Milwaukee Psych Fest delivers variations on a tripped-out theme
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Genre labels may be the bane of forward-thinking musicians and prickly high-school bands alike, but they do serve a purpose. Applied properly, labels give listeners a general sonic framework—get ready for a bunch of dudes in suspenders playing washboards, for example—while still allowing for certain variations. The “psych” label may seem unnecessarily restrictive at first, bringing to mind a strict adherence to feedback, ethereal vocals, and My Bloody Valentine worshipping, but it, too, leaves plenty of room for experimentation. Milwaukee’s inaugural Psych Fest, organized by Andrew Shelp of local band Moss Folk, found two dozen local and national groups converging at the Cactus Club Friday and Saturday to prove just how elastic and durable the genre can be.
Shelp and Moss Folk kicked off Friday night’s show with a powerful, percussion-heavy set that skewed towards the experimental end of the psych spectrum. Bathed in a seizure-inducing video projection, the local five-piece made good use of an array of pedals and copious amounts of feedback, but some terrifically ferocious drum work helped elevate Moss Folk above your typical navel-gazing noise merchants. The group’s final song came closest to a conventional arrangement, with a simple, hook-y bass line bouncing off the twin brick walls of feedback and percussive drone.
Minneapolis five-piece Chatham Rise, meanwhile, paid homage to psych’s more traditional, MBV-indebted sound, with gorgeous washes of ’90s guitars and plenty of ’90s haircuts. Chatham Rise’s set was the evening’s most romantic and dark, and demonstrated the power of smothering simple, sad pop songs in throbbing noise. Fellow Minneapolis five-piece Magic Castles were perhaps the least inspired band on Friday night’s bill, foreshadowed by a video projection of the too-obvious stoner classic The Holy Mountain. Still, Magic Castles were the most melodic and guitar-heavy group of the night, and a good warmup for Friday night’s headliners The Warlocks, who were undoubtedly the heaviest. In many ways a culmination of the three bands that came before them, the long-running L.A.-based delivered a set highlighted by a gloomy, brooding edge, and a penchant for leather jackets. It was a thick, pummeling set, leaving the near-capacity crowd bruised, beaten, and ultimately satisfied. [Matt Wild]
Day two of Psych Fest began Saturday at 5 p.m., with a rare glimpse of sunlight streaming through the glass block windows of the Cactus Club on an understandably sparse crowd. The fellows of Elusive Parallelograms seemed a bit glum at first about the low attendance, but they nevertheless tore into their set with a fury, and it didn’t take long for a respectable crowd to filter in. The band’s set was representative of the festival in general, in the sense that the national and international bands were all straightforward, jangly, drone-y psychedelic rock; most of the variety came from Brew City bands.
Although the evening was scheduled to be broken up into two “shows” (one at 5 p.m., one at 10 p.m.), it basically ran as one long event, as Milwaukee’s Sleepcomesdown started playing around 9:30 p.m. The band’s style is a more insistent, darker entity than that of most acts at the festival, more post-punk or shoegaze than psychedelic, but there were plenty of trippy effects and reverb to make everyone feel at home. The set was a breath of fresh air, cutting through the druggy haze with a more urgent, slightly math-y energy, like a more song-oriented, less noise-drenched A Place To Bury Strangers. If there was one band that didn’t seem baked out of its mind, this was the one.
Despite the hype surrounding the night’s headliners, the most anticipated performance of the fest might well have been local space-groove heroes Catacombz, who did not disappoint the packed house. The band was actually more impressive live a couple years ago (before the trend of concentrating on lengthier jams), but Saturday’s performance gave the impression of a band nearing the end of a transitional phase; the kraut- and post- and jam- and psych-rock elements are beginning to merge into something distinctively Catacombz. So while the meandering excursions sometimes took a bit of time before arriving at worthwhile music, the payoffs resulted in some mind-bending peaks of intensity.
Apparently, the latest trend on the psych-rock scene involves dishes of colored oils and liquids being manipulated in real time on an overhead projector and oozing all over the band and its backdrop. Such was the case with Heaven’s Gateway Drugs and Sisters Of Your Sunshine Vapor, from Fort Wayne, Indiana and Detroit, Michigan respectively. The visual effect was quite honestly gross; the artistry involved shouldn’t be dismissed, but something about it is inherently gut churning. This worked to HGD’s disadvantage, as the visual element of the band was pretty key. Its focal point was Ben Carr, a tall guy at center stage playing nothing but tambourine and maraca, but with such rhythmic precision and, yes, feeling, that his performance rose above the mockery he was basically begging for. The rest of the band played a likeable brand of Brian Jonestown Massacre-worship—nothing terribly unique, but legitimized for anyone who bought into the mystic fervor of Carr.
It was easier to keep your eyes closed for SOYSV, whose vigorous bass lines and quirky riffing immediately brought to mind Primus, minus any semblance of funk. Guitarist/vocalist Sean Morrow is clearly on a mission, and he has a real knack for concocting interesting licks as well as improvising intergalactic squeals and wails in between the composed bits. The songs themselves were structurally simple, but the trio excelled at crafting intuitive swells of equilateral tension—spacey to be sure, but a bit heavier and more ferocious than the rest of the night’s performers.
For the two headlining acts, improvisation was integral; unfortunately, both were hampered by broken guitar strings mid-set, which may have served to make attendees even more anxious to see both bands again in the long run. Brooklyn’s Woodsman, scheduled as the final act of the early show, played the most thoroughly powerful set of the night. The instrumental trio of one drummer and two guitarists took uncomplicated melodic motifs, stretched them out, and added layers and loops to the point of bursting, like an upbeat slacker Mogwai. Through even the noisiest portions, the tone was incredibly uplifting; even in its most nebulous moments, it felt purposeful. The set seemed short, but it wasn’t dull for a second.
Accolades for Santiago, Chile’s Holydrug Couple are certainly deserved. The band has a great, rich sound, somewhat like Tame Impala (right down to covering Todd Rundgren), only even more like Pink Floyd, and with the added dimension of extended improv. The most thrilling moment came when the band began playing “Follow Your Way” (from its recent Sacred Bones release Noctuary) and singer/guitarist Ives Sepúlveda sang a full verse and chorus of “Hello It’s Me” as if he’d just noticed the similarity of the chord progressions. The set ended with an interminable jam that held some folks spellbound and sent others ducking out to the bar; it was repetitive and hypnotic, and fans who were impressed should probably start listening to recordings of Phish’s 2004 summer tour, because there was at least one jam every night of that tour that sounded like this one. It was waves of pleasant, un-ambitious sound, peppered with occasionally stunning guitar playing, but overall, there wasn’t a single significant peak of energy to justify 20-plus minutes of aimlessness. Still, it was an intriguing finale to a first-run festival that has to be deemed a success on all levels. [Cal Roach]