Rave Review: The Culture Shock of a Metalhead at EDC
I. Introduction: Stranger in a Strange Land
As we explored in a previous Rave Review, there are several varieties of electronica, from trippy trance jams, to bass heavy headbangers, to remixes of old classics. During an annual music festival, each subgenre is represented by an impressive roster of world class DJs, performing on 8 different stages, with underground artists spinning on mobile art carts. This is The Electric Daisy Carnival, or EDC, the biggest rave in the world. Taking place in a neon metropolis, EDC transforms the sprawling Las Vegas Speedway into a circus-like landscape of amusement park rides, side shows, costumed performers, and of course, more music than a normal human being can handle.
My photographer, Josh Garcia, has attended EDC and several other raves before. He accompanied me as my guide and consultant. Before the music even started, we encountered a few inconveniences at this festival. Standing in long lines, sweltering hot shuttle drives, defective wristband tickets, and broken camelbacks were some of them. However, it’s hard to stay mad when you’ve stepped on an alien planet and found that its inhabitants are mostly hot chicks in bikinis, and they all want to dance with you.
When in outer space, do as the aliens do. To prove that I came in peace, I substituted my camoflauge fatigues for daisy dukes, my combat boots for sneakers, and my bloody t shirts for bohemian crop tops. I even swapped my studded leather gauntlet for an elbow-length stack of kandi, or handmade bracelets to trade with other ravers. I was immediately drawn by the DIY aesthetic of rave culture. Kandi are usually simple bracelets, but some fans make elaborate 3D jewelry, face masks, or even entire garments with plastic beads. I saw some people wearing what looked like huge backpatches of their favorite DJs, but they were actually vests made entirely from pony beads! Some people enhance their kandi with semiprecious gem stones or fancy charms. Some make their own charms out of perlers, which are plastic beads melted together with a household iron. Each piece of Kandi is special, and exchanging these unique favors with each other is a symbol of friendship.
Another staple in rave society are Totem poles, a perfect example of creativity and self-expression. Flags, banners, and signs are fixed onto plastic poles or even pool noodles. I was surprised to see several totems and flags of the Zia symbol, which is the New Mexico state flag. I wasn’t expecting so many of my fellow New Mexicans, but I suppose great minds think alike. Many totems were memes and cartoon characters. Pokemon were a common motif, as well as Rick and Morty. Nerd culture and video games also have ties to electronica, and there were many references to familiar icons like Pac Man, Super Mario, and Zelda.
A motto amongst the raver community is the acronym PLUR, which stands for Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect. This balance between individualism and community is a manifestation of mutual friendship, a kinship that mirrors the rebellious yet comradely nature of the metal world. Feeling more and more at home, I explored the premises.
II. The 3 Main stages:
Huge structures to accommodate hundreds of ravers, these stages were built to impress. They hosted world class DJs and their legions of fans.
1. Cosmic Meadow
Built for a crowd of thousands, the vast landscape of the Las Vegas Speedway had plenty of room to party in the bleachers and on the lawn. Andrew Luce performed early on the first day at Cosmic Meadow. Near the end of his set, he said something very poignant. He acknowledged that there are people who don’t understand electronic dance music, yet many of them have never given it a try. It’s something you have to experience for yourself before you make a judgement. The crowd applauded, and I clapped too, glad that I went out of my comfort zone and opened my mind and heart to the world of EDM. I feel that metal is also overlooked due to negative stereotypes and lack of experience with the actual genre. Similarly, the diehard fans of both genres exhibit a genuine, sincere passion for their lifestyle, and they have a great sense of solidarity with each other.
The next DJ at Cosmic Meadow was San Holo, who was wearing a Soulfly shirt. The common ground between metal and EDM was becoming increasingly more obvious. We really aren’t that different after all, and I kept this in mind for the rest of the festival. San Holo is the creator of Light, the song with the insanely catchy lyric and melody “I just want to see the light.” It’s no wonder that everyone else keeps ripping off – sorry, “remixing”- this popular track. It’s so brilliant that they wish they came up with it first.
