Psycho California, now that’s a name that suggests things could get weird fast. Perhaps America’s largest doom metal festival we sent our worrisome journalist Matt Bacon out on the trail to try and get to the heart of the fucked up world represented by this festival. Seeing a ton of bands, meeting a lot of people and being surrounded by drugs can lead to a fascinating weekend if nothing else, and as Matt found out – there is a lot more to the demented depths of doom than might initially meet the eye. Read Parts ONE and THREE of our coverage at the links provided!
I woke up and I knew it was time for the heaviest weekend of my life to commence. What more could I do but open my soul to the chaos that was about to unfold and let it dig into my heart. Doom is deeply emotive music, and if you’re not read to really feel it you might as well not even bother. We were about to be exposed to weirdos of the highest order and it would be glorious. That being said, there’s a way you’ve got to dress and act for these types of things. Having been a doom freak for years, I felt prepared for what was to come, but little did I realize that my own level of freakishness was paltry next to some of the stuff that I would see. In the words of my friend Charlie Fell of Lord Mantis “There is no bottom” See, as depraved and ‘metal’ as you might think you are, there is always someone grimmer than you, and weekends like this only turned me on to the enduring power of that particular reality.
We got to the venue early and there was already a veritable horde of bearded dudes and dreadlocked ladies hanging around The Observatory. I couldn’t help but feel reminded of Hunter S Thompsons Hells Angels with their colored beards and unkempt hair, in some cases dragging out past the knees. It really came as no surprise that within five minutes of showing up I had bumped into my friends in Acid Witch, Parker from Cough and Windhand , and, perhaps most notably, Bob Lugowe of Relapse Records. This weekend was going to be a who’s who in the metal scene and I needed to be on my A-game. If that meant refraining from drugs and alcohol so be it, it probably would help the article to not have some sort of massive freakout this weekend. In retrospect – I’m still glad I refrained, so much happened, and so much needs to be documented. Despite that it’s still gonna take a while to digest.
Before I knew it the time had come for Atriarch to open up the festival. Later on they would tell me they had essentially ‘crashed’ the festival coming on as a late addition, but that didn’t seem to hinder their set. Their performance was everything I could have wanted from the band. They were just as tortured as I had hoped, the vocal lines seemed like they were torn from a demented beast. There was a cathartic sense of sublime annihilation that accented the entire show. The way that these guys simply deliver rib cracking sounds that reek of black metal annihilation without ever truly speeding up is impressive. Every note bowled over the crowd, we were left in awe trying to figure out what the hell we had just witnessed. Atriarch know how to craft ominous and thought provoking sounds that will have you gasping for air – which really is all you could want from a show like this. These guys rapidly won my heart and left me wondering what these tortured men would do next.
I had just a few minutes to talk to Bob Lugowe before the time came for Samothrace to take the stage. I had been into these guys since I was just a kid – so getting to see them, and to meet their vocalist, the possibly insane Spinks, was an incredible experience. On top of that, they absolutely destroyed the stage. These guys are as heavy as it gets and they created a sense of the divine over the Grizzly Stage. There was a sense of ritual to what these guy do – as if they themselves are tapping into something much greater than themselves, perhaps they, like many of my interview subjects from the weekend, view this kind of music as a sort of entity in and of itself, destined to be our salvation. It’s impressive to watch a band like this take the stage, merely because they are speaking to a reality that most of us only dream of. They are turned on to a much more powerful and poignant reality that shows a band who seem ready for all of the terrors of the world and will share this utter aura of destruction with us – their ever thirsting fans.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Psycho California is that the lineup is almost too good. It’s hard to figure out where you’re going to have pauses sometimes because there will just be band after band that you will have wanted to see for years. So the fact that I had fifty minutes before the time came for the apocalyptic live experience of Conan was an exception. I did get a chance to interview Atriarch at this time though and I was stunned at the sense of desperation that really defines those dudes. It explains a lot about the twisted soundworld they apparently live in and the surreal beauty that could unfold in their music – music that gives them a sense of liberation and shows the way forward in a world that too often has cast aside weirdos like them.
I had seen Conan twice already, back when I lived in France they came around fairly regularly, Jon and Chris are old friends of mine, but it was my first time meeting their new drummer, Rich, who brings a whole new dimension to the band. Where Paul would just hit – extremely hard – but still simply hit – it seems to me that Rich brings in a layer of almost jazziness to the sound. He accentuates the entire live experience – one that has rapidly grown since I last saw Conan back in June of 2014 at Hellfest. Jon’s stage presence has become almost rock star-esque at times, but I mean that in the best sense of the term. He raises the horns and gives every inch of his body over to the power of the riff. Meanwhile Chris has taken his vocals to new peaks of brutality. The sense of crushing might that comes down in a track like Foehammer is undeniable and seems incongruous for these charming Midlanders. Suffice to say – this is a band who seem to only be getting better and their unstoppable live force is something that needs to be seen to be believed.
At this point I had another pause (and another interview) before Bedemon came on. Though I was disappointed that those dudes wouldn’t be fronted by the original singer, the notoriously flakey Bobby Liebling, they had another stoned doom legend at the helm – Wino. He led the band through a slew of classics – their earth shattering old school sound fitting in nicely with their penchant for button downs. Sure – these dudes skew older but there is a sense of antediluvian might to the songs. The fact that a band could have their live debut more than forty years after their inception and still have a wealth of young fans speaks to the enduring power that doom metal has. Sure there have been few landmarks in the genre until recently, but that’s the point. Doom freaks are perhaps the most tenacious fans in the world and seeing dudes who no doubt had been waiting forty years for this band to play live alongside teenage kids was stunning. It proved to me that there is more to this type of music than meets the eye and we are made stronger because of it.
