On the final day of Psycho Vegas 2018, outside it was a staggering 108 degrees. Maybe it’s just everyone becoming crazy from the heat, but this day suffered in minor ways from organizational issues. Like Friday night where the single Facebook post about Witchcraft’s cancellation was not seen by many attendees, numerous fans of Zakk Wylde and Big Business found themselves repeatedly confused. Apparently, Wylde’s bus broke down somewhere on the way to Vegas near Barstow. Luckily they were able to find alternate transportation, but it meant they wouldn’t make their planned late-afternoon set. An update circled via text messages from one attendee to another that the festival stated on its Instagram that Wylde’s Zakk Sabbath would now be performing later at the pool in the previously vacated slot for Dopethrone after Big Business’ set. Okay, cool.
Fans arriving for Big Business a short time later found no sign of the band, nor any update on why they weren’t playing at that moment. Even a soundman present had no idea why the band was not playing there now as Zakk Wylde’s team quickly tried to set up his gear in the background. An hour later another series of text messages went around where Big Business indicated via their social media channels they would now be playing at the Vinyl stage at 11:30 p.m. after Eight Bells. In the end, everything worked out, and the performances were all super solid. It just would have been nice if there were a firm explanation on the video walls at one of the stages, or if an announcement was made at all stages explaining what was happening. Psycho Vegas does so very much so very right, but some simple clarifications and details like that for everyone involved would really help reduce frustration. Nevertheless, the bands were excellent on this, the final day of the annual festival.
Chicago doom metal band Indian performed early on at The Joint. This is somewhat of a recent reunion gig as the band had been broken up since 2015 (they, in fact, canceled a performance at the then called Psycho California). The four-piece (literally) banged out their songs letting each chord and drum hit punctuation as powerfully as possible. Literally, their drummer was essentially thwacking the crash cymbals every beat. Sonically, this was kind of like hearing The Melvins’ song “Goggles,” only for an hour straight. Not for the faint of heart or casual fans, but for those that love something pushing distinctly for extreme resonance, Indian was a solid addition to the festival.
Coven came next at The Joint, representing the old school of occult influence in hard rock music. Having started all the way back in 1969 (yes kiddos, that’s before even the first Black Sabbath), frontwoman Jinx Dawson has been crafting songs that mentioned Satan and counterculture since before most attendees at this festival were even born. After several decades inactive, Dawson reactivated the band with mostly new recruits. Here, she came on stage emerging from a coffin. Initially wearing some form of face-obscuring diamond mask she later removed it and strutted to cheers from fans greatly appreciating her long-lasting influence on the darker side of metal.
Back at the Vinyl Stage Mutoid Man put on what can only be called a star-making performance. Fronted by Stephen Brodsky (known also for his role as singer/guitar player Cave In) this trio combined equal parts entertaining hilarity and intricately performed heavy music spanning the gamut of metal genres. Joining Brodsky are Ben Koller on drums and Nick Cageao on bass. Impressively, the three constantly crack jokes or engage the crowd playing loose enough to keep things fun and enjoyable, yet somehow never sacrificing technical skill. Here at Psycho Vegas, they played a mix of original songs (“Micro Aggression” and “Bandages”) mixed with thrash-y covers from all over the musical map. In a short 40 minutes they did excellent renditions of Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady,” The Animals’ “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” and even King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” (hilariously changing the song’s chorus to “21st century Mutoid Man”).
At one point Koller even stabbed through his snare drums prompting a hilarious chant egged on by the band of, “fuck you snare / fuck you snare,” followed by “welcome new snare / welcome new snare,” when a stagehand quickly brought up a replacement. During their finale, an uproarious number called “Gnarcissist,” Brodsky continually emoted “I’m never gonna fall in love / with myself.” During its final moments, Koller ran off the stage seemingly randomly. Brodsky invited the crowd to a cappella sing along on various exaggerated treatments to the song’s chorus like a ‘60s soul singer might. Then, punctuating the close of each variation, a drumstick would come flying through the air, sent hurling by Koller hidden in the crowd, and almost unbelievably perfectly hitting one of the cymbals as if to punctuate the measure’s completion. Incredibly, on the final time, Cageao wound up his bass, swung it like a bat and prompted a massive cheer by the crowd on hand. Brodsky’s reputation has always been one of excellence following several incredible years with Cave In, but with this much stage presence and charisma, Mutoid Man should be the hard rock band everyone pays attention to. This is American hard rock the way it should be but rarely is.
Norwegian death/Viking metal was well-represented back on the main stage, as Enslaved expertly demonstrated the value of overall well-polished arrangements. It may not have been the fasted metal on display here, nor the darkest, nor the heaviest, but compositionally all of their songs are particularly enjoyable because of the care placed into balancing the various elements. They ended strong with two cuts from their early ‘90s album Frost “Loke” and “Gylfaginning.”
