Beer and Black Clothing in Las Vegas
By Dustin Carroll
Pictures stolen from Dustin’s facebook page
I awoke early enough on Thursday, August 17th to drink some coffee and double check I packed everything I needed before heading to SeaTac airport to catch a nine in the morning flight to Las Vegas, with the intention of getting there just in time to catch some buds from Portland, Urchin, play a noon slot at the Psycho Pool Party pre-show. I pack minimally- filling a single backpack with some clothes, an iPod, a book, two hits of acid, and some weed chocolate for the plane ride. Despite arriving almost two hours before my flight started boarding, TSA’s security checkpoints were brutal. I barely made it just in time to be the last one on the plane before takeoff. On the ride there I carefully went over my itinerary, trying to find ways to shave off those precious little minutes and still catch as many acts as I wanted to see, which was an overwhelming amount. I had never been to Nevada before, and flying over the Sierra Mountains was gorgeous, but you really get a sense of just how much of a desert wasteland the state truly is. Endless miles of it. Absolute nothing.
I stepped off the plane and was immediately greeted by slot machines, right there in the terminal. I understand that gambling is a pretty serious addiction, but this seemed like a bit much. After taking an overpriced cab to my hotel, I quickly realized that I probably didn’t have enough money on me for this city. There were more price gouges on otherwise cheap/free things here than one could possibly imagine, so I made a mental note that I should probably just avoid the merch tables no matter how tempting they may be. I tried checking into my room at the Hard Rock Hotel, the location of the festival and where I’d be spending 90% of my time this weekend. My friend from Seattle had our room in their name, and I was unable to check in without them, so I paid the largest bag check fee I’ve ever seen in my life to store my things behind a desk and head out to the pool.
I arrived right as Urchin began their set, and despite some technical issues during the first song, the stoner doom duo delivered a solid set to an ever-growing crowd of enthusiastic festival goers. Graf Orlock, a band I was really into in high school and then forgot about entirely until they were announced on this fest, were up next. They grinded through a set of exactly how they’ve always sounded, complete with more movie sample quotes than most industrial acts. They got the energy of the crowd going quite a bit, especially considering it was 1:00pm and already 102 degrees outside. I watched their set with my feet in the pool water, trying to recall which film each sample was from and doing pretty ok at it, and then suddenly, the Jurassic Park theme started playing to mass applause and their set was finished. Around this time I went to try and get checked into our room despite my friends name being on the reservation, and $200 and several frustrating lines later I was given a key. I dropped off my things in the room then I retreated from the sun to the air conditioned and beer-containing Mexican bar near the pool, called the Pink Taco. While enjoying a burrito and a Dos Equis, I shot the shit for a little while with an older gentleman sitting near me at the bar. Upon noticing the artist wristband he was wearing, I inquired as to which act he was in, and suddenly realized I was talking to Michael Gallagher from Isis, one of my all-time favorite bands. I’ve never been one to fanboy all that hard over musicians I like. I think after years of doing so and realizing that they’re just humble peers has made that easier for me as an adult then it did as a teenager. But I thought it would still be worth mentioning to him that the music he had a hand in creating was very influential on my own playing. He took it in stride and was very kind, and we had a few more drinks before he excused himself to go perform with his current project, Mustard Gas and Roses, who were up next on the pool stage. I met up with the Urchin folks and headed to their air conditioned hotel room to get stoned and watch MGaR from the balcony.
I met up with other friends shortly after, and got them settled into our hotel room while we watched Goya perform a very impressive set. After a few whiskey drinks everyone convened down poolside for the highly anticipated Conan. By this point the audience in attendance had at least tripled, and most of the standing area near the pool was packed. Despite usually performing in black hooded sweatshirts, the band wisely chose a more stripped down look of sleeveless tees in the still 100+ weather. Groups of fans thrusted their fists in the air and screamed in unison towards the setting sun, as Conan flawlessly trudged through their heavier-than-thou performance. After a quick changeover, the pool stages headliner and the ever-controversial Pentagram took the stage. By this point I was pretty drunk and swimming around in the pool, and it took a few songs for me and everyone I was with to realize that Pentagram’s infamous shithead singer Bobby Liebling wasn’t there and that guitarist Victor Griffin had taken over his vocal duties entirely, and was absolutely nailing it. It actually made me enjoy their set much more than I otherwise might have, knowing that not only did they do the right thing by distancing themselves from Liebling, but the fact that Griffin could shred it on guitar and still nail all the vocal parts was truly an impressive feat. Closing out their set to overwhelming applause, I grabbed a towel and snuck away to dry off and find a good spot inside the Vinyl stage for the first days main event.
