I'm in a circle of gongs surrounded by six others, sitting cross-legged and closing our eyes in anticipation. Suddenly the crashing begins, and two of the "drummers" start to revolve around us with mallets, beating out a shimmering cacophony that begins to resemble a song. It doesn't quite flow in any coherent way, but the gongs cry out in harmonic waves as rainbow lights flare through our eyelids. After "mashing gongs for peace," we're led past a tip jar— they're saving up for Gathering of the Vibes.
This is Camp Bisco, which returned this year, July 16-18, for a much anticipated reboot. Driven from their longtime haunt at the Indian Lookout Country Club in Mariaville, NY in 2013, a year which saw the festival on forced hiatus in 2014, with fans condemned to endure a biblically-plagued substitute in the form of the Hudson Project (a weekend that resembled a flooded underage halfway house), Bisco and its sprawling diaspora have migrated to Montage Mountain. The new location, located on the outskirts of Scranton, PA, is home to a ski resort and waterpark, one that hopes to expand its festival reach after playing host to the Allman brothers-helmed Peach Music Festival since 2012.
Presented by the rabidly-followed Disco Biscuits, the Philadelphia jamtronica unit infamously named after clubbing's favorite circular enhancer, Bisco continues to salute the spirit of its namesake. Simply put—it's one of the druggier festivals in the lower 48, something that's been the source of its frenetic highs and in recent years, controversial lows. Last summer, the festival lost its permit to operate in Mariaville, after local town and police authorities shunned the event organizers for spotty medical staff and a number of drug-related hospitalizations for its attendees. A recent article (one we discovered is mostly bullshit) used an infographic to claim Bisco had the second highest number of drug-related social media posts, bringing their percentage to a whopping 80%.
Like most hyped festivals in 2015, entry into Bisco was a journey in itself. Convoys of yellow school busses whisked attendees from the multiple far-flung parking lots to the festival's grounds, with reports of hours-long waits, and service most would peg as soul-crushing. Thousands stood in line with the sun setting picturesquely over the scenic Pocono backdrop, a quasi-dust bowl migration of anxious attendees—some choosing to get their party started early with a round of "slap the bag," others taking the time to stock up on nutrition by gifting slices of fresh avocado. After enduring two checkpoints with half-heartedly methodical searches and the rumor of roving drugs dogs (they would stick to the campgrounds throughout the weekend), weary festival-goers finally made it inside.
As everyone made their eventual pilgrimage into Bisco 2.0, some would start their weekend exploring various attractions of the water park, as well as the towering zip-line. Others made a beeline to discover the new stages for the first time. The Above the Waves stage would flank an adjacent pool, prime real estate for early afternoon relaxation, while Electric City, the main stage, became ground zero for Bisco's most severe madness. At the center of this was the festival's thumping heartbeat—six mind-bending sets of improvisation jam fusion from the Disco Biscuits.
While the group's iconic light-shows and exciting covers had most locked into their trancey grasp throughout the three days, it became clear throughout the weekend how much the layout and flow of the festival grounds was limited by the constraints of the mountain. The outdoor activities added a nice element to the party, but the stages were staggered up a series of trails with natural barriers squeezing the traffic between them into choke points. A few dangerous rock covered hills made it tricky for the most clear-headed festival traveler to traverse. Seriously, no one wants to impersonate Reese Witherspoon's trek in Wild, just to catch Goldroom drop some of his refreshing house beats.
Elsewhere on day one, Subset spanned the genre-meter working in some tech house, bounce, and Jersey Club while Colorado electro-soul innovator, Pretty Lights, put in a surprisingly uneven performance. While the long-time festival mainstay was one of the most anticipated acts of the weekend, his set was plagued by sloppy controls and sound cut-outs, even while remaining the vintage vibe he's known and loved for. Nearby, Classixx closed out the night at Above the Waves with a DJ set of their traditional upbeat, sexy throwback grooves. The next day, Friday's programming took focus off the Biscuits and pegged the Steamtown stage as the go-to zone for glitchy goodness, with synth-star Haywyre, Sweater Beats, and Mr. Carmack spinning more eclectic, bass-heavy mixtures, all of which seemed to be layered by trap and future funk sounds.
Saturday's festivities brought big crowds to an array of stages for the final day of the festival, as well as one of Bisco's frequent appearances— an epic rainstorm. An adage repeated over the weekend held that "God hates Camp," the festival usually being plagued by untimely rain. While we're not sure the validity of that statement, it's clear a move to Pennsylvania can't at the very least release Bisco from Mother Nature's powerful clutches. Fittingly, at the tail-end of Manic Focus' set of soulful, heavy stepping glitch-hop, the darkening sky finally gave way to inevitable downpour.
Luckily, the most energetic portion of the night ended up being a result of the storms, led by a high-energy set from the Biscuits that rebounded the soggy crowd into automatic dance bliss. Directly after, another legendary Bisco moment unfolded, a set from Bassnectar. After announcing "Bisco, we made it back, this is the revenge right here!" the man born as Lorin Ashton launched into into his undulating, hour long wall of pulsating bass. While up front, it's near dangerous to the ears, less daring fans were treated to an otherworldly light show, filling the whole space with beaming shapes that wander and warp with all the logic of a trip.
By midnight of the festival's final evening the hoodies were out and many would soon be trading the sounds of heavy bass for the humming of their car's wheels on return to whatever city they were traveling back to. In many ways, Camp Bisco offers a summer festival experience that's unique for the Eastern seaboard, offering up a pop-up commune on the edge of what's expected. Gone is the millennial vanity and hyped up bandwagoning you'll find on display between the stages of massive dance events like Electric Zoo and Ultra. Instead, the festival trades in these things for declarations of community and acceptance, albeit ones that may be surrounded by an aurora of grunginess from time to time.
While both longtime Bisco purists and average festival thrill seekers will debate the merits of various acts, the debut of the event's new layout, and the usual conversation over fluctuating levels of being too mainstream or corporate, Camp Bisco remains the sum, for better or worse, of all its disparate parts. While it might still be a bit of a mess at times, it's a beautiful one at that.
Daniel Hoopes is a writer living in Brooklyn. He fell asleep once during the Disco Biscuits, and is also on Twitter.