To paraphrase Heraclitus—the Greek philosopher, not the metal band—nothing is more constant in the Vegas music scene than change. Key venues come and go, bands vanish in their prime and beloved festivals simply cease to be.
Last weekend, one of our Valley’s most compelling annual sonic gatherings staged a finale of sorts—not its last edition, but a farewell to the only Vegas home it has known. And over the course of four riff-stuffed days and nights, we were reminded just how perfectly Psycho Las Vegas fit the Hard Rock Hotel and vice versa.
Created by Southern California-based promotions group Psycho Entertainment—and, starting this year, run in conjunction with New York City artist management agency Artist Group International (AGI)—Psycho arrived at the Hard Rock in 2016 and immediately established itself as a destination event worthy of consideration by any fan of metal, psych or generally heavy music. The festival’s first two bills included beloved genre favorites (Sleep, Neurosis), infrequent U.S. performers (Electric Wizard, King Diamond) and left-field curveballs (Mulatu Astake, The Budos Band)—and attendees spent four days cycling between the Joint, Vinyl and the pool to catch as much as their feet and ears would allow.
The proximity between those three venues, not to mention the comforts afforded by holding a festival inside a Vegas hotel—air conditioning, an abundance of quality food, sparkling restrooms, beds an elevator ride away—helped Psycho stand out from the festival pack, the way All Tomorrow’s Parties did during its glorious 2008-2010 run at New York’s Kutsher’s Country Club.
Last weekend's final edition at the Hard Rock, recently sold to Virgin Hotels and set to undergo significant physical changes, brought more of the same. From the midday notes of Thursday’s kickoff pool party, featuring everything from Dengue Fever’s mellow Cambodian psych-pop to Elder’s proggy metal slabs, until the applause died down following Norwegian symphonic black metal vets Dimmu Borgir’s theatrical Sunday headlining set, the Hard Rock grounds were abuzz with the sights and sounds of another memorable Psycho experience.
Friday in the Joint alone, crowds could catch fast-rising English act Dvne, Texas electronicists Survive (yes, the guys behind the Stranger Things score), longtime Japanese doom bringers Church of Misery, turbaned African desert-blues specialists Tinariwen, psychedelic Japanese triumvirate Boris and Bay Area stoner-rock mainstay High on Fire. And with Vinyl mere feet away, fans could easily duck in for the shaggy doom of The Munsens, the sax-driven Yakuza, the grungey Helms Alee and many more playing the smaller club (which featured especially expert sound all weekend).
Not that all went perfectly on the scheduling side. Planned Joint headliner Witchcraft, a Swedish band set to play its first U.S. show in nine years, never left Europe, ostensibly due to passport/Visa-related issues. A second Friday band, Venom Inc., also canceled, as did Sunday act Dopethrone. And Zakk Sabbath broke down briefly in Barstow, necessitating some quick set-time shifting by organizers on Sunday so the Black Sabbath cover band could still play.
But though the loss of Witchcraft, in particular, surely stung for many who flew in for the fest, the mood rebounded during the weekend, starting with a sold-out Saturday anchored by Danzig performing 1992 album How the Gods Kill in its entirety (and more). Leading up to that, Joint-goers were treated to an early-afternoon, production-heavy appearance by Polish black metal group Batushka (featuring cloaks and masks, Gregorian chants and religious iconography); a feisty (if underattended) set by Boston hardcore outfit American Nightmare; the minimal-yet-intense industrial metal of English duo Godflesh; and Italy’s Goblin, which accompanied its instrumental soundtrack pieces with onscreen bits of their strange associated films. Meanwhile, Vinyl hosted the likes of black-robed, musically nimble Portland black metal band Ueda and Denver’s Primitive Man, which lived up to its name with guttural vocals and the weekend’s sludgiest instrumental cacophony.
I only showed up for the evening session on Sunday after taking the day to recover, but I still caught my favorite set of the festival, courtesy of the polarizing Sunn O))). Augmented only during their 75 minutes onstage by haunting lights, heavy fog and a semi-circle of massive amplifeirs, the black-hooded Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson layered together the loudest, heaviest drone piece I’ve ever experienced, a darkly hypnotic guitar bath that rattled the ribs in my chest and vibrated the organs beneath them. I also caught a fun performance by Swedish garage rockers The Hellacopters and a solid (though less than sonically-crisp) appearance by Arkansas prog-metal favorite Pallbearer, but Sunn O))) easily surpassed all else for me, as Electric Wizard and Swans did at Psycho 2016 and ’17, respectively.
Whether those sort of lifelong musical highlights continue to pile up at Psycho’s new Vegas home—on the Strip, organizers say, though the exact location has yet to be confirmed (Mandalay Bay was the persistent rumor throughout the weekend)—remains to be seen. And whatever the location, it will be difficult to match the Hard Rock for logistics and vibe, at least right away.
But Psycho’s team has proven itself capable of great things over the past three years, so doubting them would be foolish now. And as Vegas has proven time and again, when one door closes another typically opens, often with bigger and better results.