Psycho Vegas 2017 got off to an excellent start with a bevy of top-notch bands. Some played in the motifs of yesteryear, others operated primarily in the styles in line with modern fans. All in all though, the festival’s booking has rendered a result far beyond expectations. For any fan with even a cursory interest in the genres of heavy metal or hard rock, what happened here just on day one was as good a collection as one could hope to find stateside. Here’s our look at the acts we saw today.
Wolves in the Throne Room
Wolves in the Throne Room — a rarity as a true American black metal band — began the day with a thundering set. Adorned only by faint, blue light, the five-piece band was a full throttle assault. Each song was in turn a pummeling series of frenetic fretwork and blast beat drumming. Their vocals a shrill stab of standard black metal screech, all that left us wanting here was more in terms of dynamic range. The band sounded great, but there was little variation in the arrangements of the songs. One song was hard to differentiate from the last.
Longtime mxdwn favorite Chelsea Wolfe made strong use of an early set. Though often seen billed in indie festivals, Wolfe’s determinedly droning sound seemed to cry out for an audience that is comfortable with nuanced heaviness. She opened with one her most known songs, “Feral Love.” Fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones will remember it as the soundtrack to the trailer previewing season 4 of the show. She followed that up with the industrial-strength crunch of “Carrion Flowers.” Each track took delicate care to weave distorted fury with menacing tempo. A real treat happened close to the set’s end when Wolfe was joined on “Vex” by none other than Aaron Turner, formerly of Isis and currently of Sumac. The tempo never broke until she hammered out a pounding conclusion on “Survive” to close the set.
At mxdwn, we have covered The Melvins more times than perhaps any other band in our history. We have followed them through numerous lineup incarnations, and even as they have re-formulated the band through whole alternation versions (Melvins Lite, Melvins 1983, Big Melvins). Tonight’s performance was featuring the most recent formulation of the band, Buzz Osborne and Dal Crover joined by Red Kross/OFF! Member Steven McDonald. The set was a sharp and expertly rendered mix of some of the band’s newer cuts, and cuts pulled from their greatest releases. They opened as they often had for decades, covering Flipper’s anti-war anthem “Sacrifice.” They mutated the arrangement almost flawlessly in the classic Stoner Witch cut, “Queen.” “The Kicking Machine” was the playful juxtaposition to those, before the group went into their slowed-down cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” For those purists out there that have been following the band’s twists and turns, McDonald is a nice addition to the band. Unlike the last few bassists, he attacks his portion of the music as a wild dog worrying at a fresh carcass. It’s a lively and energetic presence that most of the band’s previous members did not exhibit. The Melvins ended strong closing with a medley of “Lovely Butterflies” and their sitar-sound-alike “The Bit,” and then ultimately delivering the pummeling “AMAZON” from their outstanding album, The Maggot.
We gambled on Khemmis and boy we were glad we did. A doom-y band out of Denver, Colorado, Khemmis has a full, bright sound that grabs you almost instantly. Lead singer/guitarist Phil Pendergast uniquely sings in (almost) entirely clean vocals. Each member plays with force and sincerity. There’s something very fresh and rewarding about what Khemmis have managed to assemble.
Major kudos to Psycho Vegas for not only booking some of the best talent in modern heavy music, but also being daring enough to believe that the denizens attending were open minded enough to explore some groups a bit atypical for a metal festival. Chief among them were French prog rock legends Magma. Here live, there was little that one could construe as “crunch” or even “power,” but the group made a thunderous racket, using three different singers (two of them female), tremulant drums and even no fooling xylophone.
Atlanta’s Royal Thunder also impressed majorly at the second stage, Vinyl. The group’s lead singer Mlny Parsons possesses a fierce voice. It’s hard to pin down just what it is, but combine the power and control of Nicole Atkins with the ferocity of Marissa Paternoster and you would be somewhere in the ballpark.
Sleep was without question the act on day one with the largest crowd present. The now supremely beloved trio played a six-song set that ran just shy of one hour. Over the course of the set they dropped in new(ish) cuts “Clarity” along with “Dragonaut” and the title track from their masterpiece, Holy Mountain. The audience on hand cheered with glee when the chords from a portion of “Dopesmoker” were played (not the whole, hour long album mind you). Guitarist Matt Pike was as usual, shirtless, hammering sludge-y riffs with a wicked smile on his face. Bassist/singer Al Cisneros occasionally would drop in with snarling vocals to accentuate the band’s methodical and intricate approach to songcraft.
Even more off the beaten path in terms of booking was Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke. Yes, likely few if any attendees were even familiar with this artist, but to their credit, they more than warmly engaged this offbeat inclusion in the festival. Astatke is a tuned percussion player. He plays an elaborate array of what appears to be vibraphone and xylophone using four mallets (two held in each hand, John Bonham-style). He’s accompanied by saxophone and trumpet players, percussion and bass. Not a guitar to be found here, and this was all intricate spygroove music, layered with a tinge of ‘60s-era jazz.
Another longtime favorite of mxdwn Pelican closed out the poolside stage. While it can be hard for a casual listener to pick out songs, (Pelican is all instrumental) there’s always been an artful genius to their mechanics. You may never be able to remember a song’s name, but you’ll know quickly how impressive the band’s sonic assault is and always want it on regular rotation. They opened with the one-two punch of “Deny the Absolute” and “Ephemeral,” treating each song as if the opening shot of a race was fired and they were running at breakneck speed to establish an early lead.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre
Sadly, day one’s final act was squeezed by a day of things slowly falling further and further behind. The event’s main stage The Joint started having bands go on a little later each successive set. By the time the revered band The Brian Jonestown Massacre took the stage, it was literally the minute they were supposed to be finished, 1:30 a.m. Band mainstay Anton Newcombe was joined here by no fewer than six live members (one of them was literally there just for tambourine). And while a paltry remainder of the crowd had stayed up to catch the band, it was evident within the first 30 seconds that those that made it to this late hour were witnessing something special. Newcombe’s output with TBJM is multi-faceted on the same level as Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce. It takes on kaleidoscopic depths as it undulates between psych, alternative, folk and rock. It never really cements as one given thing, but it never really matters that it doesn’t. Newcombe’s guitars were plagued with numerous issues and the band’s guitar tech frantically tried to fix one as quickly as the next seemed to fail. Newcombe rolled with the punches and politely explained, “Hey shit happens,” before adding with a laugh, “It happened to Steve Bannon today!” a nod to the ouster of the much-maligned ultra right wing aid to Donald Trump just 12 hours earlier.
Some photos of Thursday’s Pool Party
Mustard Gas and Roses