(Denver-based NCS contributor Gonzo was in Vegas two weekends ago for the 2021 edition of Psycho Fest, and has been sending us some great write-ups of what he witnessed. His journal for Day 1 is here, and this is his report on Day 2.)
Vegas is a devourer of good intentions.
Its only purpose in this existence is to rob you of your sobriety, your bank account, your dignity, and your sanity. It cares nothing for your early-morning lamentations of the bad decisions you made the night before. The endless air-conditioned hallways of cigarette-crusted casinos and overpriced restaurants and tourist traps will be there the next day, waiting for that inevitable moment when you’ve become inebriated enough to shrug and once again say “what the hell, why not.”
The likelihood of you succumbing to this seemingly innocent urge increases with each passing hour on any given point during a weekend in Vegas. I knew from the moment I rose out of bed on day 2 of Psycho Fest that this would be the case, and the day would soon stretch beyond an ordinary festival and into an endurance contest. The schedule of bands we had carefully crafted ahead of time would either prove untenable or test the limits of how hard we could party in one day. Or maybe both.
At around 11 a.m., we left the tranquility of our Excalibur hotel room and sauntered once more into the soulless void. Today’s main attractions? Cannibal Corpse, Poison the Well, Dying Fetus, Cult of Fire, and a whole helluva lot more.
LA melodeath newcomers Vaelmyst were wrapping up their set at the House of Blues when we walked in, and their stage presence was defiantly energetic for being so fucking early. I had assumed the festivalgoers would be way too hungover to rock at such an hour, but I was wrong. The floor was packed, all three bars inside the venue were not only open but busy, and the energy was almost the same as it was when we’d left it last night after Cephalic Carnage.
Vaelmyst themselves have a fine debut album in Secrypts of the Egochasm that had just been released the previous week, and it was obvious they were riding that high. Their unique variety of melodic death metal is angular without being inaccessible, packed with head-nodding grooves and sky-piercing leads. You’d expect a band with this time slot to serve as the warmup for the day, but this was decidedly not the case. Vaelmyst came to throw down. These guys have a promising future in front of them.
I was sure to stay on the floor after Vaelmyst, because Unto Others would soon be taking the stage for the first time since their name change from Idle Hands mid-pandemic. There may have been some lineup changes as well during that time, because I don’t remember vocalist Gabriel Franco playing the guitar the last time I saw them. To be honest, the band sounded a little flat as a result. The energy that dominated their debut album Mana was more of a flicker during this set, so maybe the Portlanders are still shaking off a bit of the pandemic rust. Even the spectacular “Give Me to the Night” sounded a little less inspired this time.
My 20-year-old self might be furious with me for missing Eighteen Visions’ set, but the need for food was quickly taking priority over everything else. Standing up for uninterrupted lengths was also something I wasn’t looking forward to, so a break to rest butts early in the earlier hours in the day was a welcome opportunity. I kicked myself yet again, though, because I completely whiffed on catching Big Business on the main stage. At least the first casualty of the day happened early enough to justify it. Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself to cope.
Upon meandering back into the House of Blues, catching the second half of Curl Up and Die was a somewhat… surreal experience. The set was interrupted by long pauses between songs while the band’s vocalist admitted he almost passed out twice. The music itself – caustic metalcore originating from this very city of Vegas in the late ’90s – was on point, but the odd dynamic that began developing between the band and the crowd began to take the wind out of their sails. It was hard to tell what the issue was, but me coming in halfway through the set probably had something to do with it.
Fortunately, Profanatica’s ferocious blasphemy was next, and the following 45 minutes felt like how a dirty wall feels when you hit it with an industrial-strength power washer. Their sound is a sonic bulldozer, its knuckle-dragging death metal barreling through everything in its path until nothing remains but the smoldering ruins of your expectations. It was mind-blowing to watch vocalist and drummer (!!!) Paul Ledney pound his kit with unrelenting blast beats while howling incoherently into the mic above his cymbals. The white-hot rage of the set was a jolt to the senses and by far the most engaging we’d seen through the day so far. The incredulous looks of the audience suggested my face wasn’t the only one Profanatica had just melted off.
