This year’s Berserktown was a special kind of festival. It was a festival without corporate sponsors featuring punk, metal, noise, and electronic acts from all around the world, some of which reunited after decades to play this one show. It was a festival of diversity, featuring groups from Canada, Spain, Australia, Denmark — everywhere. It was also a festival of diversity in the sense that out of all those bands, even the American ones, the lineup didn’t overlook female musicians. Without making a big fuss or crafting a shtick around the inclusion of bands with female members, Berserktown served as the ideal punk festival, crafting a lineup of some of the best bands around that offered a little bit for everyone.
Berserktown’s second year was a strange haven in the middle of sunny Orange County for all types of punks. The festival, organized by a small group of people, was the opposite of most summer music festivals. Rather than the live music serving as background noise for thousands of people gathered to get wasted, this was a place where people really did travel from far away specifically to see the bands on the lineup. As such, the atmosphere was filled with excitement as people went from room to room of the Observatory in Santa Ana, a venue that seemed slightly too nice to be hosting a punk festival, but did a good job thanks in part to its easy-to-navigate three-room layout.
While the first installment of Berserktown was primarily a hardcore fest, this year’s was more about punk as an attitude than a genre, featuring electronic/dance acts, black metal, psych rock, and garage rock acts; it was less about adhering to strict genre rules and more about DIY spirit. Berserktown was a haven for weird groups who might be niche acts at any other festival, but here were treated as heroes.
The festival really felt like a makeshift community of like-minded people. Outside were vendors from Texas, California, and Japan selling records, books, and other ephemera. Looking around the crowd at a given show, especially during legendary Detroit producer DJ Stingray‘s set on Friday night, you would see a crowd filled as much with other artists playing the festival as fans. Those who attended were truly interested and excited to see the bands, and it was a refreshing change of pace from the big festivals that typically dominate the summer conversation.
The first night, featuring a vast variety of groups, offered something for everyone. Tenement, the three-piece power-pop group from Wisconsin, kicked off the evening with a tight set containing highlights from their new triple LP, Predatory Headlights. The band played a solid set that ended abruptly, but people wanting more of that didn’t have to wait too much longer to see Tony Molina rock the same space to a packed room a couple hours later. Molina, a hardcore frontman turned indie rocker, may have been the only act of the night to have a set filled with guitar solos and hooks that could’ve fit on a Weezer record. As the most pop-oriented act of the night, Molina led his band through a slew of minute-long jams that fit surprisingly well sandwiched between a run of hardcore acts.
Hardcore was mostly relegated to the smaller side room that evening, and two acts who stood out were Back to Back and Dress Code, two young acts from Houston. Dress Code played a tight, energetic set to warm up the room, and an hour later Back to Back packed the space with one of the first real pits of the night. The group have built up a reputation for intense live performances over the past few years, and they delivered. Another Texas group that stood out was S U R V I V E, a synth-focused darkwave group from Austin. The group fit well in late night Orange County, playing the kind of music that could fit on the soundtrack for Drive if the film was even darker and more violent.
A big theme of night one was noise. Destruction Unit, the psych rock group from Arizona responsible for running the experimental tape label Ascetic House, were one of the main draws of the first night, playing a special set with “friends” that included The Germs’ Don Bolles, Hank Wood & The Hammerheads’ Logan Montana, and Alex Zhang Hungtai (formerly Dirty Beaches) on saxophone. In all, there were nine people on stage, half of which were on guitar. Destruction Unit are always known for squalor and extended jams at their live shows, and this performance expanded on that, as the members focused less on songs than sustaining a whirlwind of noise throughout.
Other standouts in that category were Sissy Spacek, a California grindcore group who were punishingly heavy. The band played an early set in the dance tent, and while they didn’t fit that categorization, they won the crowd over with an onslaught of noise that would outdo the energy of many of the hardcore groups throughout the weekend. While less chaotic, another noise act stood out with a restrained set that evening, as Nate Young of Wolf Eyes commanded a small crowd in the main room with an entrancing set. Young brought a harmonica onstage and performed spoken word material over his slow, creeping power electronics that made for a twisted version of the blues. A far cry from the manic insanity of the Wolf Eyes live set, this made for a stellar palette cleanser before the headlining acts that followed.
