Vegas is a destination for letting loose, indulging in all sorts of behaviors that might otherwise be frowned upon back home. People go there and walk the strip, collecting hedons like an adult version of Pokémon Go. So it’s pretty much the ideal place for a metal fest, right? Yep.
The guys behind Thief Presents decided to up their game considerably when they made the move to transplant the festival, previously held at the Observatory in Santa Ana. This year’s ground zero was the Hard Rock Casino, and their main room of The Joint boasted a maximum capacity jump from ~550 to over 4,ooo people. Additional stages included Vinyl, and an outdoor stage set up poolside where the bro culture dudes and their target of scantily clad bikini wearers indulging in endless vacuous selfies usually roam when Rehab sets up shop. So with two to three stages operating in a simultaneous manner, sometimes it was hard to make a decision as to who to go see. Add in other options such as blowing your paycheck at the gaming tables, hanging out with friends in your hotel room and drinking off-site booze to escape the extortionate liquor prices, or checking out of the neon and concrete scene all together and heading out to the beautiful landscapes of Red Rock Canyon, and the overriding hashtag of the weekend would be #FOMO.
An important addition to this event was never even seen on stage, and that would be the contributions of Sean “Pellet” Pelletier, who was responsible for putting together one of the most amazing festival lineups I can recall. Seriously deep at 95 bands, and with a pretty nice range as well; you weren’t just bludgeoned over the head with down-tuned guitars for the weekend, though that aspect certainly was prevalent and welcomed. The programming would rank right up there with any of the amazing All Tomorrow’s Parties events I saw, or the tragically-canceled Levitation Fest earlier this year. Arthur Brown brought his Crazy World with him for a very rare appearance, San Diego noise rockers Drive Like Jehu made this one of their last remaining reunion shows, The Budos Band stepped out from their usual Daptone house band role and brought a new world of booty-shaking funk and R&B to the proceedings, and A Place To Bury Strangers hit dynamically on all fronts, sonically and visually. Of course, THE RIFF was never far away, with some top of the game craft masters such as Electric Wizard, Sleep, Pentagram and Boris doing what they do best, alongside some lesser known disciples such as Yob, Elder, the violin-driven storm of SubRosa, and Boston’s own Gozu.
And unlike the Observatory event, this weekend definitely had the community vibe of ATP event, as everyone was co-located for the duration and didn’t vacate the premises after the last E minor chord faded in the air. If it’s just another drive-in/drive-out rock show, you’ll miss out on moments like Matt Pike posing with his presidential campaign beer coozie, Scott Ian blasting Slayer and Celtic Frost over the casino’s PA to the bewildered looks of middle-aged slot players, or walking down the hallway and high-fiving the members of Boris, just as a non-attendee bro-dude attempts an ill-advised balancing act and ends up falling and spilling beer all over himself as his friends howl in laughter. As a condensed summer camp for metal fans, it definitely hit its target. It’s pointless to recap all the great performances that unfolded over the weekend, so here’s a list of some notables.
If you are gonna go out with a bang, having a full-on spectacle guarantees it. Cooper has been at it for a long time, inspiring many and honing his craft to a fine edge. Sure, the songwriting muse left him decades ago, but he’s got a fantastic back catalog to pull from, and he made liberal use of it as the brain-melting props of a 15′ Frankenstein, a boa constrictor, multitudes of pyrotechnics and confetti and of course a guillotine all combined for an eye-popping and head-slicing show. After a nice tribute/cover session honoring The Who, David Bowie and Motörhead, “Make America Sick Again” was the timely presidential slogan that Cooper announced to the crowd, and “Elected” closed the night off with caricatures of Trump and Clinton battling it out.
Anyone who saw the recent Paradise show of Boris knows what I witnessed, but for the rest of you, apologies in advance. The Japanese trio’s been going for quite some time, and one could argue that 2006’s Pink was the pivotal release that flung them into a far greater consciousness. They celebrated the expanded reissue by playing the record in its entirety, and also benefited from the late Colour Haze cancellation that moved them from playing the pool stage to the main stage. I’m sure the pool stage would have been fine albeit cramped, but in the main room their sonic bliss showered down and the visuals were spectacular.
This was the sole US show for the band, who were summoned from their lush weed kingdom of Dorset to the parched lands of the desert. With screens showing vintage horror movie scenes flanking them on either side, the royal doom couple of Jus Oborn and Liz Buckingham filled The Joint to its biggest crowd of the weekend, as the smothering and suffocating avalanche of riffs was lovingly received by the doom pilgrims in the crowd. If there’s a heavier song than “Return Trip,” please let me know in the comments section.
Three masked men assault the audience; no police in sight. That could have been a plausible headline from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, as the trio of men known as Midnight got things going in a big way. Nasty, primal metal never sounded so good, and they spent as much time at the edge of the stage or top of the rail as they did where musicians normally play. The mosh pit was also at its most furious, with at least one crowdsurfer dumped unceremoniously over the top and onto a photographer or two in the cramped pit. No reports as to whether any crowdsurfers also found their way in the other direction to the pool. “I hope you like HIV!” crowed Aethenar to the people who decided to watch the show from the (hopefully sanitized) pool water.
