An Island Sways to Dance Moves and Disco Balls
Clean or dirty? Uplifting or brutal? Those were choices dance-music fans could make on Saturday, the second day of the weekend-long Electric Zoo 2011 on Randalls Island. They could go for the polished tones, warm chords and step-by-step buildups of trance and house, the overlapping styles that have long dominated dance clubs worldwide and that gave Electric Zoo its headliners: Tiesto on Friday, David Guetta on Saturday and Armin van Buuren on Sunday. The unsubtle four-on-the-floor beat of trance has been a longtime staple of European pop hits, and in recent years American acts like Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga and Rihanna have also embraced it.
The D.J. Skrillex at the Electric Zoo outdoor dance festival on Saturday.
Or they could get knocked around by the squirmy, distorted bass lines, sudden blasts and saw-toothed bits of melody of dubstep, which after years of enjoyment by devotees is now making itself known to a broader United States audience through D.J.’s like Skrillex, whose fans screamed with joy on Saturday afternoon.
And of course they could try both, and more. Electric Zoo scheduled 12 hours of music a day on four stages, and Saturday — the day I attended — offered 34 acts with hourlong and 90-minute sets. Randalls Island became a multiplex of temporary dance floors, with a stadium-scale stage for headliners and three tents with club-quality surround-sound systems. Disco balls hung in a grove of trees that was turned into a light show of its own after sunset.
Trance takes pleasure in predictability: a repeated cycle of ethereal keyboard chords and voices, joined by a lightly ticking beat, crescendoing with layers of arpeggios and siren noises until — wait for it — the bass drum arrives to slam its four on the floor. (And usually the D.J. throws his hands in the air.) It’s a bouncy, mechanized march toward euphoria, promising “positive vibes,” as a vocal sample declared during the set by Above & Beyond, an English trance group with clear pop aspirations. Mr. Guetta’s video backdrop proclaimed “Nothing but The Beat,” but what mattered far more were the tunes and pop hooks of a career that he is pushing toward radio hits; he regularly turned down the volume so the crowd could sing the choruses.
The best trance sets on Saturday toyed with the cycle. Sander van Doorn, a Dutch disc jockey, often detoured into new material instead of finishing a typical buildup, mocking and trumping expectations. Ferry Corsten, also Dutch, made his trance more ominous by dipping into minor keys. Joachim Garraud, from France, removed some of the standard chordal cushioning and played live keyboard lines to give his trance a hint of frenzy.
The true disruptions came from dubsteppers: Skrillex and 12th Planet. They make music that plunges toward sub-bass and screeches from the midrange, with analog-flavored sounds that make trance sound domesticated. They piled bursts of double-time percussion atop torpid, slithering bass lines; 12th Planet mixed rude-boy reggae vocals in his set, referring back to dubstep’s prime source. Their sets weren’t marches but a series of lurches, free falls, sprints, creeps, thrusts and whipsaws — walloping physical fun.
Some longtime D.J.’s — John Digweed, Carl Craig, Danny Tenaglia — were also on the bill, practicing something increasingly rare: the seamless set, one that changes continuously but incrementally, one subliminal detail at a time. All three were kinetic and also darkly absorbing, journeys rather than jukeboxes.
The wild card was Bloody Beetroots Death Crew 77, an Italian group that, unlike the daylong procession of laptop tappers and disc jockeys, played keyboards, drums and guitar onstage along with its electronic music. At first it offered four-on-the-floor workouts, sometimes decorated with classical-piano filigree. But amid the strobe lights it suddenly turned into a rock band, blasting a foul-mouthed punk taunt and belting Led Zeppelin-style metal. It paused to play loungey instrumentals that could have come from an Italian movie soundtrack. It was as if Faith No More had taken over the stage. While there were some cheers, there was also a major exodus toward Mr. Corsten’s set, where the trance was still thumping steadily.