It’s probably no coincidence that Maya Jane Coles, the 24-year-old British-Japanese producer and one of very few female artists on the bill at Saturday’s HARD Day of the Dead, helmed the best set of the night.
On a bill devoted to skull-knocking techno and dubstep from genre staples such as Justice and newcomer Knife Party, Coles' set of deep and entrancing house was more than a palate-cleanser from the sternum-punch bass drops shaking L.A. State Historic Park.
The rich mystery of her mixes (she’s remixed Florence & the Machine and Lianne La Havas) was stark evidence of the “dude problem” in the ascent of electronic dance music in America, and what that means for the kinds of stories that EDM tells today.
There was an artist at Day of the Dead called Bro Safari, for goodness' sakes. We've nothing against bros, being one ourselves, but it's time they lost their monopoly on mainstream-ish dance music today.
Saturday was the first HARD event to be planned entirely after the company’s merger with Live Nation. Longtime fans wouldn’t have noticed much difference, save for some more efficient amenities and better stage plotting (moving the main stage to the far north end of the field did wonders for preventing bleed-over among neighboring acts).
The success of the HARD franchise suggests the fests are must-see events in themselves, beyond any particular lineup that's playing. This year's Day of the Dead, an update of the popular HARD Haunted Mansion series, sold out to the tune of 35,000 tickets. It follows August's two-day HARD Summer.
The headlining French duo Justice beat expectations at this year's Coachella with a set as mean and distilled as a shot of high-proof whiskey. They didn't vary the formula much at Day of the Dead, and its prog-metal with a four-on-the-floor beat felt less immediate the second time around.
Diplo might be the most reliable and omnivorous party-purveyor in America right now. Saturday’s set caught him in two guises — his solo act and as half of the dancehall-infused Major Lazer. The top-billed sets were all fine and effective but not much from them felt gobsmacking.
The aforementioned “dude problem” felt more pronounced in the immediate undercard. In the wake of Skrillex (a.k.a. Sonny Moore, who didn’t perform Saturday but who did hold court backstage) an Americanized strain of roided-up dubstep has a chokehold on the genre, without any of Moore’s charisma or sneaky musicality.
It’s not that acts like Knife Party (a new effort from members of the much-derided electro-rock band Pendulum) and Kill the Noise (who has produced for mook-metal titans Korn) are the problem – or at least no more so than the other leaves on this grim branch of the EDM family tree are. It’s that the rush to make copycat, festival-slaying sounds is crowding out a lot of artistry.
Youth music movements are all about the big rush and wild energy, but a few years into the U.S. EDM wave, we’re hitting a point of diminishing returns from stuff like this. No teenager wants to get caffeinated, dolled up in face paint and rally a dozen friends to a field to sit and listen attentively to James Blake. But as the music at EDM fests gets more overtly masculine, it unsurprisingly gets more boring.
A round of late-night acts in the more-thoughtful Discotheque tent – which included France’s Gesaffelstein and Boston’s Soul Clap – might have a solution. Their sets were total party music – hypnotic kicks, fizzy builds, snare claps you felt in your bone marrow. But they felt like they had a story to tell about the ways dance music can command and rewire your emotions over the course of a set.
Above all, that's what Maya Jane Coles was best at – reminding a crowd that dance music is an inexhaustible source of possibility. Bros on safari should put their guns down for a bit.