(Our pal Gonzo took in the 2021 edition of Psycho Fest in Las Vegas and returned to Denver fortunately symptom-free, other than what happened to his head over the three days of the fest, and he has provided a synopsis of the experiences, beginning with the following report on Day 1. We expect reports on the next two days as well)
There is no source of frustration quite like being forcibly stuck in an airport for any length of time longer than absolutely necessary.
I was reminded of this grim reality two Fridays ago when my arrival at Denver International Airport coincided with one of the airport’s underground trains catastrophically breaking down. Ensuing damage and delays had forced the airport to close all but one terminal. The scene was absolute chaos – security queues wrapped around entire terminals, people screaming at TSA agents, confusion, madness, panic… one woman ended up in handcuffs after going into a terrifying rage and sobbing. It was looking like the 10:15 a.m. landing at my final destination, Psycho Fest 2021 in Las Vegas, was slowly slipping out of my grasp.
By the grace of Thor, the one terminal that stayed open ended up being the one we were flying out of. The flight was delayed by an hour or two, but we were somehow able to board and land safely and without any further unexpected pandemonium. Vegas would have plenty of that in the days to come anyway.
And before I knew it, there I was, standing in the House of Blues inside Vegas’s Mandalay Bay at around 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon with an overpriced beer in my hand, watching as Baltimore psych-rockers Alms took the stage. I had waited for this moment for what seemed like an eternity – not necessarily to see Alms themselves, though their fuzzy breed of stoner-heavy groove made a great impression – but to be at an actual festival again.
That goddamn delta variant had cast some doubt on whether Psycho Fest 2021 could even happen this year, but the festival had the good fortune of being organized by people who were possessed by a cocktail of brash perseverance and the adaptability of a Jackson’s chameleon.
The bad news had come a few weeks before the start of the festival: The Scandinavian bands who hadn’t already bowed out and were scheduled to play throughout the weekend were denied an artist’s visa exception. Among them were Emperor, Satyricon, Mayhem, Mgla, and Watain. Obviously, the news of their absence was a gigantic bummer. They joined Ulver, Mercyful Fate and a slew of others who announced they would simply postpone their performance until 2022. Not the worst outcome by any means, given the backdrop of a deadly pandemic still raging its way through the unvaccinated clusters of the world.
Somehow, though, the festival was able to nab Mastodon, Primitive Man, Integrity, Knocked Loose, Twin Temple, and an impressive handful of others at the last minute to fill in. How much cocaine and sleep deprivation that went into this frenetic last-minute logistical fucking nightmare is anyone’s guess, but the fact that Psycho rallied like Nikki Sixx after a week-long hooker and donkey show bender is the most impressive feat of the year in live events.
Now, where was I?
Right. I was watching Alms wrap up their impressive set. Sadly, our flight had touched down too late to catch Lord Buffalo and Knocked Loose; alas, the first rule of festivals: You will not see everyone you want to see. Even in a scaled-down Psycho Fest, seeing every act you had on your extensive wish list is a futile and desperate effort that will inevitably end in disappointment.
That didn’t keep us from seeing North Carolina’s Toke emerge from a layer of suspiciously green smoke and peel the paint off the walls with their grimy variety of stoner sludge. Somehow, this band is still unsigned, but I’m willing to bet two joints and an edible that that changes sometime in the near future. This set was bold, loud, and precise. Then again, maybe that was… wait, why the hell was I feeling so weird? I turned and walked to the bathroom, but I had to check and make sure my legs were following the rest of my body. I went to say something to my girlfriend, but it came out as inane gibberish. I was still wearing my earplugs and didn’t realize it, and I had no idea what the hell was in my pockets.
Dear god, I thought. Toke had just wrapped up their set, and I am officially high as balls.
In a show of solidarity, I of course only added to the mood by taking a hit from my own party favor I brought with me. Time no longer exists. Psycho is the only way.
And next, my fellow Denverites in Khemmis were about to make their long-lamented return to the stage, and what a return it was. They flew through such rippers as “Bloodletting,” “Above the Water,” and “Three Gates” like the pandemic had never forced them to stop performing for 20 months. Vocalist/guitarist Phil Pendergast even had enough time to grow his hair to proper headbanging length. And according to recent social posts from guitarist Ben Hutcherson, the band’s new album is on its way. The world is officially healing.
The instant that the boys from Denver thanked the crowd and hung it up, the mass exodus from House of Blues began. It was only 5 p.m., but Goatwhore was minutes away from destroying the festival’s main stage inside Michelob ULTRA Arena. “WE’RE GOING TO GOATWHORE!” shouted a huge man in a Repulsion shirt in front of me while waving a gauntlet-laden fist in the air. The crowd reacted appropriately. I still wonder if anyone saw the size of the shit-eating grin on my face. I had missed this.
Upon walking into the arena, I realized it wasn’t the moderately sized venue I had expected it to be – this was high roller territory, where mainstream music funded by the endless pockets of record label giants would put on a show for the masses. If we’re going by the court of public opinion, Goatwhore does not in any way fall into that territory, but fuck the public. This was a weekend for metalhead revelry.
Goatwhore ripped through a predictably incredible set that exceeded my expectations. “Baring Teeth for Regret” catapulted the floor into the largest mosh pit I’ve seen in person since 2019. Ben Falgoust’s demonic roar filled the stadium with glorious menacing energy. It felt like Psycho was officially firing on all cylinders, and nobody could’ve been more thrilled about it.
