Behold the plastic fantastic fun-derland that is dance bonanza GlobalGathering - a neon pleasure-machine built on an abandoned airstrip in Stratford upon Avon where, last weekend, 50,000 people partied in 30C degree weather.
It's been 10 or so years ago since dance music officially entered its post-political phase. The "rave" became "the dance festival", and hedonism an end in itself: no longer the act of iconoclasm it once was in rave's early years. That's old news, dead as dead can be, because this is the age of EDM. Fuck the famines, the Middle East, that forest they're bulldozing, and fuck proper dance culture, at GlobalGathering the goal is simply to eat, sleep, rave, repeat. Despite's the festival's crusty-referencing name, you're always very aware of the anxious churning sound of unbridled enterprise. But hell, the taste of evil only supplements the ecstasy of caring about absolutely nothing. Here's what we saw, and a rundown of the machine's array of superstar DJs.
At the Circus stage, in association with THUMP, Ben Pearce plays it cool, building the crowd up gradually until the big payoff: Paul Johnson's 'Get Get Down' followed by Pearce anthem 'What I Might Do', which, with its warm pads and lustrous bassline, truly captures the feeling of being young and happy in summertime Britain. Next is Maya Jane Coles, whose elegantly reserved and heavy house set releases crowd-roar moments only when they're earned. A couple of hours later, Hot Since 82 (aka the brilliantly named Daley Padley) descends on the tent with his big bass house, which in a live setting sounds a bit like King Kong pummelling an oil tanker.
Netsky's 8PM outing on the main stage is a bit of a red herring, in that they're awesomely shit while most of the acts that follow them are ruddy great. Basically, they're the Pendulum of EDM, only with a bit of sub-Rustie and diluted Daft Punk-ness thrown in with cloyingly tinny drum 'n' bass. Despite the best efforts of a floundering MC ("We're about to get crazy, we're about to get mental, we're about get insane!") and the addition of live drums, few but the folk down the very front even give a crap.
Last to play the main stage are Chase and Status, who have grown into dependably smooth headliners. Heavy dubstep remains custom-made for massive events, its galumphing force working more like hard arena rock than music to dance to. Wub bass on a 5-metre high amps sounds like electronic doom-rock with a UV overcoat. Of course, their sleek pop drum 'n' bass and trance-y EDM is always on hand to get the dancers where they need to be. Near the front, it's brilliant: ever seen that bit in World War Z when the Israeli zombies breach the safe-zone walls? Well it's a bit like that, but sweatier. For the finale, fireworks are launched, reaching out a quarter mile into the night sky in every direction at the climax of 'Lost Forever'.
Later on, we have the misfortune of stumbling across Danny Avila. Avila, we suspect, is a robot designed by the military-industrial complex to destroy music. His depressingly prescriptive set concerns tooth-rooting sweetness and kitsch emotion, cut awkwardly with tackily hostile 'drops', as behind him on the screens is shown the blonde Spaniard's shiny mug - all beauty-queen smile and whitened teeth - which evaporates then reappears on repeat. When synching with the music, it's a nightmarish spectacle. Afterwards, I make friends with 6 of the best Glaswegian lads you're ever likely to meet. We sit for an hour in the far corner of the site, chatting shit. They're childhood mates, good to each other and good to us. They give us poppers, which I'd never tried before. I feel all warm. My eyeballs feel warm. Poppers are shit.
Gorgon City's pop-themed set is a lighthearted and fun prospect. Their set is fronted by an MC, which is a reoccurring theme throughout the weekend. Obviously it's thought that festival ravers need a human presence as interface in order to engage with, to connect with electronic music, when really, shouldn't the music alone be sufficient? It's a ploy that underestimates the dance fans in attendance this weekend. The set, however, is hampered by paltry volume levels, which we reckon has something to do with keeping the site's surrounding residents happy, because by midnight these meagre volume levels are the standard right across the board. So quiet is Sub Focus on the BBC Essential Mix stage, that there are people having casual conversations over the music.
It's 5PM and we're in my tent, dead centre of the morass that is the White Camp. Do these people ever sleep? For going on two hours now, a group of guys nearby have been shouting like scared geese or hard-of-hearing, wartime grannies. The Brummie girls beside us are, I think, jumping up and down in a group, but not to music or anything, while at one point I have the suspicion someone is pissing at the door to our tent. Close by, some Scousers are fighting over Lucozade. I can hear garage to my left, and Hardwell to my right, while somewhere behind me a guy is tending to his blitzed mate with a shrillness that makes me want to kill priests. The next morning, after a bout of intense dozing in the pretty dull VIP area, we re-enter EDM-Land for another helping of sun-bleached bacchanalia. Once more into the kitsch, my friends.
Honourable mention goes to early-slot magicians the Hideout DJs, who from 12 noon to 2PM somehow manage to get the small gathering of early-risers buzzing to downtempo, sludge-house. Big props also go to Reso for sneaking a filthy set packed with dark grime fear into a mid-afternoon schedule full of friendly house, during which the Hospitality tent feels a bit like the land that sunshine forgot. But the award for afternoon slot of the weekend goes to Lets Be Friends.
