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Soaring Aloft: Psych Fest 2015

The guitar in this photo has seconds to live! A Place to Bury Strangers guitarist/frontman Oliver Ackermann abuses his Jaguar at Levitation 2015 in Austin, Texas.
Photo by Susie Denegree

Austin’s Levitation, aka “Psych Fest,” celebrates the resurgence of adventurous, guitar-infused outlier tunage.

Since blossoming from its experimentalist roots in the mid 1960s, psychedelic culture has produced some of the most exciting sounds of each generation it has touched. These days the term “psych” operates more as a conceptual umbrella than a distinct genre, which means it gets applied to music that includes almost any artist who seeks more adventurous routes to sonic expression. But that said, psych as a genre is currently in the throes of a renaissance.

Levitation—known as Austin Psych Fest for the past seven years—is the convergence of all that is good in the vast realm of psychedelia, and an event that serves as a signifier of psych’s new awakening. Taking place each spring over the course of three reverb-drenched days in the hallowed birthing grounds and perpetual hotbed of the psychedelic movement that is Austin, Texas, the festival has developed from a humble showcase for a few bands to a highly curated celebration of mind-bending sounds.

“When it comes to festivals with a focus on guitar-driven and guitar-infused music, Levitation is without peer.”

Artists and fans from around the world gather at a small ranch tucked into a corner of the city’s outskirts for a weekend of glorious sonic expansion and psychedelic immersion. This is the place to catch performances by psych’s brightest lights, emerging upstarts, and fabled heroes, and the 2015 lineup was one for the ages—especially for guitar fans.

When it comes to festivals with a focus on guitar-driven and guitar-infused music, Levitation is without peer. Among the artists wielding the instrument with passion and creativity this year were revivalist garage-rockers, British-invasion inspired acid-janglers, crushing shoegaze bands, and sludge-metal droners. The weekend also offered rare reunion performances by legends of the psychedelic institution, including the first appearance in more than 50 years by one of the genre’s undisputed originators, the 13th Floor Elevators.

There was something for guitar fans around every corner at Levitation 2015, and PG was on hand to take in all the action. Here’s the lowdown on some of the most vibrant bands in the current psych movement.

White Fence

Tim Presley of White Fence wields his beautiful, yet confounding 6-string—a modified Fender Jazzmaster with a humbucker in the bridge position and a Jaguar single-coil at the neck. Photo by Andrew Vincent.

California’s White Fence proves you can inject fresh energy and personality into classic garage-psych sounds. The band acts as a live vehicle for the songs written and recorded by frontman, guitarist, and occasional Ty Segall collaborator Tim Presley (formerly of Darker My Love and the Fall). Imagine early Who songs delivered with a hazy California twist.

Featuring plunky guitar tones and far-away vocals, Presley’s recorded output generally has a lo-fi, straight-to-tape warble that could be easily sold as the long-lost demos of some mysterious, mid-’60s British group. However, White Fence’s live sound is a much brawnier affair than its records would have you believe.

White Fence provided the soundtrack to the setting sun of Levitation’s first day. As Presley bashed crunchy chords on a modified Fender Jazzmaster (it has a humbucker in the bridge position and a Jaguar single-coil at the neck), ace skinsman Nick Murray displayed such impressive Keith Moon-ish drumming that many expected the set to end in smashed guitars and punctured grille cloth.


Photo by Andrew Vincent.

In recent years an onslaught of new bands have reinterpreted the shoegaze sounds of the ’80s and ’90s, but few have made a splash like Nothing did with its breakout album, Guilty of Everything. With deep roots in the hardcore-punk scene, the Philadelphia-bred quartet brings an intense edge to shoegaze’s gentle crush. That edge undoubtedly played a role in earning Guilty of Everything a release on the premier heavy-metal label, Relapse Records, and it lets Nothing put a fresh spin on a style many believe was perfected years ago.

Nothing absolutely revels in monolithic guitar sounds that are delivered at obscene volumes and switch without notice between gargantuan blasts of distortion and twinkling washes of echo. The result is as dynamic as it is jarring and places the group on our shortlist of psych-tinged artists to pay close attention to.

