Over 10,000 EDM fans flocked to Jones Beach this weekend for the second annual Identity Festival, a two stage lineup of a dozen DJs at the forefront of the ever-growing electronic dance music movement. This longtime heavy metal Examiner found some day-glo sneakers and cheap shades and went to see what all the noise was about.
Thunderstorms raged across New York for most of early Saturday afternoon, threatening to completely soak the outdoor festivities, but by 6pm the skies began to clear just as I arrived in the surprisingly not-filled parking lot for what was supposed to be a sold out show. Once inside though, the lack of cars quickly made sense: the average age for Identity Festival attendees appeared to be 16, or not quite old enough for a driver’s license.
Jones Beach has already hosted a number of rock shows this summer, like June’s thrash-tacular Iron Maiden concert (read my review of it right here). Unlike that and most other Beach shows, however, the entire amphitheater venue was general admission, with seats available on a first come first serve basis. This allowed fans who arrived early enough to claim prime seats way up front, but with a catch. The lower sections were barricaded off once seat capacity was filled, and once someone left their seats, whether to go to the bathroom, buy a drink, or meet up with friends, they were not permitted back to the orchestra sections.
While the seating might have been frustrating, attendees clearly were having a good time no matter where they were. The pulsating thump of electronica could be felt throughout the grounds, and brightly dressed teens danced their way between the main amphitheater and a secondary stage set up in part of the parking lot.
For a metal fan used to all-black tshirt concerts, the neon green-hued tank tops and shorts were almost blinding, as were the glowing, multi-colored LED accessories being worn and sold everywhere in sight. Equally popular was an act named Molly, and while she didn’t appear on the schedule or list of set times, it was obvious from overheard conversations that in some ways, she was the prime attraction.
My friendly guide for the afternoon patiently explained the nuances of the festival’s different acts, with terms like progressive house and psychedelic trance. While Korn’s dubstep release last year first piqued my interest in electronica (read about Korn’s dubstep show at Roseland Ballroom here), and I enjoyed Shpongle’s Halloween show, Saturday’s house music all sounded the same to me, a throbbing beat over electronic sound manipulations that would slowly but surely build to a climax like a digital drumroll, then explode into the much-heralded “drop” that might be equivocated to a breakdown at a metal show. If you substitute wild dancing for moshing, the drops are incredibly heavy and quite enjoyable. Each of the day’s 14 acts was known for specializing in a subgenre of EDM and while I was unable to distinguish between them, most EDM fans probably couldn’t distinguish between speed metal and hardcore thrash either.
One notable difference between acts were the DJs versus the actual frontmen. Most of the acts I caught were simply DJs working on their laptops to produce the constantly rising and falling beats, but Showtek, a Dutch act of two brothers, put on a fun and interactive stageshow. One of them spent their entire set running around the stage, jumping around and pumping up the crowd as his brother DJed behind him. He contributed vocals and sprayed the audience with mist, and the duo put on an energetic, almost 90 minute set as the sky darkened over the beachfront.
Every DJ playing had some kind of visual component to go along with their music, psychedelic imagery flashing across 50 foot tall digital screens flanking the stage. But once it was dark, mainstage headliner Eric Prydz blew away all previous openers with fully immersive videos that used the staggered screens to project a sense of 3D depth. While the light show didn’t quite compare to, say Phish’s reknown displays, it was beautifully synched up to the music and played an equally important complement to the scorching beats, adding stunning imagery that flowed with the rising and falling beats.
Over by the second stage, a thousand or so kids raved to Noisia, free of the constraining seats and barricades in the main stage area. It was thoughtful of organizers to offer multiple stages and options for the entire length of the concert, and allowed those who wanted more space to be able to dance freely and without fear of getting in people’s way. It also seemed to be an opportune spot for those who could no longer stand on their own power, but nevertheless wanted to continue enjoying the show from the ground.
Most of the action was on the main stage, though, and fans could be seeing dancing and enjoying every second of the performance. This audiophile couldn’t tell what made Mr. Prydz more of a headliner than any other act on the bill, but the entire outdoor stadium of fans seemed to vibe together on his electric roller coaster of bass and loops, and I was assured that I was seeing “the sickest show ever, bro!” Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus was even sampled at one point, and the crushing, cascading beats were matched by the constant motion of thousands of swaying and grinding fans across multiple levels of the theater.
In addition to gloves with glowing fingertips, refracting laser glasses were popular and made for an intense combination together with glowsticks and other light-up accessories (see slideshow at the top of this page). Friends entertained each other in the aisles of the amphitheater with their glowing toys and bodies, and strangers danced with each other as the endless music throbbed on.
It became apparent to me that while the music might as well all be one single track, the joy of EDM isn’t in appreciating the fine art of live music instrumentation, but in simply letting loose in the digital vibrations of an all-out audio-visual experience. Rock shows frequently see row after row of fans sitting or standing with their arms folded, offering a modest head nod to heavier or catchier passages, but at Identity Festival every fan was clearly feeling the music and loving every second of it with all their bodily energy.
For such an intense show, the end of the night was surprisingly anti-climactic. Eric Prydz simply shut down his music, and two minutes later the house lights came up without an encore. I wouldn’t deign to judge all EDM shows by Identity Festival, but the encore is a pretty established part of any concert experience and many fans around me seemed as disappointed as I was.
So what exactly is the deal with electronic dance music, and how does it interest you and I as rock or metal fans? Judging by Saturday’s show, EDM is mostly about being young, being pumped up, and possibly (probably) being on the aforementioned Miss Molly. I found myself feeling relatively comfortable in the crowd, despite my black Metallica tour shirt not quite fitting in with the neon pinks and greens favored by the high schoolers who made up the majority of the young audience. I also found myself enjoying the music on a surface level even without the chemicals clearly in circulation, and while EDM doesn’t hold a candle to the gravitas often found in the vocals or guitarwork of a rock song, the thudding basslines, sizzling loops, and especially heavy “drops” did strike an intriguing nerve somewhere in this headbanger’s body.
EDM is definitely not for many metal purists, but if you’re open to rap or other sampling music, you may find artists like Showtek or Eric Prydz to be enjoyable. Electronic dance music is still a movement in its infancy, and it will be interesting to see how it evolves as it deals with commercial interests and a maturing fanbase, as well as integration with other musical genres. Regardless, this metalhead can see its appeal, and even if it won’t replace Pantera or Eyehategod in most of my playlists, there is certainly a time and place for it.
The next major festival comes to Randall’s Island for the last weekend of August, and the 3 day Electric Zoo is sure to be even bigger and brighter than Identity.
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