We popped out of the main stage area after Goatwhore was done having their way with us. In the Rhythm & Riffs Lounge, the festival’s smallest stage at a bar in the middle of Mandalay Bay, former tour manager Doc McGhee was doing a live Q&A for a large group of fans that had gathered. “Ozzy is crazier than people realize,” Doc said, before describing what went down in an all-out brawl sometime in the ‘80s between members of Motley Crue, AC/DC, and Van Halen. I may have been born in the wrong decade but living vicariously through stories like this is good enough for now.
We decided to hang around the lounge and wait for Psychlona to start. I’d been late to the party on their incredible 2020 album Venus Skyline, its heavy psychedelia channeling the very best of The Sword (who we’d be seeing later tonight) as well as Clutch, Electric Vision and Duel. As they opened with “Blast Off!”, Psychlona immediately plunged the crowd into its addicting leads and furiously catchy hooks. These guys are criminally underrated. If they ever make it across the pond from their UK home again, their live show is something you shouldn’t miss. Between them, Alms, and Toke, I felt satisfied at the level of stoner psychedelia that Psycho so generously included already.
The only downside to seeing Psychlona was scheduling. About halfway through their set, Obituary had just started on the main stage, and anyone’s who seen them live knows you’d be criminally insane to skip them. I heard the unmistakable thump of “Redneck Stomp” just as we got outside the doors to the main stage, which had already sent the floor into complete pandemonium.
And fuck me, there’s nothing quite like murdering your vocal cords to shout “CHOPPED IN HAAALLF, FEEL THE BLOOD SPILL FROM YOUR MOOOUUTH” along with Jon Tardy.
Obituary smashed and stomped their way through a thunderous set, capping it off with “I’m in Pain,” “A Dying World,” and “Slowly We Rot” as the closing trifecta. Mother of sweating Jesus, I thought to myself as I massaged the back of my neck that had just endured 45 minutes of consecutive headbanging, if I make it through this weekend without getting whiplash, it’s going to be my greatest achievement as a human being.
My mind was blown as I walked by the outer doors to the arena – it wasn’t even sunset yet, and this festival had already shattered my expectations within hours. The thorough pummeling that Obituary had just laid out was going to be one hell of a hard act to follow, but there was almost no conceivable way the next two days wouldn’t also deliver.
After a quick break for much-needed food and more excessive liver punishment, it was back to the House of Blues to watch the legendary Exhorder tear through “Slaughter in the Vatican” in its entirety. This set was as fierce and primally savage as some of the lyrics from the album; vocalist Kyle Thomas wasn’t shy about revealing the origins behind some of them: “I wrote this when I was 15 and a virgin,” he said with a laugh before the band started playing “Anal Lust.” Metal is self-deprecation.
For an album that came out over 30 years ago, “Slaughter in the Vatican” still holds up remarkably well, and Exhorder can still shred blisteringly fast. Being in the front and watching bassist Jason Viebrooks and guitarist Marzi Montazeri rip a hole in the space-time continuum was an absolute delight. Kyle Thomas’s air guitar wasn’t bad either.
With the sun finally setting and providing the desert respite from the merciless heat, it was finally time to go outside and see what the beach stage was all about. The Sword was next, and a sizeable crowd had already gathered. Most of them were in the pool or sitting in the sand adjacent to it. A lifeguard sat on a perch above the beach, looking like he was questioning his life decisions.
It was somehow still unreasonably hot, so the water sounded like a pristine idea. We waded in, beers in hand, to a glorious set. The Sword came out casually, almost as if a 20-month gap in performances hadn’t even been real. “Winter’s Wolves” and “Freya” were standouts, and it was good to hear the band delve into their earlier work that made me a fan of theirs from the start.
It was getting late, and the day of travel marred by the insanity at the Denver airport was starting to catch up to us. Our day had started at around 5 a.m., and it was now approaching 11 p.m. I felt consciousness slowly beginning to wane, even with the assortment of substances and booze I’d been subsisting on ever since. How the fuck was I still awake?
Sliding into the House of Blues and rallying for Cephalic Carnage was a must, however. It meant we’d miss Mastodon closing out day one on the main stage, but as much as I love those guys, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen them live. Their show is always outstanding, and a friend later told me this one was no exception. Alas, see rule #1 of festivals above.
The Denver grind goblins in Carnage, meanwhile, are a confounding and thoroughly entertaining spectacle, but my god, my body was screaming at me to go be horizontal for at least six hours. To my detriment, I ignored those desperate pleas. Cephalic Carnage helped my state of being with the most ferocious, unpredictable set of caustic savagery that we’d seen all day. Abrupt starts and stops dominated the band’s precision-fire salvo of grind and death metal, with vocalist Leonard Leal sounding like he was either giving birth to a demon or being birthed by one.
And for a band that hasn’t released any new music since 2010, the venue was packed. Most of us were looking bleary-eyed as hell at this point, though, and I wanted to stay and watch HEALTH by any means necessary. But almost falling asleep during a grind band’s set is pretty clear proof that it’s time to stumble back to your hotel room and live to fight another day.
For what it’s worth, I heard from several people that HEALTH’s set was absolutely bonkers, and I’m sure they’ll be through Denver again sometime. I’ll make up for lost time eventually.
With day one of Psycho ’21 in the books, my thoughts shifted to nothing but gratitude as I was falling asleep. What a fucking day, and what an incredible slew of bands playing together in one place for the first time in almost two years. It almost felt surreal to be back on the festival train, pounding beers and roaring along to lyrics I’ve loved for most of my life. It’s finally happening again, and even though my exhaustion was crippling at this point, I couldn’t wait to get up and do it again.