The floor and bar areas of popular Las Vegas casinos are chaos on a standard weekend night. This past weekend, folks embarking for a weekend stay at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in search of pool parties, bachelorette get-togethers, and gambling were besieged by hordes of headbangers and stoner-rockers search for the power of the riff. For four days, from Thursday through Sunday, the casino gave itself up to Psycho Las Vegas, a festival playing host to over 60 metal and rock bands across three stages, and several thousand heavy metal fans. A healthy mix of iconic bands and rising upstarts allowed for the heavy music equivalent of a Vegas buffet, with plenty of healthy nourishment, hearty meals, and junk food to go around for everyone.
The Best Sets of The Weekend
One of the most buzz-worthy scores for the festival this weekend was the first U.S. appearance of Swedish garage-rockers The Hellacopters since their 2016 reunion after an eight-year hiatus. On Sunday night, vocalist/guitarist Nicke Andersson led the band through a catalog-spanning set of high-energy rock ‘n’ roll that had the throngs that filled The Joint – Hard Rock’s largest concert hall – dancing nonstop for the entirety of their 90-minute set. The group has always steered clear of the grandstanding of lesser bands that have anointed themselves as “saving” rock ‘n’ roll, and their set this night was no exception. They took the stage, rocked out for ninety minutes with infectious vigor, and everyone walked away exhausted and smiling.
The only band that came close for replicating the sea of smiles and the aura of kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll also performed on Sunday. Taking the smaller stage at Hard Rock’s Vinyl nightclub mid-afternoon, Mutoid Man – featuring members of hardcore greats Converge and Cave In – unleashed a 45-minute torrent of hard-driving riffs within a set that had the aura of an energetic religious revival show. Vocalist/guitarist Stephen Brodsky was the most charismatic presence of the entire weekend, cracking jokes between the group’s 3-minute bursts of catchy power chords and noodling along on passages from Tom Jones songs, and abbreviated covers of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”. Meanwhile, drummer Ben Koller reigned down with the heaviest blastbeat-free drumming of the weekend’s festivities.
If you walked into The Joint at the beginning of the day on Saturday, unaware of Polish black metal behemoths Batushka, the group’s stage setup made you aware very quickly. Eschewing the standard Satanic tropes of their peers, the inspiration for the band’s persona is instead Eastern Orthodox imagery. The air of mystery surrounding the group permeates the stage immediately, as a trio of hooded chorale singers stand along the side of the stage, as Batushka’s vocalist perches himself at an altar graced by a golden cross and candelabras, remaining still for the entire set – consisting of their lone album Litourgiya – as if delivering a sermon. The band’s black metal pummeling is relentless, enhancing the already compelling aura of their visual presentation.
When Boston prog-metallers Elder took the outdoor poolside stage at 5PM on Thursday, the temperature was over 100 degrees. The heat did not stop the band from delivering their sprawling jams with dexterity and power. Recent albums such as 2017’s Reflections of a Floating World evoke proggier Presence-era Led Zeppelin, their ten-minute-plus compositions delivering a mix of heady lyrics, stoner-metal riffs, and winding musical twists and turns. Their current alignment in the heavy metal spectrum right now has them aligned to where a similar, headier act – Mastodon – was at in their early years, before they exploded into one of the more popular acts in today’s metal scene. If their live performances and songwriting stays at this current level, Elder may explode as well.
Chicago avant-garde act Yakuza has long lurked in the deepest corners of the heavy music underground. Forming around the turn of the millennium, the group were contemporaries of more eclectic heavier acts such as Dillinger Escape Plan. Where Yakuza deviated from their fellow bands – and perhaps the root of their status as an underappreciated gem – was a heavier incorporation of jazz and psychedelic world music. Band leader Bruce Lamont juggles harsh vocal growls and baritone croons with discordant saxophone and jazz clarinet layered atop songs that swing on a pendulum from bruising hardcore to moodier, understated sprawls. The result in the live setting on Friday afternoon was a performance that was musically unsettling, and damn compelling.
The Best of the Rest – The Old Guard
Saturday night headliners Danzig were objectively the biggest mainstream name of the weekend. Vocalist Glenn Danzig led the band through a performance of their 1992 record, How The Gods Kill, and of course, “Mother.” His vocal performances have been inconsistent in recent years, and the crooning moments sounded rough, but his howls sounded healthy and hearty this weekend, and his stage energy always remains high even when he has vocal struggles.
