“Why is it that we never have enough with what’s inside of us? Today we must scream at the top of our lungs that we are brown, we are smart!” So snapped Victoria Ruiz on Sunday evening, prefacing the mighty Downtown Boys’ “Monstro.” Festooned with sax and brimming with conviction, Ruiz’s trenchant critique and deeply empathic banter were a salve to Berserktown – a three-day festival celebrating the margins of harsh – since the event was typical of a seemingly counterintuitive phenomenon in punk: the bigger the gathering, the duller the discourse.
That could explain how the anti-Semites got in without much fuss.
“A Bewitched Outbreak of Chemical Pestilence Quells the Subhuman Race.” That’s Nyogthaeblisz’s contribution to Satanic Skinhead: Declaration of Anti-Semetic Terror, a 2006 compilation on Satanic Skinhead Propaganda, once a prominent platform for hateful metal and power electronics. When the same band was booked at Chaos in Tejas in 2012, organizers begrudgingly capitulated to pressure and removed the act. At Berserktown, however, it appeared to be a non-issue.
Tribal schisms did flare, though. Bands cancelled. Withdrawn acts staged an oppositional gig on Friday. And yet, the avowedly anti-Semitic band aroused less indignance than an organizers’ reputedly wealthy dad and a Moog sponsorship. Detractors’ priorities seemed misplaced.
So did Berserktown itself. Last year, staff from the defunct venue Church on York and East 7th St. erected Berserktown at Los Globos in Los Angeles, where the lineup aimed to erode divisions between noise, hardcore, punk, and industrial techno. Container abutted Needles. Hoax followed Pharmakon. The latter pairing felt like a potent statement about interdisciplinary heaviness. This year, however, Berserktown downgraded to Orange County’s Observatory – a big box installed in a vast parking lot with security guards who confiscated at least one music journalist’s pen – where the attendance was sparse and atmosphere subdued.
Which isn’t to say that the lineup didn’t amount to a veritable summit for the contemporary underground. Backlit on the main stage, Berlin’s Diät struck an affectless stance, plying the taut tropes of post-punk with formidable energy and without a slightest appeal to the crowd. Austin’s Institute expanded on the sort of performative debasement that made Catharsis such a sickly thrill earlier this year. Ukiah Drag flayed the parched innards of its woozy, Southwestern doom. Katie Alice Greer of Priests was a positively scabrous presence on stage and Tenement leaned on the enduring appeal of familiar rock gestures.
In fact, Berserktown showed that familiar rock gestures have a lot of truck in punk. Like a featherweight champ dizzied but determined between bouts, Royal Headache’s Shogun stumbled across stage with his shirt off and crooned in such a wonderfully endearing way that it undermined his scrappy disposition. Like Royal Headache, Sheer Mag was beholden to guitar parts that resolve sweetly atop straight-ahead backbeats, only busied with little lurches that positioned vocalist Christina Halladay to hack away the audience’s prejudice against throwback radio rock with “Fan the Flame.”
Watery Love, another Philly group, felt inspired by the throbbing monotony of the everyday, rife with dour, repetitive riffs and the vocalist’s ragged missives about defeat and self-medicating. Somewhat narrow-mindedly, garage rock purists tend to consider the genre spayed by, say, the Burger Records camp, but it’s true that bands like Watery Love hark to the style as an outlet for the frustrations of unfashionable losers. More over, Watery Love located the logical conclusion of such an outlook and made it the refrain of “Face the Door:” “Unlike you dickheads, I welcome death.” Preach.
Olympia’s Vexx wielded grace and fury under the pressure of its wily songs. Individually, the players demonstrated tenacity and chops: vocalist Mary Jane Dunphe sputtered and projected, jerking between angular stances between each outpour like a breathing exclamation point. The drums sounded torrential – with volleys of cymbal and ghost snare strikes that at once destabilized and propelled the songs – and guitarist Mike Liebman’s parts were inventive and vicious, flitting snakelike between spindly leads and corroded riffs. The bassist, meanwhile, anchored everything with vigorous down-strokes and his Hawaiian shirt. Few bands at Berserktown featured such uniquely expressive members. No band featured individually unhinged players who were also tethered to one another by the elusive alchemy of feel.
Circuit des Yeux, an outlier not only at Berserktown but in the broader realm of songcraft, featured bandleader Haley Fohr backed by four multi-instrumentalists and performing material from this year’s ensemble-minded album In Plain Speech. Alone or at the helm of a band, Fohr is a consummate performer, one with a barrel-aged voice and a penchant for building from patient thrum to utter cataclysm. Circuit des Yeux was the highlight of a songwriter contingent that filled out the sparsely attended afternoon schedule, which also included a quietly enchanting set from Weyes Blood and a charming, curious appearance from Lungfish renegade Daniel Higgs.
Towards the end of the night on Friday, red lighting bore down on a wall of amplifiers swathed in smoke – an aptly infernal setting for Destruction Unit. Like last year, the Arizona outfit swelled to about a dozen males on stage. Every song was total scree, instilled with shape and motion in no small part by the drummer’s punchy wallop, which is really the band’s triumph: sounding mean-spirited but not pig-headed and aggressive but not without groove. Destruction Unit’s attendant Ascetic House enterprise, meanwhile, encompassed many acts performing in the rather quixotically named “Dance Tent” outside, making the band symbolic of Berserktown’s stylistic transgressions.
The festival also featured a number of high-profile reunions and rare appearances, including Dead Moon, Royal Trux, No Hope for the Kids, and Career Suicide. Perhaps with the exception of Career Suicide – which shamed the lower rung hardcore acts, as opposed to last year’s staggering sets from upstart hardcore acts like Condition and Blazing Eye – the big draws weren’t as good as their staunchest supporters likely thought. Hype engenders projection, a willingness to compensate for observed shortcomings with imagination.
Flanking the main stage, two screens displayed public access TV programs, entire episodes of second-tier reality shows, and archival footage. Most of the visuals rang incidental and arbitrary – a symptom of Berserktown’s hollowed second year – but breaking news footage from the 1996 Northridge quake connected with Downtown Boys’ set in a hazy way. At one point the ticker read, “THE EARTH SPLIT.”