Along with Elder, Pentagram, SubRosa, The Shrine and a few other bands, Sleep was a repeat band from the previous event, and as they played just before Alice Cooper, they had a bit less time in their set. They could have just launched into their epic trip that is “Dopesmoker” and let it ride, but it’s hard to argue with any set opening with “Dragonaut.” With the video screens showing a robust field of pot plants, the familiar whiff of weed throughout the room was evidence that security’s measures couldn’t keep a zero tolerance atmosphere. Pike would also pull double duty the day before with High On Fire, his bare-chested swagger backed up by the blistering guitar work in both bands.
The bands from overseas
Though Colour Haze fell victim to the vagaries of obtaining visas (much like Stoned Jesus from PsychoCA), there were plenty of excellent though lesser known bands who traveled great distances to play. Belzebong was prime evidence that Electric Wizard records are available in Poland, and they also had the flashiest trousers of the weekend. Vocals? No thanks, we’ll just get to the riffs. Sweden’s Spelljammer brought the tempo to a crawl, with slow and deliberate fuzzed out chords trapping you like a fly caught in a web. Tribulation, on the other hand, shows that Sweden’s not just about being caught in a subsonic compactor, and their theatrical take on death metal mixed a heavy hand of goth and melody into the mix. Great set. Mantar were all about German precision. Just a two piece, they made sure their sound was exactly how they intended it, and once Hanno was happy with the mix, the delayed start of their set was instantly forgotten about. I’ve seen a lot of skinny musicians but never one that would be the outcome had a praying mantis been trapped in the teleportation device with Vincent Price instead of a fly. Oh yeah, did I mention that vaunted doom masters Candlemass played too?
Another band that’s seen their share of ups and down, leader Mike Scheidt reactivated his Portland OR-based trio in 2009 with Aaron Rieseberg manning the bass station, and it’s been an incredible run of four records since then. Not afraid to stretch out and let the song go where it chooses, their sets can often consist of just three or four selections. Though their last release was incredible, they decided to turn the clock back to 2011 and played pretty much the entirety of Atma; any day that I get to hear “Adrift In The Ocean” is a good day.
Blue Öyster Cult
One of the slight disappointments of the weekend, if only for unreasonable expectations. The band sounded fine as they churned through their stable of hits, and even though they’ve been played and heard a zillion times, “Godzilla” and “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” got a thunderous response. But as a diehard fan, I got extremely excited when hints of a set focusing on early material were floating about the internet, and though I wasn’t expecting to hear “Teen Archer” or “Redeemed,” a run through “Astronomy” or “The Subhuman” would have been more than welcome. That said, Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser did deliver a couple of lesser-known songs with the biker-lore epic of “Golden Age Of Leather” and the Agents Of Fortune deep cut “Tattoo Vampire.”
The Massachusetts angle
Friday might as well have been co-sponsored by the Mass Musician Export Coalition, should such an organization exist. Gozu got it going first, taking the stage just as soon-to-be tour mates Holy Grove finished on the Vinyl stage. The quartet is known for their thick, meaty grooves and it would be perverse if they didn’t play “Big Casino,” given their environs. Third song, check. But some bad juju found harbor on this stage, and just as Holy Grove came to a screeching halt when they encountered a guitar failure, a similar fate struck when Mike Hubbard vaporized the head of the kick drum. You’d figure that with dozens of bands playing, a spare kick drum wouldn’t have been hard to scrounge up, but alas the band had to huddle and formulate plan B: a percussion-less cover of D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” that prematurely closed their set.
Elder were up next on the big stage, and yeah it looked pretty fucking big with yards of space seemingly separating Nick DiSalvo, Matt Couto and Jack Donovan from each other. No worries; this trio had zero problems filling all the space in the room with their version of psych/prog/metal/callitwhatchuwill. Riding high on last year’s Lore, they played the two lead tracks from that sprawling, five track record and still found time to sneak in a couple of new songs that sounded promising. Now that DiSalvo is back living in Germany, local shows will again be scarce events, so don’t miss them.
Fake genre terminology sucks, and metalcore has to be near the bottom of that sticky, rancid bucket. But hey, if you merge facets of metal and hardcore together, I guess concatenation is gonna happen. Captivating, physically arresting front men have long had a history in aggressive music, and Jacob Bannon can rightfully take his place with the top tier, a manic presence that never slows. Firing the engine behind him is Kurt Ballou, who’s also responsible for their hefty studio sound via his God City Studios in Lynn. Nate Newton and Ben Koller don’t play their instruments as much as forcefully punish them into making the exact amount of fury and passion they desire, “Aimless Arrow” being a prime example. For local fans who ruefully missed out on the four Blood Moon shows held earlier this year in Europe, don’t fret as there might be plans for shows on domestic soil (see forthcoming interview that I did with Newton).
If all that sounds appealing to you (and I can’t see why it wouldn’t), yesterday saw the announcement that Psycho Las Vegas would return to the Hard Rock Casino on August 24th-28th. Start planning your finances, time off, and liver management appropriately.
Click on Wata for more photos from the weekend: