A multi-day metal fest in the middle of the summer, in Vegas? What could possibly go wrong? Well, aside from punishment to your bank account, liver, and skin if you weren’t smart about routine SPF applications, most things went right. Set in the city where dubious decision making is a key branding strategy, the schedule actually allowed for a wide latitude of picking what band to see when, and there really was not too much in the way of conflicts until later as the day progressed and all four stages were in use. But this is the sort of festival where you really can’t make a bad decision on whom to see since there was plenty on offer. As anyone who’s been to any of the previous editions knows, the lineup is stacked to a quite ridiculous level and I would be hard pressed to think of a US-based festival that betters Psycho, year in and year out. I mean, not to get ahead of ourselves but on Sunday, the Pool Stage alone had Truckfighters > 1349 > Deafheaven > Power Trip > Kadavar, and oh, let’s go see Mogwai, Uncle Acid, Beach House, Opeth and let’s toss in some other bands while we’re at it. Yeah, did I mention the embarrassment of riches on hand?
This was the first year of the event being held at Mandalay Bay since the former site, the Hard Rock Casino, was purchased by Virgin and is under renovation. It also represented a large leap in scale. Much like the giant step taken when Psycho moved from The Observatory in Santa Ana to the Hard Rock, Mandalay Bay easily doubled capacity at all stages, and the main stage was set in the cavernous Events Center, which has 12,000 seats and is home to the Aces of the WNBA. Toto, we’re not off-strip any more. Logistically, that meant a bit more of a challenge, as the relative distances between the Events Center, the Beach Stage and House of Blues were much longer than the short distance between The Joint and the Pool at HRC. So, some planning was in order, and imprinting the mental map of the area took longer than expected. Casinos are designed to lure people in and not let them go, and Mandalay Bay’s main casino labyrinthine floor layout made IKEA stores look like a single hallway. Hey, this isn’t where House of Blues is, it’s the entrance to the Delano… The way to the Beach Stage? Dammit, we’re at the Noodle Shop. The pre-event, Psycho Swim, was a separately ticketed event held at a smaller pool area, and unlike the Beach Stage, there were several yards of concrete between the pool and the stage. Still, sloshpits are sloshpits and enthusiastic fans could easily partake at either venue.
Just days before the event got underway, a few bands fell victim to the increasingly byzantine and unpredictable process of applying for work visas in this country, and some people were not happy about the last minute deletions. (It’s not just bands playing Psycho; Orange Goblin recently went through a red tape nightmare that ended poorly). That said, Psycho did their best to fill in the gaps left by Oranssi Pazuzu (currently the most inventive band straddling both realms of black metal and mutated psychedelia – good news for Boston fans in that the October 14th date at Sonia looks like all systems go), Rotting Christ, and Dvne, and the festival organizers hastily recruited Sumac and Weedeater to fill the gaps. That’s some quality last minute pinch hitting, and the substitution of headliner Megadeth had already been taken care of with the original Misfits. To my way of thinking that represented a huge upgrade, and the judging by the largest crowd of the weekend who jammed into the Events Center for their Saturday headlining set, I think that was a popular opinion.
Ok, where to be being? How about at the beginning? The Psycho Swim event got things off rather swimmingly (ducks rotten tomatoes) and the pool was the perfect escape from the scorching heat if you weren’t a VIP High Roller and plumped for a shaded cabana. It was a bit weird to see goth-tinged Idle Hands in the 108F sun, with reflecting covering on the stage monitors so they wouldn’t fry in the desert sun but Gabriel Franco and his black-clad bandmates hit the perfect mix of Dave Vanian/goth-era Damned and the more driving parts of The Cure. Howling Giant played their brand of melody-friendly riffage, ASG stoked the early 90s sound when the line between metal and grunge was constantly moving, Danava played a million notes without missing a single one, and in between songs Greg Meleney addressed the crowd with his best Boomhauer impression.
I’d wager that Primitive Man was the heaviest, sludgiest band to every play in bright sunlight for most of the people in attendance, just relentlessly heavy and pummeling riffs like someone’s dropping a medicine ball on your head from the 5th floor of a building. I asked a 20-something lifeguard who was working what she thought of the band. “It’s not really the kind of music I listen to.” Understatement of the weekend. Lucifer (fronted by Johanna Sadonis who won the fashion plate award with a fringed red velvet jumpsuit) cooked up some old school hard rock with a more than a dusting of proto-doom in a great performance, accentuated with an ace cover of “Snowblind.” Pepper Keenan and company closed out the pool stage with a crunching set filled with Corrosion of Conformity classics, and by this time enough stragglers had made their way to the site so that the area between the water and the stage was filled with fist-pumpers. Now that’s a proper start to a festival!
