Arriving at Randall Park, New York City on Labor Day weekend, photographer Kristina Kauffman and I could already hear the thunderous bass womping from the treeline past the gates and fences that encircled the grounds of Electric Zoo. As we filtered through security and into the lush green playground this city island offered as the back drop to the weekend the excitement level of return attendees and first timers alike brought some to a running dive into the stage of their choice and caused others to pause and snap photos with life sized representations of the iconic animals the festival uses as unofficial mascots. The sun beamed high in the sky sparkling across the field as we made our way to one of the two main stages, referred to as Main Stage East and West, that appeared as gigantic metal worked LED super structures.
Up first was Dutch mash-up master Dannic, who's signature tracks have been used by other artists from Tiesto to Hardwell. When he built up his progressive house bumper ‘Clobber' into a near heart pounding anticipatory craze then dramatically dropped into legendary Swedish House Mafia's ‘Greyhound' and pulled back up to ‘Clobber' again you could see why his career had been built on seamless and unique mash-ups. The crowd smiled and bounced to Electro hits ‘Zenith' and a Martin Garrix ‘Animals' mix like it was the first time hearing these signature electronic songs. Dannic set the bar high for the acts that would follow and energized an already excited crowd.
Up next were genre bending visionaries the M Machine with heavy hitting bpm's banging so fast at times that keeping the beat with your feet was next to impossible. Starting with simplistic beats the M Machine built up their set like a picturesque storybook. Even the visuals they presented had a tale to tell varying from humanoid caricatures and space-like creatures to geometric designs. As someone who had never really listened to the M Machine before, I was blown away by the beauty of their vocals and the purposeful elegance of their transitions. I was instantly a covert, and from what I heard that weekend from other attendees they played one of the most unexpected sets of the weekend.
Then we were off to discover what the other tents and stages had to offer. We headed over to the Riverside Stage to catch Djedjotronic blended Techno/Electro set on one of the most unique stages I have ever scene. As if the LED grids were pieces of a puzzle or cut outs they split horizontally down the middle and overlapped to almost enclose the DJ as a background piece. The stage was specially designed this year to optimize 3D visuals for each headlining act of the night that played on that stage. With visuals that not only surrounded the DJ, but also brought depth to the images, sets like Djedjotronic's and other's had an extra dramatic flair unseen by this writer at any festival before.
Next at Riverside was Koan Sound, a psychedelic dub step like duo, that hails from Great Britain. Funky Synth melodies, reverbed guitar riffs created a unique sound not often heard in the American EDM culture. The shade of the tent provided a cool break from the sunny August heat. With ravers who looked more like street perfomers than actual festival goers; dancing around, doing tricks and begging for a chance to jump around more.
We then moved on to the Hilltop Stage; a rotating DJ booth that that was centered in the middle of the floor and spun both left and right. This provided for the perfect viewing spot no mater where you were standing. Gramatik was killing it on stage, with insane mixes of his summer classic ‘Bluestep' and his new soul fueled wind down ‘You Don't Understand.' Having little knowledge on Gramatik before this summer's festival season, I can honestly say his is one of, if not my favorite live act to catch. I've gotten the chance to check him out before at Camp Bisco and Electric Forest, and he never disappoints. Each live set, Gramatik spins with a guitarist playing next to him. This funky collaboration showcases the diverse and experimental ways artist are changing the EDM scene from the inside, and creativity like this should be appreciated in our community. For all those of you who think every producer sounds the same, check out acts like Gramatik and the M Machine and others before you swear off the genre.
After Gramatik we wandered back over to the Main Stage West where Deniz Koyu was winding up the crowd with a summer favorite mix heard first at Ultra this spring done by Seven Lions: Nirvana's ‘Smells like Teen Spirit.' With a latin flare and booty bumping beats the crowd seemed ready to go for anything Koyu could throw at them. Following the unofficial anthem of Electric Zoo, he threw down yet another creative interpretation of Martin Garrix ‘Animals' and sent the crowd to Electro-House heaven with his mix of ‘Zombie Nation' and ‘Wakanda.'
Next up on Main Stage West was Showtek. The Janssen brothers were pumped and ready to hype up an already swelled crowd. They kicked things up with their signature ‘Slow Down' and built back to a kicking mix of TJR's ‘Ode to Oi'. Hyping up the crowd to a fever pitch, they commanded the crowd to follow them into the biggest crowd jump of the day so far. “Everybody I want you to get low, so low I want you to sit on the ground, and then all together we're gonna jump okay?!” When the beat dropped and they both yelled “Jump” all that could be seen for miles were the smile faces of a rave wave.