Japanese experimental trio Boris have a eclectic catalog that veers from plodding doom-metal to hardcore punk to melodic J-Pop. On Friday night, they kept their set focused primarily on heavy rockers from the first decade of their career, fitting with the overall vibe of the weekend. High On Fire remain one of the most thunderous live acts in metal, with Matt Pike’s razor-gargling rasps and loud guitars reverberating throughout the Joint on Friday night, and possibly out into the casino itself. Saturday night saw Canadian metal oddballs Voivod and misanthropic New Orleans sludge-masters Eyehategod perform outdoors alongside the pool. Both acts saw overflow crowds and lengthy lines to get into the pool area, with Voivod still delivering energetic thrash even in their later years and the smells of pool water and pungent weed filling the air during Eyehategod’s set. Sunday night headliners Dimmu Borgir delivered blistering symphonic black metal, bombarding ears with a setlist that focused heavily on new record Eonian, while layering in just enough old favorites to keep long-time fans satiated.
The Best of the Rest – The New School
Fresno thrashers Haunt opened the festival at 12 Noon Thursday on the poolside stage. Even that early in the day – and under the burning lunchtime sun – energetic performances of selections from the new group’s debut record Burst Into Flame still whipped a few hundred dedicated metal heads into a frenzy. Later that day on the same stage, Seattle drum-and-bass duo Bell Witch lurched through slow, plodding, hypnotic doom-metal that reverberated through the pool itself. Spirit Adrift‘s 2017 record Curse of Conception was an engrossing mix of doom-metal and heavy rock melodies, and that combination was just as catchy in the live setting on Friday night. As the smiling faces from those that enjoyed The Hellacopters set on Sunday night were dissipating into the casino, Oakland death-metallers Necrot launched into perhaps the most purely brutal set of the entire weekend. The festival ended on Sunday night with Arkansas doom-metallers Pallbearer, their melodic mix of melancholy and beauty being the perfect comedown from the weekend’s din.
A Bizarre Substitution
Festival attendees were stunned early Friday afternoon when Psycho Las Vegas organizers announced on social media that Swedish occult-metal act Witchcraft– scheduled to headline that night – canceled out of their appearance last-minute. As folks reading the statement began to process their thoughts, the moment of disappointment turned to sheer confusion when the final sentence teased a replacement to perform in the club stage, the final words saying “THE DICEMAN COMETH.” I never thought I would ever write the following sentence: a beloved Swedish heavy metal band with a cult following canceled their festival appearance, and were replaced by Andrew Dice Clay.
Festival attendees throughout the day speculated whether the comedian known for dirty nursery rhymes was really going to do a performance, or if the usage of the catchphrase was a cover for a surprise last-minute all-star jam. Five hundred people filled the Vinyl room at 12 Midnight, and sure enough, “The Diceman” emerged on-stage in a sleeveless black jacket, with a cigarette in hand. While the initial response he received from the crowd was enthusiastic, it became apparent quickly that a portion of the crowd was primarily in the room out of curiosity. Five minutes into Clay’s set – which consisted of jokes covering his usual beloved topics of dicks, pussy, and masturbation – a quarter of the crowd disappeared, heading either into the casino, or to the pool stage to watch metallic hardcore icons Integrity.
A Break From The Metal
While blistering metal and stoner-rock grooves were the main course for the weekend, festival organizers were still adventurous enough to book a few acts that strayed a little more eclectic in their musical base. The Cambodian dance-pop of Los Angeles act Dengue Fever was a well-received break from the heavy riffs when they played the pool stage on Thursday afternoon. Denver neofolk act Wovenhand proved to be a haunting act to end Thursday’s lineup, their atmospheric sounds evoking a David Lynch-ian aura. Italian horror-film score composers Goblin provided a psychedelic trip on Saturday night with tight performances of tracks from classic Dario Argento films such as Suspiria and Tenebre. Idaho synth-wave trio Magic Sword led a 2am dance party on Saturday night that served as a recharge for those looking to rage until the sun came up.
The Future of Psycho Las Vegas
With the Hard Rock Hotel having now been sold to Virgin and a re-branding of the property being expected within the next year, it is expected that this year’s festival was the final Psycho Las Vegas at that location. There is no official word yet on whether there will be a move to a different location in Las Vegas, or another shift in proximity similar to the move that took the “Psycho” name from its Orange County origins as “Psycho De Mayo” and subsequently “Psycho California.”
While on a selfish level we would love for the festival to come back to California, the experience of an entire Las Vegas casino becoming a giant heavy metal block party for the weekend was conducive to remaining immersed in the party vibes for the entire weekend. After having experienced the environment of the current Psycho Las Vegas setup this year, we are hopeful they can find another similar partner to keep the party going next year.