(We’ve been enjoying the hell out of our friend Gonzo‘s reports on the 2021 edition of Psycho Fest in Las Vegas a couple weekends ago, and hope you have too. Today we present his third and final write-up, concerning his adventures on the fest’s last day.)
“The possibility of physical and mental collapse is now very real. No sympathy for the Devil, keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
–Hunter S. Thompson
Those words from the good doctor rang out in my brain the moment I opened my eyes on Sunday morning. My ears were still ringing in spite of wearing earplugs for the majority of Saturday, but like so much else, Vegas cannot be bothered with your feeble attempts at self-care.
Today would begin a little differently than the relentless pace we’d been keeping through the weekend so far. Before officially beginning our foray into the final day of Psycho Fest 2021, our group would first be headed to Omega Mart inside the Area 15 building just a few miles from the Strip.
For the uninitiated, Omega Mart is basically what getting groceries would feel like if you were on acid. It’s an experience that defies explanation. If you’re not careful, you could get lost in this place and end up on the other side of the rabbit hole before you know it. Given that there were still plenty of bands we were planning on catching today, we had a limited window of time to work with, but the experience was just as inexplicably weird as advertised, and even more enjoyable. If you find yourself in Vegas with half a day to kill, I can’t recommend Omega Mart highly enough.
After emerging from the depths of the alternate reality we’d been plunged into, it was back to the Strip to immerse ourselves once again in everything Psycho had to offer. The first stop would be at the House of Blues for the Denver-based Glacial Tomb, featuring (among others) Ben Hutcherson from Khemmis.
Whereas Khemmis is very much a doom band at the end of the day (and a really fucking good one at that), Glacial Tomb is a blackened death metal band that goes for the jugular. Hutcherson’s vocals power a ten-ton hammer of a rhythm section that crushes everything in its path, and the 2 p.m. start time on the third day of the festival didn’t make a shred of difference as far as stage presence was concerned. They might have been one of the more obscure bands on this festival, but their 2018 self-titled debut album holds a lot of promise for that to change – and soon.
I was bummed to realize Omega Mart had kept me away from seeing both Integrity and Vitriol, so if anyone caught either of those sets, be sure to rub it in my face how awesome both of them were, because I have no doubt that was the case. Leave a comment and don’t spare the details.
Once Tomb was done laying waste to the House of Blues, I scampered off to the main stage to get a good spot for Cleveland blackened speed metal weirdos Midnight. When I walked in, there was main man Athenar talking to the crowd between songs while frantically waving around a bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Who out there wants this?” he asked, holding up the liquor bottle above his head like some kind of sacrificial offering.
“OH COME ON,” he continued. “I’m from Cleveland! The only way I know how to make friends is to bribe them with drugs and alcohol!”
Their set raged through the band’s catalog, with “Fucking Speed and Darkness” standing out as a highlight. Athenar’s intermittent antics are always amusing on stage, and they were in prime form for this entire set.
There was a lot of buzz surrounding Texas death/thrash crew Creeping Death, and having never seen them live before, I decided to catch their House of Blues set instead of High on Fire. I’m bracing myself for the crucifixion I might receive for that, but I had long since given up on trying to be two places at once.
As it turns out, it was hardly the worst decision I’d made this weekend so far. Even though I’m not what you’d call intimately familiar with most of their music, Creeping Death know how to play a crowd in the same way Power Trip and Municipal Waste often do, taking an approach that’s just as heavy on the audience participation as on the riffs. Their latest single “The Edge of Existence” is a ferocious slab of thrashy hardcore that sounds like it could summon a tornado to decimate a Texas trailer park. If their forthcoming EP is this consistent, holy shit. Look out.
With a small gap in our schedule, we opted to find some more overpriced casino food and get a table at the Rhythm & Riffs Lounge for Amigo the Devil. Just as I raved about yesterday, Psycho isn’t afraid to explore music that might be considered unconventional to add to a metal festival, and demented singer/songwriter Amigo the Devil is anything but conventional.
His tales of murder, lust, and revenge while maintaining surprisingly heartfelt nuances fall somewhere between Voltaire and Will Carlisle. You wouldn’t be wrong if you referred to Devil’s music as “folk,” but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface here than just the music. Devil, whose real name is Danny Kiranos, spoke at length in between songs about his struggles with depression during the pandemic and into now, and many of the fans – who were gathered in droves for this set – let him know that he wasn’t alone.
That being said, such songs as “I Hope Your Husband Dies” and “24k Casket” are both hilarious and infectious. He’s touring again now, and we’ll be catching him for the second time this Friday in Denver, and I absolutely cannot wait. This was the surprise set of the festival for me.
Today was apparently all about switching gears – musically, at least – and there was arguably no wider musical gap we could’ve crossed after Amigo the Devil than wandering back into the House of Blues to see Immolation dominate the night. I’m always in awe of bands like Immolation, Incantation, Cannibal Corpse, and so many other death metal bands who’ve been relentlessly pounding away for this long without ever compromising their sound. That’s not to say anything about Immolation is formulaic or boring, because they are definitely neither. It’s just incredible to watch musicians who can play at a neck-snapping pace and act like it’s just a casual night out.
Immolation predictably brutalized the crowd with a punishing set. But as they wound down towards the end of it, the crowd was noticeably thinning out, and for good reason – none other than fucking Down was about to put the final nail in the coffin at the festival’s gigantic main stage.
As we hurried toward Michelob ULTRA Arena (which I hate typing), Howling Giant was kind enough to serenade us with a sampling of their psychedelic sludge in the R&R Lounge, and I’m glad I caught a glimpse of them, even if it was just in passing.
