Now in its 8th year and recently rebranded as Levitation Fest, Austin’s annual Psych Fest has morphed from a small festival for psych fanatics into a sprawling psych extravaganza. Growth concerns aside, the Carson Creek Ranch event remains as intriguing as ever, with a huge line-up full of fantastic bands. We’re here to help you narrow down your itinerary with our 9 picks for bands to see.
The Soft Moon
As one of the most exciting purveyors of dark wave, The Soft Moon are a perfect fit for Levitation Fest. Utilizing motorik rhythms and psych tones, The Soft Moon’s music stands out from their dark wave peers through its emphasis on groove and stark minimalism. Though their albums are excellent, ominous works, in a live setting the Soft Moon are unpredictable; a few SXSWs ago, I saw them perform in a tiny dark corner of the Scoot Inn while Andrew WK set up his party machine outside, and while the crowd was small at the beginning of their set, by the end people were filtering in from every corner like enchanted zombies.
Veterans of the psych-tinged Seattle garage rock scene, Night Beats have a distinct Texas psych flavor to their sound, thanks to the Texan origins of band founders Danny Lee Blackwell and James Traeger, who moved to the PNW from Dallas and Austin respectively. You can pick up elements of the 13th Floor Elevators in Night Beats’ work, but it’s an influence filtered through the intake of shrooms and opiates rather than speed and LSD, making for a menacing, sluggish groove. There’s also a bit of the Pretty Things in the Night Beats’ music thanks to the band’s taste in sickly sweet melodies and epic arrangements.
On the sweeter end of things, Austin’s own Tele Novella are pretty damn irresistible. The local supergroup, featuring members of Agent Ribbons and Voxtrot, have unleashed a steady stream of Must Have singles since they came together, from the fuzzy psych pop of “Don’t Be a Stranger” to the Nancy Sinatra meets Screamin’ Jay Hawkins swing of “Trouble in Paradise.” The band’s musicianship is impeccable, but there’s still a looseness to their style that is given even more room to breathe in a live habitat, and which will likely be emphasized all the more in the very loose environment of Levitation Fest.
Few groups define “Must See” as well as Lightning Bolt. The Rhode Island duo has been destroying venues with their explosive bass and drum sound for more than two decades at this point, serving as the far more volatile and inventive ancestor to dancier duos like DFA1979. The band’s newest album Fantasy Empire is perhaps their most accessible effort to date, full of sludgy bass riffs from Brian Gibson over characteristically spastic drums and vocals by Brian Chippendale but now with more hooks. But accessible by Lightning Bolt standards is completely unhinged by every other standard, so expect their Levitation set to be as bonkers as ever.
Toronto sleaze punks METZ put on one of the most violent and propulsive sets at FFF this past year and while it’s a little weird to see their brand of brutal guitar assault on the Levitation bill, I guess you need terrifying acid trips to go with the more enlightening ones. The band’s aptly named new Sub Pop album METZ II pretty much picks up right where it’s predecessor left off, except now the buzzsaw tones of the guitars are up at the top of the mix while Alex Edkins’ throaty howl is dialed back. The band’s arrangements have gotten more complex, too, but don’t worry, the band hasn’t exactly turned subtle. If you need a wake up call after nearly passing out to the E hippie platitudes of Primal Scream, look no further.
HEALTH might be best known as “that band that Crystal Castles built their sound around” or “those dudes who inexplicably scored Max Payne 3” but they’re one of the hardest modern bands to peg, their sound a mixture of rave culture groove, John Carpenter synth horror and experimental noise rock. There is ample druggy haze to HEALTH’s tones, but their real skill is in disrupting whatever tranquility you get out of their repetition with angular blasts of guitar and heavily distorted synths. Masters in the studio, HEALTH are somehow even better live, where their volume and intensity can hit you squarely in the chest and all that noise culminates in some kind of communal epiphany and/or mental break.
More traditional in their punk influence, Memphis’ Ex-Cult are a newer group that mix and match ’80s hardcore thuggishness with ’70s UK punk vocals and riffs. Like METZ, they’re a bit of an odd fit on Levitation, but unlike METZ, they’re a little less likely to kick you in the face and steal your coke. Instead, Ex-Cult have that classic punk ability to treat a live show like a snotty sermon, throwing their bodies into it and forcing you to feel the music as much as you listen to it. A bit of an amphetamine jolt in-between more hallucinogenic festival intake, Ex-Cult should be an ideal tonic for Levitation fans needing a bit of a pick me up.
S U R V I V E
If you saw It Follows this year and were floored by Disaster Peace’s soundtrack for that suburban meta horror flick, then you owe it to yourself to catch Austin synth scene stars S U R V I V E, who have turned a John Carpenter influence into an entire Austin community. Through their own albums and Holodeck, the label they help run, S U R V I V E have brought that Carpenter sound into the 21st Century, stretching it out and finding its secret heart. With the group’s 2012 debut recently reissued by Holodeck, it’s a perfect time to get introduced to the band and see how they’re electronic psych fits in with its more traditional brethren at Levitation.
The 13th Floor Elevators
I usually avoid recommending the big headliners at festivals because do you really need to be told to pop over to the main stage? But there is no more important act at Levitation Fest this year than the 13th Floor Elevators, the inventors of the genre who have reunited for their 50th anniversary. This is the first ever reunion of the pioneering psych band, and it is said to be a one off event. Bandleader Roky Erickson has played 13th Floor Elevators material for the past several years with Levitation Fest founders the Black Angels serving as his backing band, but this might be the only opportunity most of us will ever have to see the reunited line-up. It’s not an exaggeration to say without the 13th Floor Elevators, there would be no Levitation Fest, so don’t miss out.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover