Words by Matthew Hutchison | Photos by Brendon Crigler Photography
“Let’s get some bumps and a beer, I don’t know about you but I need a break from this gauntlet.” – Psycho Las Vegas attendee
I can’t blame the guy who I overheard saying this during Carcass’s set; good reason for an exit strategy.
Psycho Las Vegas is a gauntlet. No other noun summarizes it clearer.
Within 96 hours, three stages host 83 bands who come from a range of eras throughout heavy music. Performing are the established (Ace Frehely, Yawning Man, Psychic TV, Weedeater), today’s ground breakers (Gojira, Zeal & Ardor, Domkraft, Gatecreeper) and the obscure (Magma, Manilla Road, The Rods), among many more during the weekend. These types of festivals are more prevalent in Europe, not the in the US, and Psycho Entertainment (the event organizers) took action to change this. Originally organizing gigs around the Southern California area, Psycho expanded their reach into Vegas in 2016. Last year’s festival had Alice Cooper, Fu Manchu, The Shrine, and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown among many others you should look up yourself. This year’s Psycho hosts the US exclusive for King Diamond, the final performance for Swans (in their current incarnation) in the Nevada/Southern California area, and bearded riff titans, Mastodon. Here’s an idea for 2018 you guys: The Hellacopters, Against the Grain, Disastroid, Mondo Generator, and Killing Joke. Below are some highlights that stood out from Psycho Las Vegas 2017.
Zeal & Ardor
Out of the 83 bands, it was the women who dominate Psycho, in particular, Chelsea Wolfe. Her band’s set is flawless from the stage production, the performance, and the unearthly and gothic atmosphere they invoke around the capacity crowd of The Joint. That last description especially rings true with the minimal lighting they perform under, while Wolfe and her cohorts are draped from head to toe in black clothing. For an hour, she has a commanding grip on the audience’s attention, as her band weaves in an out of songs which consist of multiple genre derivatives as industrial effects, heavy low end, and the slow riffing of doom that accompanies her ghostly voice. Her set list consists of songs from her last record, Abyss, and a few from her upcoming LP, Hiss Spun. The ovation she receives from the crowd is deafening, I’m not embellishing this description.
Another woman who has a similar performance and ovation is Danish composer/singer, Amaile Brunn. However, we know her best as the front woman behind one of the more hyped artists on the current roster of Relapse Records, Myrkur. Hype aside, she’s the real deal…this woman is as relentless as her accompanying band’s black metal assault. She’s also a proven classical composer who arranges and integrates beautiful symphonic passages in her self-titled debut and in her follow-up LP, Mareridt. Her appearance at Psycho marks her return to the West Coast since last year’s North American run she did alongside Behemoth. Her vocal capabilities are impressive as she’s able to switch from melodic singing to damning shrieks on a whim, while her band plays at a blistering pace throughout these vocal transitions. Her hour long set list features a cover of Bathory’s “Song to Hall up High,” a cut from her new album entitled “Ulvinde,” along with many others. The stage production is minimal and their stage wear elicits a juxtaposition of good and evil, with Brunn standing in a vulnerable looking white dress under cold blue lighting. Her band gives off an opposing atmosphere they stand aside her, fierce-looking, in black, hooded clothing which hide their features. Incredible set, very much looking forward to their return to the States.
Another Relapse band, Royal Thunder, play the smaller Vinyl room and while it’s mostly a band where everyone seems to work together equally, their front woman, Miny Parsonz, deserves acknowledgment that she possesses one of the most expressive and dynamic voices in all of hard rock.
Another performance that is high on people’s list, from the commotion caught in the bars (as well as the size of their crowd), was Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas’s. Brought together at Psycho to play their collaborative album, Mariner, in its entirety, Christmas and Cult of Luna’s front man Johannes Persson are an unsung, complimentary duo who feed off each other’s energy. Their performance of “Cygnus” proves just this with Persson’s harsh shouts leading one lyric passage, while Christmas’s harmonizes her vocals in unison. However, her relaxed and softer vocalizations aren’t how people know her, her intensity on stage matches her decibel level that can best be described as a frantic schizophrenic, crying in rage. When that part of Christmas shows itself, the goose flesh kicks in and she causes it with this performance.
Cult Of Luna ft. Julie Christmas
The Left Field
There was a heavy concentration of eclectic acts that are fit into Friday’s billing. Friday’s mainstays are Sleep and The Melvins but neither these two headline, that spot is reserved for The Brian Jonestown Massacre. An out-of- left field headliner for sure but a sensible and sparing move. After the clobbering everyone from before laid on us, it’s a mercy booking. Pelican, was the second option scheduled to play during this time, so there were other options available. BJM (as we’ll shorten it) has from a distance, the most relaxing and ethereal set of the night, ideal comedown music for a night like this. A few technical mishaps don’t faze the quintet, as they run through a set which includes “Groove Is In The Heart,” “Whatever Happened To Them,” “Wisdom,” “Yeah Yeah,” and “That Girl Suicide.”
The Brian Jonestown Massacre
Stoner rock and jazz seem like worlds away from each other but when listening to both genres, over time it shows how they parallel each other. Psycho tapped the Ethno-jazz father, Mulatu Astatke, to show this to us up front and did so with a unique and vibrant set he and his ensemble delivered to The Joint on a late Friday evening. Although Astatke helms center stage, the focus is shared equally on all members of his band with video panning in and out of each player, showcasing their individual performances. It was a great set that was unique in its own way, nothing like this would be replicated this weekend at Psycho.
Some of the respected and influential names in the underground heavy music scene made the rounds throughout the weekend as well. Friday consists of the recently reformed Slo Burn playing their first US show in nearly 20 years. Just off a European tour to test the waters with this unit, they bring the volume to a packed room in The Joint, as they ripped through material off Amusing the Amused and debuted some new tunes as well. Frontman, John Garcia has kept his music life busy the past few years with reactivating old projects (minus Kyuss) plus launching a solo career. Slo Burn sounds tight throughout their set, 20 years didn’t do much to diminish their playing. The Melvins come through the same day as part of a massive North American tour they’re on in support of their new record, A Walk with Love and Death. Sleep, already Psycho alumni having performed at each incarnation now, delivers one of the loudest sets of the festival as Pike, Cisneros, & Roeder give a clinic to a packed room. Set list includes opening with the hymn-like “Dopesmoker,” “The Clarity,” and fan favorite “Dragonaut.” The feedback that was pertinent throughout their set is likely unintentional filler but adds an interesting effect to the atmosphere in the room. Credit also needs to be given to their drummer, Jason Roeder, as he’s one of the hardest hitting battery man going.
Roeder’s other band, Neurosis, reinforces why after 30 years of existence, they still dominate audiences worldwide with their recordings and live performances. Their gig on Saturday evening is intense and focused as they blare through an hour long set, which includes “Locust Star,” “The Doorway,” along with tracks off the critically acclaimed, Fire Within Fires.
Following up with Neurosis is the theatrical King Diamond, who is in full effect with the biggest stage production of Psycho (a fucking castle interior). Booked as a US exclusive for the year, he and his band deliver an energetic performance that consists of the entire Abigail album, along with some Mercyful Fate classics (“Melissa,” “Come to the Sabbath”), and a few other solo cuts.
Swans, you either get them or you don’t. Seems like they’re one of the more misunderstood groups that rounded out this festival. However, safe to say that most of the bands here owe them acknowledgments for their diverse body of work and vast catalog which transcends genres from Filth to The Glowing Man. Getting personal for a second, I am, pretty bummed that more people didn’t see their final set here, but that’s one person’s opinion. Michael Gira (frontman/founder) is center stage and encompassed in a half circle by his bandmates, their amps and speakers seemingly directed towards his presence. For two hours, they exhibit crescendo after crescendo of exuberant volume and musical dynamics from the songwriting they’ve done together since Swans first reformed in 2010. It is loud, memorable and a complete experience, the way it ought to be. With the reputation this Swans has built in relation to their live shows, it must have been on another level seeing them in their earliest days, playing smaller venues around New York City. Goes without saying, the next chapter of Swans should be interesting and those who witnessed this final set are anticipating the new era.
