Electric Zoo enjoyed one of its first drama-less fests this year, free of weather delays and tragedies (so far). The three-day dance-music blowout on NYC's Randall's Island was blessed with perfectly sunny, breezy weather and a relatively calm crowd. From veteran DJs to buzzy young talent, surprising mash-ups to octopus-shaped stages, here are the best and raviest things we saw at the Zoo this year.
Cashmere Cat's Friday set started strong with Travis Scott's excellently named "Maria I'm Drunk" and only got better from there, as the Norwegian producer proceeded to intercut songs like Future's "I Thought It Was a Drought" and Migos' "Hannah Montana" throughout his syrupy, trap-heavy turn. The real highlight came toward the end, though, when Cashmere Cat threw on Vapordog's mash-up of Silento's "Watch Me" and Ariana Grande's "One Last Time" that turned the Vine-famous hit into a soothing pop ballad.
Walking into the Hilltop Arena on Sunday during Glitch Mob's evening set felt like entering a rave on a spaceship. The trio looked like our fearless alien commanders from behind their complex booth, complete with ornately designed drums and prominently displayed red sample boards. The indoor stage felt like a cloud of smoke, light and sound as the Mob's gritty, dystopian show sent hearts racing and eyes darting to follow the many the visual stimulants on their stage. The multimedia spectacle transformed Tupac's "California Love" into a sci-fi journey through Southern California, while Glitch Mob's own "I Need My Memory Back" and "Carry the Sun" became cinematic scores for a movie starring the entire audience.
As the Sunday sun began to set, the Van den Hoef brothers of DVBBS filled what felt like the entire park with energy and bass. The two Jon Snow look-alikes launched their set by jumping off their booth and letting the fog and confetti shroud the audience. The bros' bro-y energy was confirmed by their indulgence in making the audience repeatedly scream, "Hey, we want some pussy!" But the pair's synchronized headbanging made that vibe seem almost artistic, as the Van den Hoefs flipped their shoulder-length curls in aggressive, frenetic unison. Between the drills and drops, the boys showed that their set was primarily a celebration of being young and dope, adding in Dillon Francis' "When We Were Young" along with their own "We Were Young."
Ansolo is the DJ alter-ego of 21-year-old heartthrob actor Ansel Elgort, best known for his roles in the Divergent series and The Fault in Our Stars. While his showbiz career has taken off immensely, he's a newbie in music. Judging by his mid-afternoon main-stage appearance on Saturday, he's more than happy to merely be included. Elgort wore a massive smile on his face as he played a straightforward EDM set. The actor jumped around, flailed his arms and fist-pumped his way through his hour-long gig as if he were dancing in the crowd with everyone else. While he mainly chopped up big hits like Disclosure's "Latch," Galantis' "Runaway" and Zedd's "Beautiful Now," Elgort threw in a few surprises, including Earth, Wind and Fire's "September" and the Killers' "When You Were Young," juggling genres like a hyper kid in a candy store.
While dance-music festivals are designed to urge fans to actually dance, they also seek to create an immersive, visually appealing experience. To go along with the "zoo" theme of Electric Zoo, this year's fest featured two animal-inspired stages. Across the way from the massive, bird-themed main stage sat the much smaller, even more intricate Riverside Stage. The tree-covered setting combined with the cartoonish, borderline-spooky octopus design — with its oversize yellow eyes and huge, curling tentacles— created a mythic atmosphere, sending attendees down the rabbit hole and out of a typical festival experience.
A 1 p.m. set at Electric Zoo is less than ideal, but Jackal woke everyone up with a bass-heavy Saturday performance in the tented Hilltop Arena. Given the rising U.K. DJ-producer's moniker, song titles ("Chinchilla," "Animal Style"), and colorful visuals featuring neon sketches of animals running and moving in time to the music, he fit in extremely well with the weekend's immersive zoo theme. His trap-heavy set was both dynamic and rousing, drawing a growing crowd of early-risers needing a pick-me-up to survive Day 2 of the festival. Jackal hit a hard-to-beat high note toward the end of his set when played a remix of Missy Elliott's "Work It." As soon as the rapper said, "This the kind of beat that goes…," Jackal dropped the bass and set the tone for the rest of the fest.
In one of the farthest reaches of the festival grounds sat a small, intricately designed DJ booth called the Treehouse. There, various performers gave attendees a minor reprieve from the crowds who packed the area around the main stage as well as the indoor, tented arenas like Hilltop. One of the Treehouse's finest moments went down before Alesso's Sunday headlining set, as East Coast house DJs Dev Bhandari and Jean Pierre teamed up for a smooth, entrancing performance that was a perfect palate cleanser between assaults of pounding bass and heavy drops. The highlight came halfway through, with the entrance of C'hantal's "The Realm," a track that has never sounded better over a house beat.
Randall's Island literally transformed into an electric zoo thanks to numerous animal-shaped art installations that lit up at night and peppered the park. The most gorgeous one also happened to the most alive — performers on stilts wore light-up zebra costumes and swayed in a circle near the Hilltop Arena. The entrancing visual drew crowds almost as big as some of the smaller stages.
The Chemical Brothers have been performing since before many of the Electric Zoo DJs — and attendees — were born, and their knowledge and experience were evident during their Friday main-stage set, which succeeded without relying on heavy drills, drops and tricks. The big-beat duo offered a perfect mix of old and new, though the newer tracks, like this year's "Go" and 2007's "Do It Again," were two of the biggest crowd-pleasers. The Brothers also presented savvy visual accompaniment in the form of psychedelic clips and references to their own filmography — including repeated use of the terrifying clown seen in their 2012 Don't Think movie.
Alesso has learned a lot from his mentors in Swedish House Mafia — and may have usurped them as the perfect main-stage EDM act. The 24-year-old closed out the festival on Sunday with a dynamic, celebratory set that sounded like flipping the dial between various Top 40 radio stations. He began with a chopped and screwed take on Maroon 5's most recent single, "This Summer's Gonna Hurt Like a Motherfucker," which segued into an ADD-style musical trip perfect for the packed, still energetic Zoo crowd. Alesso was a confident leader, noticeably thrilled as the crowd sang along to his own hits — "Sweet Escape," "Heroes" — even more loudly than they did for songs like Calvin Harris' "How Deep Is Your Love" and Major Lazer's "Lean On" and "Febreeze." At the end of a long weekend, Alesso's performance was a reminder of what a truly spectacular festival set can be.