• My First Festie in 15 Years: A Veteran Raver’s Musings on Countdown

    My First Festie in 15 Years: A Veteran Raver’s Musings on Countdown

    For those who have read some of my previous pieces with Insomniac.com, it should be apparent that I am a rave veteran and that I tend toward the underground in my musical tastes. For those who haven’t read me yet, hello. My name is Layla Marino. I am an independent contributor for Insomniac.com and a recovering jaded raver.

    This year at Countdown 2016/2017, the editorial staff gave me a challenge I never imagined I would have to face, due to my rampant and unapologetic (though slowly changing) underground status: cover the modern scene and give observations in a clear, concise and generally neutral manner. It was with some trepidation that I took on this task, as my last venture into festival territory was in 2001 at Nocturnal Wonderland. Now, 15 years later in the face of this assignment, I had a lot of questions. What’s changed? Would I be able to handle it? Are these huge blowout parties really worth it? What’s the draw? This article was my idea. Half curiosity, half self-flagellation, I pondered these questions and realized they were all part of a much larger one: Is the spirit of the community the same as it once was?

    By the time I went to my last festival, the sixth Nocturnal Wonderland in 2001, raves had already grown to what was, in my eyes, an intolerable grandiosity. In 1996 in the US, the drum & bass, hardcore and underground hip-hop scenes were making a discernable break from the larger rave scene, and that rift exists to this day. If you can’t tell by now, I went underground. Since drum & bass was really my heart’s music and I’m generally not a fan of crowds, the small club atmosphere and nothing but 170-BPM breakbeat was where I’ve made my home these 15 years. Now, with the advent of dubstep and trap, as well as huge, elaborate and well-organized festivals with killer lineups such as Countdown, it seems the scene is jelling once again—and quite nicely, from all reports. So, it was with no small amount of curiosity—and a perspective more like that of a first-timer than a seasoned grump—that I headed into the dance once again to see what’s changed and, more importantly, what has stayed the same.

    What is this weird, magical land I’m stepping into?

    This is literally what I thought to myself when I stepped onto the grounds of the NOS Events Center on the first day of Countdown. Artwork has always been a big part of raves, and it used to get pretty elaborate, but the scale here far exceeded anything I could have imagined. Aside from the elaborately constructed stages and visuals, there was a whole world of awe-inspiring visual art stations, a huge installation sculpture in the “lake,” and trees everywhere lit up with artistically done lanterns. The outside of the stage tents even had visuals reflected on them. I wouldn’t say my gob was smacked per se, but it was very impressive.

    Stage visuals to dazzle the eye

    Having interviewed Seven Lions and his visual tech team earlier in 2016, I know that visuals are getting more elaborate, both in graphic production and in stage builds. The former stands to good reason. The abilities of graphic artists and designers to create incredible graphics and art pieces is at such a level now that I wouldn’t even venture to compare them to the rave days of yore. That said, it’s the huge stages, the artistry with which they’re built (more like elaborate sets than stages), and the amount of coordination between stage techs and lighting techs and graphic artists that impressed me. I got to watch Seven Lions from front of the house while his graphics tech, Ian Alvarez, controlled the visuals. It looked like Ian was rocking out with his effects board just as much as Seven Lions himself as he DJed. It’s a live visual performance in every possible way and definitely adds a new dimension to the dance that I never thought could be such a big part of the show.

    What exactly are the DJs doing back there?

    As previously stated, the three stages at Countdown were built to such dizzying proportions that the visuals were definitely the focus of most of the performances. The visuals were indeed impressive, but even from the very front of the dancefloor, the DJs tended to look like ants. More performance-oriented DJs jumped up on platforms above the tables (do you kids still use that term?) to dance around or pump up the crowd. Rave legends Rabbit in the Moon used the platforms below them on the Infinity Stage to put on some serious theatrics, with dancers and weird pantomimes. That said, it was tough to see what the DJs were actually doing. Here’s where I hit the readers with a “back in my day”: in the early days, and still quite often at smaller parties, people who are into the technical side of the music want to see how the DJ is mixing songs, what effects are being used, does he/she have a drum machine, et cetera. The DJ would usually be on floor level or a little higher, so that such interested parties could watch what he or she was doing. With more of an emphasis on music production in EDM nowadays, I get why live performances have switched to being more visual in nature, but for the music nerd that I am, that bit might be a little lost in translation at festivals. It’s not better or worse, I suppose, just a different experience.

    It seems like every third song is an ‘80s pop remix

    This is definitely very new. During Countdown this year, I heard remixes of not only pop songs, but Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. If I’m honest, some of the remixes were very silly, but I think (or I hope) that was the point. Nothing like a remix of an old butt rock song to get the crowd going, am I right? In the Resolution tent, it did feel a little excessive at times, but the crowd certainly enjoyed it. Why not sing your heart out to Bon Jovi while raving 2016 away?

    What the heck are those flag things?

    Ok, don’t laugh; I really had no clue. This shows just how sheltered I’ve been from big festivals and for how long. I actually asked this exact question to my friends. Totems! A way to find your crew in a sea of people, a fun way to express yourself outside of clothes, a tribal statement of many groups coming together to be part of a bigger shared consciousness? Yes, I am on board. I now know that this is not a new phenomenon, but to me, it was a revelation. What an amazing way to speak volumes about community, artistry and friendship without saying a word. Some of these totems were breathtakingly elaborate, and some were hilarious. Call me a noob, but I was so struck by the totems that I did a whole other piece on it. This might possibly have been my favorite part of the festival, and it came from the Headliners!

    Uhhh… what happened to the drum & bass room?

    The Quantum Stage was taken over on day 2 of Countdown by Bassrush, and of course there was drum & bass. The likes of TC, Dimension, 1991, and D&B/dubstep straddle Zomboy were all on the killer lineup. Generally, however, the way lineups on all three stages were done was a bit of a shock to this oldie moldy raver. I’m sure there’s some good reason why a glitched-out tech dub producer like Rezz was put right up against the more dreamy Electric Mantis, or why in the Bassrush Experience the lineup seemed to switch randomly from D&B to dub and back again, but I couldn’t fully get my head around it. I ended up doing what I expect most partiers do now: just looking at who I want to see on each stage and scheduling my time accordingly. I wonder, however, if a different flow could be achieved.

    Wait, there’s how many people here? Why, I’m not freaked out by the crowds at all!

    A thing of wonder and definitely worth noting at Countdown, and I’m assuming at most of Insomniac’s festies, was the unparalleled organization of the thing. There was plenty of walking space around the tents and stages, the staff were highly competent, and there were even free filtered water stations all over the place, for goodness’ sake! That’s a far cry from the old days of having to fill up your water bottles in the sinks of the Fox theatre with very suspect-looking white water, and everyone sitting on the floor when tired. The future is here! The organization of the event made this crowd-fearing pseudo-misanthrope more comfortable, but the other thing that was striking and comforting was how friendly, polite and not annoying most of the people I met at Countdown were. The older generation of ravers tends to get hung up on the historical facts that younger EDM fans don’t know of the different tastes in music across generations. In a large festival context, however, none of that was relevant. Just treating each other with respect and enjoying this incredible shared experience was the most important thing, and it was really cool to witness and be a part of it again.

    That last point really speaks to the heart of my experience at my first festival in 15 years. Seeing the actual people at Countdown, as well as the totems and the amazing close-knit community feel of everyone in the dance, really made the reasons I got burned out on festies all those years ago disappear. The love and soul and shared experience that can be generated by electronic music and its constituents is truly unparalleled and signifies an evolution of community and consciousness that I truly believe is real. The differences of then vs. now and the silly confusion I experienced are fun to talk about but really shouldn’t be taken so seriously. Life’s too short to focus on such trivialities, and it’s especially too short for me to wait another 15 years before my next festie.