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EDC ascends the music fest ranks with stunning, expanded production and performances

Electric Daisy Carnival, you’ve outdone yourself.

Whether due to the increasing competition of other large-scale electronic music festivals, the size-queen default mode of Las Vegas (especially with regard to a nightlife infrastructure that’s second to none in America), or just the pressure to evolve and improve a 16-year-old institution like EDC, promoter Insomniac Events boasted its most ambitious production ever during its flagship dance confab, held June 21-23 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The music programming scaled new heights as well, but more on that in a bit.

The 2011 and 2012 editions of EDC Las Vegas were daunting spectacles in and of themselves. But last weekend, 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, among other things, augmented and additional performance areas, including a 13-screen Kinetic Field main-stage arrangement that essentially surrounded up to 80,000 festivalgoers; a significantly expanded art curation that borrowed heavily (figuratively and literally) from Burning Man; and endless pyrotechnic and fireworks displays. For the first time, Insomniac used the entirety of the enormous Speedway grounds — a necessary expansion with 115,000 revelers filing in each day.

To be sure, many of these elements have appeared at other fests, but altogether, they made EDC even more of an immersive, escapist fantasyland — to say nothing of the costumed attendees, the illuminated carnival rides and the spontaneous performance troupes — which is arguably the real draw now that the event sells out before the DJ lineup announcement.

And yet, that performer schedule still figures into EDC’s credibility — both among the dance-music purists who keep coming for the noncommercial offerings, and the new wave of beat-junky rats lured by the culture-shifting Pied Pipers of EDM.

Many of those new dance superstars held court over the Kinetic and Circuit Grounds stages: Tiesto, Avicii, Steve Angello, Benny Benassi — names splashed on billboards near the tourist corridor. But EDC 2013 nonetheless boasted a diverse, underground-embracing program that complemented the megaclub headliners, a balance attempted but not quite attained last year. Which meant that the other five stages — as well as the booming art cars dotting and occasionally navigating the grounds — remained closer to the spirit of traditional “massives” and the rave culture that preceded it. With the occasional exception of the Basspod stage, non-diehards weren’t likely to recognize many of the songs the DJs were playing in those more adventurous areas, enabling the sort of dance-floor musical discovery that elevated the most famous nightclubs in the world.

And further enabling that potential attendee revelation were collaborators who helped curate those stages, including L.A. promoter HARD Events, which brought its edgy, debauched, stanky and genre-blurring aesthetic to the towering, industrial Cosmic Meadow stage all weekend. It hopefully increased the profile of Theo Keating, aka Fake Blood, whose devilish house set was a weekend standout. Ditto for another hematologically named act, Dog Blood, the rulebook-shredding collaboration between dubstep king Skrillex and electro-tech fave Boys Noize that gleefully subverted every sonic signature of EDM in its whirring, bombastic and inspired beat collage. HARD even showed its pop side with a rousing live performance from Aussie-cum-Baeleric act Empire of the Sun, which had better bring its retro-future costumes and Cirque-like dancers to its Life is Beautiful appearance in October.

Also taking dancers into deep space was electronic music pillar Richie Hawtin, whose Enter concept/lineup on Friday hopscotched in and out of the various house and techno subgenres — he streamlined his own minimalist main-stage set on Sunday, which largely introduced the young, if modest crowd to the genre’s Midwestern roots — as did the Carl Cox & Friends and Get Lost programs Saturday and Sunday, respectively, the former giving Las Vegas a second, vitalizing dose of emerging talent Adam Beyer, and the latter cleansing househeads’ palettes with an elegantly blissful set by progressive veteran Sasha.

The Basscon stage aimed to hammer onlookers with various renderings of hardstyle dance music, but most of the performers seemed to favor the trance end of that spectrum, the mix of sugary melodies and pounding 140-BPM tempos hearkening back to 1999. The Basspod stage had its own pandering inclinations, mostly of the trendier, dyspeptic bass-music variety, though the classic drum ‘n’ bass of Andy C and the distinct genre-mash of Dillon Francis stood out, both in sound and energy.

But while DJ highlights abounded, the most prominent takeaways might just be the nonmusical ones. The imaginative structures that offered alternative stimulation. The art-car and performance-artist parade that served as the EDC equivalent of the Main Street Electrical Parade. The logistical improvements, especially the marked parking and traffic improvements. The friendly engagement of both staff and patrolling Metro officers with the attendees, who themselves rarely acted like the sort of poseur jerks the event’s naysayers feared in their social media potshots. (And while we’re talking about stereotypes: No one at EDC died of a drug overdose or any other cause, and, according to the Review-Journal, only nine of the weekend’s medic calls required a hospital transfer, compared to 23 last year.)

All of which bodes well for EDC 2014, rumored to expand to two weekends a la Coachella, bookending the usual industry and Strip-centric DJ events. Taken altogether, such a beats-and-business bacchanalia would rival Miami’s long-established Winter Music Conference. At this point, the only real challenge Insomniac faces is topping itself again.