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Live Report: Psycho Las Vegas Day 1

Sleep. photo cred: Alyssa Herrman
Sleep. photo cred: Alyssa Herrman

Las Vegas plays host to a large number of conventions and gatherings throughout the year. Like-minded folk gather regularly in one of the city’s various over-the-top hotels to immerse themselves in a diverse selection of subject matters. From bowling, Star Trek, and porn to convenience stores, politics, and accordions — a veritable torrent of niches — literally anything can be found here, and we as metalheads finally have ours. Contrary to most conventions, however, we don’t just stand around and chit-chat about our passion or industry. We celebrate it and live it. Our four-day residency at the famous Hard Rock Hotel and Casino stood to represent not just the object, but also the life, of our collective musical appreciation.

Psycho Las Vegas is one of heavy music’s biggest stateside music festivals. Last year, there were a few people who could easily be picked out as Psycho attendees while the Bret Michaels lookalikes checked out of their rooms: there was a gradual guard-change as weekend warrior “rockers” and tourist family groups dwindled in numbers, and bearded, vested, tattooed weirdos started arriving on the first day. This year, though, the casino was already chock full of Psycho freaks by early evening. Maybe a good number of people who didn’t come last year (sinners) finally got the memo and decided to make the trek. Certainly, and in celebration of the dense lineup, veterans of the show returned in full force.

The so-called Pool Pre-Party had already began and was nearly over by the time I arrived. This part of the fest, headlined by Pentagram, required a fancy blue wristband in addition to the three-day pass wristband At the smaller Vinyl venue, a SubRosa and YOB bill required another fancy wristband (black), again not included with the three-day passes. These extra charges did little to deter people. SubRosa’s hauntingly heavy sound always draws well, and adding a big name like YOB packed Vinyl elbow-to-elbow. SubRosa has an incredibly powerful rhythm section (Levi Hanna on bass, Andy Patterson on drums), offering great support for the thick and forceful riffs and insistent vocal delivery from Rebecca Vernon. Soaring over all this is the backing vocals and dual electric violin work of Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack. This mesmerizing contrast between thunderous low-end and towering high-end satisfies in a way that is as complete as it is rare.

YOB have only played a handful of shows since singer/guitarist Mike Scheidt’s recovery from an intense bout of diverticulitis, which resulted in several show cancellations. Understandably, Scheidt needed time to rest and rebuild, but it appears that he has recovered well: he and the rest of the band skillfully ran through a setlist that incorporated songs from throughout the band’s discography. As the opening to “Marrow” began to swell and carry through the venue, those who knew the song cheered and prepared to bathe in the magical chord progression. YOB has the ability to pull any number of emotions to the surface, especially during their live shows and sometimes when you least expect it. Some try (and fail) to hide that YOB has moved them in this way, while others embrace it wholeheartedly. Excited individuals exclaimed to those close to them about how they were crying through most of the song, as if they themselves were Chosen Ones. YOB’s “Burning the Altar” closed out the set with nearly the entire sold-out venue slamming their heads back and forth in unison. The bar had indeed been set high for the rest of the festival.

When I woke up Friday morning, my first task was to (once again) look over the day’s overwhelming musical offerings and plan my path through a timeline which would span from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. There’s just no way to see every band, so I had to make a few tough decisions about what would end up on my buffet plate. The set time overlap was intense this year, and a fully packed attendance made getting from venue to venue even more time consuming. They also decided to step up security and add metal detectors this year, further complicating the logistics of navigating the fest’s wide and wild sprawl.

The journey of a thousand riffs began in the Joint (large venue) with Texas-based Mothership. Mothership can close out a show like any other heavy hitter, but they are a damn good band to kick off a massive party like Psycho Las Vegas. To wit, if you’d never been invited to a biker barbeque, then you get your chance by whiffing vicariously through the attitude and style of Mothership’s fuzzy hard rock. They are almost a perfect representation of the aesthetic and imagery that the festival itself is trying to project, so it only makes sense to let them light the fuse.

Wolves in the Throne Room was up next. It almost felt like the temperature dropped by a few degrees in the large air-conditioned room as the ambiance changed: dark and foreboding blue lighting took over. Being from the Northwest, I can quickly identify with the influence that Wolves In the Throne Room have taken from their surroundings (they’re based out of Olympia, WA). Frigid, occluded winters surrounded by vast forests provide excellent surroundings to create their haunting, longform masterpieces.

As people left during the set change to smoke (or find cheaper drinks), I jumped into the stream of bodies and made my way to the smaller venue in front of the Joint’s entrance. Vinyl holds about 650 people compared to the 4,000 capacity of the Joint. Youngblood Supercult and Mouth of the Architect had already played at the Vinyl, and the room was half-full (getting fuller) as Usnea was setting up. Usnea are one of the standout doom bands from a sea of contenders in Portland, OR. While most of Portland-based doom is blues-based, Usnea instill a sense of impending demise with an unnerving pace that will have you checking your own heartbeat to make sure you’re still alive. Steady, but slow enough for you to question.

