With the notorious (and hugely attended) Electric Daisy Carnival having relocated to Las Vegas, a neon tank-top-shaped void opened up in L.A.’s rave scene – and Hard Summer founder Gary Richards clearly aims to fill it.
In its third year at the L.A. State Historic Park, just outside of the city’s downtown, Hard Summer expanded to two days for the first time, growing from a party into a full-on festival. Richards stuck to the ethos that has guided his bookings since his first event in 2007: That electronic music should be heavy, aggressive and relentless, with an attitude that’s more punk rock than peace and love.
Those festival-goers who got off work in time to arrive at the festival by 7:30 were rewarded with Little Dragon’s amped-up live take on their collection of catchy synth-pop, probably the grooviest set anyone would hear all weekend.
Another pleasant surprise was the collection of hip-hop talent on display at the Fool’s Gold Clubhouse stage on Friday. The Clubhouse was still sparsely attended when Action Bronson came out and spat his Ghostface-Killah-goes-to-culinary-school rhymes from the middle of the crowd. An hour later, acerbic rapper Danny Brown pumped up the energy with spot-on renditions of "Monopoly" and "Blunt after Blunt."
Although the sweaty thousands who immediately packed the Clubhouse stage for his performance may disagree, producer Araabmuzik’s live set functions better as a display of virtuosic skill than an actual musical performance. Smacking his MPC like Mike Tyson, Araabmuzik’s improvised drum trigger attack twisted into and over various generic dubstep. Accompanied by an equally merciless strobe, the set was impressive, if not exactly enjoyable.
After that sensory assault, Bloc Party’s performance felt downright languid. Through no fault of their own, the post-punk outfit felt out of place, playing full songs with actual instruments – and although "Banquet" and "Positive Tension" remain masterful, the crowd was noticeably low-energy.
At one point in the set, frontman Kele Okereke asked the crowd, "The question is, Hard festival, how bad do you want it?" The unfortunate answer was they wanted "it" bad – as long as "it" had a beat. This result also played out at the Red Bull Discotheque stage, where funk legend Bootsy Collins played to a sadly sparse crowd. Although Collins dropped classic jams like "Ahh...the Name is Bootsy, Baby," analog groove couldn’t draw compared to digital bombast at this festival.
Of course, main stage closer Boys Noize had no problems bringing the beat. The German producer and DJ eschewed the skeletal buzzsaw electro of his albums for a set of throbbing techno and house that trampled straight ahead unceasingly for an hour, leaving its recipients breathless and dazed as they headed to the exits.
On Saturday, the park was noticeably more crowded, approaching what felt like sold-out capacity, as the festival – aside from some minor hiccups – saved the best for last.
As the sun set, Squarepusher led off the night’s procession of relentless bass with his own technical take on the genre. Although Squarepusher released his debut album in 1996, he fit right in, with a custom LED display system and a new album, "Ufabulum," that sounds like the nerdier cousin of modern dubstep.
In a warm-up for the festival’s climax, U.K. duo Nero played their slick, symphonic take on dubstep, dropping barnburners like "Doomsday" as well as near-ballad "Me & You." Nero’s set, however, was unfortunately cut a few minutes short due to technical difficulties, resulting in a resounding chorus of groans from the audience.
As midnight passed, James Murphy gamely tried to offer a more tender alternative for festival goers, opening his set with Poolside’s sumptuous remix of Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon," but to little avail, as a vast majority of the crowd shifted like the tide towards the main stage for the festival’s main draw – Skrillex.
In case anyone was worried he’d gone soft – yes, Skrillex dropped the bass. When Sonny Moore dropped hits "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," "Rock and Roll (Will Take You to the Mountain)" and "My Name is Skrillex," melodic, catchy verses would build over and over before exploding in a cathartic assault of sound that each time got the vast crowd’s hands waving in the air.
DJing from a Star Wars-quality model spaceship and backed by a visual display that varied from the standard LED attack to footage of videogames and custom animations, Skrillex was fully in command as he detoured into several woozy tracks that referenced dubstep’s distant ancestry in dub and reggae. To close, however, Skrillex went back to his bread and butter, playing his massive remix of Benny Benassi’s "Cinema," inspiring tens of thousands to sing along unprompted.
"Los Angeles, it’s so good to be home," Skrillex said several times during his set. Nobody in attendance seemed likely to disagree.