Look out, here comes another themed music festival! Berserktown II (the sequel to last year's Berserktown festival, obviously) brought punks, metalheads, and those who could pass as civilians to The Observatory for three fun filled days of celebrating disenfranchisement. There was no straight uniform for this crowd; for, true punks and fans of old-school industrial music have never really coalesced into a tidy demographic. The name of the game, here, was eclecticism, and the line-up backed that theme up on every level.
As in many festivals, the quality of the musicians tended to increase as the day went on. Naturally, this is not universal — one can always find charming surprises in the early hours — but, as I was fairly blind going into this festival [I only knew that the noise rock band Royal Trux was headlining on the day I was available to attend], I didn't have a solid grasp of its ethos. Before long, I pieced it together: these are bands that don't follow anybody's rules and are probably never going to hit the big time. Mind you, this is not a condemnation.
If we look back in time at the beginnings of the punk and industrial movements, we will discover artists that likely never had t-shirts available at their performances. Sure, one can occasionally spot a Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire t-shirt, if one looks hard enough, but SPK, Non, and Monte Cazazza shirts are harder to come by [The Tyranny of the Beat is a great musical anthology for a concise introduction to pioneering artists in this arena (who's Marilyn Manson?)]. And now, back to our festival.
The artists spread throughout the three areas of The Observatory (Main Stage, 2nd Stage, and Dance Tent) varied both in their approaches to music and in their levels of artistic achievement. To wander from area to area, as did the crowd when the performer(s) of each stage ended their respective 30 minute sets, it seemed as though what audiences experienced was variations on the theme of "legitimate alternative music." Some examples of the showcase were Drainolith, a one-man act who was doing a sort of stripped down blues / folk / Tom Waits thing with his electric guitar; Downtown Boys, a punk band which featured a sax player and a lead singer who ranted fervently about social injustice in between songs; Encapsulate, a single artist who seemed to be doing the old "creating art with samplers, sequencers, lots of delay, and colored party lights while on LSD" routine; a couple DJs and a few black metal bands for good measure.[
In an effort to complement the themes of chaos and disorder, looped news coverage of the '94 Northridge earthquake played on the Main Stage's two large screens throughout the first half of the day. Later on, a PSA on the dangers of drugs (possibly shot in the 1930's) and The Horror of Party Beach screened. Uninspired live segments of drunken backstage interviews and hijinks akin to grade school summer camp olympic games were also screened.
Among the noteworthy acts, the more-or-less straight punk of Sheer Mag was pretty awesome. Despite a guitar mishap that resulted in a few minutes of the lead singer's walking around swinging a bottle of beer and then picking up his axe and tuning it during a song, Milk Music put on a pretty satisfying noise rock set. Indie rockers Screaming Females put on a terrific show, featuring some great psychedelic guitar work. Finally, Fountainsun (billed as Dan Higgs) was an outstanding throwback / demonstration of what industrial music was really about in the early days; while Fumie Ishii played guitar, drums, and sang, Higgs played his banjo, sang / recited poetry, and led the audience in a collective mantra / singing exercise. Fountainsun was easily the most experimental, the most spiritually uplifting, and the least contrived of all the performances I witnessed.
It's always going to be hit and miss at a music festival, but at one that is centered on a nebulous cult idea, there is an extreme disparity of content. To be able to experience it is very rewarding on a number of levels. It is entertaining; it is enlightening; and it is inspiring. From the brief experience that this writer had of the festival, it is no wonder that a sequel to Berserktown was necessary.