Jauz took over Cosmic Meadow later that Friday night, around the midnight hour. His graphics were stunning and incorporated a lot of shark imagery, but the music itself was hit and miss. The next day, in the middle of Saturday’s line up, the fabulous Alison Wonderland jammed the Cosmic Meadow. I love her DJ name, and the music was fun and bouncy, but repetitive. On Sunday evening, we arrived to the bittersweet knowledge that this was the last day of madness. What better way to start the final festival day than with Black Tiger Sex Machine (BTSM). They have a kinky name, and their music is similarly filthy. Their screen visuals included headbanging skulls with inverted crosses, as well as strobing black and white designs. In addition to being unexpectedly metal-esque, their performance was pulsing, intoxicating, and sexy.
Further into the dark night, Yellow Claw hit the stage. Even with all the grand spaciousness of the Cosmic Meadow, the crowd were packed tighter than a perfect blunt for this set. Viewed from the top of the bleachers, one could see the massive audience moving as one. Hailing from Amsterdam, this duo knows how to party hard. Their beats were dirty and dissonant, their lyrics were perverted, and even their visuals included lesbian make out sessions. I could see why hundreds of fans stood shoulder to shoulder together in the Las Vegas heat, spilling over the lawn and into the racetrack and bleachers, to see this gnarly performance. Yellow Claw hit hard and heavy. Any tension or bad vibes from the whole festival were purged with cathartic mosh pits during their set. Three separate circle pits opened up in the midst of the swarming horde, and threw down with a vengeance.
We remained at the top of the bleachers, with an eagles eye view of the sprawling festival grounds, to watch Ookay. All of the illuminated carnival rides, stages, and people were in the foreground, fireworks and lightshows in the periphery, a perfect crescent moon in the distance. That’s why they call it the electric sky: Virtually any vantage point offers a full horizon of flashing lasers and light beams. When seen from up high, in all of its glorious entirety, it is almost too overwhelming to behold or believe.
2. Kinetic Field
Home of the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as some of the top A list DJ’s on the roster, was Kinetic Field. Horus-like anthropomorphic owls towered over the entrance, with two more realistic giant owls flanking a colossal statue of Mother Nature on the stage. This otherworldly scene appeared both ancient and futuristic. The stage was fitted with large projecting screens, including a beating heart in the chest of the central female diety. There were also copious water effects, pyrotechnics, and special lighting, topped off with fireworks at night. Will Sparks, an Australian DJ, played a killer set early on Friday evening. This was followed up with the Opening Ceremony, in which the heart of the Mother Earth statue beats, and a welcome speech is recited over the speakers. This surreal experience was followed by GTA. Fusing several subgenres of electronic music, from trap to house to variations of hip hop, this performance had something for almost everybody. Martin Garrix took the stage next. His ambitious set was insanely catchy, with memorable hooks and intoxicating rhythms.
Marshmello was spectacular on Sunday night. Who needs psychotropic drugs when you have trippy visuals projected on screen, while one of the best DJs in the world spins on a psychedelic stage? Animations included brightly colored rainbows, a cute dancing marshmallow candy, and gooey Smores evoking a melted face (a euphemism for tripping on mushrooms). Surrounded by hundreds of fans on all sides, all jumping and dancing to the beat, it was a surreal communal experience, like a bizarre ritual. Half of the audience were decked out with Marshmello t shirts, bandanas, kandi, or totem poles. The handmade masks were especially impressive. This DJ drew a huge crowd, and it’s no wonder that his signature sound is so popular.
Tiesto has a characteristic aggressive style. His mixes are more dissonant than most, resulting in a distinct, dark sound. His unusually discordant pieces resonated with my metal sensibilities, while retaining the bounce of energetic party music. The warped, distorted beats were addictive. Hardwell was also a heavy-hitting DJ. Copious amounts of deep bass and keyboard effects added to his appeal. Lots of crunches and warbles kept his music unpredictable, a welcome surprise in the dance music scene.
3. Circuit Grounds
This was the quintessential rave venue, with monolithic speakers and enormous subwoofers surrounding the stage, as well as more amps blasting sound from the center of the audience area. There were also huge onstage screens, pyrotechnics, and fireworks. This venue hosted some of the biggest, baddest, and best DJs in the electronic scene. This stage was literally a wall of sound throughout the weekend. It seemed like no matter where you wandered, the huge amps on the Circuit Grounds could always be seen, heard and felt.
Don Diablo tore it up on Friday, and the whole line up for the first day was impressive. The next evening, Saturday, opened with Breaazy. His jaunty party jams were rollicking and danceable. During his set, I realized how truly huge the venue and stage were at the Circuit Grounds. Later that day, Tommy Trash drew a decent crowd by sundown, and we all welcomed the night with raucous celebration. His mixes had a rebellious edge, and most of the audience banged their heads to his set.The next day, the artsy stylings of Seven Lions attracted a huge audience late into Sunday’s line up. Ambient and atmospheric, this is an experimental twist on dance music.
III. The 5 Side Stages
Scattered throughout the festival grounds, these venues hosted some of the most talented disc jockeys in the dance scene. With a cornucopia of subgenres to choose from, these stages offered variety as well as quality.
1. Neon Garden
The place to be for downtempo trip hop. This venue had a cool set up, with giant glowing mushrooms outside the tent, and a big disco ball inside. The music sounded more old school, and the lighting was reminiscent of a club. Positive vibes, funky beats, and chill dancing defined this rave area. Sweet grooves and upbeat dance melodies made this a great spot to jam out. This was a blast to the past, with glitter, glowsticks, mirror balls, and strobe lights, all throwing back to the disco roots of modern techno and house music. Notable artists performing here included Marco Faraone, Green Velvet, and DJ Tennis.
2. Quantum Valley
Here was a mecca for fans of Trance. As the name implies, this subgenre of electronic music is enchanting and hypnotic. Atmospheric soundscapes, melodic ambience, and catchy dance beats all combine to make cerebral, yet rhythmic, compositions. My first encounter with the Quantum Valley was John Askew’s mid-Friday set. He blew me the hell away. His grooves were so catchy that I couldn’t stand it. His stage presence was mesmerizing, with fog machines, light projections, and even video screens on rotating squares. I remember the spinning Pacman ghosts were especially memorable. Over-the-top visual appeal, coupled with his outstanding music, made this one of the best performances I have ever attended.
Niko Zografos fucking shredded on Saturday. The whole floor was tangibly pulsing. Mellow yet intense, his trippy compositions are an excellent synthesis of organic melody and electronic logic. Refined musical techniques such as syncopation and key shifts made his music unique and dynamic. Just when you think the music couldn’t possibly get any better, it miraculously does. We wandered in and out of Quantum Valley throughout Sunday, and the whole house was always bouncing with energy. This last day of the carnival was more chilled out, but still vibrant. Quantum Valley was one of my favorite venues in all of EDC, rivalling the main stages in variety and quality.
It was while listening to trance in Quantum Valley that I had an epiphany. EDM songs, like many of my favorite thrash metal tracks, have abrupt changes in tempo, and modulations of key. This musical complexity is not only enjoyable, but also subtle and sophisticated.
3. Bass Pod
This was a gathering place for headbangers to get down and dirty with deep, bass-driven dance tracks. Their playlist was predominately dubstep. Borgore, Zomboy, and Snails were among the roster of heavy duty DJs. The audience collectively banged their heads to wobbling bass lines, syncopated beats, and throbbing pulses of sub bass frequencies. The pyrotechnics are especially powerful here, with bursts of flame blasting the stage from mounted torches. Last year, the Bass Pod was so lit that it actually caught on fire. The pyromaniac in me is impressed. Dubstep and heavy trap usually aren’t my vibe, but Bass Pod makes them look good.
Imagine a dystopian desert, whose border was surrounded by the crumbling remains of enormous obelisks. Sacred symbols of ankhs, scarabs, and eyes of Horus were rendered in old school spray paint graffiti. These gangsta tags were like a post-apocalyptic version of ancient, traditional hieroglyphics. The Egyptian themes here mirrored the imagery in main stage Kinetic Field, adding even more depth to the whole EDC experience. This dark sci-fi scenery was the perfect backdrop for heavier subgenres of EDM, such as hardstyle and jumpstyle.