The night’s top-billed act, Thee Oh Sees, played a good set as always; they’re a group of consummate professionals. While they may have been the literal headliners, though, the true draw of night one was Australia’s Total Control. The post-punk group released their excellent second album, Typical System, to rave reviews in 2014, but never toured behind it. The Berserktown team convinced the group to embark on a small US tour including this stop, and talking to many in the audience, the rare chance to catch the group was many people’s reason for traveling across the country to watch the band. Dressed in an athletic jersey he later removed to reveal a DJ Screw T-shirt, singer Dan Stewart towered over the room with his commanding presence. The band packed the main room, their audience enraptured as the group tore through cuts the audience was getting to see live for the first time. By the end of the night, pretty much everyone there would agree it was worth the wait.
The second day brought out more people and a main stage filled with more hardcore acts than day one. Highlights among those were Cleveland’s Cruelster, whose irreverence and general awkwardness was a fun change of pace from many of the others. They would abruptly cut off songs seemingly midway through, engage in minute-long start-stop drum fills between songs, and take turns jumping up and down three or four times before starting a track. Another humorous group that played later in the night, but with far more intensity, was Boston’s Rival Mob. Vocalist Brendan Radigan gave some of the best stage banter of the night as the group tore through their invigorating set. Radigan remarked on how he was grateful to put 3,000 miles between him and his job, and on how he enjoyed coming out to Los Angeles so he could see all the sites from True Detective Season 2. “You enabled us. It’s your fault for flying us out here and giving us all this money,” Radigan said. While the banter was amusing, the set was something else, as they delivered one of the most thrilling sets of the night, drawing from all their records.
For those looking for an alternative to hardcore, day two had a lot to offer as well. An early afternoon set by experimental folk singer Weyes Blood served as a nice warm-up to the charged frenzy of the later bands. The artist took the stage accompanied only by her guitar and some tape loops, and she proceeded to play a captivating set of stark folk music. Serene and calming, her songs were impeccably crafted, and though she had to deal with the noise bleed coming through from the main stage, the crowd didn’t seem to mind. On the opposite side of the spectrum, rapper Antwon had the main room dancing along to his hard-hitting take on Bay Area hip-hop.
Another act that was a big draw of the weekend for many was Australian garage-soul revivalists Royal Headache, who release their second album August 21st. The band’s history is tumultuous, as singer Shogun has left and returned to the group on multiple occasions, and by all accounts they had broken up for good before the announcement of the Berserktown lineup and subsequent album. The fractured relationship between the band was on full display on stage, as Shogun would comment after certain songs that they were terrible and depraved, and before a brief encore mentioned that the only reason they were still together was so he could get out of Sydney for a bit. Whatever the reason was, it was a welcome treat to catch them, as his voice is one of the more pronounced around, taking cues from ‘50s soul and incorporating that into songs with a punk level of energy.
One band that never disappoints is Toronto’s Fucked Up, who played an energetic late afternoon set that packed the side room. Frontman Damian Abraham paraded shirtless around the audience and climbed up the bar as the band played excerpts from throughout their discography. While they’re currently in the midst of a tour playing songs from the Zodiac series of records (lengthy experimental tracks they release annually), the Berserktown set focused on their more accessible material. Abraham indicated this was the last time we’d see them for a while, as they were getting ready to go on another hiatus due to the impending birth of Abraham’s next child. They made the most of it with a signature set that proved why their blend of pop-punk and hardcore has won over so many fans around the world. Before entering into set closer “Son the Father”, Abraham indicated the importance of punk being about standing for something politically, not so much about parties but about fighting against systemic oppression. Let’s hope Fucked Up won’t take too long to return, because they’ve become one of the most consistently great live acts of the past decade.
Other international acts stole the show for the remainder of day two. Spain’s Juanita Y Los Feos delivered a thrilling and energetic set at the small stage in the early evening, playing manic punk songs with Spanish lyrics. In the dance tent later that night, Danish group Lust for Youth brought the rave to Orange County. Drawing mainly from their 2014 record International, the group played throbbing dance music that turned the room into its own mini EDM fest. The last band of the night was Danish punk group No Hope for the Kids, who played their first reunion show in years to a slightly smaller crowd than the previous night’s headliners.
The final day showed that the festival had saved the best for last. Focusing less on hardcore and more on punk, grunge, and psych groups, day three also had a little bit of something for everyone. The early afternoon featured a spellbinding set by Circuit Des Yeux, the experimental art-pop musician who led a band in what felt like a folk version of Swans, featuring the intensity and impending sense of foreboding doom that Michael Gira and co. are known for. Other early highlights were country-punk group Gun Outfit, who sounded like a cross between Meat Puppets and Silver Jews, and Philadelphia noise rockers Watery Love, a group that rarely tours and delivered a squalor-filled set that resulted in broken guitar strings.