SubRosa have never once disappointed me, even at times when members have been ill, the group always puts 100% of themselves into every performance. This was my sixth time catching them live, and easily the best. The sound was flawless, both violins and every members vocals clearly cut through the otherwise very heavy onslaught of downtuned guitar and bass. The band weaved and bobbed like an organic creature with multiple limbs, and as they did the audience fell under the spell as well. I saw folks with their eyes closed, some huddled together, letting their heads sway to the music. About halfway through their intensely emotional single “Troubled Cells”, I glanced around the room and noticed there was barely a dry eye in the house. About that time I also realized that while singing along I also had let some tears flow. Very, very few artists in the world have that kind of effect on people, and SubRosa should absolutely be acknowledged for having that kind of impact on their listeners. Midnight hit, and the evening’s final act, the almighty Yob, took the stage to deafening cheers. The recently revitalized Mike Scheidt keeps looking healthier every time I see him, and if anything Yob has become an even better band than before his brush with death. Watching the room go from tears and closed eyes to a fierce melee frothing for riffs, arms in the air, relentlessly headbanging, was not only a fun sight to behold, but it really captured the true diversity and range showcased on this festival. Needless to say, Yob didn’t disappoint anyone (do they ever though?) and when Mike’s hands came together in a small bow of thanks, the appreciation from the audience could almost physically be felt. Yob IS love, indeed.
Friday finally arrived, in all its hungover glory. It was still over 100 degrees and would be all weekend, and the combination of a brutal whiskey night coupled with blinding sunshine and oven-like temperatures was very visibly taking its toll on fest-goers already. I took note of a few folks passed out in strange places around the hotel as I made my eventual way to the Joint mainstage for the first time to catch Wolves in the Throne Room’s early 2pm set. I’m unsure what exactly happened, but their start time was delayed significantly (which ended up being an ongoing problem for the rest of the weekend at the Joint), and the band finally took the stage about a half hour later than planned. They blasted through a fan-pleasing set of material from Two Hunters as well as their upcoming release Thrice Woven. The bands revamped live lineup includes Lycus/Dispirit drummer Trevor Deschryver and Wolvserpent keyboardist Brittany McConnell along with a 3-guitar onslaught that makes the band sound absolutely massive. While still being very stripped down from their usual production, the black metal mainstays still pulled the audience into their unique world. Suddenly, as feedback was ringing, the large red curtains of the Joint came closing in; signaling the end of what I think was a set cut short.
Despite my initial frustration of WITTR’s set ending rather anti-climatically, I didn’t think about it for more than 5 seconds before realizing I needed to haul ass over the Vinyl Stage and catch Usnea. A huge positive element to this festival is that the two main stages are rooms literally right next to each other. It was just a matter of wading through one crowd out a door and then through another crowd and a second door. Easy in theory, and so far so good, as I was able to catch almost all of Usnea’s crushing set. They were legitimately so loud that it was painful at times. For whatever stupid reason (booze) I only had one earplug on me, so I just grinned and bore it. Their contrast between guttural low death growls and higher pitched black metal screams were balanced very well in the mix, and the dual guitar harmonies swam throughout the crowded room. Fans were met with mostly newer material and an old favorite. Before the feedback of the final song was finished ringing out, folks started making a mad dash back towards the Joint Stage for Chelsea Wolfe’s highly anticipated set.
She immediately entranced the very eager audience in her spell, flowing through many of Abyss’s heavier songs; the loud low end pulsed gigantic through the colossal subs. Her live band has really stepped up their energy, which allowed Chelsea to just be her surreal self and still have the audience in the palm of her hand. Towards the end of the set she played a few new songs, including “Vex”, which featured Sumac/Isis frontman Aaron Turner joining them onstage for his guest vocal performance. The captivated crowd responded with loud accolade.
