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Photos by André Steënkamp

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Sometime back in February, Invisible Oranges assigned me to cover the Psycho California festival in Santa Ana. Headliners Sleep and Pentagram caught my attention, but it was the support that reeled me in. Earthless, Subrosa, Elder, Kylesa and so many more made me want to attend by any means possible. It was only in the days before the festival that I realized the magnitude of this undertaking. For three days, I listened to high-decibel doom, sludge and stoner metal for twelve consecutive hours. It was physically exhausting. It made me a far pickier fan when it comes to heavy music of the slow variety. And yet, despite all that, it was a damn fun time.

Locals Ancient Altar were in the midst of tearing down on the small outside stage when I strolled into The Observatory’s patio lot on Friday and I couldn’t help but soak in the warm atmosphere. We watched bands hailing from all over the country—I managed to catch Destroyer of Light, Blackout, Bell Witch and Cough—fire their riffs into the open air while we hung out, mowed down beers with friends, rocked out on the front lines or waited in the always-present merch queue, which lined the back wall of this outdoor area. It was a fun and simple setup, and it nailed the festival vibe that I wanted most out of this weekend.

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Bedemon

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Tunes from Pentagram rung from the main stage on Friday night, but they were played by a band called Bedemon, a kind of alternate-timeline version of the doom pioneers featuring early alumni Geof O’Keefe and Greg Mayne on guitar and bass, respectively, and Saint Vitus’ Wino standing in place of Bobby Liebling. Making their first ever live appearance, Bedemon humbly rolled through a set of early Pentagram tracks to the delight of the filled, but not quite packed, indoor venue. These elder statesmen weren’t out to conquer this crowd, and there was an acute awareness of that in the air. It was a relaxing pleasure to hear these old tunes live for the first—and probably the only—time.

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Municipal Waste

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Old Man Gloom

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The manic ADHD thrashings of Municipal Waste and Old Man Gloom’s vein-popping sludge followed Bedemon’s relaxed early metal. Hours and hours of oppressively slow music had begun to take its toll on my ears but these two bands, especially the Waste, were the first to break the mold and it worked. Their speed and energy provided a welcome breather from the downtuned suffocation that began to set in as the day went on. Eyehategod and Russian Circles made strong showings, but it had already been a long crawl.

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Eyehategod

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Russian Circles

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I was in desperate need of a reset switch, but I had more than enjoyed the vibe of the first day. Familiar faces were flecked all throughout The Observatory, spontaneous conversation with a stranger wasn’t out of the out of ordinary and there was always a fun time to be had somewhere in the venue.

Saturday began with bad news: My beloved outdoor stage was no more. For reasons that still remain unknown, the bands that would have once played in the open air now made their home in a smaller second room inside the venue. Still determined to make the most of things, I made a run for the merch table and quickly bolted back to the main stage—referred to in the free festival pamphlets as the Monarch Stage to catch Detroit’s Acid Witch and Vancouver’s Anciients. For my much-needed lunch break, I tore through a teriyaki bowl from the food trucks outside. When I looked at the barriers surrounding this outside eating area, I remembered the no ins and outs policy: I was stuck inside the venue grounds until the last note was rung, and it was only four o’clock. Day two of Psycho California would be the most draining of the weekend, and there was little I could do about it.

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Mammatus

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I had my first taste of the small room, the Grizzly Stage, when Bloodmoon began their set. Armed with a burly mix from Billy Anderson, they attacked the tiny space with a wall of sound that echoed Neurosis at their heaviest climaxes. Upon the end of their set—two whole songs in 30 minutes—I quickly darted to the Monarch Stage and watched Mammatus play a strange yet surprisingly effective mix of psych mixed with GIT-style tapping. Both of these bands were surprise highlights of the festival. Seeing them accomplished one of the goals I had going in: To find new bands that I hadn’t ever heard of and totally dug.

I made my return to the Grizzly Stage in hopes of catching Lord Dying, but I found the tiny room packed and impenetrable. Fans were literally spilling out the door, with some even jamming themselves along the outside walls just to listen.

I reloaded my beer and returned to the patio where the outdoor stage once reigned supreme. On that stage, still built and standing, was a lone drum kit covered in tarp. Rumblings of a secret last-minute addition to the bill quickly made their way around the patio. These rumors came to life when Josh Landau set up his Marshall JMP-powered full-stack. The outdoor stage was alive and well, and Venice’s favorite skaterats, The Shrine, would steer the ship. Crowd surfers, stage divers, beers and weed smoke all shared the air as Landau tore into his fuzz-drenched solos. The front of the stage turned into a pile of bodies slamming every which way. Like Municipal Waste before them, The Shrine provided a release of energy that the attendees of this festival sorely needed. They offered a concentrated burst of unbridled action and sheer rock and roll on the merry outdoor patio. This was Psycho California at its best: righteous riffs roaring through the open sky, and fans freely making their post wherever they could have the most fun. But then, the moment was gone—The Shrine packed up their belongings and the outside stage was never to be heard from again.

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Pallbearer

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Not wanting to be cut off from the Grizzly Stage again, I only saw two songs from Pallbearer before claiming my space in the small room. Thanks once again to Billy Anderson, Pallbearer ably captured the almighty tone, but Brett Campbell fought a losing battle with his vocals. This was a far more confident and physical band than the one I saw two years back, but there’s still room for improvement as a live act.