The duo, who remind us a bit of two happy Jim Henson muppets pretending to DJ, are ace to watch never mind listen to; frantically chasing each other around the decks handling their B2B set, while simultaneously MCing and serving as their very own dance troupe. If there was an GlobalGathering award for silliest shape-cutting of the weekend, it would go to Oren, who acted like a human graphic equaliser for their day-glo super-set of mash-ups, murderously-paced electro and well, Dizzee Rascals 'Bonkers', which, let's face it, is cracker. Dubvision are mediocre at best, while in the Paradise tent the crowd are indifferent to Russ Yallop's slightly staid tech-house set. It's around 4PM, and at the back of the tent I mingle with some tired looking folk lying around in groups of three, and a guy on his own gingerly taking a balloon - if you can imagine what that looks like.
In the baking mid-afternoon sun, mixmaster Jaguar Skills presents his punk soundclash on the main stage. By the end of the set everybody is up their feet, from the painfully sunburnt teens to broken-jaw Scouse speed-heads who look like they've been doing drugs since the Cold War. This guy can cut anything: hip hop mixing techniques meets rave as brilliantly rancid gabba drum 'n' bass cuts across trap-bolstered metal, then back through old skool 'ardcore and metallic bro-step. It all eventually snowballs into a mass of machine gun bleep-ery, pre-recorded hype and nuke sirens. It's fuck-you turntablism at it's most irresponsible. Any DJ ballsy enough to cut from 'Jump Around' to Frankie's 'Your Love' via Strike's 'You Sure Do' is alright in my book.
One thing that struck me over the weekend was the stage design. Expensive light shows and super screens are, of course, nothing new, but nearly every post-6pm artist is place atop on what is essentially an altar; titanic, gleaming centrepieces that, on occasion, elevate the DJ so high above the crowd that it's like squinting at the Royal balcony from The Mall. New World Punx's stage set really does deserves its dues. It's a beautiful, innovatively designed collage of lights and graphics that feels a little like peering into a planetarium.
Nevertheless, like many of these makeshift pulpits, it serves to emotionally distance the act from the dancers - which effects a worrying disconnect reflective of an expanding gulf between performer and punter in live dance music. You can't help but feel this new misé en scene has something to do with EDM and its intensive branding of DJ's as superstars, as though American audiences are only able to understand the concept of the DJ as a superstar if the artists are presented to them like rock icons.
Melé's selection strikes the perfect balance between quality and crowd-pleasing, with the Liverpudlian setting fire to makeshift outdoor club, Global Freight Depot, with a mixture of uptempo house, the less danceable sound of moody dub-garage and the odd club classic. Van Helden's 'You Don't Even Know Me' is an eyes-closed-pistols-to-the heavens moment, while the bouncy sweetness of Architects' 'Body Groove' makes its way across the early evening sun as a honeyed ooze. There's a proper Ibiza vibe and by the time The Tamperer's 'Free From Desire' drops, there are folk giving it heaps on the roof of the freights, much to the chagrin of nearby security staff. I get talking to some Welsh girls, and someone offers us poppers. I snuff it, feel like shit again and search the site's Gordian knot walkways, looking for that water point I remembered seeing.
In The Bunker, the difference is quite literally night and day. A windowless void at the heart of the site modelled on a WW2 war bunker, it's almost too dark to dance in, and few do. Instead, they walk around falling over or huddle beside the building's air-con vent. One in every three revellers this weekend are your standard issue England-via-EDM frat-boy raver; the super-buff bipeds of generation selfie; lip-lickers whose chemical smiles caught between severe pleasure and silent rage light up the tents like floating orbs.
I haven't had this many half-naked men in my face since New Years Eve. You can't go anywhere without getting a nip in you face. You'll be hot-stepping it in a tent somewhere when, suddenly, there it is: some accusing pink nurple all up in your shit. In the half light they roam, blonde-tipped skin-sacks cutting through swathes of shufflers. I'm positive I can hear a squeaky-window sound when their heaving frames move around house beats. Some wear the V masks, making for a ghoulish chimera of bronzed muscle and laughing monster.
There is no doubt in my mind now that, in Britain, EDM is replacing lad-rock as the music for the masses. When it comes down to it, the UK's aggressive adoption of the American EDM phenomenon constitutes an advanced form of British Americanisation; the Venice Beach-philosophy superimposed over the bulldog spirit. But you gotta to give it to them. Their insatiable appetite for enjoying life to the fullest makes them great company for a dance festival.
Naturally, Paul Woolford And Route 94 gets a huge turnout, but the surprisingly deep, event-stingy set isn't quite what the 6PM crowd had in mind as a warm up for the evening to come. Over at The Hangar stage, Scarnite's set draws on the kind of hard electro popular in the years just before the dawn of EDM, and it's excellent to hear something that isn't cheap, but certainly very, very nasty. We think it's tops right up until UKG's DJ EZ reminds us of the true meaning of DJing genius.
After seeing off an epic double bill of Duke Dumont and Eric Prydz at the BBC's Essential Mix tent, we head to the main stage for The Prodigy, Saturday's headliners, who for over two decades now have carried the reputation for being the greatest live act on the planet. Proof that every dance song made henceforth should by law feature sped-up breakbeats, 'Voodoo People' has an unstoppable momentum to it that few contemporary dance producers would even think to replicate, while the industrial bass of 'Breathe' sounds truly monstrous on the megawatt PA system.
The set feels like a throwback to 90s big beat, the original, festival-ready dance form. At a festival largely dominated by pop EDM, 'Firestarter' resembles some kind of steel scorpion. This time, it's the crowd's turn to provide the fireworks, as here and there flares are dumped and smoke bombs fused. Smoke and red light merge with great clouds of dust raised from the mass foot-stomping, escaping into the azure skies over EDM-Land.
You can follow John Calvert on Twitter here: @JCalvert_music Keep on Festin'
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