a bunch of feedback opened up the sludgy and grungy sound of SKRAECKOEDLAN. Immediately, these guys fit right in with the rest of the day’s lineup, playing extremely loudly, with rough vocals, and admittedly a more normal drummer than the previous acts had (though his sound was equally beefy)… perhaps he was smiling genuinely too much to seem as insane. For a band with a rather peaceful ’70s hippy look to them, they played just as heavy and loud as everyone else. The bassist had a John Lennon look and one guistarist looked like he could have been in THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND. KALEIDOBOLT surely warmed the crowd up well, as heads were banging all over the place. There was a surefire air of a BLACK SABBATH influence in there, but… screaming somehow.
If you needed a breather after the previous acts, alas, there was no respite as these guys were amped up to 11 as well. Having come from Sweden, they chatted in English, saying that they brought too much merch and will be too hungover to bring it back, so they’d appreciate if the crowd would help them out. The bass player was my personal favorite to watch, though he had an unfair advantage of being the only one I could see clearly, but his funny smiling/singing faces were great and he and the drummer both looked extremely delighted throughout the show.
The first day of Desert Hel 2023 turned out to be an interesting one! Every act seemed crazier than the last, though the bands played at such a loud level thanks to the small mountain of supplementary amps that it would have been nice if they hadn’t cranked the bar music up so loud between bands, as it made it hard for anyone to think, let alone hold a conversation. The event also suffered a bit from a lack of decorations, feeling like it could have been any other metal show, since On the Rocks looked exactly the same as always. Otherwise though, this was a wild night of insane new experiences, leaving us flabberghasted and wondering what was in store for the next night!
Written by Bear Wiseman
Photos by Arto Alho*