A flash of crazy printed hammer pants and the gleam of bleach blonde hair signified a new act was about to get started, one I had anticipated since the beginning of festival season this year, and as the “dum dee dee dum” of a nokia-like ringtone began everyone knew it was time for the ‘Bass Cannon' to go off; it was time for Flux Pavilion. Providing the edm horde with the perfect mix of bass and trap, his own hits and mixes of festival staples, Flux Pavilion would prove to be one of the best sets of the weekend, and when ‘Gold Dust's' funk-a-delic synth horns echoed across the immense space of the packed Main Stage West field, you could here voices from all over singing along and feet stomping hard to the breakdown. Having gotten the chance to see Flux interact with fans and media back stage, I can honestly say that his talent can only be matched by his humility.
After back to back bangers at Main Stage West we decided it was time to check out Main Stage East. After climbing the hill that overlooked all other Electric Zoo stages we descended the stairs into the writhing mass of people that made up the crowd of Main Stage East. Setup on top of a metal flooring structure that bounced around with the jumping and stomping of fans we heard a drum beat call those waiting on the music to perk up. Dressed as a tiger, Frenchman Martin Solveig took the mic to let the crowd know that they would all be taking part in his new Music Video for ‘Blow' a song he released with Laidback Luke. The music began, and we all became willing extras. Swirling into unique mash-up's of ‘Bulletproof' and Tommy Trash's ‘Monkey in Love' and his own ‘Hey Now' with live vocals. An unexpected delight Martin Solveig brought silly fun to the East Stage.
Back over at the Riverside tent UZ was blowing up with super slick trap beats. With exploding visuals and the air of mystery around his completely covered face, seeing Uz is the kind of visceral experience that you don't just hear, you feel. His beats force you to bend at the knees, head bang and shake, and bounce your body. Seeing UZ live, one can easily understand why this visionary new trap king is receiving all the attention coming his way lately.
As we muddled our way back over towards Main Stage West, we got stopped dead in our tracks. Not by security, not by the swelling crowd, not by a barricade or a fence, but by the beauty of the beginning of Alesso's set. As the tranquil keyboard ticked out the opening to ‘Years' you could see the emotion in people dance across their faces. It doesn't matter what kind of genre you listen to, or who your favorite producer is, or if you like underground over popular tracks, there is something in that song that hits every person who hears it. For me, it's a memory of New Year's when at Life in Color in Atlantic City this track rang in the transition from new to old and a flurry of confetti and lights and love filled a tent on an island outside the city. There is something in that track that pulls memory and emotion together and hits you in the core of your being. Alesso's set was much like that. Emotional, filled with life and love, using songs like ‘Sweet Nothing' and Tocadisco's ‘You're No Good for Me' quickly won even those who were not the biggest Alesso fans prior to his set over.
Now one of my favorite producer's of all time is Kill the Noise, so of course we caught his set over at Riverside, and as per the usual it did not disappoint. Mixing his signature metallurgic sound with hit's like ‘Must be the Feeling' and ‘It's a Party' Kill the Noise is best described as an apocalyptic musical prophet. When his iconic skulls blurred across the jagged edges of the stage I turned to see a crowd of zoned in super fans and newcomers alike, all vibing to the beats of this master of dark cool. I will never miss a Kill the Noise set at any festival I attend, and I suggest the same to all of you.
Our night ended in the most beautiful of fashions; with a little bit of Group Therapy. Now I have to admit *gasp* I am not a huge Above and Beyond's recorded track's. I appreciate what they do, but it's not exactly my favorite genre to jam to, however, and this is a HUGE however, Above and Beyond's live is like hopping on a spaceship and taking a ride through the majesty of the cosmos. I have never seen a musical act, electronic or otherwise, tie visuals, sounds, energy and crowd appreciation together with such fluidity you'd think they knew every member of their audience personally. The sensitivity and delicate passion that drives what they do manifests itself in the smiles, and hugs, and kisses of couples and friends happy to be surrounded by the magic that was this day and this place and this mood. The love expressed in an Above and Beyond Group Therapy session even inspired an LED screen proposal, and as the crowd roared in encouragement the words ‘We Say Yes!” scrolled across the screen as a red heart transitioned everything. This night had be a thing of beauty, the day had been out of this world, and as the attendees tireless strolled and skipped out of the gates to taxi's, buses, ferries, and cars, we could only dream of what Electric Zoo had in store for day two….
Stay tuned for coverage on day two later this week and for more photos from day one please check out our Facebook album and tag yourselves!
Photographer Kristina Kauffman and I have decided to keep our review of Electric Zoo completely about the experience we had, and not about the tragic events that caused the cancelling of day three. For more information on that and our feelings about what happened please see the following articles.