Electric Zoo Lineup Promises Big Names, But Small Acts Deliver Innovation

Rising English DJ Maya Jane Coles at the Electric Zoo this past Saturday.
Taylor Hodges/The Phoenix
Electronic music has reached ubiquity in America, but that does not mean that Aphex Twin is going to play at New York’s Electric Zoo. The festival, which just hosted its fourth annual weekend, would not care to host Aphex Twin, who is the closest thing the electronic music community has to an unquestionably respectable composer. Instead, Electric Zoo’s Friday headliner was David Guetta. This is not to say that real artists in the highbrow sense of the word were not present at the festival, but those who care about these artists were not the Zoo’s main demographic.

Most of the festival’s best and brightest were relegated to the festival’s smallest tent, while the three biggest of the festival’s four tents played home to the DJs performing for the masses. Looking behind the tents at these decks, one could catch Diplo, Steve Aoki, Knife Party, Dillon Francis, Tiësto and — never one to turn down a festival — Skrillex. These were the venues with big light shows and even bigger bass, and the crowds at these stages moshed while wearing furry boots, neon tank tops, glow sticks and full-body spandex.

These big tents though, did surprise with some good performances. Netsky, a British artist who produces drum and bass, a genre of super up-tempo rhythms clocking in around 140-160 beats per minute, delivered a monotonous, but briefly interesting set. At first, the young DJ jumped from drop to drop of his similar-sounding, hundred miles-per-hour beats, then began to toss in some dubstep songs. Here, Netsky’s set became an examination of how early UK dubstep grew out of late 90’s drum and bass. He showed how dubstep moved the melody to mid-bass range and the drum programming dubstep borrowed from drum and bass.

Since most of the big tent DJs were playing his style of dubstep, it is unsurprising that the best big-tent performance came from the man who brought dubstep to the masses: Rusko. The English producer came into prominence in 2007 when dubstep was leaving London’s Croydon neighborhood and coming onto the world stage.  He gained mainstream recognition when he began to turn away from dubstep’s traditional dark, ominous sound by developing an attitude that was instead brash and noisy. Thus came brostep, the sub-genre that many Americans today would identify as “dubstep.”

“Brostep is sort of my fault,” Rusko said to the BBC in 2010. “A lot of dubstep fans come because they just want to hear the most disgusting, hard, dirty, distorted music possible, and that’s not what [dubstep]’s about.” Regardless of what true dubstep is, when Rusko stepped up to the decks he shouted, “Are you ready for that stupid bass?” and pumped out music full of brutal mid-range bass, laser sounds, and some throbbing wub-wubs. And as much as it was some of the least structurally interesting music that played all weekend, his set was wild. Bulging arms hanging out of lacrosse pinnies moshed up and down, girls high above the crowd on the shoulders of their friends whipped their hair in every conceivable direction, the floor shook as a thousand people broke all conventions of polite dance; it was one of the craziest audiences of the weekend and was the wild rave Rusko had in mind when he first pushed brostep forward.

Unfortunately, few other big tent acts made their sets exciting from beginning to end. Benga, one of dubstep’s biggest innovators since 2006, might have turned in an interesting set, but he held true to his recent claim that he wants to be a pop star. Benga did not play the forward-thinking alien beats that earned him a place in the zeitgeist, but instead gave record time to the dubstep equivalent of techno anthems, all of which sounded much like “Katy on a Mission,” the track he produced for British superstar Katy B.

At the same time, many artists, like Dillon Francis, made novel, but not wholly interesting sets by combining the aggressive sounds of dubstep and trap — a trendy genre characterized by the hard hitting bass, compressed snare hits of southern rap.2

However, innovation and surprising track selection were mostly absent at the festival’s big venues. David Guetta played a predictably mediocre set of bland trance and top 40 that all seemed to be constructed out of the same drum kit. Tiësto’s set of squeaky techno surprised no one, and sounded much like his gigs from the past ten years. Closing out the festival, Skrillex played a set of his own music, largely the same set he has been playing since he released a new EP almost two years ago.

To see DJs dig deep into their record bag or play a set that held that audience’s attention from beginning to end, you had to head over to the festival’s smallest tent, the confusingly named “Sunday School Grove.” Last year it hosted James Holden’s noodling, shoe-gazey house, minimal house mastermind Richie Hawtin, Detroit legend Carl Cox, and recent wunderkind Nicolas Jaar. This year the Sunday School Tent was decorated with one big row of two white school buses along the back of the stage. The fronts of the buses were placed at the front of the stage so DJs could put their gear where the steering wheel should go.

The tent’s Friday headliner was resident Ibiza DJ Luciano, and mid-day Saturday was home to last year’s MixMag breakout DJ of the year, Maya Jane Coles, who brought her dark brand of thumping deep house music. The first half of her set was made of pumping house, which allowed her to take her energetic audience deeper in her set’s second half. She played “Ima Read,” the underground rap hit from rapper Zebra Katz and the crowd lit up when she dropped “All Alone,” a cut from her recent DJ Kicks mix.

