Few festivals this year have been plagued with as much controversy as Made Event's Electric Zoo in New York City. Last year's festival garnered national headlines following the tragic drug-related deaths of patrons Jeffrey Russ and Olivia Rotondo, leading to the closure of the festival and an increase of scrutiny on the festival and dance music in general. Electric Zoo announced stringent new security measures including overhead cameras that can zoom far enough to read your text messages, drug-sniffing dogs, and the much-discussed "Come To Life" PSA. In the weeks before this year's event, organizers announced a ban on Camelbak-brand water bottle backpacks, ostensibly because of their many clandestine pockets. That ban appeared to be lifted (or not enforced) as festivalgoers were seen with Camelbaks all weekend long. Accordingly, the eyes of the industry and New York City's media were on Randall's Island this Labor Day weekend, August 29-31. Even after the premature closing of the festival on its third day do to some extreme weather Zoo surprised even the most skeptical doubters with a quality event, not at all dominated by safety restrictions.
In truth, stepped-up security was hardly the only new feature this year. While the main stages shrunk and the festival grounds contracted, nobody seemed to mind, especially when it came to the side-stages. The Riverside Stage, rechristened by Beatport this year, played host to more eclectic sounds like Jamie XX and Tensnake. It was an expertly curated location for beats beyond the average fluff. Norwegian prog-house star Fehrplay was already swirling dancers into hypnosis with his groovy builds and the piano-laced euphoria of his recent monster "Everywhere You Go" before his occasional partner in crime, Jeremy Olander, kept the thematic vibes going with a tight set and a perfectly-crafted topknot resting upon his crown.
For those who could leave work early, a Day 1 highlight came from an early afternoon set from UK beat messiah, Bonobo, currently on a run of DJ set appearances after a mesmerizing world tour of his live show. With everything from heavy synth deep house to Daniel Avery, he kept the entire crowd locked in a meditative gaze. No trickery here, just quality tunage.
Wafting between the two main stages and the large tent structure of the Hilltop Arena, on day one—there was a certain odor of sameness among the brand of music. "Trap-house" has swiftly moved to form a symbiotic relationship with commercial big room sounds, presenting a finished product of nonstop trap arms and brain orgasmia. Ratchetized remixes of Calvin Harris' "Summer," Armin's "Ping Pong" and Nirvana were rampant. Also, on a style sidenote: substantially racist head gear was rampant; there were more headdresses than on the set of Last of The Mohicans. One young girl, likely not of Native American descent, was dressed in a full-on Pocahontas Halloween getup. Like, come on.
The Sunday School Spiegeltent, a circus-like structure borrowed from Mysteryland replaced the larger bus-themed tent of last year and was the virtual antithesis of many of the larger stages, with dancers donning Aphex Twin and Defected tees versus the always-classy "All I Do Is Fuck and Party" seen in surrounding areas. Parisian dons Apollonia sucked the crowd into their Balearic tech and and combated the hedonistic mantras of the main stages. Dan Ghenacia exuded silence and near-negative facial expressions; his lips were puckered as he played.
Carnage has earned a spot as one of the top pushers of festial revel-ready trap music and played some of it to a packed set to the Mainstage West with outrageous visuals doubling as a psychedelic Chipotle billboard. He wiggled on stage dancing like a sort of possessed hobbit and the crowd ate it up like a fully-stocked burrito bowl, with guacamole to boot. Carnage was later seen having more fun during Gesaffelstein's brilliant closing set of dark techno at the Riverside stage than anyone. Maybe they should collab or something?
During the early afternoon hours of Day Two Borgeous affirmed his place as one of the worst DJs in the world (sorry, no offense, but it's true). Are people not sick of being told to "clap your hands, jump up and down, because they don't give a fuck?" It's like they enjoy being brainwashed to shed any traces of their dignity, turning them into a pack of rabid, rage-obsessed drones. SNL and The Lonely Island Crew really said it better than anyone. Some people are getting turned down to their own demise.
The Sunday School Vinyl Only stage (more of a platform, really) was one of the most unique and enjoyable aspects of the whole festival. It was a vibealicious breeding ground for the true heads of Randall's Island. Not a single digital soundbyte was released through the stage's massive speaker system (thanks to regular Made Event audio gurus Integral Sound/Sonic Lab Audio the sound at Zoo was top-notch). On Days One and Two, Vinyl Only hosted underground heroes like Frank and Tony, Daniel Bell and Behrouz. True NYC OGs were rampant within the four stacks at this offput hideaway and at night the surrounding lit-up trees emitted some seriously organic attitudes through the air, making up for the fact this stage was directly in front of the disgusting bathrooms.
Over on Main Stage East, Dutch youngster Oliver Heldens played an refreshing set, showing you can get away with playing house music at festival main stages in America. He brought his twangy drops to the afternoon crowd while exuding the skills of a future superstar.
After Pete Tong did his thing back at a line-out-the-door Sunday School tent, one of the foremost slingers of West Coast bass, Griz, brought his funk-loving flavor to The Hilltop. Giving a body-shaking education in live saxtrumentation, and the weed-laced wonder of a "Next Episode" bass remix, Grizzy showed you can play real instruments and still get the booties 'a dropping all over the damn place.
After Tong, Sasha did what Sasha does at Sunday School with a set of drawn-out deep house odyssey before Armin van Buuren's headlining gig on Main Stage West. Thankfully, Armin included a lot of what the demi-god is beloved and cherished for—trance music! He played around with some dodgy trouse stuff, but still managed to send our craniums to the heavens with his soul-consuming breakdowns, and classic nonstop Jesus poses. Had the skies opened up, he might have slightly levitated off the ground. Wowzers.
Amid the music were the Zookeepers, a group of 50+ medical students on-site to assist with safety and health issues. Dressed like a hybrid between Nigel Thornberry and a frat bro—these people were omnipresent, all slinging a strange bag which looked like a sort of pool-cue case. I saw a young girl freaking out and clawing at her boyfriend in a feverish, potentially drug-induced frenzy and in less than two minutes there were two Zookeepers at the scene. One opened that strange bag and assembled a giant flag in under ten seconds, waving it throughout the air. Within another minute there were three security guards and a medic running on the scene who whisked the girl away to a health tent. Just like that, the entire crew and distressed young woman were gone. Situation defused. Props to Electric Zoo for instituting a crew of workers that would give a Nascar Pit Crew a run for their money.
With Day Three anticipation focused on dance music heros like Kaskade, Jack U, Chase & Status, it looked like Electric Zoo 2014 would be as smooth as the 2009-2012 festivals. However, proving once again that Mother Nature is the one true supreme rave god, as massive thunderstorms rolled in by mid afternoon, prompting flash flood warnings and concerns about lightning strikes on the island. Organizers made a quick call to cease operations and evacuate the entire island, halting some artists like Myon & Shane 54 mid-set and bringing Zoo to a close for 2014.
While many patrons are already turning to the haterwebs to announce their disapproval of Zoo's rather cautious actions (the clouds dissipated and left a rainbow behind not too long after), their decision follows a trend of organization, safety, and all-around smooth-operations that were evident throughout the entire first two days. Crowd management, water availability, transportation options, and basic preparedness was impressive. It's clear after the tragic end of last year, organizers had their game faces on, were ready for anything.
It's a shame that the weekend ended the way it did, but for the first two days of their big year back in the spotlight, animals were happy and the Zoo was doing what the Zoo does best.