And so it went. The next three days were a gluttonous trip to an all-you-can-hear buffet, with plenty of stellar moments. Seeing Jerry Only slide onto the stage and almost wiping out Doyle’s pedal board. The slosh pit at Power Trip’s pool set. Matt Pike and Alyssa strolling through the casino, freshly married. Amenra’s brutally/beautifully powerful set that started with a simple metal clave on metal clave invocation. Arthur Brown showing more vitality and creativity than most musicians who are decades younger. The mystery band unveiled as Integrity, generating a ferocious pit as they unfurled their pioneering mix of metal, hardcore, and straight up weirdness. The two six year girls in the pool who clapped after 1349’s first song was finished. It’ll be a fool’s errand to try to capture the entire weekend, and though I’ve been labeled a fool plenty of times in the past I think it’s best just to list out some particular highlights and notable events.
The Misfits. Yeah, the original Misfits. In the world of dreaming about buried hatchets, it’s about on par with a Smiths, Talking Heads, Uncle Tupelo and/or Spacemen 3 reunion but this one is actually happening and still in progress. Psycho was graced with the sixth show since Danzig and Jerry Only got their lawyers to hash out suitable terms to facilitate playing together again, and it did not disappoint. (If you missed it, you might only have four chances left). “We have a lot of songs. And we know how to play most of them.”
Danzig was right on both accounts; from “Death Comes Ripping” through encore closer “We Are 138,” the cavernous (and pretty full) arena echoed with fans singing along in astonishment that this was actually happening right in front of them. The Danzig singers (that would be us) thoroughly reveled in belting out the choruses to classics such as “Hybrid Moments,” “Last Caress,” “Skulls,” “Where Eagles Dare,” etc in unison with Glenn. The only slightly sour note was Doyle, who stomped around the stage like a ‘roided up imbecile who thought that smashing his guitar with his fist was the correct technique. Sad to report that no photos are available as credentialed photographers were not allowed to shoot the set, but I was surprised that they didn’t have security crack down on phones in the audience, so I was sure that Instagram and YouTube would be full of stuff to check out but I guess the legal takedowns have taken effect.
The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. The Psycho guys have been mainly responsible for lifting his profile over the last few years, first with his appearance at the 2016 event, a short US tour the following year, and then a re-booking back to Psycho this year. There’s always a risk with a legacy act that the current date and the sell-by date are wildly out of sync, but that’s not the case with Brown and his crack band; his vocals and energy were strong and the falsetto could scale up to the appropriate heights. Kinda like Electric Prunes with “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night,” “Fire” is the song (and only song) that most people knew, but his other lysergically-oriented songs, steeped deeply in the ’60s psych fashion, held up as well. The visuals, stage makeup and outfits were a dizzying, disorienting and welcome onslaught. No Brown, no Alice Cooper (in a weird twist, both have completely different songs called “Muscle Of Love”).
Triumph Of Death. Tom G. Warrior’s had a busy and ambitious year. First off, he unveiled a staggering piece of music at Roadburn, finishing the second part of Celtic Frost’s “Requiem” and playing all three pieces with a full orchestra. His performance at Psycho would turn pages of the history back a few more chapters, all the way to his first band Hellhammer. Dubbed Triumph Of Death after a Hellhammer song, Warrior spoke briefly about what an absolute honor it was to have a tiny, obscure band from a small Swiss village play these songs in front of a large American audience. The doomy thrash yielded hints as to where Warrior would take his music, into Celtic Frost and Triptykon but certainly stood on its own merits. Unique shows like this help differentiate Psycho from festivals where a bunch of bands who always tour are just thrown hodgepodge into a very generic mix.
Led Zeppelin 2. Tribute bands can take a bit of stick and rightly so. Are we all in on the joke? But Bruce Lamont (who also played with Yakuza) and company have dialed in the look and sound to a significantly impressive degree. No one’s ever gonna see Zeppelin on stage again regardless of what you might think about current chuckleheads, and this is about as good as you could ever hope for. Lamont and Paul Kamp as Page pull off the dress and mannerisms in an uncanny manner without being slavish mimes, and the overall sound of the band is frankly phenomenal. They celebrated a 50th birthday and played II in the Rhythm and Riffs lounge on the casino floor the first night, and the second night went all over the map. Hearing “The Rover,” “Achilles Last Stand” and “No Quarter” played so well was a perfect cap a terrific full day of music.
