Austin Psych Fest 4
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., May 6, 2011
Austin Psych Fest 4Seaholm Power Plant, April 29-May 1
"We're doing this for the city of Austin," proclaimed Black Angels frontman Alex Maas toward midnight on Sunday inside Austin's decommissioned power plant. After three consecutive days/nights headquartered at the 60-year-old concrete bunker and almost as many acts to match that double digit, the Black Angels' fourth annual Austin Psych Fest lacked only one thing, really: couches. Beyond the hourlong wait to get in at its opening Friday and that evening's band schedule thrown into overlapping set times instead of staggered performances on the event's two stages – and the water station outside not yet filled – APF4 ran like clockwork. El Paso fivepiece Zechs Marquise, powered by near-twins Marcel and Marfred Rodriguez-Lopez, proved an early focal point, knocking out prog-funk like a proto version of their brother Omar's band the Mars Volta. The power on this small second stage went next, and not for the last time. Atlas Sound, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox in solo acoustic mode, began the run of Friday headliners with ambient symphonies of textured sound accompanied by his fragile tenor – which proved no match for the sound bleed from Radio Moscow, Iowans gone Oregonian and still an electrifying combustion of 1960s power trios. Nu Wave Brooklyn buzzers Crystal Stilts weren't nearly as lively as L.A.'s Rickenbacker-loving Quarter After, jangling three guitars into a Nuggets free-flight of the Amboy Dukes. New York noise delinquents A Place To Bury Strangers atomized everything in their path with a buzzing, War of the Worlds maelstrom, the trio's feedback miasma perfectly attuned to its surroundings, while headliner Omar Rodriguez-Lopez hosted the ringer of his solo material, Mars Volta/At the Drive-In partner in caterwaul Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Their aggregation never reached the fever pitch of TMV, but moderation lent their musical consciousness ample breathing room.
Saturday proved as dusty inside Seaholm as it was outside at the Old Settler's Music Festival last month, but that seemed fitting for Melbourne, Australia, fivepiece Beaches, who offered a Kim Gordon variant on everything but third guitar. With the sun setting through the building's east wall of windows, the venue resembled some East Coast railway shed as Beaches' locomotive flow surfed tidal basslines. Daylight also exposed the dangers of Seaholm's "backstage" area: narrow walkways with low guardrails and a one- and two-story drop just an imbalance away. If six were nine (and even if not), the Black Ryder reconstituted 1960s psych into 1990s narcotic, the Aussies' gauzy UK gothic both a sound and dyed-black look. White Hills, by contrast, introduced hippie corpse paint alongside the New York trio's pasty doom, sound problems dogging the band and second stage with "low-frequency fucking feedback." Also problematic was that once the second stage started tag-teaming the mainstage, it proved too small. San Francisco's Sleepy Sun painted pop psych with intelligible singing, though if more than a mixtape's worth of songs were actually understood over the entire fest given such cavernous acoustics, it'd border on the miraculous. Psych pioneers took folk's lyrical activism, counterbalanced it with drug idealism, then shot it through with lysergic guitars. Take away the verses, and you're left with a DIY genre in which everyone's mastered effects pedals but few play guitar. Oakland, Calif.'s Lumerians therefore banged on vintage keyboards, congas, bass, and drums as if the 13th Floor Elevators' electric jug were an entire band and blew a fuse doing so ("Isn't this a power plant?" wondered the bassist) before the Fresh & Onlys frontman Tim Cohen etched his slight Joey Ramone warble atop a Big Star burst. The Bay Area quartet dedicated a Spectorian wallop to San Diego's Crocodiles, whose English affect met Velvet Underground adoration. Spectrum, led by Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember of seminal Brit trance inducers Spacemen 3, laid out the template for early psych like John Lee Hooker on a theremin: primal minimalism brocaded with Anglican organ, Spacemen 3's "Set Me Free" bracing a thrilling walk-off.
Sunday brought another Old Settler's flashback with unseasonable cool, plus a 5pm set on the small stage by locals ST 37 almost as seminal as Spectrum's. As a watery breeze slipped in through windows facing the river and Christina Carter kept a poker-faced beat, the quarter-century quartet ranged from fuck-and-fight post-punk to howling space rock and arid epics of slide guitar, which proved a last bit of sonic warmth until newly recommissioned psych relics Cold Sun proved a dead star four hours later. With the locals not having performed in almost four decades and sounding every minute of it, the leaden fivepiece fronted by electric Autoharpist Billy Miller emptied the full room down to three-dozen or so curious onlookers once the group's onetime collaborator Roky Erickson began on the main stage and news of Osama bin Laden's death hit cell phones. Initially as frigid as Cold Sun, Erickson soon warmed to his backers, led by no stranger to his resurrection, local guitar surgeon Jon Sanchez. In a trucker ball cap wielding a red Les Paul, psychedelic rock's two-headed dog took flight on deep-catalog bauble "The Wind and More," then barked "Don't Slander Me." Black Angel Christian Bland blew amplified whiskey jug on 13th Floor standard "Reverberation (Doubt)," returning to top off the hour with Erickson's primal scream, "You're Gonna Miss Me."
After my 23 combined hours and 33 acts eyeballed at Austin Psych Fest 4, the Angels' penultimate thundering of Phosphene Dream struck a note varied ad infinitum all weekend but rarely equalled, and, save for Spectrum, never bettered in a venue ill-suited (save for two couches) for a multiday festival but perfectly fit for a descriptor not used in this review until now: drone.