Holy hell, I thought. This set actually made me claustrophobic.
While it wasn’t “going outside” in the actual sense of the word, we decided to come up for air from the dark confines of the House of Blues after Profanatica. As it turned out, this was a wise move, as Withered was starting their soundcheck at the Rhythm & Riffs Lounge. They would no doubt be drawing a large crowd. And to my morbid delight, the location of the lounge was situated right in the middle of the entire goddamn casino, which meant there were about to be a shitload of confused and terrified tourists in the building once Withered took the stage.
My trip to the bathroom in mid-set confirmed this suspicion. Waves upon waves of people were scurrying by, holding their hands over their ears in disbelief. The Atlanta blackened death metal crew came to slay, and they didn’t give a single chicken-fried fuck what the tour bus full of vacationing septuagenarians from Phoenix had to say about it. Every noise from the casino and the bar was drowned out by the layers of jagged, gut-wrenching riffs and the unearthly howls of Mike Thompson and Dan Caycedo. It was a glorious sight, and cemented Psycho as the marquee event inside Mandalay Bay for the weekend. This was our house now.
And considering John Cena and other WWE stars were in town performing at Summer Slam on this very night, that was saying a lot.
At this point, it was easy to label this festival as the heaviest, loudest, and most brutal of its type you’d likely find anywhere in the U.S. And you’d be right.
But then. two things happened:
- It was almost time for Thievery Corporation to start their set on the main stage. Yes, “Lebanese Blonde,” trip-hop pioneers – that Thievery Corporation.
- One of my old buddies from my time in Southern California (another lifetime ago by now) sent me a text after he saw a pic of Withered I posted on social media: “Dude… are you here?” Obviously, we linked up and started what quickly turned into a 36-hour bender from which I am still dubiously recovering. More on that later. And no, I still regret nothing.
Some people, I imagine, would question the addition of Thievery Corporation at Psycho, but that’s part of the beauty of the event: The non-metal performers were more numerous than I’ve alluded to so far. They included rapper GZA, folk/rock songwriter Ty Segall, psychedelic rock mainstays The Flaming Lips, and a few others. We might not think about it, but the inclusivity factor of this festival is definitely noteworthy. I think it also speaks to the openminded nature of metal fans in general. Where the hell can you see Profanatica and Thievery Corporation on the same day, on the same bill?
But Thievery Corporation rocked way harder than I had assumed they would. Two drummers bookended the stage while band mastermind Eric Hilton sat cross-legged in the middle, playing a sitar. The variety of the stage show, as it turns out, was just as varied as the music itself: Hilton would periodically hop out of his perch and play the guitar standing up on some songs, while at least four different vocalists came up to sing on different tracks. “Culture of Fear” in particular sounded just as fresh and relevant as ever.
After that unexpected left turn into a subgenre from what feels like a bygone era, the House of Blues was highlighting its own celebration of another bygone era: Adamantium, boysetsfire, and Poison the Well.
It was enough for my 20-year-old self to forget Eighteen Visions even so much as played a show in the same room a few hours ago.
We caught the end of the reformed Adamantium right as we beelined back into the venue. I’ve always liked their albums that came out decades ago at this point, but never thought they had the production value that the band was worthy of. Their live show set that one straight. Maybe they’ll put out some new music soon and reestablish themselves, because they’re not unlike the Exhorder of hardcore – influential as hell, but not always credited for it as much as they should be.
Boysetsfire, meanwhile, might be a victim of the aforementioned bygone era. They were once big players on that metallic post-hardcore sound of the early 2000s, but it seemed like “middle-aged arsonist” might’ve been a more suitable moniker at this point. The band came out with a reasonable amount of energy, but the music was oddly lacking that spark that gets an audience truly engaged.
“Release the Dogs,” “After the Eulogy,” and “Empire” all sounded flat somehow. Maybe it’s completely unfair to be critical of bands that have either reformed after a decade of dormancy, especially in the fallout of a global pandemic that pushed live music to the edge of extinction, but I think boysetsfire caught lightning in a bottle that didn’t age particularly well.
With Poison the Well poised to take the stage next, I turned around to see a group of dudes limbering up like they were about to run a 5k. “Gotta stay loose for this one, eh?” I asked one of them.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I might be too old for this shit now, but if I’m about to fight like twenty ninjas in this pit, I better not pull a fucking muscle.”
Fair point, I thought.
The odd trend of “karate moshing” that came out of ’90s hardcore is still confounding to me, and I had assumed it would die – if for no other reason than the people who did it are all too goddamn old to pull it off anymore.
Again, I was wrong.
“Age is just a number, right?” I asked my new pit buddy just as Poison the Well appeared on stage, looking like human bulldogs ready to charge through a brick wall. He started to say something, but PTW mercilessly and unceremoniously ripping into “Exist Underground” drowned out all conversation immediately.
The abrupt chaos of the floor in the House of Blues was apocalyptic. Vivid flashbacks of mosh pits of yesteryear came roaring back from some dormant part of my brain. People doing full windmills and jump-kicks were everywhere. I felt like I was at the 2003 Warped Tour all over again, complete with the Madball and Shutdown basketball jerseys and the backwards hats and overly acrobatic pit antics.
But everyone was having the absolute best fucking time they’d ever had in their lives.
Poison the Well played a set for the ages. “Slice Paper Wrists,” “Artist’s Rendering of Me,” “12/23/93,” and “Nerdy” – all from the seminal The Opposite of December – were played with the same crushing, urgent intensity that made me fall hard for this band way back in another life. I even suffered a telltale injury when my pit buddy’s head snapped back and hit me square in the nose. Thankfully, I avoided any black eyes or blemishes. Surviving a Poison the Well pit still deserves a goddamn merit badge 20 years later. And even in spite of that, their set was the best that Psycho had to offer so far.
Predictably, this is where things went sideways.
My old buddy from LA pulled us aside and offered us some baked goods that included some magic ingredients of the, let’s just say, fungal variety. This was conveniently timed, as the sun had gone down, and we were planning on making a return to the beach stage for Pig Destroyer. Only a complete fool or a dangerously rational person would turn this down, and in this moment, I was neither of those.
“Why not,” I said, reaching for the alarmingly huge cookie he offered. “How long do I have?”
“Not as long as you think,” he said, taking a bite of another cookie himself.
Psycho or not, it wouldn’t be a proper weekend in Vegas without this level of questionable decision-making.
If we thought the pool was a madhouse last night, it was even more so tonight. Pig Destroyer came out wearing Acapulco shirts while making self-deprecating jokes about how fat they were, and frankly, this is exactly what I expected from them.
Scott Hull in particular was entertaining as ever, and I began to wonder if all of these guys were just weird jazz musicians who listened to Agoraphobic Nosebleed one night and decided it’d be hilarious to make their own grindcore band and name it something ridiculous just for fun. Maybe nobody took it seriously at first. But what would they do when their pet project got huge? Do they still have day jobs? Are they touring again? Do they have kids? Who are these people and how did they get here? And why the fuck is everyone standing knee-deep in a pool while watching this? Where the hell was I?
The realization then rushed into my head that death metal and psilocybin aren’t particularly compatible.
The unsettling intro to “Jennifer” was a hell of a way to snap me out of this train of thought. The distorted voice recording on that terrifying sample from Prowler in the Yard and Hull’s maniacal grin almost tore reality in half in front of me and made my ears bleed, but the hilarity of the pool mosh pit somehow anchored me back to Earth.
