The loyal and numerous attendees of the annual Psycho Las Vegas festival understand something about it that the world at large just has not woken up to yet. While on the surface a hard rock and heavy metal festival of incredible quality, what really makes it special is not how it is like other metal festivals, it’s how it is wholly different. Yes, diversity is king at this growing festival. Titans of this generation’s fierce and brutal metal (today for example High on Fire and Electric Wizard) here comingle with acts far afield of what the myopic expectations of people that don’t know metal or its fans think metalheads would be open to. That’s right music experts of indie, electro, pop and hip-hop, metal and its fans have lapped the whole rest of the music-loving world with their openness and assimilation of varying genres and styles. Nobody here was complaining whether something like Cold Cave was “metal enough” to be here. No, the vibe as a whole has fans just genuinely thrilled to have things that speak to the multitudes of flavors that have become viable ways to make metal: nuance, power, shred, fury, technical acumen, drone, social protest, utter darkness and bombastic rage. After the impressive opening party festivities yesterday that had Lucifer, Corrosion and Conformity and Yakuza wowing us with their own varietals of the dark carnival, the first formal day of Psycho Vegas (Friday, day 1) took us on a path proving that the embrace of these differences was inescapable and truly what makes this festival America’s pace car for innovation and real curation.
Our day began with a venerable giant of counterculture, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Arriving at the Events Center main stage decked out in a gnarled headdress worthy of the serial killer in season one of HBO’s True Detective, Brown confidently led his band through what could most be easily be called the darker side of old school psych-rock. Delving the depths of darkness, but doing so with a keen eye on the ‘60s era notions of peace, love and harmony. One song playfully dabbled with occult themes (“Gypsy Voodoo”) while “Want to Love” yearned for connection across all peoples with the lyrics, “I think you’re a lot like me / We want love / We want to be loved.” In spite of recent tragic events, Brown ended his set with the unforgettable track that launched his career fifty years ago, “Fire.”
Glassjaw a short while later was a vastly different style. The group fronted by original members Daryl Palumbo and Justin Beck was born out of the Northeast corridor era of post-hardcore music (for them specifically, Long Island, New York). The group was in top form here blasting out elongated numbers that aimed for power more than brevity.
Perhaps 180 degrees from Glassjaw were Canadian art purists Godspeed You! Black Emperor back at the Events Center stage. This ten-piece band has and assuredly always will operate from a point of uncompromising independence. The group fiercely protects their images, generally shuns interviews and uses their albums as frequent statements on the threats of big corporations and war profiteers. Unless you are a massive fan and know their albums by heart, you likely could not name one of these wordless instrumental songs, but the band’s driven energy takes art-rock and turns it into high-minded orchestral mixed with the poignancy and crunch of early-career Black Sabbath. The soundscapes they emitted were lush and undulating, the band performing in near darkness with film projectors displaying an endless reel of seemingly random yet pertinent images, none staying on the screen for more than an instant. Just don’t expect this band to have an obvious front person or charismatic character to latch on to. This is all about the tapestry they weave in their musicianship.
Outside at the Beach Stage doom metal band, Yob was just finishing up their set. Brutal blasts reverberated over the large outdoor complex at the Mandalay Bay casino, the band playing atop an elevated stage nestled in the middle of a beach complete with a mechanical wave machine. Attendees enjoyed the set from both on the sand and half in the fake ocean.
The first truly large and enthusiastic crowd of the weekend was for High On Fire’s main stage performance right near sunset. While many braved crushing heat outside, Matt Pike and High on Fire arrived in the dimly lit—and impressively large—indoor arena. They opened with three fierce numbers, “Blood From Zion,” “Spewn From the Earth” and “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil,” each progressively more intense than the last. Regular attendees of Psycho Las Vegas are well aware that one of Pike’s bands (be it High on Fire or Sleep) tends to play the festival each year. Almost wouldn’t be an edition of the festival if neither band was playing. Pike rarely spoke throughout this set, at one point just calling out the song name they were about to play, “Rumors of War,” and instead focused on nimbly playing their trademark brand of incredibly technical stoner metal.
Just behind the intensity of High on Fire, outside the door back into the blast furnace of the Beach Stage Cold Cave was playing in the newly delivered nighttime darkness. Cold Cave plays an excellent array of semi-electronic styles that a casual listener might associate with the glory days of Depeche Mode. This band fronted by Wesley Eisold is a wise piece of booking by Psycho Las Vegas. While classifying them as one genre would be doing a disservice to their fun and inventive formulation, this booking taps into the growing love metal and punk fans have for what is commonly referred to as darkwave. Yes, that early ‘80s formulation that Depeche Mode made famous but was also expertly crafted by the likes of Talk Talk, Tones on Tail and Clan of Xymox is now firmly back on the menu. The crowd on hand bopped and bounded with the exuberance of the early punk era slam dancers to this stellar sound.
Immediately after that was another early era stoner rock band, Fu Manchu. The band is near-legendary amidst fans that live for the grooved-out drone-y chords of the genre. Here, the four-piece evoked the best representations of their contemporaries Helmet and maybe even a slight nod to the Skatenigs. It was full-throated and fun with little excess or frills.
Another, darker blend of doom metal was served up for the first headliner of the festival. English band Electric Wizard came to the Event Center stage aiming for the sludgiest tracks their catalog had to offer. Compared to the bevy of excellent and varied talent throughout this day, this set just didn’t really solidify the stature one might expect from the headliner. There was nothing technically wrong with what Jus Oborn, Liz Buckingham and co. were doing per se, it just didn’t really jump off the page the way their stature might suggest. We rushed off in search of other more promising fares.
We weren’t disappointed in what we found. Shoegaze rockers Nothing were playing over at the House of Blues stage. Going for equal parts cathartic power and dreamy drones and feedback (much like mxdwn favorites from years back The Big Sleep), this was a pretty excellent offering quietly tucked into a stacked lineup. Lead singer Dominic Palermo seemed hesitant in his stage banter but truly thankful for the inclusion on this bill’s lineup. That demeanor belied the force and verve with which they played throughout their set.
That left just enough time to catch the very end of punk legends Bad Religion’s set. They ended strong with “Infected” and “American Jesus.”
Other excellent fair included French artist Perturbator back at the Beach Stage. This was like a frenetic and explosive piece of bombastic electro. Like if the sonic finesse of Underworld was given a sharp kick in the ass by Mixhell with the chaos and fury of the best of The Mars Volta’s early work. It’s hard to predict what this band’s sound will morph to, but that unexpectedness is exactly what makes it special.
Lastly, Phil Anselmo (whom fans know from his work with Pantera, Superjoint Ritual, Down, Arson Anthem and Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals to name a few) has another new project. This one finds him fronting an eight-piece band and playing an almost entirely acoustic array backed by keyboards and cello. Decked out in a snazzy looking suit, Anselmo emoted with somber grace over beautiful ballads evoking his cover of Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan” with Pantera all the way back on Far Beyond Driven. Anselmo made no bones about the materials origins or formulation, calling it strange several times and referring to the vibe being decidedly a depressed one and that he was glad to be doing these songs firmly in the pocket of that feeling. Nevertheless, it’s a refreshing change of pace for Anselmo after many of his heavier outings these last few years. “Mausoleum,” “Jazz” and closer “On the Floor” all had a poignant beauty to them, but it was “Rocker” that drew the largest cheer from the excited crowd. This was a fitting and appropriate end to a wonderful day one of this year’s festival.
All photos by Raymond Flotat