Milwaukee Psych Fest 2014
Posted 4/29/2014 by Cal
In its second year, Milwaukee Psych Fest has already doubled in length to four days, and despite an apparent flagging fervor in the genre while the world waits for a new Tame Impala album or marquee Sacred Bones release, the Brew City is as jazzed up as ever, thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of our local record stores and WMSE programs like Tom Wanderer's and The 5 & Dime Show. Plus, after a slew of top-notch local psych-rock records last year, the Space Raft debut is mere days from FINALLY being released, Elusive Parallelograms are changing their name to Tapebenders (still no web presence that I can locate for the newly-named band, but they are apparently readying a new release), and according to my sources,
Catacombz are still a band and presumably will start acting like it one of these days. Counter Culture Club, the organizers of Psych Fest, have been ramping up their efforts to bring artists from all across the trippy spectrum to Milwaukee like never before, and the weekend lineup for this little fest was pretty stacked, to the point where you have to wonder if Cactus Club will be able to contain the crowds if this thing gets any bigger.
There was some confusion in terms of start times on Thursday night, resulting in my missing out on Dead Gurus' set, but luckily Club Garibaldi is only a block away. Old Earth may not be psych rock, but it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to put Todd Umhoefer's guitar-loop tapestries on the festival bill, so I'm calling this one-off four-piece version of the project the unofficial first set of Psych Fest. It was cool to hear Erin Wolf lending her vocals to some of the material (as on several of Old Earth's records), and the keyboards plus Ben Lester's lap slide filled the songs out nicely. The set may have lacked urgency compared to Umhoefer's one-man band approach, but I'm all for diversification above safety, and besides, any night you get to hear new Old Earth songs is a good night.
Festival curators Moss Folk got going around 10:30 back at Cactus, and the band showcased a ton of growth since last year's event. The music was still rooted in spacey drone, keyed in on Andrew Shelp's guitar textures, but the jams were more focused and interesting, culminating in an insistent krautrock banger for an explosive end to the set. Did not see that coming. Something tells me it's going to be a lot of fun watching this band continue to evolve.
Moss Folk's set was also my first glimpse of the wild world of Bread Mothers. At last year's fest, a couple of visiting bands brought in their own projectors and visual artists, who worked mainly in colored oils and liquids, essentially putting them in a big Petri dish and squishing them around. The effect was mildly distracting and vaguely nauseating. The other end of the spectrum is the pre-programmed digital assaults that have scarcely changed since my generation's mid-90s dorm-room techno zonk-outs. The Bread Mothers team opened up a whole new world of creativity as far as what I've seen in this realm. I won't even attempt to get into the technical side of what their hands and computers were creating as backdrops for the various bands. For Moss Folk, the visuals were decidedly retro; it really felt like being transported back to the 60s, with very low-fi trippy imagery and effects. As the weekend wore on, though, it seriously seemed like the technique was evolving by leaps and bounds as we watched. By the time The Blind Shake took the stage on Sunday, you'd swear they must've been rehearsing with Bread Mothers for weeks. The artists were incredibly intuitive as to the musical styles, even within specific songs, and ultimately they turned what could've been a cheesy or pretentious major distraction into a living, breathing performance so much more impressive and interesting than any computerized graphics display you'll ever see at a big rock show. Let's have more of these guys at psych-y shows, please.
Probably the most hyped artist of this year's lineup was Thursday's headliner, the mostly-forgotten short-lived UK space rock combo Loop, who made a few waves in the late 80s before unceremoniously disbanding in 1991. History has awarded Loop significant status in shoegaze circles, and the group's three records justify this, not to mention frontman Robert Hampson's subsequent work with Justin Broadrick. But Thursday's performance was less notable for its walls of effects than for Hampson's pure guitar mastery and his ingenious riffs.
"I like looking at my feet," Hampson deadpanned at the beginning of the set, calling for more stage lighting. "I have nice shoes." The performance, however, was a far cry from shoegaze. Hampson's meaty, corrosive guitar tone was infinitely more satisfying than on record; those late-80s productions don't do justice to his growling riffs (1990's A Guilded Eternity comes close), and I realized when the set was over that Loop was scratching a bad itch I'd been suffering since 1999, the one time I got to see Cosmic Psychos live. That full-throttle, unAmerican pub-rock aggression I had basically resigned myself to never feeling again was smashing my face for this whole set, and it was exhilarating. It must be hard to play bad music when you can make your guitar sound like that. When the dust had settled late Sunday night, Loop's remained my favorite set of the festival.
The Brits set the bar extremely high for the two defining criteria of this year's event. While the inaugural fest had succeeded on the strengths of improv, experimentation and atmosphere, this year it was all about guitar tone and the almighty riff. In these capacities, Friday's winners were the criminally underappreciated Elusive Par--whoops, they're called Tapebenders now; I will get this through my skull eventually. Though they announced the upcoming release of a new album, the set was all the (mostly recent) EP classics you know and love, a virtual repeat of last year's Psych Fest appearance, except this year it was Body Futures/IfIHadAHifi core member DJ Hostettler bashing away on the drum kit. As you might expect, Hostettler added a new dimension of noisy intensity to the well-crafted tunes, and it was a terrific set without a doubt, but I was a bit disappointed at the lack of new material.
Detroit's Sisters Of Your Sunshine Vapor also put on a very similar show to last year's, a little lighter on guitar heroics and Doors-y theatrics and heavier on Black Angels-style shimmer and drone, but this band too needs a dose of new material to freshen up the set. 2011's Spectra Spirit is a great document of the band's sound; there's been nothing since then. It was still a potent set, just not necessarily a step forward from a year ago. But then there was Chicago's Plastic Crimewave Syndicate, whose name was far more enticing than its music. The riffs all got lost in the effects haze, and Steve Kraków's tinny guitar tone didn't do anything for me. Given his history in avant-garde music I suppose I expected something more experimental than run-of-the-mill psych-rock. Call it a matter of taste; these guys played with energy but their sound didn't grab me.