Midway into Bedemon’s set I was forced to cut out to interview Earth another one of those weird things that happens only at metal festivals. Why else would a journalist have to skip seeing a legendary band only in order to interview another? As soon as Earth finished talked to me though I hurried right back to the monarch stage to catch what I could of Municipal Waste before Bell Witch came on. Again – Psycho California is simply too good of a festival. You see bands you’ve loved for years back to back to back and are left mentally overwhelmed – it’s glorious and I feel weird complaining about it but what are you gonna do? All you can do is pray it will be back next year.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this particular Municipal Waste performance, to me at least, was the fact that they brought their own crowd. Sure there were some of the requisite doom freaks gathered about, or general heavy metal fans who happen to view Municipal Waste as a part of the canon, but they also brought in a wave of their own. Thrash kids who seemed wholly out of place in these weird surroundings. As Devin Holt of Pallbearer would later tell me “Thrash metal is best when you don’t have pubes- you need to be aerodynamic. Doom though – you need the gnarliest fuckin’ pubes you can have. You gotta slow down and catch every piece of resistance you can find.” Municipal Waste certainly seemed aerodynamic… There songs stomp across the listener, their trademark swagger showcasing these guys as incredibly skilled and savvy performers, conjuring up circle pits on a weekend when ‘moshing’ was seemingly a dirty word. They had a sense of humor too – joking about being the fastest band on the festival and showing that even this kind of very serious and heavy music can laugh at itself every now and then.
It was all too soon though that I had to duck out of watching The Waste to see Bell Witch. This band was one of the biggest reasons why I had elected to come out to this festival and watching their fairly bizarre and deeply emotive performance was jaw dropping. I didn’t really realize the technical skill it takes to play Bell Witch songs but it makes sense given that the band features merely a bassist and a drummer. The trade off between the vocalists was equally mesmerizing. These guys have honed a sound that has an impossible to deny sense of gravitas. As you witness them perform you feel that you are on the precipice of something greater – something superhuman. They lurch forward torn apart by the primal darkness that they are trying to invoke. Tear jerking and simply beautiful Bell Witch proved that there is light behind the darkness of doom. That we can use this music to craft something grand and come out as stronger people.
I was still reeling from this monumental crush when it came time for Eyehategod. The band put on the best set I’ve ever seen from them, and many of my doomed and stoned brethren seemed to feel the same. Mike IX has a rather distinctive junky charm. Sure he’s a fuckup, but he admits to it and that makes him strangely endearing. He’s the kind of guy who delivers a show no mater what and his half mad ramblings between songs and twisted sense of humor seemed to only add to the bitter power that this band has. The punk rock side of Eyehategod seemed to be shining through on this particular evening but that only made things even more vital. These guys are aware of their own legend and seem to have no problem with desecrating it. Instead of conveying epic images of dirty streets they come off as a bunch of dudes just trying to have a good time and jam some heavy fucking music. Every song came across as incredibly tight yet also wonderfully dark. The legend of Joey Lacaze has yet to die and watching Eyehategod take on massive stages like this one suggests to me that his memory looms large in their hearts and minds.
By this point in the night my legs were on the verge of collapse. Festival life is not for the faint of heart and a degree of endurance is required if you want to make it through these things alive. Fortunately I found my erstwhile roommate John and we were able to get a decent sitting spot for Russian Circles… Fuck it, while I’m on this tangent let me just say – The Observatory is perhaps the single best venue I have ever been too. With plenty of places to sit with a view, three stages, a great VIP area and multiple bars it has everything one could want from a metal venue. Furthermore the place sounds great, a act that even the legendary Al Ciscneros of Sleep and Om was sure to point out during his bands performance.
The point being – Russian Circles blew me away. Sure these guys don’t do much in terms of a stage show, but that’s not really the point. For this band what really matters is the eternal power of the jam. Incredibly tight and mesmerizing to watch these guys have been able to craft something truly unique. It’s rare that you can wholly capture the attention of a group of people with instrumental music in the twenty first century – especially Russian Circles brand of nonstop and highly cerebral music – and yet somehow these dudes pull it off. They can’t help but sound refined and powerful crafting an incredible wall of sound that just slams the listener into the wall with every mesmerizing riff. These guys aren’t crushing – at least not intentionally – instead they are transcendent, guiding you into a sublime spirit world that is often hard to fully understand. The only apparent remedy is to see these dudes again as soon as possible.
The day was winding down and the freaks slowly cleared out – past the food trucks supplied by the festival and instead towards the In-N-Out Burger (Might I recommend their grilled cheese?) and the Del Taco (Might I recommend not going, ever?) I was left – eating In-N-Out for the first time in my life and pondering what I had seen. Sure, the next day would be a hell of a lot heavier, but it was a great inception to what would go on to be one of the best weekends of my life. I had gotten to meet Peter Tomis and Cat Jones, both big time doom maniacs I’d been messaging for years online and I got one of Liz Ciavarella’s legendary hugs. I collapsed onto my hotel bed in a neighborhood full of crackheads and heroin addicts and couldn’t help but smile – today had been a good day, the first in far too long.