Let’s just a take a minute to appreciate the ridiculousness of a mosh pit in a pool. There were hundreds of people joyfully thrashing around like sharks at a feeding frenzy. Not a hint of malice was afoot here, and that was apparent even in the rather distorted headspace I was in. Only at Psycho, I thought.
When Pig Destroyer wrapped up, the anticipation for Dying Fetus was already palpable. Or maybe it was just the relative quiet that made me feel like I could actually hear the blood rushing through my arteries. My insides felt like they were floating in an alternate reality while my body was experiencing all temperatures at once. From the knees down, I was standing in the pool at Mandalay Bay, but internally, I was riding some psychedelic kaleidoscope through a hellish graveyard of tie-dye shirt-wearing zombies. Was I too warm? Too cold? What is temperature, anyway? Is climate change just going to fucking kill us all? Like, imminently?
Dying Fetus did a good job of shattering reality for me yet again, and I wondered what people thought of all this who were staying in Mandalay Bays expecting a relaxing weekend by the pool. Apparently vocalist/bassist Sean Beasley was also contemplating this.
“I HOPE THERE’S SOME JOHN CENA FAN OUT HERE WHO’S CONFUSED AS FUCK RIGHT NOW,” the Fetus frontman yelled in between songs. “ANYWAY THIS ONE’S CALLED ‘WRONG ONE TO FUCK WITH.’”
This was the kind of energy I needed in my life.
Fetus serenaded the wild crowd with a generous helping of cuts from Killing on Adrenaline and more recent material, from what I could recognize. The intensity of their set was absolutely breakneck, and everyone loved every second of it.
And as if the night couldn’t get any better, the headliners of the night were Cannibal Corpse, and nobody reading this needs any introduction to anything they’re about.
Tearing into “Evisceration Plague” without a word, the Florida crew put the pool in a stranglehold and kept it there for the next 45 minutes. “Scourge of Iron” is one of my favorite songs to hear live, and my god did it shred as viciously as ever. Occasionally, I would blink in disbelief, as if the scene of George Fischer and his unmistakable “Cookie Monster on meth” vocal style couldn’t possibly be performing in front of me while I’m wearing swim trucks and ripped out of my gourd on psychedelics, but here we were anyway.
We had to throw in the towel on Corpse’s set a little early, though, because no way in hell was I going to pass up the chance to get a good spot for Cult of Fire’s closing set back inside the House of Blues.
Being one of the only bands to actually get an artist’s visa for international travel, these mysterious Czechs flew in from Prague earlier in the week to join us. Nobody knew what exactly to expect from this set because you’d have been hard-pressed to find a single person in the festival who’d seen them before. We had no idea what we were about to see.
Two giant glistening cobra statues sat on either side of the stage, with a guitarist sitting underneath one and a bassist under the other. The fact that they were sitting down while performing the acrobatic fretwork of the band’s furiously fast black metal was impressive enough, but then there was the vocalist.
“Holy shit,” said my friend, “we’re watching a goddamn Satanic ritual!”
Indeed, I thought. Sound-wise, Cult of Fire reminded me most of Batushka, but these theatrics were on another level. It felt like we were being pulled into an interdimensional gateway to madness, and we welcomed the journey. Cult of Fire was the unexpected crown jewel of this festival, even if nobody knew what the hell they had just witnessed. If a demon followed me home, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
By the time we’d made it back to Excalibur to get some sleep, it was almost impossible to wrap my mind around the sheer scope of how much music from different genres we’d seen. Psycho somehow managed to pull in everything from trip-hop to Satanic black metal and make it feel like one continuous festival, not something that forced people into weird silos or factions and create an air of division as a result.
It could’ve easily been that way, but something about this festival transcended expectations and ignored stereotypes. Everyone was here for the same reason. And in a world that seems more divided than ever, music has maintained its method of being a means to bring people together.
The world needs more like you, Psycho. And even though I couldn’t remember a time when I was this tired, I was more than ready for one more day of it.