Electronic music festivals have come under attack recently. As we previously reported regarding the now infamous Electric Daisy Carnival in Los Angeles, a young girl’s death has prompted municipal authorities in the area to scrutinize the practice of these gatherings and their safety. Far from new—whether it be “raves,” club shows or open-air festivals—the scene has always drawn controversy due to its association with illicit drug use. At various times even in the U.S., lawmakers (including our current Vice President) have proposed legislation aimed at curbing the ability of so-called “raves” to operate unfettered. Trying to pin down the dividing lines between electronic dance and what constitutes rave-centric music can be as hard as defining what punk music really is; ask any fan and the answer will be radically different.
Although the image of thousands dancing in below-radar warehouses to throbbing techno beats may be a seldom occurrence nowadays, electronic music as a whole has veered oddly close to the mainstream again, arguably even closer than the late 90’s period brought to life by much of the British big beat scene. And while The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and Fatboy Slim may never have quite cemented the widespread and enduring acclaim of the masses, the aggressive dance of the now is poised to attempt the same feat. Leading the charge in Los Angeles (along with Insomniac Events) has been the concert series Hard. After already canceling a slated M.I.A. headlining performance in Los Angeles under a cloud of dubious circumstances, their effort went to their Hard Summer event, headlined by the Belgian electro band Soulwax. Could the event, its fans and the promoter rise to the challenge and display why electronic dance belongs in the mainstream? Sadly, the answer is no.
All photos by Marv Watson
Prompted to make numerous security upgrades to speak to the aforementioned pressure (and perhaps hoping to avoid challenges they faced themselves last year), just arriving at the event these upgrades were apparent. Large signs adorned the walls detailing the list of elements not allowed to bring in. The standards of no water and food were listed, but also no blankets, pens and over-sized purses? A military presence of police was present as the crowd was funneled through a long railed-off entryway. Oddly, guards even demanded female concertgoers to remove beaded bracelets. Not sure why. Further down the line, at the main gate, more signs promised the need to be searched, even the possibility of each fan’s shoes and wallet being searched. That nonsense removed it was time to see how the music would hold up.
The festival was divided into two simply named stages: Hard and Harder. Beyond the Harder stage being a slightly smaller viewing areas, there were no differences between performers at the two. Breakbot was already spinning on the Hard stage. The hot sun beating down, a modest crowd throbbed by the stage as Breakbot spun a generic brand of trance. One stage over Sinden of The Count and Sinden faired better, varying the pulse and sounds used to build his sonic assault. Since there were virtually no stops between sets, the performers were stacked up simultaneously, starting evenly on the beginning of each hour. Without the usual ending of each set it was up to each person to decide when they had heard enough.
Back at the Hard stage Brazilian duo João Miguel and Luciano Oliveira of The Twelves were already underway. The duo showed promise mashing bits of many famous tracks together to keep the crowd happy. However, as great as each inclusion was, they did use three different Daft Punk samples before they were finished. At the same time at the Harder stage one half of duo Major Lazer Switch had the crowd on hand at their most enthused of the day yet. The audience fist-pumped and swayed to the bass-heavy drones, but this was more pleasurable monotony than dance-inducing frenzy. Switch’s music lacked color, and felt indistinguishably designed to do nothing but keep the four-to-the-floor backbeat moving.
Green Velvet took the time to pay tribute to house music as a whole by including the rousing sample of Chuck Roberts chanting, “This is our house, and this is house music.” The artist also known as Curtis Jones did his best to engage the crowd, but didn’t seem to fit the mold of the aggressive sound that manage to spike this audience’s attention. In something of a sharing exercise British DJs Benga and Skream took turns blasting bass-ridden drones and hyping up the crowd. This drew an even more excited response than Switch did earlier. The tones were appealing in a fist-waving way periodically, but after a few moments of fun the beats lost momentum.
Beyond Soulwax, perhaps the biggest single established name was Erol Alkan. A credible British DJ that has played nearly every major electro event from coast-to-coast for years. Alkan put forth the day’s most polished selection. Utilizing many of the best tricks that one should expect from a house DJ, his set was evenly paced, expertly crafted and appropriately enjoyable, however, the crowd again seemed unmoved. A polished professional exhibiting some of the highest tenants of the genre and the crowd is oddly lukewarm to it? Bizarre.