If I needed a sucker punch after that, I got it from Beast In The Field. The Michigan stoner-rock duo has never heard of the concept of subtlety; singer/guitarist Jordan Pries's axe has exactly two settings: normal and BBBRRAAUUGGGGHGHHH. And hot DAMN, that monstrous, nasty down-tuned tone sounded like a choir of angels to this headbanger, not to mention the downright ridiculous riffs. It wasn't all brilliance, to be sure; there were some fairly well-worn sludge motifs strewn in, and while Pries's budding lead guitar skills are promising, there were a couple moments when I couldn't help thinking 'how does a guy who writes riffs that good not realize that this guitar solo has been going on for WAAAAY too long?' Still, nearly every time he ungracefully stomped on the self-destruct pedal and crushed those glacial chords, it was a massive payoff, right down to the infinite grind-down into sub-bass nirvana that ended the set. Damn, I need to see Sunn o))) really bad. Surely the heaviest set of the weekend...right?
I only ask because I missed Saturday due to another frigid first-Miller-Park-tailgate-of-the-year, and a fantastic day and night all around if I do say so, but it was very unfortunate that I had to miss Space Raft, and I was really curious to see whether Heaven's Gateway Drugs were going to be as absurdly captivating as last year. So I doubt that Moon Curse could possibly have been heavier than Beast, but one never knows. Ah well.
Sunday, it was a distinct pleasure to watch as last week's Local/Live guest Vocokesh opened the day with a blistering set of bluesy space-rock, bringing to mind the lengthy electric excursions of mid-70s Hot Tuna filtered through the less esoteric side of the krautrock spectrum, and yes, a healthy dose of Hawkwind, but all instrumental, of course. The project has been guitarist Richard Franecki's main focus since his departure from seminal Milwaukee experimental psych outfit F/i (although he has since rejoined that fold as well) in 1991, and Vocokesh's was the only set I saw that featured any significant improv. They even threw in a jam on "Hey Joe", why not? Fantastic start to the day's activities.
The next question that arose was this: Can Virginia Trance possibly be for real? Is this some Andy Kaufman-style sociological prank, or was this just the worst thing I've ever seen? I don't know how many times I burst out laughing. After about the third song nobody even clapped, although for some reason they were cheering a couple songs later; I could only assume they were trying to be nice, or they were in on the joke and I wasn't.
At first, Scott Davis, a former fringe member of Psychic Ills, just sat onstage on a stool for what seemed like ages, bullshitting with his "bass player" partner while he diddled around on his telephone, with the mic just slightly up so you could sort of hear them. I jokingly thought to myself that perhaps this was the show, and now I'm genuinely wondering if it was. The first song was a muddled stew of looped guitar with absolutely no form or substance, augmented by the dullest cheesy digital bongo beat ever and this distractingly unsteady bass playing—which only consisted of a single note, for crying out loud. Davis's stage presence was reminiscent of a cross between Crispin Glover and Axl Rose, only stoned into an implausibly comatose caricature. His guitar playing was...I'll say competent at times. After all, if you go too overboard, everyone will catch on...right? At one point he informed us all of DJ Rashad's untimely death, remarking, "It's really sad, if you don't know." Gee, thanks! His banter seemed to be peppered with thinly-veiled snipes at the bass player, who appeared utterly oblivious and/or obliterated the entire time he was up there, especially while he was playing. The lyrics...at one point I thought maybe I should scribble some down, but I knew I already had so much material that repeating lyrics would be beating a dead horse.
The final song began with a pre-recorded guitar loop—why? For the love of God, why?? YOU'RE HOLDING AN ELECTRIC GUITAR. I shit you not, following a brief guitar solo, Davis glared at the bass player and said, "That was horrible." I just about lost it. Was he referring to himself? The music trailed off shortly after that. This was the most inept thing I've ever seen. Nothing about the set was even slightly ept. Unless it was all on purpose, in which case it was brilliant.
Fortunately, #MKEPsychfest 2014 ended with a bang. In a risky move, they scheduled Chicago's Running second-to-last—risky, because no one in his or her right mind would want to play after Running. We're talking about a PERFORMANCE right here, pure ebullient adrenaline in balls-to-the-wall grungy post-punk. It went by in a blur. More sick, punishing riffs, again reminding me a little of Cosmic Psychos but much more modern and, well, youthful. This got nearly everyone moving, which is saying something with this crowd, but anyone who could seriously resist this kind of exuberance and these quality rock and roll songs would surely not be out at a rock and roll club, right?
That goes double for the final act of the fest, The Blind Shake, possibly the only band in the upper Midwest that could possibly have followed Running and actually come out on top. They wore basically matching black jumpsuits, each with a different symbol masking-taped to it. They came out and started playing and I remembered all the times I've spotted raves about this band in the past as I realized I could've been going to see 'em live for years. I remembered that all-too-brief daze in the late 90s when we pondered whether The Shape Of Punk To Come might actually be what it claimed to be. As far as I'm concerned, these guys are punk as fuck, and they blew me away. Amazing songs, roaring guitar from surf through the meatgrinder to Ramones buzzsaw and Devo clang, robotic/militaristic vocals and up there performing like they held the future of music in their hands. This was the only performance of the weekend that came close to Loop for me. Bravo to Andrew Shelp for scheduling two barely-psych bands to close out this festival; very unexpected move, but absolutely nobody was complaining. I can hardly wait to see The Blind Shake again, and the excitement is already simmering for next year's festival.