One of the finest moments of this year’s festival came in the late evening performance by Swedish band The Hellacopters. A part of a rash of revival garage rock/’70s retro thrash bands that came into popularity in the early 2000s (not long after the dawn of mxdwn for those that have been with us for years), this band was always amazing. A few short years after their amazing 2005 release Rock & Roll is Dead the band amicably broke up in 2007. We last saw them live in a tiny club in Austin (Emo’s) during SXSW 2006 and needless to say, they totally blew us away then, as now. Coincidentally, that was literally six days before their final US show until this festival. And seeing them now… twelve years is eleven years too long to be without The Hellacopters. Remember that early 2000s period when scores of mainstream music press were determined to convince the masses that The Hives were bound to be superstars? While a good band, The Hives had and have absolutely nothing on the bombastic energy and immaculate musicianship that Nicke Andersson, Matz Robert Eriksson, Anders Lindstrom and Dregen possess. These guys came to the stage as if to ignite a fireball aimed at bowling over all injustice in our world. There’s an urgency on display with their chemistry that is positively marvelous to behold. In that respect, the only comparable bands are fellow Swedes Refused, and truly, that is a huge compliment. We can’t speculate as to how solidified this reunion is, but here is to hoping the band engage in a full worldwide tour. Real rock-and-roll badly, badly needs The Hellacopters. Their skill and earnest sincerity are needed in our confusing modern times, desperately.
Drone metal titans Sunn O))) had what could be considered the second headliner slot on this final day of the fest. Their rig along was impressive enough to behold—two vintage Sunn amplifiers surrounded by a crest of amplifier stacks in both directions. Stage center, a bank of effect pedals for each of the band’s two members, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. This wall of stacks was no prop either. Close inspection showed that each and every amp was mic’d, somewhere 30-40 all in all. Like everything Sunn O))) does, a pretty astounding attention to detail for something so simplistic in nature. For this set, the fog machine on both stages right and left never stopped pumping fog onto the stage. The two members emerged shrouded in black hooded cloaks. The duo stabbed out the first chords, emanating an unholy and voluminous sound. This was much akin to The Melvins’ classic one-track album Lysol, a turgid, but oddly gorgeous emanation of controlled distortion as much about allowing space and patience as it was finishing any particular idea. The two members silently communicated through nods and slowly raised arms about how to progress with each song. To the untrained ear, this felt like one continuous chord progression, played demonically slowly, for 90 minutes straight. Not so, intrepid experimental music fan. This was indeed, a batch of songs, a long variation on new song “Novæ” from the upcoming new album stitched with songs “Jubilex,” “Mocking Solemnity,” “Candlegoat” and “B-Witch.” This extreme kind of drone rock isn’t for everyone—especially the faint of heart—but it’s impossible not to see some kind hyper-articulate mastery in this focused minimalism. There’s genius here that only the brave can see, much like trying to view the two band members through their billowing cloud of smoke.
Big Business finally got to play their set just after midnight on the Vinyl Stage. Another excellent duo, bassist/singer Jared Warren and drummer/singer Coady Willis have their own little island of full-throttle rock-and-roll. Warren plays forceful, bouncy bass while Willis beats his kit with daunting authority. Willis hits with a Bonham-like force, so much so that it honestly looks like he strikes hard enough that he could break any drum at any moment. The band has famous roots as well, Warren hailing from post-hardcore legends Karp and Willis a current and original member of The Murder City Devils, as well as collectively for a few years being a part of The Melvins (lovingly referred to by fans as The Big Melvins version of the band). There’s nothing quite like seeing these two ingeniously craft music, acting like most rules and conventions never existed in the first place. Willis, in particular, has to be one of the best working drummers in hard rock music. Only the giants of the instrument such as Dave Lombardo and Danny Carey are comparable in terms of skill. It would be doing a disservice to call what he does treating the drums liked tuned percussion, but there’s something far more musical about he’s treating the timing and nuance to putting these complicated rhythms together.
And last but not least, Norwegian black metal titans Dimmu Borgir finished off the weekend with a blistering set. By the best of our research, this was the first time the band had performed in the USA in over seven years. They opened backed by a gigantic stage setup, an intricate tapestry depicting an evil framework. Lead singer Shagrath was decked-out in full corpse paint, complete with an elaborate studded costume. They opened with two songs that introduce their latest album Eonian, “The Unveiling” and “Interdimensional Summit.” Oddly, something about their sound felt curiously muted. You could hear everything clearly enough, but it was almost as if the guitars and vocals were intentionally placed under the main mix? It’s hard to pinpoint, but then at random moment’s Shagrath’s vocals would pop through overpowering everything, as if someone tweaked a wire momentarily and the audio actually came through correctly for a brief moment.
The most important aspect of the Psycho Vegas festival is literally the fans. It may sound hammy, but there is a whole different kind of vibe at this festival than any other we’ve had the privilege to attend. It may be the indoor setting (not having to content with port-o potties is always a welcome thing) but it’s likely to do with the credible booking. This is a festival of diehard fans that are just itching to see real music. Not corporate bookings that have been pre-determined by some monolithic and out-of-touch agency nor some record label desperate to keep an accurate level of exposure for a band touring to promote a new album. Everything here feels like bands with a sizable following that hordes of people love, yet never get to see. There’s an elated enthusiasm hiding behind the smile of every fan present here. Like a joyful kid let loose on an island of misfit toys. Or, that someone is finally listening to them, curating based on what is actually good out there rather than just playing for the greatest common denominator. Everywhere you turned this weekend, someone gossiped that Virgin’s acquisition of the Hard Rock Hotel meant this would be the last time the festival happened here. Hopefully, that’s not the case.
In our final moment—after enjoying Jennie Vee’s DJ set in the late hours after 2 a.m.—rushing back to a hotel room to frantically edit pictures, a random fan approached and asked with a gleeful smile, “What did you think of that Hellacopters set?”
All photos by Raymond Flotat