After several songs into Usnea’s set, it was time to run back over to the Joint to catch Slo Burn. This was a well-anticipated set, and the attendance reflected it. Slo Burn only has a few shows this year, and Psycho was lucky to get them on the list. I watched as everyone’s enjoyment and nostalgia oozed out through smiles and dancing.

Up next was Chelsea Wolfe, yet again inciting an entirely different vibe than the previous band. The audience adapted without a hitch. This was my first time seeing Chelsea Wolfe live; I got to enjoy absorbing new music in a setting with a bunch of fans. I was drawn in by the sense of familiar textures, but with odd and haunting arrangements. It was soothing while also maintaining the right amount of unnerving suspense.

Speaking of weird and familiar — the next band was Melvins. Due to the band’s massive catalog, their setlists always comes as a surprise, especially since they ignore any pressure to go for their “must-play” material. Anything and everything has been said about this band — but what rings true is that they are the guardians and creators of so many things people hold dear but seldom get real recognition for. I have seen the Melvins quite a few times, and every time I discover another amazing trait or technique that was in front of my face the whole time. This band will most likely never be fully understood or quantified and that is exactly the way it should be.

After a lengthy gear change and soundcheck, the curtain opened to reveal Magma poised to begin. I have never seen a band with so much control over dynamics in their playing: dynamics are an often overlooked yet crucial part of music that takes years (if not decades) to master on particular instruments, especially drums. Christian Vander, Magma’s drummer, mastered the skill of dynamics, which means the foundation for the rest of the band is both variable and sturdy.

A little over halfway through Magma, I ran over to catch Royal Thunder at Vinyl. This band is ridiculously heavy but uses haunting melodies, like in the song “Burning Tree,” with which they opened their set.

Just before Royal Thunder ended, it was time to run over to the Pool stage to catch Vhol. This amazing quartet consists of Mike Scheidt (YOB), John Cobbett (Hammers of Misfortune), Sigrid Sheie (also Hammers of Misfortune), and Aesop Dekker (Worm Ouroboros and Khorada). This was some of the fastest music at the festival; their pure energy stood out amongst the slower doom/desert bands. Vhol has only ever played a handful of shows due to time and geographical constraints, which only reinforces the caliber of musicianship and skill these four must have to maintain this level of razor-sharp precision and endurance.

I was going to be late for the start of Sleep, so I left Vhol’s set early to make it back into the Joint. However, the Joint was still suffering from delays, and even when Sleep’s iconic “go-no-go” began, technical issues kept the lights from dropping. When the lights finally did drop — and the curtain opened — we were greeted by the sight of an astronaut bathed in green light holding Matt’s guitar and Al’s bass. The venue erupted, and plumes of smoke started popping up rapidly throughout the crowd. The guitar cabinets were stacked three-high on Matt Pike’s side, and the usual wall of Ampegs lined Al’s side with a tremendous amount of stage volume. Perhaps it was the highest amount of horsepower on stage at one time for the entire festival. Drummer Jason Roeder has the monumental task of keeping this lava flow of frequencies in bounds and does so with a pleasing mix of clever embellishments and unwavering rhythmic support.

Because the Joint was running behind, I had to yet again leave early to catch the next selection from my list. Sumac had set up at the Pool stage, bringing together relaxing desert poolside visuals with their intense and brutal music. The sound at the Pool stage is surprisingly good, resulting in an interesting way to enjoy a band live. Joe Preston (Thrones, Melvins, among others) filled in on bass for this performance, which was a fortunate addition to the experience.

By this time, I had found a perfect spot to sit and view the stage, allowing a little relief from the countless hours of standing, walking, and running. The temperature outside had finally subsided to a comfortable level, and the low, unsettling roar of Dark Castle filled the area. Dark Castle broke a six-year silence earlier this year at Stumpfest in Portland with an intense set, and they brought that same intensity with them here. Dark Castle’s music takes you on a journey that only Stevie Floyd and Rob Shaffer have the map to, bringing you along for every sudden turn and bump in the road.

After Dark Castle, everyone went back over to the Joint to find Mulatu Astatke already in full swing. I had been hearing murmurs all day about this band, so I was glad they were still playing, a silver lining of the Joint’s out-of-sorts scheduling. The music was a huge contrast to nearly everything else on the bill, but the crowd didn’t mind. Mulatu Astatke is an Ethiopian born musician who is credited with starting what is known as “Ethio-Jazz”, a blend of African and Latin traditions with jazz that brought him and his home country into the public’s eye. This music creates a full and colorful experience — smiles are impossible to avoid. It was a welcomed cleansing from the harsh and low sounds from the day, and right when I was about to settle in, the curtains closed. People were not so pleased about this situation, but the evening was now an hour behind schedule and there was still the headliner to go.

By 1:30 a.m. the soundcheck was still going on behind the curtain, and an ever-increasing number of weary fans were flowing into the Joint asking if the band had yet played. Before I knew it, the venue was filling back up as word spread that The Brian Jonestown Massacre had not yet played. The curtain flew open, and the band immediately started, a signal to the rest of the stragglers to run toward the stage. This was the perfect soundtrack to start winding down from a monstrous amount of auditory input. Day One was done, and there was so much more to look forward to.

—Alyssa Herrman & Guy Nelson

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