The venerable Austin Psych Fest changed its name to Levitation last year, which was probably wise, considering that the term is at once ubiquitous and potentially constricting nowadays. Also, it would seem silly to have an Austin Psych Fest: Chicago (there’s one in Vancouver, too). The Thalia Hall (What a superb venue. I want to live there.) event this past weekend shared exactly two common artists with the Austin version happening next month, but what the Chicago incarnation lacked in Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds, it made up for with, well, mostly current, relevant artists.
There were exceptions, though: Faust, for one, who sort of headlined the final night, but wound up playing second-to-last, which was a good decision by the organizers. The two remaining founding members, drummer Werner "Zappi" Diermaier and bassist/frontman Jean-Hervé Péron, have been back at it full-time since about 2005, releasing albums and touring, but let’s just say that legitimately seeing Faust live is now relegated to my alternate-reality/time-travel bucket list. The krautrock legends graciously brought in some local talent to help fill out their sound in addition to their regular augmentary players, and the set was appropriately odd, with the occasional glimpse of what it must’ve been like when Faust was blazing trails in the early 70s. I wouldn’t call it a cash-grab or a nostalgia act, nor a well-oiled machine, although for a first show of a tour, they kept things together, especially the ladies sitting in chairs knitting for the entire set. Péron was exceedingly gracious, particularly as he was essentially kicked offstage with three songs left on his setlist. I’m guessing “Picnic On A Frozen River, Deuxieme Tableau” was not one of those three songs, but a guy can dream.
Friday’s headliners weren’t exactly fresh-faced kids, either. Royal Trux had been deactivated for 15 years before reuniting for a couple of festival sets last year; they are now, purportedly, a band again, although you wouldn’t know it by this set. Singer Jennifer Herrema seemed much more preoccupied with drinking and splaying herself out in various spots around the stage than actually performing music. Yeah, she’s a raspy singer all the time, but she seemed to be pulling a turn-of-the-millennium-Dylan act here with the slurring and mumbling and barely spitting out words. The rest of the band seemed lethargic and out of synch much of the time. There were a few opportunities for zoning out to the old tunes, but Herrema’s tinkerings on an array of keys and knobs added precious little musical value to the proceedings. Based on their 90s catalog and reports I’ve heard about their live shows in those days, I’m not sure I can really say I’ve seen this band live, either.
Each night of this festival was very hit-and-miss, but the veteran artist from Thursday’s opening night was a highlight of the weekend. Gary Wilson followed the somewhat predictable pattern of experimental 70s musicians: Put out one album (1977’s You Think You Really Know Me) (okay apparently he also put one out in 1974 that only Wikipedia knows about; I guess we’ll take their word for it?) that’s way too weird for mass consumption, retire from music, get rediscovered by hipsters in the 90s, start touring again and compete for dwindling entertainment dollars with all the younger artists whose careers you helped make possible. Wilson came out in a drab cloak of some sort and rubber hazmat gloves, and spent much of the set dicking around with a huge wad of clear plastic that may or may not have been a bag, rolling around on the stage with it while singing, draping it over his bandmates, etc. Amidst the spectacle, they did create some memorable music, often culminating in blazing walls of noise; reimaginings of material from Wilson’s first album as well as stuff presumably from the post-millennial reboot of his career. It was quite entertaining, although very much more in a modern psych/noise vein than the style he was originally known for (i.e. proto-Ariel Pink).
The other two acts I caught on Thursday were, I think, very effective in doing what they intended, though in the case of HEALTH, I couldn’t say for sure. If they’re meant to be a gag synthpop/industrial hybrid thing, then I’d say the pulled it off; the music was hilariously nauseating. On the other hand, if they mean to be taken seriously, then it sucked ass. The singer/guitarist was competent, although his fuzzed-out nu-metal riffs were nothing special, and the drummer was fine. The longhaired dude who spent almost the entire set doing a slow, ergonomic headbang (he occasionally picked up a bass guitar for a few minutes or monkeyed with some bank of gizmos at his feet) was the key to the show, up there as either an ostensible symbol of authenticity or absurdity, and I will say the crowd seemed to eat it up. I can’t knock the enthusiasm either way; all I can say is the music was godawful.
Oneohtrix Point Never was the antidote to HEALTH: at least as heavy, way weirder and not at all contrived. I wasn’t expecting the copious amounts of live guitar, which created a genuine industrial atmosphere in the sparsely-populated club without skimping on the purely computer-based experiments. True to form, Daniel Lopatin stretched the boundaries of what’s reasonable in an EDM environment, and his music rarely fell back on expected dynamic patterns. It was kind of like if Bassnectar really wanted to fuck with your head instead of just keep you dancing all night. But there was plenty of dancing all the same.
Friday night was probably the overall best night of music, with no real clunkers other than Trux. Blanck Mass, one half of the duo known as Fuck Buttons and very much cut from the same musical cloth, brought his brand of all-digital post-rock early in the evening. I don’t have much to say except I loooooove what Benjamin John Power does and I would’ve preferred if his set had been last; it felt more like a late-night festival climax than a 7 p.m. warmup. I imagined the room being packed and the kind of throwdown that could’ve been. More people need to know about this music. Actually, more people need to know about most of the music at this festival. The place was maybe a quarter full every night. These bands aren’t that underground, are they?
Ryley Walker was a name I hadn’t heard before and won’t likely forget. He reminded me a little of Jeff Buckley with his confessional, insightful lyrical style and self-effacing attitude, though not in terms of his voice. Other than possibly his sometimes hilarious banter, he made the biggest impression with his acoustic guitar playing, along the lines of a more aggressive Steve Gunn, very nuanced and dynamic without being showy. Usually guys who play guitar like this don’t fit that style into great songs, but Walker’s were engrossing, dramatic folk-rock pieces that his finely-tuned band rendered beautifully. Do not miss this guy at Milwaukee Psych Fest, people.
The Drag City presence was appropriately strong at this festival, and the buzz around quasi-supergroup Rangda was strong. I’m generally down with whatever Sir Richard Bishop might be up to at the moment, so this collaboration with guitarist Ben Chasny (Six Organs Of Admittance) and drummer Chris Corsano (a laundry list of indie/experimental contributions) was bound to be interesting. It was essentially what you’d expect; unorthodox rhythms set to jam and synch up every few minutes, Bishop with his exotic, serpentine solos and Chasny with his noisy, textural freakouts. Without a strong bass presence, Corsano’s ability to hold down the rhythm with these two non-metronomic guitarists was impressive; even when he’d drop the beat he’d turn it into a spastic fill and reemerge relatively unscathed. (I’m just used to dudes like Ches Smith and Kenny Grohowski doing this stuff with Secret Chiefs 3 and therefore way way way overly nitpicky. This was a great set.)
The other show-stopper on Friday was, of course, Lightning Bolt. Naturally, they set up on the floor in front of the stage and started playing almost immediately after Rangda finished, a crowd gathered tightly around the duo. I had seen these guys once before, at Pitchfork in 2010, when they came out under the blazing sun and sent people fleeing to the food vendors clutching their ears; for me it was the musical highlight of the day. I guess it’s not technically metal when there’s only bass and drums and screaming, but music doesn’t get much faster or more violent than what this band plays. Fucking insanity. Maybe I would’ve enjoyed Royal Trux more had they not been asked to follow up Lightning Bolt, which was admittedly a preposterous assignment.
Saturday proved to be my favorite overall night of music, even though Methyl Ethel, Night Beats and Earthless all underwhelmed. The collaborative project of Natural Information Society + Bitchin Bajas proved to be very cool if occasionally confounding. They played three pieces (I think): an opening quiet, ambient drone thing that never lifted off (and probably wasn’t supposed to); a more pulsing, danceable piece that swelled into a powerful krautrockish din after you gave up trying to figure out what the hell kind of stringed bass thingy Joshua Abrams was playing; and an atmospheric but still fairly propulsive final piece that had some moments but I got distracted as Abrams and drummer Mikal Patrick Avery often drifted out of synch. There were moments of collective bliss throughout, but it did feel at times like a whole bunch of dour experimentalists fucking around with unusual instruments without much cohesion.
The highlight of the entire festival without question: Circuit des Yeux. Haley Fohr did a brief vocal warmup/soundcheck and I was already impressed. Her band was impressive, but words fail me in trying to describe what her performance did to me. Tears streamed down my face. At one point I nearly fell to my knees. There was a show I went to in 2001 that featured an opening set by Lake Trout that I’ve described ever since it happened as the single greatest first impression I’ve ever had seeing a band live that I’d never heard before. That’s finally been deposed.
The only performance left to mention is the final one, and the one I’d been most excited for: Chelsea Wolfe. I’d been dying to see her live ever since hearing the introductory scream on her 2011 album Ἀποκάλυψις, one of the darkest American folk albums I can think of. 2013’s Pain Is Beauty shifted in a more electronic/post-punk direction, while her latest, Abyss, dove more directly into the metal impulses hinted at on the previous two albums, and it was this persona that took full control on Sunday night. You would’ve sworn that doom metal was all she’s ever done. Rarely have I heard someone manipulate guitar feedback in such precise and haunting ways; the between-song noise was almost as powerful as the songs themselves, bridging the various dirges as if the whole set were one long suite. Her band was incredibly tight, but it was Wolfe’s rich guitar tone and her powerful voice that were in complete control. She didn’t even do “Crazy Love”, presumably because it’s too mellow. As much as I love that song, it didn’t matter. I don’t know how psychedelic her set was, but it was mesmerizing.