The final day of Psycho Vegas arrived featuring a cross section of exceptional bands on the outer edges of what most fans might consider metal. There’s an argument to be made that choices such as these are what made this festival not only special, but also worthy as a destination vacation for a music festival. The American music scene — beyond even the vestiges of heavy music — has seen a rapid and unending increase in success for music festivals. Not to mention that, since now nearly every semi-large city has an annual festival of their own, the market is fully saturated.
This year the array of bands on lineups of all sizes became more insular and, to put it frankly, boring. The same thirty mildly successful indie rock acts were playing almost every festival in the U.S.A. accompanied by a token hard rock act aimed at drawing in large masses of people. So after you had to snore your way through Local Natives or Capital Cities, then you could finally see Nine Inch Nails or Tool. There is avarice in play with music festivals in 2017 where just trying to fill the space has become more important than actually making the event feel and truly be special.
This is where Psycho Vegas succeeded tremendously — not just speaking of metal festivals in America (there are woefully few) — but all music festivals currently active right now. What’s more, the attendees vividly displayed how unfairly heavy music fans’ reputations are maligned. Nobody we ran into here was unkind, unnecessarily violent or even all that abrasive. What you had was an environment where the most common attribute was literally enthusiasm. Nearly every conversation that could be had as a result of a chance meeting with an attendee was framed up on how one band or another were actually going to be playing soon and just how exciting that was. Like an island of misfit toys, the fans at Psycho Vegas appeared as if they were the truly under-represented segment of the music listening population. Massively passionate, unafraid to spend copious amounts of money on merch, shirts and even sew-on badges to proudly display their favorites, besides holding a fist skyward triumphantly at a ferocious chord progression, these people weren’t hurting anyone. And as a final thought, how nice is it that so many great, aspiring bands actually had a place to play at this festival. Not just even play, but play to a decent-sized crowd regardless of which stage they’re on. That’s rare enough in the U.S.A. and sorely needed for bands that operate within the confines of what we consider “metal” in this day and age.
Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas
As of press time at least, Culf of Luna and Julie Christmas have billed their current short run of North American shows as possibly the one, only and last time they will perform together. For all of our sakes, let’s hope this doesn’t prove to be the case. There is absolute genius to what this rare collaboration has wrought. Their performance was exactly as billed, a complete in-sequence performance of their 2016 release Mariner. The six members of Swedish band Cult of Luna start nearly in darkness delicately plucking out the opening notes of “A Greater Call.” Julie Christmas joins the group on stage right as the opening words are sung by guitarist Johannes Persson. Christmas at this point is singing in clean vocals, offsetting Persson’s dry-lung roar. The majesty of the music is in how each interlocking sequence rolls out. Little portions slide in and slide out, sometimes building tension, others just perfectly adding color to the mix. On “Chevron” tension sails in-and-out of the music, alternating between the sweet and snarling, some points shouting with uncontrollable fury and at others delicately allowing the instrumentation to nestle and ease. “The Wreck of S.S. Needle” takes things one step further. The ominous intro gives way to an explosive chorus. The song shifts from there between violent rage and mounting tension in drums and keyboards. By the finale, Christmas turns the repeated refrain, “Put me down where I can see you run / you run / you run / you run,” into an otherworldly mantra evocative of something profound lost and never to be recovered. She leaves the stage for “Approaching Transition” as Cult of Luna drives the song through dark, patient atmospherics, rendering a song unafraid to live in the somber isolation until almost the very last minute. They end powerfully on “Cygnus.” Though fourteen minutes in length, not one second is wasted. Each segment ramps up inertia until the song’s final moments where Persson and and Christmas dart in between each other in complementary vocal lines. It’s a cathartic and triumphant finish to the piece. We will put it out here for anyone that has even a remote interest. If you’re anywhere near any of the remaining cities they’re scheduled to play, go see this show at all costs, before it’s too late and you miss your chance.
The Murder City Devils
If many of the bands present were operating in bombastic aggression, The Murder City Devils took that to its absolute logical extreme. The six-piece band played loosely in a good way, operating for forceful execution of their songs rather than lockstep precision. The band benefits massively from core members bassist Derek Fudesco and drummer Coady Willis (formerly of The Melvins). Fudesco’s bass rides high in the mix, driving the melody of the songs while Willis drums with a John Bonham-level of power. Openers “Press Gang” and “In My Heart” were full-throttle assaults on the senses. Lead singer Spencer Moody would shout with all his energy, sometimes literally resting the mic deep inside his mouth as he screamed. He also used lyric segments as between-song banter. At one point he said, “I was young and I met girl, and she was fucking tough. And I met another girl and she was fucking tough. And I met another girl and she was fucking tough. This is for all the girls that are fucking tough. This is called ‘Hey Sailor’.” Later he quipped, “I wrote a song a long time ago. I tried to abandon it. I said, ‘I don’t want to play that song no more.’” It’s hard to judge what purist metal fans in attendance thought of this one, but generally speaking this was the kind of fun-loving insanity The Murder City Devils were known for.
Following suit with The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s extremely special late-night set Friday, Swans were another stellar representation of a band on the periphery of metal music. While not exactly a true heavy band, Swans have been for decades now, a band unafraid to push the boundaries of dissonance and edgy sounds. After a brief span of years where the band was broken up, the group had three critically revered albums: The Seer, To Be Kind and The Glowing Man. Bandleader Michael Gira has sworn up and down that the dates they are in the midst of now will be the last of this current lineup of this formulation of the band. Gira leads the band like a confident conductor. There is some formulation of a song or melody the band knows to be prepared for, but the tempo, resonance, violence and tremolo of their playing is literally moment by moment directed by Gira through hand gestures, nods and eye movement. Gira would hold the band on a melody almost impossibly long, making successions of notes ring for minutes on end before he would feel the exact spot to bring relief. In certain sporadic moments he would let the mix fall to the background to sing a brief line. Even though there were these brief moments of singing, his vocals would be an almost chant-style hold of a note more than lyrics. This set was the extreme definition of controlled chaos.