- As a recent transplant from the West to the East Coast, I had no idea what to expect from New York City's Electric Zoo festival—the second coming of an electronic event improbably located on Randall's Island in the middle of the Hudson River with the New York skyline juxtaposed against a pastoral tree-lined park setting. I don't know what I expected from the NY daytime clubber scene—a bunch of stereotypical Wild Style-styled b-boys? Fist-pumping guidos? Reserved IDM headnodders? Neon-clad electroclashers in played-out shuttershades? Well, the answer was all of the above—and more. Not to mention a surprisingly satisfying musical menu.
Day 1's highlight came early with Paul Kalkbrenner in the Sunday School Grove tent, which proved to be the home of the more intellectual end of the sonic spectrum as the festival progressed. Kalkbrenner showered the kids with life affirming bass pulses, grinning and smiling between cigarettes as he worked his way through a Berlin Calling-dominated set. Standouts "Azure" and "Square 1" established the vibe as firmly downtempo and summery—perfect for Kalbrenner's midday set.
Photo credit: Erin McCarthy
It perfectly mirrored his filmic alter-ego DJ Ickarus's daytime jam-out at the confluence of the rivers Havel and Spree in Berlin—warm, loving, Euro xoxoxo type stuff. He threw a few leftfield crowdpleasers into the mix too, with Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" and the Gary Jules cover of "Mad World" making appearances. Kalkbrenner closed on a high note, blowing kisses to the crowd as he dropped "Sky and Sand," the emotional signature track from the film that features vocals from sibling Fritz Kalkbrenner. Just simple and stunningly beautiful.
Up next was a raucous set from Boris on the mainstage, throwing down the usual sirens-and-sawtooth-bass fare down for a crowd of shirtless juicers with rocket nipples. Not really my scene, but for what it was, it delivered. Ascending trance melodies, break-chorus-break, that sort of thing.
Photo credit: Boris P
ATB followed him up, mixing twirling high-register hooks with Andre Tanneberger's signature high product values and girlvox. Frustratingly, ATB kept teasing the unforgettably elastic guitar line from "9PM Til I Come" but never actually got us there. Sadly (for me), his choices took a downturn, with an extended foray into Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name Of" that just wouldn't end. Thankfully, he took us away from rap-rock near the end for a dip into Robyn territory. But what do I know? The crowd seemed to love it all.
I tried to catch the tail-end of Pete Tong's offering, but it was losing the soundsystem battle to the main stage and ended up being a throbbing mess that no one seemed to be able to dance to, thanks to sound bleed, dust and exhaustion.
Things looked up with cheerful Rusko bringing it back to filthy dubstep. The effervescent Leodensian wore the crowd out with slow-n-low bass grind and more complex drum loops than the usual kick/kick-snare one-two that was the coin of the realm for both days. I had a bit of a prejudice against him after a largely lame hip-hop flavored set, but he won me completely over. Again, though, the poor guy, being on the Red Bull Music Academy Riverside Stage, was drowned out a bit at the periphery by strains of M.I.A., Santigold and Ace of Base blasting in from Major Lazer on the nearby main stage.
Photo credit: Boris P
I finished out the evening with an absolute killer set from the always intense, always rock-solid Richie Hawtin. Known for ecstatic, erratic beat wizardry and sparse everything else, Hawtin was true to form, layering snare after snare over a bed of cymbal nails and bass landmines. I can't seem to learn a lesson—I stood too close to Hawtin's speakers during the Plastikman set at Coachella and I did the same damn thing in New York. But when it comes to reminding hardcore heads what they came to hear, Hawtin delivered and reminded we the believers that there are no atheists in a k-hole.
The morning's offerings for Day 2 were lackluster, so I got a later start, arriving just in time for a kickass show from Martin Buttrich, Matthias Tanzmann and Davide Squillace, performing for the first time as a trio. These three friends were in perfect sync, dancing together and hunching over their Macbooks with wide smiles. It was all midtempo bangers of the dirty variety—perfect for the filthy dustbowl that the Sunday School Tent had become at this point.
Photo credit: Erin McCarthy
The biggest surprise of the festival came in the form of a Moby DJ set, which, despite all misgivings, did not actually suck. Moby, whose career is somewhat of the lightning rod for the, er, bald commercialism of '90s techno, came with the heavy shit, eschewing his wimpy electro soul and mom-pleasing blues spiritual sampling tendencies (thank god) for a set of all bone-crunching bangers. For a man that once made me embarrassed to be both an electronic dance music fan and a vegetarian, this is a sizable achievement. Moby unleashed thundering upper-BPM choices one after another, spicing it up with a few classics, including the inimitable pad wash from Underworld's classic "Born Slippy (Nuxx)." Jumping up on the DJ booth and working the crowd hype with old-school rave cuts, the hairless one knows where we came from and why we're here. He ended the set with a grand mal-inducing crescendo that (I think) featured a snippet of the vox from the one Moby album track I still actually love—"Next Is the E."
Alexander Ridha, AKA Boys Noize, came for one reason only, to blast us into the stone age. There was nothing complicated about tracks like "Kontact Me" and "Sweet Light"—which exist purely to get the lead out of droopy club kids. It was loud, loud and loud and the crowd went absolutely catshit. I don't think my fave, "Jeffer" made an appearance—a track that has gained somewhat of a cult following thanks to this nugget of awesome.
Photo credit: Boris P
Diplo, who had shared a stage with Switch the day before, threw down a lukewarm set of his own in the Red Bull tent, leaning heavily on tracks he produced for Maya Arulpragasam like "Bucky Done Gun." Granted, everyone's pretty wiped at this point, but it didn't seem like people were having that much fun and the selections never seemed to lock into a groove. It seemed like soupy drums brought it down. I did see a guy in a giant inflatable deer costume though, which was kinda rad.
Not having the energy or the yen for '90s superstars Armin Van Buuren or Digweed (and having an abiding distaste for Grey Goose-sprayer extraordinaire Steve Aoki), I finished the evening with a tight little house package from Brooklynite Victor Calderone. Sure, my sinuses were filled with Randall's Island firmament and I was like 1,100 cigarettes closer to death, but I managed to have one last dance to Calderone's no-nonsense brand of precise kick drum patterning and delightfully woozy yet respectably skeletal synth noodling. With the NY club scene just a short Metro North train ride away from my new home in Connecticut, I'll be sure to make it to one of his regular appearances in the city in the near future.