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Show Review: The Most Psycho You Can Get In California Without Mike Muir

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Earthless at Psycho California

There’s a reason festival headliners headline festivals: they’re consistent. Municipal Waste will always fuck you up, Sleep know the way to the riff-filled land by heart, Eyehategod may implode at any moment. Those bands aren’t what make festivals fun. No, the real appeal, the thing that makes standing on your feet for eleven hours in a cloud of pot smoke worthwhile, is the sense of discovery; the chance to find new acts or rediscover an old favorite in a fresh setting. The psych rock/doom-focused Psycho California, held at the Santa Ana Observatory from May 15-17, provided ample opportunity to secondhand sample the most popular strains of marijuana amongst metalheads and also some great lesser-known bands in between the Pallbearers and Kylesas.

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DAY ONE: FRIDAY, MAY 15

Psycho’s lineup was split between two stages, the dinner theater-like Monarch stage and the more intimate (read: cramped) Grizzly stage, along with an outdoor lounge area with a connected merch store and food trucks. The first day of the festival was not what one would call well-organized. Due to the fact that the Observatory shared a parking lot with an office park, the food trucks couldn’t set up until 6:30 PM, leading to a near mutiny amongst the hungry metalheads. That was still earlier than the merch store got up and running, however; that thing didn’t get going until 8:30 PM, leading to two-hour-long queues. Fortunately, due to a screwup on the part of the venue, the smaller of the two rooms had been double booked with some crappy indie rock band, so the Grizzly stage got moved outside for the evening, allowing fans to catch some of the acts while waiting in line for Conan and Old Man Gloom shirts.

Those bands were two of the highlights of the day, and for entirely different reasons: Conan proved that there’s nothing more satisfying than a band whose riffs sound like they are literally saying “doom,” while Old Man Gloom brought mechanized destruction to the masses. Other highlights include Samsara Blues Experiment’s epic Sabbath explorations and Bell Witch’s slow motion suicide. And then there was Death by Stereo; their 90s hardcore didn’t belong at all, but they ended up being one of the most memorable performances, with the singer doing half the set while running around in the audience. The most anticipated band was probably Bedemon (the predecessor to Pentagram). Considering that they were men in their 60s performing live together for the first time with a not-completely-present Wino on vocals, it’s hard to call it a successful social debut.

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DAY TWO: SATURDAY, MAY 16

A quick survey of the crowd’s T-shirts showed unequivocally that everyone was here for Sleep. In fact, they were the only band to get a separate merch booth, and their stock was pretty much emptied out by the end of the day. Acid Witch kicked things off with awesome stoner thrash tunes about Halloween and drugs, so obviously they had the most entertaining stage banter of the fest. Anciients had some sweet Allman Brothers-meets-Baroness (Allmaness?) soloing, and while I was looking forward to Electric Citizen, their occult rock didn’t quite click on stage. The relatively unknown Sinister Haze, on the other hand, came out of nowhere with heavy stoner jams that grabbed the Grizzly stage audience and never let go. After that came Mammatus, Dead Meadow, Pallbearer, and Earth in a row, and while the individual bands were good, so much slowness proved fatal to the energy level of the show. I managed to claw myself out of my stupor to catch a little of SubRosa in the packed Grizzly room, and discovered that electric violins can make some of the heaviest, most intense music you’ll ever witness. Then I started shaking with exhaustion and realized I should probably go home and get some sleep instead of Sleep.

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DAY THREE: SUNDAY, MAY 17

The third day started earlier, and it was a much more low-key affair, with the bulk of the remaining festivalgoers wandering in tired and hungover. Those who made it witnessed the best day of the fest, however. The sparser crowd made it possible to get up close to Author & Punisher for his DJ set between bands, which was less a DJ set and more an art installation with people watching this dude manipulate his terrifying post-apocalyptic one-man-band rig into making pounding industrial noises.

The bands themselves leaned more towards the stoner side of the spectrum. Tumbleweed Dealer’s prairie psych sounded great, but approved a little too mellow for that early in the day. Mothership brought the rock straight from Dallas, however, the trio’s hard-driving biker boogie roaring to life in a way their records haven’t yet. The legendary Bang! were up next, and, despite originating around the same time as Bedemon, felt like way more of a cohesive unit, their funky groove giving a welcome looseness to their proto-metal. Wo Fat and The Well continued the stoner rock streak, the former better than the latter but both delivering the fuzz. Truckfighters emerged victorious from their motorized joust. The Atlas Moth had the prettiest light show (that’s them above). Top honors of the day, however, went to Earthless. Their uninterrupted 60 minute 70s instrumental jam was the musical equivalent of Mad Max: Fury Road – a masterful exercise in maintaining nonstop tension for an extended period. That seemed like a sufficient high note to end the weekend on, and so I stumbled home, satisfied and smelling like weed and riffs.

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