1. If you plan on going to any European music festivals this summer, make a point of seeing Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso. While the new partnership of the former Swedish House Mafia members is being referred to as a comeback, their tremendous 1 a.m. set at the Kinetic Field main stage Sunday night marked a distinct departure from the sleek, heavily produced EDM they once made with Steve Angello. Laden with grimy electro guitars and pummeling bass, their sound had more in common with the performers at HARD’s Cosmic Meadow stage than the mainstream-friendly Kinetic Field. Tracks like SHM’s own “Greyhound” were stripped of their big trancey synth pads and replaced with palatable touches of dubstep. The project doesn’t so much abandon SHM’s old sound—the pop sensibilities that brought them into arenas are very much still there—as it trims it of any fat. New tracks like opener “This Time We Can’t Go Home,” featuring a verse from Pusha T, are vicious and unrelenting—the beat dared the frenetic lights and immersive visuals to keep up. Vocals were kept to a minimum, brought in only after prolonged build-ups that left the crowd begging for a sing-along.
“On My Way,” with its Matthew Koma-esque vocals, was the poppiest of the five or so new songs thrown in among mixes from Alesso, Daft Punk, Hook N Sling and SHM. And while those sweeter, hookier tracks earned the most enthusiastic crowd reactions, Axwell and Ingrosso for now seem more interested in experimenting with their sound than catering to mass appeal. One new track, for example, was built on a live sample of the crowd’s screams, looped and fed back until it dissolved into a sputtering hiss that dropped into a muddled bassline. It’s not exactly boundary pushing, but in a just-press-play environment, Axwell and Ingrosso’s latest endeavor is certainly refreshing.
2. Jumping and fist-pumping may be the moves du jour in modern nightlife, but it turns out dancing isn’t dead at EDC. Its new Stage 7 was a shrine to the ‘D’ in EDM, a two-story set up with a large central dance floor adorned by a single mirrorball, a throwback to the warehouse dance spaces of yore and nothing like the maximalist EDC stages surrounding it. With the DJ booth nestled humbly within one of the walls (all unfortunately scrolling 7-Up ads), the lineup of largely under-the-radar acts spun an array of house, pop, hip-hop and commercial EDM that drew a crowd just as diverse. With plenty of room to bust a move, old school ravers and b-boys mingled with shirtless bros and guys in Deadmau5 costumes. During LA house veteran DJ Dan’s Sunday night set, a massive dance circle formed that saw top-notch breakers, voguers and pop-and-lockers go head to head.
Back-to-back sets from disco-house DJs Plastic Plates and Le Youth were difficult to abandon if, like us, you were trying to catch any concurrent sets. Neither may be household names, especially among the EDC lot, but they worked their crowds deftly with familiar pop samples interspersed with the rhythmic give-and-take that can make house so addictive.
3. If you haven’t had a chance to see free-form DJ Bassnectar perform, it’s worth your while. His scuzzed-out, teeth-rattling beats and penchant for dissonance don't exactly make for easy listening, but he’s a terrific manipulator of sound, turning samples inside out before detonating them. The set was a little heavy on dubstep and screechy synths for my taste—this is EDC, after all—but at his best, Bassnectar creates a wash of sound you can step inside.
4. The techno/house-friendly Neon Garden peaked with its back-to-back pairing of Maya Jane Coles and Art Department late Sunday night. Coles' sexy, mellow beats primed the crowd for the more aggressive but equally sexed-up set from Art Department (which easily had the most make-out inducing set of the festival.) As if on cue, throngs of fans flocked to the stage when the Canadian duo took the decks, getting down to a psych-kissed house sound that felt more filled out than many of their Neon Garden peers, or even their own recordings. The pair’s knack for wrapping polyrhythms around thick basslines creates something that is both raw and elegant, cerebral and carnal. It’s no surprise that Art Department has one of the fastest growing fanbases of the growing "deep" scene.
5. Which brings me to my final thought: I saw larger crowds at niche stages like drum 'n' bass-friendly BassPod and Neon Garden this year than I'd seen at any other edition of EDC Las Vegas, while the energy of the larger, star-studded stages felt sleepy compared to the previous years. The reign of lowest-common-denominator EDM is far from over, but it seems some dance fans are also evolving beyond the 128 BPM fist-pump. For all that’s problematic about modern electronic dance music, there’s something to be said for how it has begun to drive listeners to the more left-of-the-dial permutations they might not have discovered otherwise.