I soon experienced a band undeniably at the peak of their live ability at the Grizzly Stage where Subrosa staked their claim as the conquerors of Psycho California. After having their last attempted visit to Southern California derailed by gear theft, Subrosa’s hour of music felt like being rolled over by a tank on its way to war. Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack’s violins sang the battle cry as Rebecca Vernon’s chords fired unrelenting artillery. This was a triumphant grasp at glory for Subrosa and felt nothing like a festival set, and more like their own club show.

Once again faced with the danger of losing a potential spot in the small room, I decided upon seeing the increasingly rare Sourvein rather than Earth, who were set to play at nearly the same time at the Monarch Stage. The night began to blur as hunger and exhaustion slowly settled in, however, and even vocalist T-Roy Medlin’s serpentine stage maneuvering couldn’t distract me from thoughts of my bed and Del Taco.

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Kylesa

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After refueling with a final beer and BBQ jerk chicken fries, I saw Kylesa, whose more up-tempo sludge was an able temporary wake-up device. I even found myself on the center floor bouncing around to “Hollow Severer.”

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Sleep

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My body and mind were finished by the time Sleep went on and I think the band must have known it. After the radio chatter of astronauts played over the PA, Al Cisneros walked out onstage by himself and played an entirely inaudible bass intro. Was he even plucking strings at all? Was the silence intentional? My theory: They were trolling us. What amounted to only a few minutes in real-time felt far longer to me and others that had spent the entire day at The Observatory.

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Sleep

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When the full band finally played, their set felt overly decadent. For nearly two hours, Sleep performed their usual mix of chunks from Dopesmoker and tracks off of Holy Mountain. For most fans, myself included, a long set by Sleep would be most welcome, but by 1:00 AM, right when the band kicked off an extended version of “From Beyond,” my body was telling me to go home. Yes, Sleep’s performance was excellent and their sound was expectedly immense, but it wasn’t what the crowd needed at the end of this day.

I was ready for Psycho California to come to an end by Sunday. Apparently the powers that be agreed, as I entered The Observatory to find out that the set times on the Monarch Stage had been moved up by two hours, ending the festival at a neat 11 PM. I made a mad dash to catch the last few songs from Truckfighters, which may as well have been my morning coffee. Watching guitarist Niklas Kallgren stamp his feet and jump at every chance was a treat and a wonderfully fun way to kick off this final day of tunes. Even Tombs managed to keep the blood flowing with a vigorous showing. Songs from Savage Gold translated more strongly onstage than on the record.

Bongzilla’s swinging southern sludge carried the momentum somewhat, but my ears continually rejected their occasionally lethargic crawls. By this point, the quality of the bands’ performances mattered less and less. My aural support beams slowly tumbled as the weekend drew to a close.

I attempted once again to enter the small room to see Elder, one of the biggest selling points of the entire festival for me. Once again, I was denied by a spillover of people densely packing the room; once again, I found myself missing my outdoor patio stage and the fun times that came with it. I drank my next beer in honor of that outside stage and I even made new friends simply from bonding over the memory.

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Earthless

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My return to the Monarch Stage was laced with disappointment and sorrow at having been denied the chance to see Elder. Earthless managed to temporarily dispel those thoughts with a captivating set that brought to mind the tastiest of ’70s psych jams. This was the rare set where where my brain relaxed in and accepted the sounds coming in, rather than darting away to the material desires that awaited me after the show—which, in case you forgot, were my bed and Del Taco. Making his second appearance at the festival, Al Cisneros and his drone trio Om inched through their set at a snail’s pace. Under normal circumstances, it would have been a compelling hour of trance/doom, but after three days of nothing but the slowest music imaginable, Om was an ordeal to wait through.

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Pentagram

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After Bedemon first exposed showgoers to the bare roots of doom metal on Friday night, the modern version of Pentagram offered their own selections from that same era of early tunes. As they ran through the First Daze Here compilation from start to finish, I couldn’t help but feel an easy comfort. There was no “extreme” with these songs in tuning, tempo, vocal timbre or otherwise. These were the genre’s earliest and most rocking tracks, and they were gently taking us to the weekend’s end.

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Pentagram

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And yet, Liebling and his cohorts couldn’t let the night finish softly. For the last song of the night, guitarist Matt Goldsborough confidently strolled to the front of the stage and unleashed the immortal opening notes to “Relentless.” A few minutes of pit action and several repetitions of that glorious, unfuckwithable riff later, Psycho California came to an end.

That weekend I reconnected with friends I hadn’t seen in years, made new ones and shared in thirty-six hours of incredibly slow metal. By sticking 1000-plus doom freaks in a giant room with no escape, Psycho California forced us to bond. When I was tired, the feeling seemed mutual across the expanses of bodies. When my fist raised to the air, hundreds of others flew up alongside mine. We were a united front at The Observatory on this weekend. We were given the sunny open-air mirth of the outdoor patio stage, and had it taken away when we needed it most.

Psycho California wasn’t just my exhausting weekend of doom. It was our weekend of doom, a claustrophobic, ear-splitting and communal experience that strengthened the ties between fans of underground metal here in Southern California. As individuals and as a scene, we came out stronger because of this festival. Did I see sets that I will remember for the rest of my life? Certainly. Did I catch bands that I’ll forget next week? Probably. Did I sleep for 12 hours straight on Sunday night? Absolutely. Was it all worth it? You better fucking believe it.

—Avinash Mittur

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