Darksiderz opened up the first day, with hip hop driven rhymes fused with gothy beats. The result was a sinister sound, like everything was in a minor key, punctuated with aggressive bursts of dissonance. This spooky set was followed by the freaky stylings of Ruthless. They were similarly gritty and nasty, perfect for headbanging. DJ Noa played early Saturday afternoon, the start of the second night. His set was ambitious, incorporating elements of reggae, hip hop, and rap into his mixes. It was crazy in all the right ways. On our final night under the electric sky, we heard a remixed version of Linkin Park blaring from Wasteland’s speakers. This must have been Brennan Heart’s remix of In The End. It had a great hook and addictive rhythm, a fitting song to bid us farewell as we walked up the steps to the shuttle area, around 3 am Monday morning.
5. Upside Down House
Obscure gems were hidden in this treasure box. Underground artists laid down funky beats, freaky rhythms, and unique remixes. Quirky and eccentric, this was a venue for up and coming DJs to show off their skills. The dancefloor was popping and everybody was going wild. Hoola hoopers, whip dancers, poi spinners… There was some serious cardio happening here. The whimsical design of the stage was a plus, as it really did resemble a cute suburban house flipped on its head. I’m sure there’s some kind of social commentary or symbolism behind that adorable imagery. Astronomar, Cut Snake, and Treasure Fingers are among the noteworthy DJs performing here.
EDC is as famous for its art as it is for its music. Here were some prime examples of interactive displays.
1. Carnival Square
While amusement park rides were peppered throughout the festival grounds, most of them were clustered in Carnival Square. Ferris wheels, spinning contraptions, and coasters were all found around here. There were also live broadcasts of all 8 stages, with true-to-life sound and audio delivered in real time. Comfortable pillows and bean bags were scattered around a meadow of synthetic grass, where fans gathered to enjoy the show in relative luxury. The literal cherry on top was the deep fried, sugar coated goodness of carnie junk food. Yummy.
With cute little buildings quaint enough for a fairy tale, EDC Town was a stylized miniature of a real village. There was a schoolhouse with stationery – chalkboards, composition books, markers, and stickers- so the party goers could leave their mark and share their art. I appreciated the details, such as the cartoony owl posters giving sage advice like “Give a hoot about others” and “Owl-ways be yourself!” Next door was a theater for shows, reminiscent of a gypsy caravan or old timey circus side show. We caught a live showing of improvised performance art. It was weird, but enjoyable.
Next to the village were two temples where couples actually get married. Hey, it’s Vegas. Congrats to the newlyweds. Some ravers were playing on the carousel outside, a version of the playground ride. There were stained glass domes, elaborate shrines, and merchant tents all around the same area. On the other side of the festival grounds, a huge race car track, were fields of giant daisies and illuminated tunnels of neon light. I was impressed by the amount of care and love that went into making festival scenery. The attention to detail revealed the creators’ love for their craft.
3. Art Carts
These mobile vehicles were as numerous as they were varied, from cute beetle-shaped Lady Buggies to The Wench, a pirate ship float. Many of these oddities were street legal, including the stereo-shaped Boombox, a bus which hosted live DJs while dancers got down on the checkered dance floor outside. Parliament also stood out, as this stage resembled an owl’s nest, complete with a huge animatronic bird. Similar to the art carts Kalliope and Heathen, Parliament was fitted with custom pyrotechnics equipment, making for one hell of a show. While a few of the carts seemed to be decorative or ornamental, most of them cruised under the electric sky and dropped sweet beats wherever they roamed.
V. Conclusion: Paradox and Dichotomy
The relationship between metal and EDM is clearly more than tangential. For example, both metal and electronic music delve into themes of duality, which is interesting because they themselves are two sides to the same coin. While metal wallows in the darkness of humanity’s past, EDM looks toward the possibility of a bright future. Metal is dark and heavy, EDM is bright and light. These dichotomies are like the yin yang, with two equal but opposite entities complimenting each other.
Being electronic, EDM also evokes imagery of binary code. This is another example of the yin yang paradigm. A series of ones and zeros, something or nothing, contains infinite arrangements and possibilities. Similarly, a single song can be remixed several different ways. From musical structures to art installations to t shirt designs, fractals are a recurring theme in EDM. I also observed an obsession with outer space and aliens, keeping an open mind to other worlds and life forms. Not only are these themes fascinating in a scientific sense, but they are also metaphors for outsiders who never really fit in. I can relate to the philosophy and aesthetic behind the music, and I want to thank the EDM community for including me in their galactic party.