Bathed in a disorienting light show, the band performed to a fervorous audience from a stage strewn with malfunctioning television sets. Nothing’s figurehead, Domenic Palermo, appeared with a well-worn Fender Strat that made an ideal conduit for the squalling feedback and decimating fuzz he laced into lead guitarist Brandon Setta’s lines. Though Palermo has a well-documented history of destroying guitars on the road and does not think of them as particularly precious, he confessed that the Skreddy Zero high-gain fuzz pedal is integral to his sound, and both he and Setta rely heavily on the TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb for the band’s expansive tones.

Chelsea Wolfe

Experimental songstress Chelsea Wolfe was a last-minute addition to the Levitation 2015 lineup and we’re thankful for that, as her late-night set on the festival’s final evening was one of the most memorable of the entire weekend.

Wolfe’s music is an extremely eclectic mix of fingerpicked guitar and adventurous, no wave-inspired guitar soundscapes that are pulled together by the singer/songwriter’s sublime, gossamer vocals. The final result is dark, ethereal, and unbelievably potent. Certainly an original, Wolfe makes intellectual music with a visceral energy that seems to appeal as much to staunch metal fans as it does to folkies.

Brandishing a sunburst Gibson ES-335, Wolfe appeared for her set from a thick cloud of fog. While a light show playfully danced across a swath of tall trees surrounding the stage, Wolfe’s recently appointed guitar foil, Aurielle Zeitler, worked her magic on a white, late-model Fender Stratocaster. Wolfe used her deft, fingerstyle technique as a foundation for Zeitler’s EBow and delay musings, all of which were punctuated by occasional bursts of harsh synth. With the help of a few EarthQuaker Devices pedals, the pair of guitar heroines wove tapestries of outlandish sounds and dramatic textures that ebbed and flowed languidly throughout the set.

Black Angels

Photo by Andrew Vincent.

Austin Psych Fest was founded in 2008 by the city’s heirs to the psych-rock throne, the Black Angels. This group’s performance is something to look forward to each year as it carries with it the additional pomp and weight of the occasion—not to mention the energy of a largely hometown crowd. While the Black Angels are a well-established psych-rock institution at this point, the band’s performance at Levitation 2015 reminded us exactly why it has earned such credibility in the deep psych scene.

The Black Angels’ sound remains true to the early days of experimental psych, and you’d be hard pressed to find an instrument onstage that wasn’t built prior to 1968—or at least reissued as such. Guitar duties are chiefly handled by the group’s pair of left-handed players: Christian Bland, who favors a 37-year-old black Rickenbacker 345 (which was sadly destroyed by United Airlines shortly after the festival), and Jake Garcia, who used a Kurt Cobain Fender Jaguar for most of the set.

While the Black Angels’ gear and tonal choices are authentically retro, their sonic personality relies heavily on the unique vocals of Alex Maas, who narrates the hypnotic jams that shift between rivers of reverb and full-tilt fuzz freakouts. The band’s Levitation 2015 performance felt like a ritual every audience member had to fully absorb to complete the Austin Psych Fest experience.

Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators closing out Levitation Fest 2015. Photo by Andrew Vincent.

Big Reunions and Huge Legacies

Reunions and rare performances were a major part of Levitation 2015’s appeal, and none generated more excitement than the 50th-anniversary return of the original founding fathers of psychedelic rock—the 13th Floor Elevators.

The band’s iconic frontman, Roky Erickson, has toured actively in recent years, but anyone who’s seen You’re Gonna Miss Me, the documentary on Erickson’s often tragic life, can attest that his late-career performances have the potential to be somewhat erratic. As such, a nervous energy seemed to fill the air of the festival grounds as the band prepared for its first performance in nearly half a century. However, with most of the original lineup intact (including electric jug player Tommy Hall), the Elevators took the stage and delivered on the promise of their past ... in spades. As Erickson and company launched into a raucous set of songs that have long been considered the sacred canon of psych, dancing fans filled the field in front of the main stage. It was a triumphant moment.

The rare performances at Levitation 2015 also included appearances by some of the most important British psych icons of the ’80s and ’90s: Spiritualized, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Primal Scream. Each of these groups brought the festival to a fever pitch with their performances. Whether it was Spiritualized’s soulful space odyssey, the Jesus and Mary Chain’s high-energy readings of classic tracks, or Primal Scream’s thunderous acid-rock dance party, there was absolutely no question that psych ages well.

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