By Josh Stillman
September 04, 2012 at 02:51 PM EDT


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After a slew of EDM festivals this summer — Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, Las Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival — New York City’s Electric Zoo served up the season’s last big dose of trance, house, and dubstep.

Featuring a bevy of the biggest names in electronic music performing for three days on New York City’s Randall’s Island, Electric Zoo was an orgiastic, exhausting, often monotonous, occasionally euphoric experience.

The vibe was palpable as soon as revelers entered the festival on a hilltop overlooking a frothing sea of neon — impossibly thin girls in rainbow lingerie and guys in morphsuits and banana costumes, all swarming to the throbbing 4/4 bass kicks that would pulse incessantly for nearly 72 hours.

Specks of light from joints and iPhones dotted the crowd, and the sweet-acrid aroma of tobacco, weed, and warm beer was inescapable.  Rising above it all like Egyptian temples were three separate tents and an uncovered main stage, each capable of packing in tens of thousands of ravers.  It was the kind of blissed-out, anything-goes environment where you get offered drugs (which I was, within ten minutes of arriving) and asked for drugs (which I was, three times) without second thought or threat of arrest.

The big house acts like David Guetta and Steve Aoki played a retinue of pop material – Guetta remixed One Republic’s “Too Late to Apologize” and closed with “Without You,” his hit single with Usher; Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” was remixed by at least three DJs, including Luciano and Datsik; and Colplay proved a repeat favorite, with various acts playing their own dance versions of “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” “Fix You,” and “Clocks.”

But thankfully, it wasn’t just a Top-40 smorgasbord.  I spoke with Rusko, the pioneering dubstep producer behind such genre staples as “Woo Boost” and “Cockney Thug,” who suggested that the “super tranced-out” form will likely move more toward hip-hop as it evolves.  And he had a point: many of the weekend’s DJs (at least, the ones playing dubstep) found interesting ways to work hip-hop tracks into their sets.

Pretty Lights, for instance, set the lyrics from Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” over Nas’ “New York State of Mind,” while Datsik performed wearing a shirt reading “Bring Da Ruckus” and opened with a Wu-Tang remix, and Excision dropped Jibbs’ “Chain Hang Low.”  Even Skrillex, the Grammy-winning 24-year-old dubstep wunderkind, played a remix of Kill Frenzy’s “Booty Clap” during his headlining set Sunday night.

Amid the star power of artists like Tiësto and Diplo, there were a few smaller acts that stood out from the fray.  Claude Vonstroke, who played in the comparably tiny Sunday School Grove tent, functioned as a bit of an antidote to the synth-laden main-stage bombast.  His sparse, understated house, consisting sometimes of little more than bass and woodblocks, gave the audience a persistent and rhythmically unique groove without any overbearing intensity; his opening song, a sample from the 1991 rap classic “Buggin’ Out” by A Tribe Called Quest, set the tone with its relaxed, deeply funky bass line.

Z-Trip, an immensely talented LA DJ with an impressive pedigree, put on what was in my estimation the festival’s best show.  Scratching live on two turntables (talk about old-school), his explosively energetic show mashed up everyone from Ginuwine to Led Zeppelin and had the mid-afternoon crowd jumping ecstatically for a full hour.

At one point during the show he shouted, “I’m the alternative!” and at a festival where there was nary a turntable to be found, he was emphatically right.  And Benny Benassi, that Italian techno stalwart known for the ubiquitous 2002 hit “Satisfaction,” managed to outplay the hugely popular Steve Aoki, who was performing in the adjacent tent.  In the youth-fetish community of EDM, Benassi, who is 45, is a dinosaur; yet his frenetic, surprisingly current set (he closed with Skrillex and J. Rabbit remixes of “Cinema” and “Satisfaction,” respectively, both of which are Benassi originals) was one of the best raves of the weekend.

At a certain point, enjoying these festivals becomes purely athletic, a sheer test of endurance.  For one, it’s all dance music; but more than that, it’s music that demands total commitment, total surrender and euphoric release.  That’s like asking for a perpetual climax.  There’s no break, no downtime, no stasis from which to emerge — and when euphoria is the stasis, the experience inevitably loses its effect.  To maintain the effect Electric Zoo promises requires that you’re either in marathon shape or getting plenty of chemical assistance, and I’m guessing that many of these fans aren’t distance runners.

But it’s still massively popular and, for the most part, wildly entertaining.  Festival organizers expected more than 100,000 attendants this year, and the international fan base proudly waved flags from France, Spain, Turkey, Canada, Israel, Sweden, and Brazil.  As the warm September sun set behind the East Harlem skyline to the deafening tune of the world’s biggest DJs, one couldn’t help but acknowledge the weekend’s surreal beauty.

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