The New Blood
The standout sets amongst the some of the current bands rounding out Psycho includes a pair of Richmond, VA natives with Windhand’s opening set at The Joint on Sunday afternoon, and Inter Arma’s poolside gig on Saturday evening. Inter Arma released one of the best albums last year with Paradise Gallows and they’re even more of a force to be reckoned with in a live setting. Their set for all we could have been their last on earth, at least they played it like it. They rile up the crowd with a rendition of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” before ripping into the audience with tracks off Paradise Gallows like “An Archer in the Emptiness” (credit to drummer T.J. Childers for his battery power and stamina throughout their set, that dude’s a machine), “Transfiguration,” along with other cuts from the new record. Absolutely worth checking out if they’re touring near your area.
Windhand, is another group that pulled a big crowd at The Joint. They’re a group whose live sound is replicated tit for tat on their recordings. Live, the guitar duo of Asechiah Bogdan and Garrett Morris possess an unearthly sounding tone that accompanies Dorthia Cottrell’s eerie sounding vocals as if they make music specifically for funeral gatherings and orgy-laden witch ceremonies.
Celeste, a blackened death metal band from Lyon (France) tear up Vinyl on Saturday evening but watching these guys is like watching a bunch of Terminators play metal music, due to their mine hats with concentrated red lasers shooting out in the audience. These guys make music that is as misanthropic as it can get, upon hearing excerpts from their upcoming studio album Infidele(s), that’s a clear description.
The Old Guard
There are a few groups on this festival who came up during the early days of stoner rock, when labels like Man’s Ruin, Small Stone, and MeteorCity were releasing material regularly. One of these groups, put out releases on 2/3 of the aforementioned names and also put on a hell of a set, as Sons of Otis came out of hibernation to make a rare public appearance at Psycho. These guys play like they don’t give a fuck who’s in the room. Ken Baluke (vocals/guitar), Frank Sargent (bass) and Ryan Aubin (drums) went through a set that mix blues and doom metal as if they were the first ones doing this. They can back that up with the improvised blues jam they went into, mid set which had Aubin play a steady beat accompanying Sargent’s singular bass riff and Baluke casually playing blues metal over it all.
Sons Of Otis
Another group who falls in this category, Snail, has releases out by 2/3 of the labels mentioned are one of the more laid back and straight forward sounding stoner/psych rock bands still going. These three dudes just plug in, say what’s up and give a loud 45 minute set consisting of tracks from Feral (“Though Art That,” “A Mustard Seed”), Blood (“Mental Modes,” “Blood”) along with others.
It was a lot to pack in within those four days, couldn’t get to everyone but there are a few who need to be mentioned. Sumac, the new project by Aaron Turner (ex-Isis, Old Man Gloom) played poolside on Friday evening for their 50-minute set. Seeing these guys before, it would have been a better experience to have them play indoors. These three are loud and Sumac is the vehicle for Turner’s darkest and heaviest songwriting in the sludge/post metal genre. No disrespect to his past projects but this new project is mean as hell. Their records, The Deal and What One Becomes are some of the most brutal sounding recordings of the past five years, think of the sound it must make when all your bones simultaneously get broken, something like that.
Mastodon makes it look easy to play at their level when you see them live, when clearly it isn’t. Every one of those guys is a beast at their instrument and it’s like watching a goddamn master’s class each time they take the stage! Brent, Bill, Troy and Brann stormed and pummeled The Joint as the final act for the festival with a set list that consisted of “March of the Fire Ants,” “Oblivion,” “Mother Puncher,” “The Wolf Is Loose,” and a ton more literally ripping into song after song after song with minimal audience interaction.
Magma needs mention as well, although only the final half of their set was caught on our end. This group is another one of those acts from left field but they seem to have a cult-like atmosphere surrounding them and brought a unique feel with their mixture of progressive rock and jazz to the room.
All an all, this was a good festival in terms of entertainment but also in convenience as well. The venues were air conditioned and spacious as people were able to freely move between the expansive bar area to the exit with no trouble. The pool area was large and when crowded, easy to maneuver through to get back in the main rooms. Hell, having a CVS and a Roberto’s Taco Shop accessible across the street from the venue is one of those small details that pays dividends those that are on a tight budget. The only thumbs down that needs to be called out is the technical issues that plagued the PA all throughout Saturday in The Joint. In summary, Psycho Las Vegas is clearly on a path to make themselves a premier spot in the heavy music world to travel to. They’re going big very early with their attractions, it’s now a matter of who will they get next, they clearly don’t seem to mind spending the money.
We’ll know soon enough.