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EDC, Night 1: Bigger, and a little better

A view of the Kinetic Field main stage (COURTESY PHOTO: ERIK KABIK/RETNA
A view of the Kinetic Field main stage (COURTESY PHOTO: ERIK KABIK/RETNA

Electric Daisy Carnival, you’ve outdone yourself.

Whether due to the increasing competition of other large scale electronic music festivals — such as Ultra Music Festival, Movement, Electric Zoo, Tomorrowland, to name a few of the giants — or the bigger-is-better nature of Las Vegas (especially with regard to our megaclubs and pool parties), or just the pressure to evolve and improve an enduring institution like EDC, promoter Insomniac Events boasted a considerably ramped-up production last night during the first of three days of its flagship dance confab, held at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in North Las Vegas.

The first two editions of EDC Las Vegas — the fest relocated from Los Angeles in 2011 — were ambitious spectacles in and of themselves: Five or six major stages featuring DJ (and, occasionally, live) performances, about 30 carnival rides, a handful of art displays, nightly fireworks, and other infrastructure necessities and goodies that made for a relatively comfortable (if sprawling) party.

Last night, however, Insomniac puffed out its chest even further, as if to declare who’s boss of the scene (under the guise of improving the attendee experience). This meant augmented performance areas — including an absolutely mammoth Kinetic Field main stage that, with several other ancillary LED screens and structures, surrounding festivalgoers and creating a studium within a stadium — what felt like even more rides and refreshment/bar stands; a significantly expanded art curation that borrowed heavily (figuratively and literally) from that other giant cultural festival in Nevada, Burning Man; pyrotechnic displays from each of the other stages, on top of the July-Fourth-worthy fireworks that still happens after midnight; and perimeter-lining spotlights that coned the Speedway when they weren’t waving their beams into the night sky. For the first time, it felt like Insomniac was actually using the entirety of the enormous Speedway grounds (it damn near did).

To be sure, many of these elements looked familiar — the whimsical Kinetic Field decor felt inspired from the fairy-tale like environment at Tomorrowland; the spotlights, from Coachella —  but altogether, it made EDC even more of an immersive, escapist fantasyland.

But what about the music?

One look at the roster for EDC 2013 shows a more diverse, underground-embracing lineup that complements the bigger names associated with the recent commercial EDM movement — a balance almost but not quite attained last year. While most of the performers at the Kinetic and Circuit Ground stages leaned heavily toward the resident/exclusive DJs from the Strip nightclubs and pools, the other five stages — to say nothing of the booming “art cars” dotting the grounds — remained closer to the spirit of traditional “massives” and the rave culture that preceded it. Which is to say you weren’t likely to recognize (many of) the songs the DJs were playing in those areas, enabling the musical discovery phenomenon that used to define the dancefloor experience at the country’s most revered nightclubs (if not so much our own).

We got our night started just as Jacques Lu Cont began at the Cosmic Stage, which is to be presented all weekend long by rival promotera and L.A. dance titan HARD Events. And though Insomniac CEO/founder Pasquale Rotella told CityLife that he booked many of the acts for that area, the stage has a distinctly HARD feel: edgy, debauched, stanky, delirious and mercifully gimmick-free house music.

Lu Cont was no different, embodying the alternative HARD ethos early on with a remix of Swedish avant-pop act The Knife, which might be the most accessible thing you hear with Karin Dreijer Andersson’s vocals all year. From there, his set featured gems from HARD stagemates Boys Noize and indie/electro pop act Miike Snow — but none of the alt-rock remixes for which he's most known. While a tech-ier set was welcome, especially at a dance music festival, a nod to hometown act (and his production client) The Killers — maybe one of his remixes of our boys' songs — would have gone over big.

Two hours later, Fake Blood regaled us with expansive but signature projection of the house genre, even when it included what sounded like a remix of world music/hip-hop icon M.I.A. The too-short hourlong set ranged from galloping progressive to driving tech to sinister electro to straight-up flamboyant hard house — the latter represented at the end, with his own filthy, sexy, climaxing "I Think I Like It," which got the attention of everyone nearby, including a nearby large cuddle-puddle that quickly decided to writhe around in the standing position instead. That begged two questions: Just how early did they take whatever it was they took, and did Fake Blood already deliver the set of the night before 11 p.m.?

We spent a big chunk of our collective time at the Cosmic/HARD stage, as we did the other house/techno stage, the newly arched Neon Garden, curated last night by Richie Hawtin per his Enter party concept. All the DJs we experienced that evening were practioners of minimalist and usually dark four-on-the-floor electronic music.

No one embodied this better than the curator himself, spinning his first of two scheduled sets this weekend. Hawtin started old school to begin what felt like an education on the American roots of underground dance music, effectively fusing Chicago house and Detroit techno, with many of the tracks featuring elements of older technology (the 303 and 808 synthesizers, specifically) rather than the modern-day digitalia that offers the music equivalent of clip art. Hawtin played to a smaller crowd, but it was more engaged one.

By the time he finished, the crowd seemed to ache for something a little more playful, which it got from DJ Paco Osuna. He followed with a set of rambunctious house that occasionally possessed African and Latin flavors and identifiers — a welcome counterpoint to the assault of monochromatic trance and electro-house found elsewhere on the field.

A stop by the Basscon hardstyle stage — or last year's Q Dance stage, minus Q Dance — introduced us to Bryan Kearney, a figurehead in the small but growing world of hard trance, which is just a more corporal, pounding version of the saccharine dance subgenre. Actually, his interpretation overlapped considerably with the European trance of 1999: jagged, packed chord progressions, often with a bittersweet or melancholic tone. One song had a precious piano sample. That segued into an instrumental cover of The Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want," and Lord knows I had to bail to find something a little more fun.

Which I didn’t really find at the other stages. Over at the main stage, Cedric Gervais disappointed with a commercial EDM set that could have been played at XS anytime of the year. Trance king Armin van Buuren didn’t sound out of the ordinary or particularly matured; his mayo-on-white Euro anthemry drove me from the area after a few tracks, despite the rapture on display around me. (“Are you ready to make history?” he bellowed to the crowd, cementing my position that DJs should not be allowed anywhere near a microphone.) Porter Robinson made an effort to mix things up with his cut-and-paste, almost genreless approach. That didn’t mean he didn’t deploy the songs with the thick, fuzzy-feeling synths and the usual audience-response cues, but that he leaned less on them at a stage where they seemed mandatory earned him a small hat-tip from this fussy critic.

May the other main-stage DJs playing this weekend who regularly fly into our budding, if musically immature dance-music capital take notice and expand their horizons — and, more importantly, those of that giant, if musically immature audience for which they’ll perform.