Path to totality: The heavy Psycho Las Vegas festival makes year two just as memorable

Inhumanly intense Swans drummer Phil Puleo keeps a close eye on leader Michael Gira.
Photo: Yasmina Chavez

The moon blacked out the sun on Monday, but a deeper form of darkness descended upon Las Vegas some 48 hours earlier, as Virginia doom-metal band Cough chanted about “ritual suicide” indoors on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Welcome to Psycho Las Vegas.

2017 Psycho Festival: Friday

For the second August weekend in as many years, the festival took devoted fans of metal, psychedelia and other heavy music on a consistently interesting trip inside the Hard Rock Hotel. As in 2016, Psycho fell short of selling out tickets but drew a sizable crowd—and overwhelmingly succeeded as a destination event, logistically and sonically speaking.

This year’s Psycho played a bit like two festivals, one tucked carefully inside the other. Metal remains the main attraction—Virginia doom pioneer Pentagram headlined Thursday’s VIP pool party; stoner mainstay Sleep delivered an expectedly monster set on Friday; falsetto-voiced Danish veteran King Diamond re-created 1987 concept-album Abigail (complete with haunted-house staging) on Saturday; and Southern prog-metal favorites Mastodon closed out the long weekend on Sunday—and most of the crowd turned out for that, judging from turnout and the abundance of Motörhead patches.

But Psycho creator Evan Hagen’s tastes clearly run in diverse directions, and he programmed the fest for others with wandering spirits. On Friday alone: Sludge champs the Melvins fuzzed-out The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” amid their noisy assault; French prog-rock outfit Magma wowed with an arty performance bordering on musical theater; Ethio-jazz legend Mulatu Astatke got the room grooving (even if the sound crew mixed the bandleader too low in the mix); and psych-rock warriors The Brian Jonestown Massacre droned indefatigably past 3 a.m.

2017 Psycho Festival: Saturday

Psycho’s exploratory vision peaked with a two-hour Swans concert Sunday night. Avant-garde icon Michael Gira steered his five bandmates through a series of long compositions—quite literally, the 63-year-old conducted them with his body as he played guitar and sang in his moaning baritone. Gira modulated dynamics so deliberately, at points it felt as if he were lobbing balls of sound onto the audience. It was less rock show than classical concerto, with electric guitars in place of strings.

Oakland quintet Neurosis also produced a massive performance. Standing near the metal/experimental nexus at the heart of Psycho, the band fuses traditional metal sounds with less conventional song structures—and put those weapons to powerful use during a Saturday-night set that never let up.

The festival once again produced some cool discoveries, mostly inside intimate Vinyl. Ohio’s Mouth of the Architect dusted electronic weirdness onto its metal foundation on Friday; Brazilian trio Saturndust jammed out on tribal psych late Saturday; and Kansas City act Merlin—whose frontman wore a cape and sunglasses—left an endearingly semi-pro impression on Sunday.

2017 Psycho Festival: Sunday

The host property remained a strength for Psycho, providing—along with its three venues—hotel rooms for much of the crowd, an array of solid dining options (Pizza Forte, Pink Taco, Culinary Dropout) and restrooms that put any festival equivalent to shame. On the downside: beefed-up security, which seemed overly concerned with would-be moshers, and the disappearance of free water inside the Joint on day two, with bartenders offering $8 bottles instead. The fest was again bolstered by excellent sound, its stage lighting was vastly improved and, though it hardly seemed possible after 2016, the merch area’s stockpile of T-shirts felt even more massive, with the room serving as de-facto festival HQ.

Last year, Psycho established itself as a winner, standing out in a market cluttered with festival options. Last weekend, it proved it was no one-year wonder, laying the groundwork for another successfully heavy edition in 2018.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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