Saturday night made way for Berlin techno king Chris Liebing. Liebing, whose current DJ set-up finds him playing four songs at once with Traktor, is known for his aggressive brand of techno, but his set started off gently. “Just wait for it,” an audience member said to me; “His sound is going to get real hard.” And it did, but unlike most hard techno, his set still retained a beauty even when his bass got loud and his even synths packed punch.

Aside from a few highlights, most of the festival’s best performers were slated to perform on Sunday. The super group “Better Lost than Stupid” composed of producers Martin Buttrich, Davide Squillache and Matthias Tanzman — each of whom would have drawn a significantly bigger crowd if billed solo —played a rocking two hours of house that drove the dancing crowd smoothly from start to finish.

Their set was followed by a proficient but unremarkable set by Umek, but was succeeded by Apparat, who brought one of the best sets of the weekend. The set was in fact a milestone for Apparat. Raised on the 80s sound of the Cure and Depeche Mode, Apparat has long pushed a sound heavy on melody and melancholia. But when interviewed about a mix he released on the Sunday before the Electric Zoo, he said, “This mix marks a real turning point in my life; I’ll be a happy and optimistic person from now on.” Whether or not Apparat was joking, his set at the Electric Zoo, the first after his announcement, was ebullient and packed with hits.  He started with Carl Craig’s remix of “Kill 1 to Warn 100” and segued into last year’s big club hits, Daphni’s “YeYe” and Scuba’s “The Hope,” while mixing in current hits like Julio Bashmore’s “Au Seve” and Jamie xx’s remix of Radiohead’s “Bloom.” It was a booming, expertly mixed set that bled right into Dixon’s.

Dixon, one of Berlin’s deep house veterans, played a good set that ended, surprisingly, with Frank Ocean’s “Lost,” but his set lacked the DJ’s usual depth of emotion.  Another reporter in the crowd, who had just interviewed the DJ, mentioned that Dixon did not like doing hour and a half sets, and while the set was as fluid and mesmerizing as should be expected from Dixon, you could certainly tell that he did not like starting right off the bat with thumping bass. His sets usually begin like his mix albums The Grandfather Paradox and Live at the Robert Johnson Vol. 8, folding slow ambient chords over one another. When a kick drum makes its first appearance an hour into one of his typical sets, it always hits like a revelation.

The last two DJs to play the Sunday School tent that night were Boyz Noize and Marco Carola. While some performers may wink at the audience, subtlety is not the intention of Alexander Ridha’s project, Boyz Noize. While some DJs over the weekend picked up the mike to shout, “Wow, you guys sure look like you’re having a good time out there,” the first track from Boyz  Noize’s DJ set chanted, “Ecstasy, Ecstasy, fun for you and fun for me.” His techno was imbued with the same lack of subtlety and was the hardest techno of the whole festival. Boyz Noize was able to fill the tent due to his ability to make techno palatable to the dubstep-favoring masses, but in doing so lost the heart of the genre. His songs were not about propelling forward, or about trance progression through harsh sounds, but he dropped distorted sonics to inform the crowd that this was their time to mosh.

Although veteran Italian techno DJ Marco Carola ended the last night at the festival’s best stage, coverage of the Electric Zoo would be remiss if it didn’t mention the previous night’s performance by late-nineties rave legend, Sasha. When he was featured on the cover of MixMag, his story’s title line read, “Son of God?” and while Sasha may have resented the unnecessary hyperbole, it is pretty spot on.  Sasha is no longer unanimously embraced as the world’s greatest DJ, but he still is because he is the master of the skill that makes all DJs great: keeping your signature sound while pushing forward and keeping relevant. He preserved his creative integrity when he was one of the first DJs to wholeheartedly embrace computer DJing near the turn of the millennium, and his Saturday night set at the Electric Zoo confirmed his unwavering mastery. He played a fresh set of progressive house that closed with Hot Chip’s recent single “Flutes.” It was typical Sasha to turn a lyrically cheesy pop tune into an impeccably mixed, uplifting, and compellingly danceable tune. Sasha has managed to keep his sets up-to-date in his style, while the rave world has changed around him.

When Sasha came into prominence as a DJ, electronic music was still an underground affair that promoters were not willing to gamble on. Now, America alone throws dozens of electronic festivals a year, the biggest being the Electric Daisy Carnival in New York and Las Vegas, and New York’s Electric Zoo. Electronic music is bigger than ever, but most attendees at these events do not  seem to care too much about quality. They will go see whatever is loud and fast, while legends and innovators play the small tents.

When recently asked what he thought about all this, electronic musician Matthew Dear said, “I think it’s great because all these hundreds of thousands of kids going to these festivals in Vegas and New York—wearing furry boots, living the rave dream—are binge-drinking music. They’re taking it all in.They don’t care about quality— it’s about the epic build and formulaic comedown. But five years from now, they’re going to stop that, and there’s a good chance that 20% of those people will stick around and start finding avenues towards Aphex Twin … That’s fantastic. That’s going to be an influx of people that are going to make this music last longer and be relevant. That’s all I care about.”

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