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Review: HARD Summer Music Festival 2012

This year's electronic dance festival attempts to play the usual hard and fast strains while sneaking in nods to the transformative possibilities of dance music.

August 05, 2012|By August Brown
  • Fans capture the moment and more during Nero's set at the HARD Summer Music Festival on Saturday at L.A. State Historic Park downtown.
Fans capture the moment and more during Nero's set at the HARD Summer… (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles…)

Amid the bass-heavy bluster at the second night of the electronica festival HARD Summer on Saturday in Los Angeles' Chinatown, the best song anyone played was a Neil Young cover.

James Murphy, the LCD Soundsystem frontman and an inspired crate-digger of rare disco cuts, was a few tunes into his late-night DJ set when he quietly slipped in an edit of the folk rocker's “Harvest Moon” by the local dance duo Poolside.

It's an unlikely fit for a rave tent, as Young's version is a spooky, minimal tune about maturing love. But Poolside's mix spun it into a dazed and star-struck love song in this setting -- there was even some prom-style slow dancing in the audience.

PHOTOS: HARD Summer Music Festival

With the ambient glow of downtown L.A. and a haze of blue light in Murphy's tent, it was such an exquisite moment of DJ grace that it made most of the face-shredding dubstep outside feel almost childish. But this year's HARD Summer attempted to do both -- play the hard, fast and oblivious strains of music that young people have loved since time immemorial while sneaking in nods to the transformative possibilities of dance music.

This year's event, the sixth installment of the fest and the first to expand to two nights, split the difference between the influences of HARD's longtime DJ and dance promoter Gary Richards with the needs of the growing festival, which has become the definitive dance-music event in Los Angeles proper since the 2011 departure of Electric Daisy Carnival to Las Vegas. Live Nation acquired Richards' HARD Events in June, but this year's lineup remained true to his omnivorous instincts.

Friday had the broader scope, with acts including the dance-punk band Bloc Party, Little Dragon, Miike Snow and P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins. The ’70s funk legend is perhaps the man responsible for moving the most bodies in music thanks to his work being sampled by countless hip-hop and dance artists over the years.

Saturday's marquee, however, put almost all its chips on the young sound of the moment -- the tinnitus-inducing dance music from new boy-king Skrillex, the serrated beats of peers Nero and the Bloody Beetroots, and an entire tent devoted to even younger Skrillex cabinet-members from his influential label OWSLA.

A few artists successfully bucked that sensibility. Warp Records standard-bearer Squarepusher played a digitally filleted bass solo that almost cleared the field but brought some needed arty antagonism to the night. Two artists from the rising San Francisco Dirtybird label -- Justin Martin and Claude VonStroke -- had foundations in hot-grinding house music but deployed the sound in spacious and tasteful ways.

But the night belonged to Skrillex and Skrillex-ishness. Three artists from OWSLA -- Alvin Risk, Dillon Francis and Zedd -- hew closer to the straight dance end of the spectrum than their label boss. But they have the same affection for fast-moving edits and a noisy, eager-to-please sense of pacing. Even if their aesthetics suggest a faint belief that Daft Punk invented dance music at Coachella in 2006, the kids are all right if this is what they're up to.

PHOTOS: HARD Summer Music Festival

The London combo Nero, one of the biggest and most self-serious new acts in the scene, could be considered dubstep's version of eclectic British rock band Muse -- using blown-out signifiers from jungle, bass music and hard house while salting the joy out of each of them. When guest singer Alana Watson joined them live, they almost found an arena-rock sweet spot on tunes such as “Promises.” But two awkward instances where the sound cut out for 10-second intervals came as kind of a reprieve.

The sight of tens of thousands of people freaking out in a field flanked by industrial sprawl must have been quite a homecoming for Skrillex. Even the most leathery sailors in the electronica scene are starting to acknowledge that he's here to stay, and that he's tapped a potent and novel vein in the genre. Tracks such as “Right In” and “Right on Time” swerved all over the road but had a precocious insouciance. He's also thinking bigger visually, performing from inside a two-story spaceship and in front of witty video clips, such as a Bollywood remake of Michael Jackson's “Thriller.”

Young probably would have ridden the first steed out of Laurel Canyon to get away. But then again, the guy played with Crazy Horse -- maybe he'd have stuck around for the noise.

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