Diplo—another staple of the modern electro scene—came next on the Hard stage. Most famous for his relationship producing numerous tracks for M.I.A., Diplo has quietly built a reputation for himself playing as many parties and festivals as possible. Here, his set was filled with hot selections from hip acts such as DJ Shadow, M.I.A., Lil’ Wayne, Kid Cudi. There may have been more readily apparent tracks, but this set still fell short of more than a bland house-centric mix of tracks people know. Not enough to qualify as brilliant mash-up, or creative set sequencing.
Back at the Harder stage Flying Lotus was just about to start. The approved media at the festival was in for a surprise. Security detailed to many of Los Angeles’ best photographers that there would be no photo pit. That’s right, without warning all magazines were cut out from being able to take shots in front of the barricade apparently for security reasons. In fact, as of press time, there still has not been any explanation as to why. Shooting from the crowd would have to suffice for Flying Lotus and the rest of the day. After earning universal acclaim for his latest album Cosmogramma, this was the first set from a legitimate up-and-coming new talent. The modest area granted for this stage was filled down to the last inch. The problem here, is that even though Flying Lotus’ performance was technically astute and exciting, his music is far more “glitch” than “house,” more “hipster approved” than “raver enjoyed.”
One of the big two for the day started a while after on the Hard stage, Crystal Castles. The Hard stage’s sets were running behind the whole day and for unknown reasons Crystal Castles came on almost twenty minutes late. This was another out-and-out disappointment as primary members Alice Glass (vocals) and Ethan Kath (keyboards) and touring drummer Christopher Chartrand spent the entire set completely invisible on account of extreme backlighting and an ungodly amount of fog constantly being poured out on stage. Unless Glass was crowd surfing, it was next to impossible to even tell where they were or what they were doing. A shame considering the shout-anarco-punk of their upbeat numbers and the lush tapestries of their meditative numbers sounded enticing, but there’s really no excuse for this. It begs the question, whose choice was it to hide one of the biggest acts of the day completely in fog?
The next three did nothing to return momentum to the day. Tiga used an abundance of sequencing, but failed to show any stage presence.
Diplo and Switch’s Major Lazer might as well have been relegated to a cheesy parade. Flanked on either side by people in Chinese dragon costumes and sporting the world’s lamest hype man, their set was a bombastic joke of smoke and mirrors to hide otherwise lackluster beats and music.
Proxy added no color either, and boasted only a smidge more enthusiasm than Tiga.
The only hope to save this debacle was Soulwax’s headlining spot. The good news there: Soulwax are one of the best in the genre hands down. The bad news: they only were allowed thirty minutes to play before they were given the hook! That’s right, apparently with a need to meet a noise curfew, completing by 12:00 midnight was a necessity. The one band with real substance out of this whole stinking, clusterfuck of a day, and nothing could be done to say, chop twenty minutes out of Major Lazer’s set? Give us a break Hard fest. The boys from Belgium wisely opted for nearly no visual aids or fog machine. They rounded out their sound with a live drummer (Steve Slingeneyer) and bass player (Stefaan Van Leuven). Brothers David and Stephen Dewaele held down an array of analog synths, putting a knack for tension-and-release into effect with a daunting level of precision.
In a matter of minutes they could mutate a house drone into a speed metal backbeat then into a blippy, dreamy keyboard stab all without losing momentum. The escalating tones of “E Talking” built to a hair-raising level of eye-opening delight until the bopping bass and epic sample “a part of the weekend / never dies,” rang out. “Another Excuse” from Nite Versions became a syncopated freak out as Stephen Dewaele doubled on drums and cowbell. Stephen also took lead vocal duties on “Miserable Girl,” snarling with all the fury the singer of any good rock band might. The abrupt end came in the form of “Theme From Discotheque” with its sarcastic sampling of an American PSA (“Do you know where your teenager is at 5 o’clock in the morning?” and “Dirty dancing and pounding techno music”). The Dewaele brothers looked disappointed themselves, and said their goodnights. Guards with megaphones then filed into the crowd to tell the fans to leave. Right away.
What’s the problem here? And what’s more, who’s to blame? There’s no reason that dance, electronica, house, trance or techno means bad music. There’s a litany of shows and acts, that know how to captivate an audience and keep them dancing without insulting their intelligence and commitment to the scene. Minus Soulwax, Hard fest was a mess of irreducible proportions. Is it the promoter’s fault for not picking better acts? Is it the performers’ for not trying to up their game and really challenge the crowd? Or is it the fans for participating in this farce? Regardless of what naysayers may think about the silly costumes and glow sticks, the fans at a minimum have a responsibility to demand more from their entertainment, their scene and the festivals they enjoy. Enjoying dance music does not mean enjoying bad music, or having to endure a military presence so that nobody gets hurt.
All photos by Marv Watson