I crawled away in search of food around this point, catching a bit of the Melvins set and some of Young And In The Way from my hotel room. A quick run back down to the pool to catch some of Vhol’s thrashy space metal set. Despite some apparent amp problems, the band delivered 100%, and really got the pool party stirred into frenzy. I got away mostly dry, knowing that the line to get in to see Sleep would be long, and indeed it was. Despite that though, the same delays were still happening on this stage, and Sleep’s set started quite a ways behind schedule. The curtains opened up to an astronaut (Marijuananaut) holding Matt and Al’s axes in hands. The grizzled stoners made their way onto the stage and took their respective places in front of their towers of Orange and Ampeg stacks. The marijuananaut slow-spaceman walked across the stage and sparked a massive bong. Suddenly two different joints were handed to me. I double hit them and exhale just as Matt Pike’s shirtless image appears in front of me and he hits that first note that every resin-ridden person in the room was waiting for. It couldn’t be a more perfect setting to catch this band. Regardless, I snuck away a little ways into their jam sesh, and found my way back to the poolside to see Sumac perform, now with 100% more Joe Preston of Thrones on bass. The beach balls were flying, the sun was finally down, and Aaron Turner was raging full-bore in his usual attire of jeans, long sleeve buttoned up shirt, and lots of hair, somehow impervious to the still baking temperature of the air. The dudes in the pool were furiously splashing in time with the dynamics of Sumac’s songs, adding a unique percussive element not normally heard at a show. As they were finishing, Fister was starting back over on the Vinyl stage, so I hurried through the Hard Rock, in time to catch almost all of their outstanding set. Another band that pushes the boundaries of tolerably loud, by this point I had come across a new set of ear plugs and was all set. By the time Sleep had finished, many more people flooded into the Vinyl, and by the time Fister were through, the room was crowded. After all that stoner doom, I needed some blast beats in my world, so I caught most of Black Anvil’s blistering, high energy performance.
Shortly after it was back to the pool. I floated around on my back, staring at the night sky, seeing planes come and go, while Pelican played through a well-rounded set from their catalog, supplying an ideal soundtrack to what an overall surreal experience this whole thing was. The party raged late into the early morning, and little to no rest was to be had.
A rough and frustrating early afternoon wakeup to try and see Cough’s 1:00pm opening set on day two. The band delivered an excellent slab of funeral doom, which turns out to pair very well with coffee. I slithered away for food and more caffeine, and made my way back in time to see Myrkur, one of the acts on the fest I was most anticipating. Clad in a white gown, her backing band in all black and hoods, she seemed to give off an unnatural glow, which seemed incredibly fitting. Despite receiving severe backlash from parts of the extreme metal scene- for seemingly no reason other than being a talented woman- there was no air of elitism in the room. Her presence commanded attention without needing to say a word, and the entire audience was under her trance. The bands set felt short but that was likely due to the ethereal flow of it all, where switching out instruments and starting the next song felt as natural and flowing as the bands recorded work.
Carcass took the main stage next, to a frenzied crowd of die-hards. Rare can one see a pit of that magnitude before 5pm, as heshers circled the floor of the room, headbanging, balled fists in the air, shouting along with Jeffrey Walker’s razor sharp vocals. Another band that benefited immensely from the giant sound system in this room, Carcass tore through a good assortment of older and newer material, delivering one of the heaviest sets of the weekend. Shortly after they started though, another one of the heaviest acts of the fest, Salt Lake City’s Cult Leader, began their set on the other stage. I left at the right moment to catch about half of each band, and considered that a win-win, as neither band were remotely disappointing. Despite the back to back onslaught of the last several acts, the next was the band that clinched my buying a ticket for this festival: Celeste. A quartet from France, Celeste began their career as a more traditional screamo sounding band, and has gradually morphed that into something incredibly dark, bleak, and punishing. Too groovy and dynamic to properly be described as black metal, and too much trem picked arpeggio riffs to be considered “dark hardcore”, the group don red headlamps and play in absolute darkness, save for the occasional blasts of high-powered strobe lights behind them. This adds a few more layers of claustrophobia and sensory overload to their set. The band members appear as cycloptic shadowy figures that flash in and out of existence, giving off an otherworldly vibe without the use of any costumes or makeup. By their sets conclusion I felt massively overwhelmed. The lack of sleep, water, and real food coupled with intoxicants and intense performances was catching up to me. This is the part where I remind readers to remember to practice healthier festival habits than I, for it is here when I blacked out completely for several hours, and missed more bands than I’d really care to talk about. Coming to at some point to the sound of Psychic TV playing at the pool, it took me a bit to realize where I even was at first, which was then followed by extreme frustration, cursing, and the projection of several inanimate objects. I ran as quickly as my muddled mind would allow me to and caught most of King Diamond’s set to some relief, but retired immediately after in search of smarter decisions than had been made thus far.