The only thing better than seeing Down bring the house, well, down, was the fact that for this set, they were going to play first album NOLA all the way through. Imagine my confusion, then, when they opened with “Pray for the Locust,” which was decidedly not the first song on the album. They simply rearranged the order of the songs, which made for a much more fun live experience for several reasons, not the least of which being the experience-enhancing substance my friend’s girlfriend liberally applied to my beer.
At this point, I remembered my own words from day one: “You will eventually become inebriated enough in Vegas to shrug and say, ‘what the hell, why not.’” Ah yes, another night in this town, another chapter of questionable decision-making.
Phil Anselmo and his pack of merry men in Down were downright incredible on this night. Every single riff, every single note, every single transition – everything about this set was perfect, and I’m not one to throw that descriptor around casually. I felt every note. The bass rumbled through the floor while Anselmo’s unmistakable howl made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, just like it did when I first heard “Lifer” in 1995.
By the time the band came back out for an encore, they ended things with a thundering rendition of “Bury Me in Smoke,” with its massive riffs threatening to tear the roof off. I don’t think I’ve ever been so utterly possessed by live music in my life. Nothing existed anymore except this crowd and this band. Everything else at Psycho would now be an afterthought. Five friends from New Orleans had just set the bar so high that we could’ve just left the city that moment and I wouldn’t have cared.
But, the endurance contest was well underway, and I wasn’t ready to bow out just yet.
After exiting the main stage and grinning like idiots while shouting the praises of Down for the rest of eternity, I wanted to at least catch a glimpse of death/grind stalwarts Broken Hope, who were well into their set at the House of Blues. The venue was jammed, but even with the jackhammer of sound that the Chicago gore-lords were churning out, the audience looked exhausted. There was nary a mosh pit to be seen, but that didn’t stop Broken Hope from sounding as taut as a steel cable.
Once I’d had enough in the claustrophobic subterranean depths of House of Blues once again, it was back to the R&R Lounge in anticipation of STÖNER, the brand-new brainchild of Brant Bjork and Nick Oliveri. The concept of STÖNER is beautiful in its simplicity – just three friends playing bass-heavy, groovy rock ‘n’ roll.
The substances in my body were swirling around like some kind of psychedelic demolition derby. We saw the second half of Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, a funk group that featured impressive musicianship and a rollicking, freewheeling presence on stage. When their set was over and STÖNER started setting up, some familiar faces began popping out of the woodwork; among them being none other than Pepper Keenan. He sat on the edge of the stage during the majority of the set, grinning impishly while putting away tall boys of Bud Light. He had just played the show of his life, and there he was, still rocking out like any other spectator. I can only hope to be half that cool when I get to his age, goddammit.
Meanwhile, the night was descending into a frenzied blur of overstimulation. Stupidly, I took the ill-advised step of ordering a vodka and Red Bull from the R&R Lounge after STÖNER finished up. By now, I was a walking petri dish. A biologist could’ve put me under a giant microscope and seen a small civilization of drugs and alcohol reenacting the Battle of Thermopylae inside me. My head was buzzing from the endless cacophony of slot machines, poker tables, and the occasional celebratory howl of people at a craps table somewhere out of sight.
All I had to do now, I told myself, was stay conscious enough to watch at least half of Drab Majesty’s performance as the festival’s final act. The prelude to that was Repulsion.
While grinding through the frenetic pace of much of the Horrified record, Repulsion frontman Scott Carlson had a moment of candor with the bleary-eyed crowd.
“We formed this band about 700 years ago,” he said. “The first time we met, we were drunk as hell in a Del Taco at about 3 in the morning.”
Strange, I thought. I’ve also met some of my best friends while drunk as hell in a Del Taco at 3 a.m.
With each song averaging about a minute in length, I lost track of how many tracks the band plowed through during this set. I was beginning to feel a sense of déjà vu now – exhausted, nearing the point of total physical collapse – just as I was on the first night in this very building with Cephalic Carnage.
No, I thought. PERSEVERE AT ALL COSTS.
photo by Yasmina Chavez (for Las Vegas Weekly)
The Red Bull was still coursing through my veins when the spacey duo of Drab Majesty finally, after long last, took the stage at around midnight. I was going to feel like I got hit by a ten-ton hammer in the morning, but I had no time for those thoughts now.
Drab Majesty was certainly another unconventional choice for this metal festival, but they had a certain air about their stage presence that hushed the crowd and kept everyone engaged. It might sound odd to say it, and maybe you had to be there, but Psycho couldn’t have ended on a more appropriate note than this unique breed of spacey synth-driven goth rock from Los Angeles.
Hearing “Dot in the Sky” and “Cold Souls” live put my jittery mind in a more grounded spot. This is weird, I thought. Was this a metal festival lullaby? Was I finally ready to disconnect my brain from this unending frenzy of music and booze and drugs and general insanity?
I didn’t know. But after about six songs, I began the walk back to my room in Excalibur as if my legs were on autopilot. I had seen it all and powered through a day that began what felt like decades ago. Thinking back to our delayed arrival here only two days before this, it felt like we’d been in Vegas for ages.
For so many reasons, what an incredible weekend this was. Psycho Fest went from being on the verge of total cancellation to frantically scrambling to fill headliner spots to seamlessly putting on one of the best festivals I’d ever experienced. If this was a scaled-down version of how it normally is, my anticipation for next year’s event is already off the charts.
Bravo to the organizers for pulling off a pandemic miracle, and for every band who stayed safe through the uncertainty and performed amazingly. This was truly one of the year’s best achievements in music. Psycho has raised the bar, and when it comes back next year, we’ll be more ready than ever. Be there.