The electronic contingent. Psycho’s known for all sorts of metal, be it downtuned stoner rock, sludge heavier than what sits at the bottom of the East River, black metal darker than a winter solstice new moon above the Arctic Circle, or throwback buttrock that instantly makes you grow a mustache. Variety is the spice of life and Psycho threw in some of that via booking Beach House, Perturbator, The Faint, and Cold Cave, with the last three playing the fairly out of place Pool Stage. The Faint had the unfortunate slot of going up right against The Misfits for their entire set, so aside from people working the festival I assume no one else saw them, but there were definitely decent crowds for the others. The ethereal dream pop of Beach House worked pretty well in the blackened arena, Victoria Legrand’s vocals shimmering over the guitar/synth/drum underpinnings of their songs, presented in a heavily backlit fashion. Perturbator is one of the leaders of the synth wave who take direct inspiration from John Carpenter’s soundtracks and he and his fellow live drummer had both people lying on the sand and chilling as well people dancing around and kicking it up.
Grails and Mogwai were among the other non-metal bands that went down extremely well, so well that I saw both sets in their entirety. Grails have assiduously avoided playing Boston since 2013, forcing me in the meantime to see them in farflung locales such as Stockholm, Tilburg and now Las Vegas. It’s really hard to pinpoint their sound as they pull from all corners, but this podcast episode of Emil Amos’ excellent Drifter’s Sympathy showcases his and Alex Hall ‘s obsession with ‘library music,’ and the latter-era Grails has a presence and atmosphere that is heavily flavored by that obscure branch. The Vegas odds on any band at Psycho playing a John Abercrombie cover were a million to one, so if you took that action, congrats on your new island home.
Similarly, Mogwai has slowly incorporated more and more electronic elements into their music, to the point where I think the only time Barry Burns stepped away from his keyboards was to add six more strings on the epic onslaught of “Mogwai Fear Satan” but that’s OK. Radiohead comparisons are really only relevant to point out when a thoroughly soaking in it guitar band turns towards other means of expression, but I’ll make it anyway. “Old Poisons” from the latest record shows that Braithwaite and company are not afraid to conjure dark thunderheads of sonic distortion, but sit aside nicely to “Remurdered,” whose mid-song synth breakdown is nothing short of lovely. And any time a set starts with a song that can get your arm and neck hairs standing at attention is never a bad thing; when the momentum and power builds so much that the pot boils over and the seams melt – that’s a moment I’ll never tire of.
I could spend more time than necessary to talk about other sets and this seems like as good as any a time to return you to your normally scheduled activities. However, a recap would be pointless without mentioning three additional performances and I’ll start with Warhorse. The defunct Boston-based doom band released a highly influential record eighteen years ago on the then-fledgling Southern Lord label, combining smothering doom with riffs as giant as you’d expect and some freakout guitar work that sets them apart. Local fans can see them back in action at the end of September. Power Trip was mentioned earlier, and if there’s a better band working the thrash genre out there today you’ll have to point me in that direction. Aptly named, the Dallas quintet took command immediately, and while overlooking a pool was an odd way to experience them, much like the Midnight and Gatecreeper sets at previous Psycho pool stages, it turned out to be a perfect fit and the furious slosh pit that ensued underscored that particular point most emphatically. No local dates this year but in November they are on a tour with High On Fire that hits Hartford, and there are far worse reasons to head out of the city for a gig.
Lastly, Amenra. Stark, severe, monochromatic, crushing, cathartic. All terms that could be applied to their closing performance but none really fully describe what they do and how they go about it. The Belgian quarter is nominally a doom band, but there’s a lot more going on here. “Boden” was the perfect call to arms, and the storm just got heavier and heavier. Singer Colin Van Eeckhout could very well be in a monastery for all I know, his dedication and passion to the cause being without question. It’s not a coincidence that most of their records are sequentially titled Mass, and the spirituality of this Herculean display carried it to another, higher level. Bravo, Amenra. Long live Psycho.
Click on each of the photos below to see a gallery from each day of the festival.
Psycho Day 1:
Psycho Day 2:
Psycho Day 3: