29.4.2023 Desert Hel – Day 2 @ On the Rocks, Helsinki


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 the first-time!

The venue music went silent at 19:00 for about a minute before SAMANE took the stage, looking like a bit more of a laidback act than the collection of intense bands of the first day had offered. Their sound had no guitar feedback, with a more ambient vibe and the vocalist was seated, adding mysterious wordless vocal lines, as if her voice was just another instrument. As the music proceeded, she began singing actual lyrics, echoey and mysterious, as the drummer and guitarist helped increase the dark and moody atmosphere.

At some point during perhaps the third song, a drum tech ran up to seemingly tighten the cymbals, though we didn’t notice if anything had been off. This was certainly a much more tranquil and relaxing band than anything the first day had offered, and the floor seemed to fill up equally quickly, despite the completely different-sounding first act. We heard some comments from other attendees that “this band feeds my angst” and “this is the perfect opening act,” so it seemed that they were indeed making people feel things one way or the other. Something about this music invoked both a swampy, witchy feel mingled with something Gothic and autumnal. There was no chit-chat, just a friendly “thank you” after the applause, maintaining the aura of gloom. The only thing they were missing was copious stage fog. The bassist/vocalist finally stood up during their last song and rocked out a bit while wailing into the mic, making for a strong finale to their set! What a shame that they headed out early and we missed out on an opportunity to buy their merch.

GREEN KING began lurking on the stage quite some time before their set started, but patiently waited for the clock to strike 20:00 before they started playing. The quickest way to describe them would be classic ’80s heavy metal with stoner rock, meaning you’re getting very classic IRON MAIDEN -style riffs, but on a grungier sound and with screamier vocals, a bit more like you’d get from the late, great Alexi Laiho and his kin. And guitar feedback, of course, as well as those SABBATH-y prog elements.

The band dedicated a great deal of time to shredding and going a bit bananas, which was fun to watch, as even the bassist was tearing it up relentlessly. Despite the shreddiness, there were also nice droning moments, but it was still perhaps the Smith/Murray-style riffs that really soared and drew me back into a bit of nostalgia for the old MAIDEN albums. It was a bit disappointing to see the crowd standing so still, as these guys were putting on a pretty solid show. That said, the floor was packed, so a lot of people clearly wanted to see these guys play. Once again, the local commentary seemed to agree with my assessment, as the word nearby was that these guys were “Iron Maiden on steroids.”

JESS AND THE ANCIENT ONES were playing before I even noticed it, sneaking on stage with a soft and subtle sound at 21:05 (a bit earlier than scheduled) before bursting into that untamed sound that we know and love so well from them. I happened to catch their 2021 release, which meant some of these songs sounded familiar. Jess herself is a monster on stage, wailing and rocking out with full force – you can really tell how into it she gets and it’s glorious to behold. She never seems to do the same dance twice. Somehow, I found myself dying to experience a collaboration between JATAO and THE MOSFETS… I feel like their energies would collide in a sublime way, as they’ve got very different sounds but a similar chaotic enthusiasm.

If you’re not familiar with Jess and her kin… how to describe them? They are undoubtedly a psychedelic rock band, as they have that tendency to have dank SABBATH-oid sounds, distorted surfer/stoner rhythms, slick fills, delightful surprises, and the magnificently unpredictable vocals. They are a mesmerizing act to behold. Their set was a lively collection of material, with relentless force coming from all five band members. Jess was all smiles and happy interaction with her bandmates, and she did say a few words between some of the songs. There was one song with a hefty jazz influence that was really spectacular; you could just picture a smoky club with a guy on upright bass. Then the next song had almost more of a biker rock sound, with some grunge in the mix, while other songs had a touch of heavy metal – there was certainly no telling where their music would go. It was really fun to get to see them live at last – highly recommended, and the roar of the crowd at the end agreed!

Suddenly, we were down to the final act of the festival: GREEN LEAF, not to be confused with their predecessors in GREEN KING, who were equally enthusiastic but definitely less heavy metal. The stoner-style riff repetition was immediately notable, but way speedier than your usual sluggish surfer sounds, and with clean vocals. The music was immediately pretty groovy, with there being some difficulty pinning down the vocal sound. It was like a bit of Glenn Danzig mixed with a bit of Michael Poulsen (VOLBEAT). Browsing their history, it seems the band has had quite a few different vocalists during their tenure, so it would be interesting to listen back on their material and see what the others were like.

Like JATAO before them, they threw us a curveball with the funky following track that was not at all what we were expecting. It was good to see the crowd really get their hands up and clapping. The singer greeted the crowd in English as well, but seemed to be interrupted by the next song. Then a chunk of the crowd started singing happy birthday to “dear singer,” which gave us a chuckle as we wondered how they knew it was his birthday but not his name. Another chunk of the crowd also started singing, so he coordinated them all together and also sang to himself and was pleased to have been able to do so. He told some other stories as well, like about staying in the hotel at the airport on the way here. They were quite a lot of fun, so it was nice to see at least the front rows dancing and moving about. They had a lot of energy but there was a good ebb and flow to their music, making them a strong closer for the festival! We had to leave early in order to make our ride home, but we really enjoyed what we heard.

Though Desert Hel wasn’t much of a hippy-type event, it was nice to have some acts that blended my love of heavy metal and various psychedelic musics together. The sheer walls of sound, impressive riffing, and diverse vocals throughout both days drew in a very impressive crowd and blew us all through the roof. Hopefully these small festivals continue, as we’ve been thoroughly enjoying them!

Written by Bear Wi9man
Photos by Arto Alho