They came to Santa Ana from far and wide to see the greatest gathering of stoner, psych, and doom metal ever assembled in North America. Earlier this year, I wrote some stuff about a heavy music renaissance. I feel validated after attending Thief’s three-day Psycho California festival at The Observatory.
The lineup traversed the spectrum, from droning sludge to straight ’70s hard rock, touting genre forerunners like Pentagram, Eyehategod, and Sleep, as well as upstart acts like Elder, The Well, Pallbearer, and Cough. For fans of this type of music, it was a chance to see all their favorite bands in one place. I traveled from Missouri, but I met others who came from as far away as New Jersey, Australia, and even China. This was the mecca of heavy, and we were all willing to make the pilgrimage.
Whittling this down to the 10 best sets was difficult because I honestly did not see a bad one all weekend. So, instead, I chose the ones that best represented the Psycho experience, the ones that told the story of what went down in southern California.
Senior Staff Writer
With Scott “Wino” Weinrich guesting as an honorary frontman, Pentagram offshoot Bedemon made doom metal history by playing live for the first time ever on Friday. Formed by Pentagram members Geof O’Keefe and Randy Palmer in the early ’70s, Bedemon cut numerous demos with Bobby Liebling on vocals, and though the material was never officially released, it circulated via bootlegs. As decades passed, these recordings became the stuff of cult legend, and earlier this year Relapse Records repressed the original Child of Darkness tapes to much fanfare.
It was clearly an emotional moment for O’Keefe. He seemed on the verge of tears as he thanked the audience and the festival promoters for making this reunion happen. After all, he finally got to play the songs he wrote with dear friend Palmer, who died in 2012. Wino held his own singing Liebling’s parts, peering through a set of reading glasses at Palmer’s lyrics, printed on sheets of paper that surrounded the mic stand. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for all involved.
With the Grizzly Stage moved outdoors for the first day of the festival, minimalist doom duo Bell Witch played under the stars, running through the “Suffocation” suite from their recent opus Four Phantoms. It was the most cathartic set of the weekend, guided only by the desperate shrieks of drummer Adrian Guerra and the six-string bass work of Dylan Desmond, who crafts a tone akin to Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi combined, played through two guitar amps and a bass amp. Massive stuff. Those in the front row closed their eyes and listened.
Lord Dying’s thrashy sludge provided a nice reprieve from the methodical heaviness that was Psycho California. Playing cuts from their Relapse Records debut and this year’s sophomore effort, Poisoned Altars, their set was fast, fun, and riffy. What I noticed most were the amount of people smiling. The band was smiling; the crowd was smiling; I was smiling. So many smiles for a supposedly “evil” band. And that’s the great thing about a festival like this one. Even if much of this music comes from a darker place, the fact that so many people gathered to celebrate it together dispelled any bad vibes or animosity. It was like you had 4,000 potential friends because you all had something immediate in common by being there. Especially in the tiny room where Lord Dying played. It’s an instant conversation starter when you take a face full of somebody’s sweaty mop because their headbanging to some sweet riffs next to you.
It’s only fitting that the great stoner-doom label, RidingEasy Records, be well represented at Psycho California. Leading a roster of four bands this weekend was Cincinnati’s Electric Citizen and their frontwoman Laura Dolan, who unleashed a fiery performance Saturday on the big stage. And no band, except maybe Pentagram, deserved the big stage more — or used it as well — as Dolan and her band. I can only compare the ecstasy of her stage presence to Bobby Liebling himself, the way she flung herself around, shimmied, danced, and showed genuine enthusiasm from start to finish. “Bring me all the weed!” she shouted as the band left the stage. She earned that shit.
This was my third time seeing Pallbearer, and each performance has been better than the last. The band’s never-ending tour in support of Foundations of Burden has sharpened their set to the point of perfection, from Brett Campbell’s operatic tenor to the emotional stage presence of bassist Joseph D. Rowland, whose body reacts euphorically to his every note. At this pace, Pallbearer will be headlining festivals like Psycho California within the decade as their live show catches up with their masterful songwriting.
A backline of massive Ampeg bass cabs and Orange stacks were barely visible through a veil of smoke as Al Cisneros silently plucked his muted bass. “This is a song from our new album,” he joked. The anticipation reached a peak for Sleep’s Saturday night headlining set as the crowd got restless. For five minutes, Cisneros just stood there plucking inaudible notes. “Tell Matt to get out here stop smoking that bowl,” somebody shouted. Then a colossal amplifier feedback broke the tension and the shirtless one Matt Pike emerged from stage right. For two hours, the band played the hits (pun intended), including parts of Dopesmoker, “Holy Mountain” and “Dragonaut”, and the entirety of their latest work, “The Clarity”. As the ambassadors of stoner metal, Sleep belonged at Psycho California. I can safely say it’s the heaviest thing I’ve ever heard in person. Two days later and the bass lines are still quaking in my inner ear. Props to Austin’s Boss Tweed Backline for the devastating production all weekend, this set in particular.
All the way from Sweden, Truckfighters are veterans of the stoner rock scene and helped pave the way for many of their younger peers at Psycho California. Their caffeinated set (the band never drinks alcohol when they play a show and pounded coffee all day) woke up a groggy, hungover crowd Sunday afternoon, as loveable guitarist Dango bounced around with glee, kick jumping, playing solos behind his back, and wagging his tongue. Their closing rendition of fan favorite “Desert Cruiser” sent the pit into a frenzy, setting the tone for the final day of the festival.
Of all the younger bands at Psycho, none had more buzz surrounding their appearance than Elder. As relative newcomers, having broken out of the Boston scene and gone global, they delivered what bassist Jack Donovan later called, “the best fucking show I’ve ever played in my life.” The inner Grizzly Stage was packed to capacity, and Elder treated the sweaty crowd to all the choice cuts — “Dead Roots Stirring”, “Compendium”, “Spires Burn” — among others. I said it before back when I saw the band at SXSW earlier this year: These guys are virtuosos on their instruments, and their songs are like Wagner crossed with Rush crossed with Television crossed with Metallica. Unlike anything ever, and this very well may have been the best fucking show they’ve ever played in their lives, though I’d suspect there’ll be many more chances to top it as the band continues to stun audiences and increase its profile.
Sleep bassist Al Cisneros’ other band OM played the second to last set of the festival. More rhythmically active than Sleep, OM employ Middle-Eastern polyrhythms to create a cacophony of percussion, while Cisneros’ bass held a steady groove. I saw a lot of people hippie-dancing to this. It makes sense. You can use lose yourself in these rhythms. Most impressive was the connection between drummer Emil Amos and multi-instrumentalist/tambourine wizard Robert Lowe, masters of synchronized syncopation.
The Bedemon-Pentagram saga came full circle when Bobby Liebling strutted on stage for the Psycho California finale. Geof O’Keefe could be seen front and center, nodding along and smiling as he watched his old band play the songs he helped write. It was a special First Daze Here set, so Pentagram played the classic material like “Forever My Queen” and “When the Screams Come”, but also — for the first time in 40 years — the Randy Palmer co-written “Starlady”. The 18-song set was a concert unto itself, and a fitting close for the festival as one of the greatest doom metal bands played all of their greatest songs.
Photographer: Jon Hadusek