Up early on the final day, I sought healthier food options and adequate water intake before heading to the Joint to catch Windhand. Even at noon, the immensely popular band had the room packed, riffing through fan favorites and playing with a tighter confidence than other times I had seen them. Immediately following them were a group I was very eager to see live, Zeal & Ardor. On recording Z&A is a one-man project, as Manuel Gagnneux writes and records all of the instruments and vocals himself, but live his band expands to having two additional vocalists, a guitarist, a bassist, and a live drummer (which in this case happened to be Lev from Krallice/Woe). The music is soulful and cathartic, combining many genres into a very Satanic melting pot, mixing elements of old-timey slave songs, Americana folk, intricate math rock, and atmospheric black metal. The large audience had a lot of buzz going through it about this rather new project, as this was their first time playing live in the U.S. About halfway through their set, the crowd’s applause between songs became deafening, and the band broke character briefly as their humble smiles shone across their faces.
Onward next door to catch North, a killer sludge band that I’ve been watching perform and evolve for the better part of a decade. It was great to see them play to a packed room, and the band sounded great despite blowing through a kick drum. Up next back on the mainstage was the always entertaining Abbath. Basically the Andrew W.K. of Norwegian black metal, Abbath’s music is not only brutal and confident, but his between song banter was the most entertaining of the weekend. Few men could stir an audience of 4,000 to give a standing ovation to a banana, but Abbath delivered.
At this point was what I had considered the headlining set of the entire festival: Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas, performing their collaborative album Mariner in its entirety. One of my favorite albums of recent years, neither artist has ever really released anything bad. Cult of Luna are generally considered the #3 band right after Neurosis and Isis as the godfathers of modern post-metal, and everything Julie has lent her voice to has been forward thinking and objectively great (Made Out of Babies, Battle of Mice, Spylacopa) so the pairing was always great, but their combined live presence was beyond what the album could capture. The members of Cult of Luna were mostly statue-esq, not moving much other than in unison, all dressed similarly, with low green lighting illuminating them. Julie on the other hand was absolutely frantic, crawling around onstage wrapped in the mic cable, manically bouncing around the stage like a woman possessed, spotlight highlighting her projected insanity front and center. After 50 fervent and cathartic minutes, the band took a quick bow, and Julie disappeared off the front of the stage, into the audience, and that was that.
I’m feeling utterly spent but also completely satisfied by making the trek to this festival. Over the next couple hours I diminished what was left of the intoxicating substances, caught part of Wizard Rifle and Minsk, both of whom played great sets. I made an attempt to watch part of Swans endurance trial two hour set but only make it about 45 minutes before retiring to the pool stage to catch Warning and contemplate existence and cry with all the other sad metal pool boys. Not wanting to end the festival on such a depressing note, I forced my defeated body and mind to go back to the main stage and watch a good portion of Mastodon’s festival closing performance. While their more recent material hasn’t been up my alley, they still put on a hell of a rock and roll show, and them closing out a weekend of drunken debauchery in Sin City couldn’t have been more appropriate.
I awoke to the sound of thunder and showers, and could smell petrichor more intensely than ever before. It clearly didn’t rain here much and you could feel it in the air. Cleansing the filth from this strange desert town, this monument to capitalism and greed, I couldn’t imagine myself enjoying this place for any other reason, and for that I’m totally coming back again next year.