Psycho Las Vegas day 1 review & pics: Arthur Brown, Pentagram, Down, YOB, Converge, more
photos by Levan TK
Psycho Las Vegas festival was, for better or worse, unlike any festival I've ever attended. The setting within the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino offers unique amenities to go along with unique hassles. The security lines on the first day were long and inefficient (they later changed up the strategy on that), alcohol and food are incredibly expensive even by festival standards, and spending so much time in a casino inevitably leaves you feeling like a rat in a maze. On the other side of things, the sound quality is absolutely top-level, and I have never been to a festival that offers comfortable balcony seating with waiters attending to you should you require a rest for your weary feet and a $15 Goose Island. And ultimately seeing a crowd full of stoned, dirty, good-natured metalheads overrun a casino was a sight I'll probably never see again.
But anyway, I saw a lot of music. I spent most of Friday at the main stage, which was stacked from start to finish. Things started off with YOB, who set the bar pretty high. This was my second time catching them, and Mike Scheidt is one of the most all-around talented frontmen in heavy music. Between his crushingly distictive guitar playing and impressive vocal range he really owns up there. YOB are one of my favorite doom bands and most of that comes down to Scheidt, a whirlwind stage presence to back up the excellent songs that the band is loaded with at this point in their career. This was a great set.
Due to hotel check-in issues and general Vegas incoveniences I unfortunately missed the next set by Wovenhand, which was extremely disappointing. But I got there in time for Boston prog-sludge band Elder. Though young, Elder are making some of the best metal in the game right now. That said, I found a bit to be desired from their set. The songs, so stunning on record, just didn't quite come through well enough for me, and it was a drag because the dramatic peaks and valleys of the compositions are ideally suited for a live setting. Guitarist/singer Nick DiSalvo is undeniably talented, but it's almost as if he expends so much energy on the intricate guitar parts that the rest of the live experience suffers a bit. I thought the bass was much too high in the mix and that the band lacked some general tightness, although it was still fun hearing these songs in all their festival sound-system hugeness.
Next up was Converge, who are Converge. I've seen them several times and would make the case that they are one of the greatest live bands in the world, in any genre. They just never disappoint in terms of energy, cohesion, set selection, and this was no exception. Though they were a bit out-of-place on this bill genre-wise (and seemed to have a bit sparser of a crowd as a result) they still brought it. One thing that struck me this time around is how good Converge have become as a slow band. While we think of them as speed-demons, and of course the likes of "Concubine" and "Dark Horse" do nothing to alter that perception, they are fantastic at moderating their speeds over the course of the live set so that the blistering fast songs feed into crushing slow burners that serve as emotional peaks for the set. "You Fail Me," "Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast," "A Glacial Pace," and "Jane Doe" all absolutely crushed live, and this was a uniquely serious experience in a weekend that was built around a spirit of relentless fun.
Converge were followed by the #problematic portion of Friday's bill, constituted of Pentagram and Down. I enjoyed both of these sets thoroughly, but both performers made it hard not to ruminate on their varying degrees of possible/probable sexism/racism. Pentagram are fantastic live. They are almost the platonic ideal of a doom band; the riffs are just huge, the band is incredibly tight and clean, and Bobby Liebling, maniac that he is, is a completely singular stage presence. Pelvic thrusting and crotch-grabbing make up roughly 60% of his stage moves, and there's an air of weird old-guy sex stuff that, well, I guess that's what he's going for, and it's basically effective, but it's hard not to remember that that stuff has gotten pretty sour.
With Pentagram it's easy to be like, "well, Bobby's an idiot but that's kind of the draw." That can be a tough conflict to reconcile but it's a clear one. Down was trickier because a) they delivered one of the best sets of the weekend, and b) Phil Anselmo seems to continue to be unable to stop behaving like a jackass. Oh man, were they good. It's the rare all-star band where everybody seems to love each other and be in it for the thrill of playing together. Phil is an incredibly magnetic frontman and Pepper Keenan, Jimmy Bower and company just know how to deliver riff after riff after riff. But I just could have done without Phil's ranting about "pussies who write shit on the internet" (guilty as charged, Phil) and "millennials" and asking people to get in line if they want to fuck him and yadda yadda yadda. Basically he seemed pissed about how the whole controversy has gone down, which, boo-hoo. Maybe stop acting like you actually aren't sorry about anything if you want it to go away. Basically, I loved this set, but I felt that Phil's barely-concealed anger at internet pussies was not the best look here.
The night rolled on with Drive Like Jehu. Though billed as a headliner, they did not have a headliner set time, and the crowd was somewhat sparse after Down (for whom the room was packed and freaking out). They always seemed a bit out of place on this bill, though I was extremely glad to see them. They were great, ripping through their classic material with a combination of precision and looseness, bringing a total lack of pretension to a fest which had a tendency to get a little high on the hog. They seemed a bit bemused to be there (John Reis opened by asking us if we liked hard rock and then, uh, a thing that rhymes with hard rock), but the crowd that was there absolutely loved them, and classics like "Do You Compute" and "Luau" sound incredible.
After this I wandered over to the pool stage, which is a trip, to catch the tail-end of Death's (the Detroit protopunk band) set. They were fun. Then it was back to the main stage for the best set of the night, possibly the weekend, and something that I was entirely unprepared for. Arthur Brown is a legitimate freak, a man who lives in a concrete yurt with wheels over in England, who released the psychedelic classic The Crazy World of Arthur Brown back in 1968 which spawned the #1 hit "Fire." He's known for his insane performances and his associations with legends like The Who (he appeared in Tommy), Jimi Hendrix, Hawkwind, and more.
As soon as he took the stage it was apparent that this was gonna be a whole thing. His band, tight and tasteful, started with a winding psychedelic groove before he took the stage in a hat and bizarre outfit, screaming, shaking, generally behaving in an unhinged way that you can't fake. Over the course of the set, he changed costume before every song, brought out fire-wielding dancers, and performed every song like his life depended on it. I simply have never seen a performer with these gifts, his combination of vocal range and performative brio. He can sing in a deep, operatic tone or get up to an Axl Rose-like scream, and he does both while absolutely owning the stage. The crowd was also a bit sparse for this, and boy did they miss out, as he had them eating out of the palm of his hand. During one song he disappeared from the stage and reappeared in the middle of the crowd, which was sheer pandemonium. It was an amazing set.