Sonic chaos rules at Berserktown II experimental festival in Santa Ana

Sonic chaos rules at Berserktown II experimental festival in Santa Ana
Hellvetron deliver down-tuned metal riffs, grunts and barely human vocals. (Randall Roberts / Los Angeles Times)

Singing in perfect harmony? That's all well and good, but there are other ways for vocal cords, throats and mouths to create sound.

At the Berserktown II festival in Santa Ana on Sunday, growls begot groans during Portland punk trio Dead Moon's no-nonsense set of three- and four-chord bangers. Royal Trux singer Jennifer Herrema's voice moved from whinnies to snarls during the band's first set in more than a decade.


Harsh, noisy musicians made a mess of frequencies, ignored or dismantled rock tropes, embraced chaos. Others delivered cascading ambient noise or wanton abrasion.

Like last year's festival at Los Globos in Echo Park, Berserktown II aimed its spotlight at artists that make music for darkened clubs, underground art spaces and Satanic dens.

Willfully oblique, the final night of the three-day festival, like the two days before it, gathered extreme noise acts, rock 'n' roll deconstructionists, hardcore punk revivalists, various shades of underground metal and experimental guitar bands onto three stages in and around the Observatory.

The first two days included sets by Los Angeles noise team Sissy Spacek (not the actress), the hardened psychedelic rock band Thee Oh Sees, garage rock band Zig Zags, the Australian post-punk group Total Control and dozens of others.

By definition, fringe ideas can be obtuse and difficult, and the acts on Sunday night explored with little regard for expectations. Was Royal Trux's "Ice Cream" a song or some sort of breakdown? With its twin Gibson attack, were the young longhairs in Danish heavy metal band Slaegt revisiting Venom's past glories or reinventing the whole speed metal ideal for a new generation? Was noise experimentalist Puce Mary's ever-morphing layers of static and texture even music, or was it more a sculpture built with sound waves?

The night's biggest draws were a pair of reunion gigs. The first, on the main stage, saw the return of the beloved band Dead Moon, a little-engine-that-could trio that started in the late 1980s banging out hardened songs about love, disappointment and desperation. Appearing in Southern California as part of a reunion tour,

Dead Moon's founder, guitarist-singer Fred Cole, reunited with bassist Toody Cole (which isn't too hard, considering they're married) and drummer Andrew Loomis to revisit simple but sticky songs including "Rescue" and "54-40 or Fight."

As Royal Trux, the duo of Herrema and Neil Michael Hagerty returned for a one-off set for the first time since they disbanded in the early '00s. Responsible for ramshackle rock songs that seemed to teeter at the edge of implosion when first released, their work as a quartet on Sunday earned the kind of applause suggesting that beneath the rust and crust was some pretty sophisticated, and durable, architectural work.

The bent blues of "Mercury" was hardly as beefy as when originally released, but the song remained. "Esso Dame," from their 1988 debut, seemed little more than a mess of chords seemingly randomly arranged. But they replicated it with dexterity. "Sewers of Mars" explored the band's boogie rock phase.

But amid all these angular truths, at least one act, the harsh metal band Nyogthaeblisz, carried a message that destabilized the entire night's otherwise bracing roster. That band, formed in El Paso, Texas, played on the smaller Constellation Room stage wearing what appeared to be black burkas and bellowing undecipherable lines amid grunting and frenzied distortion.

In the past, the band has been accused of being anti-Semitic, Satanic and anti-Islam for what it describes as its "anti-Abrahamic" philosophy. Whether the guttural yowls had any other message besides "raaaaawwwwrrrr" is for fresher ears than these. Still, in such an environment, the raised fists of a few white men in the crowd took on a whole other meaning.

Another black metal group, called Hellvetron, performed earlier on the same stage. Instead of burkas, its members, some of whom seemed to also be in Nyogthaeblisz, wore studded leather arm bands and face paint in the style of Norwegian metal acts. Bathed in red light, Hellvetron delivered down-tuned metal riffs, grunts and barely human vocal lines.

Asked via email about booking Nyogthaeblisz, the festival's Graeme Flegenheimer defended the band's philosophy, writing that "they are anti-religious," and stressed that he'd never book a hate band. "I am Jewish — my grandfather was in germany + had to leave germany due to war.... i wouldn't have booked a racist band — they don't believe in religion."


Whether the crowd understood Nyogthaeblisz's dogma is unknown. Regardless, the room was pretty empty by the time they were done.