The main theme of the afternoon and early evening was politically charged punk. Bands like Downtown Boys, Priests, White Lung, and Sheer Mag each played weekend-best sets filled with political messages that displayed the ethos of what punk should be. Downtown Boys kicked things off with a whirlwind of a set dedicated to singer Victoria Ruiz’s mother; it was her birthday and she was in the audience. Ruiz spoke at length in between songs about racism in social and economic contexts and then carried those messages forth in their songs. Priests singer Katie Alice Greer lunged her body back and forth around the stage as she led a frenzied set, peaking with the group’s 2014 song “And Breeding”, which featured Greer, hunched over, screaming, “Barack Obama killed something in me, and I’m gonna get him for it!”
While less overtly political, both White Lung and Sheer Mag continued those themes in their music. White Lung’s Mish Way gave a shout-out to an eight-year-old girl in the audience and then dedicated the song “I Believe You” to the girl, indicating that it was inappropriate but something she would have to learn eventually. The song, from the group’s excellent 2014 album Deep Fantasy, is about reaching out to a victim of sexual assault and the power of telling someone that you believe them and aren’t calling them a liar. The band also tore through a blistering set of highlights from both that album and 2012’s Sorry, proving that they’re one of the most exciting current bands to watch. A bit later, Philadelphia group Sheer Mag led another crowd-pleasing set full of politically charged messages about slumlords, income inequality, and oppression in general. Theirs is some of the catchiest power-pop released in the past five years, causing masses of hardcore and punk bands to sing “whoa-oh-oh”s at the top of their lungs.
For those averse to the more pop-oriented bands, there was plenty of harsh noise in the dance tent from Danish artists Puce Mary and Damien Dubrovnik, both of which played harsh and uncompromising sets. Other heavyweights included the FrenchCanadian black metal group Akitsa, who played a crushingly dark set at night at the side stage. Dressed in polos and with an eerie sense of calm, the group were awe-inspiring.
The big story of the night — and the festival — were the three headliners that ended the weekend. First up was Milk Music, the grunge band from Olympia, Washington, who played their first show in two years. The country-fried grunge was a nice segue into the final two bands. Next up was Dead Moon, the legendary garage-punk group from Portland that consists of husband and wife Fred and Toody Cole. It was a bittersweet night, as the band played without drummer Andrew Loomis, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. The band decided to play the festival, but made it sound like this would be their last tour for the foreseeable future. The whole venue was packed as people crammed in to get a chance to see the punk legends play one more show, and no one left disappointed.
Those who stayed all the way until the end got a chance to watch the one and only Royal Trux play their first show in 15 years. Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema dissolved their band and cut ties in 2001, a breakup that was slightly acrimonious with no indication of a reconciliation, even after reissuing their discography. That is, until 2013, when Hagerty contributed writing to two songs on an album for Herrema’s current band Black Bananas. When both artists were already booked for the fest in separate bands, the team putting on the fest brought up the idea of a reunion as a long shot, but after consulting their record label, both Hagerty and Herrema agreed to do it. While both have indicated that the future is uncertain, they had decided to play at least one show together.
That show turned out to be a touching culmination of their prowess together, an appropriately loose and messy set that had everyone in the crowd dancing and freaking out at the chance to see this beloved group play again. Hagerty mostly stood in the corner while Herrema, a cap pulled down to hide her face, moved all about the stage, flailing and singing with a reckless attitude that worked with the songs. People who weren’t even old enough to be out of diapers when some of the songs were written were screaming along, not to mention members of the crowd who probably attended Royal Trux shows before the breakup. The band drew on songs from all throughout their career, from their 1988 self-titled debut to “Banana Question” off 1998’s Accelerator. Songs like “Ice Cream”, “Back to School”, and “Junkie Nurse” all drew admiration, and while it was apparent the group probably hadn’t rehearsed much, no one in the audience seemed to mind.
Berserktown was a weekend filled with memories of the rare opportunity to see a wide assortment of bands around the world, many of which rarely, if ever, embark on tours around the country. As a DIY endeavor full of people working together to create something special, the weekend was an unqualified success. Here’s hoping it continues to have a long history of providing an alternative outlet for weird music for years to come.