Every year, the Global Dance Festival brings some of the best in electronic music to the best outdoor venue on the planet, and Friday night's sold-out show was no exception. Judging from the proliferation of Deadmau5 T-shirts, hats and other paraphernalia, a lot of the crowd was there to shake it to the Canadian electro/progressive house DJs dirty beats, but before he took the stage at midnight, there was much more spectacular music to be heard echoing through the foothills.
I caught the very end of Fury and MC Dino's set as I was checking in, and Fury's frantic drum-and-bass definitely had the crowd -- which filled about a third of the Red Rocks main stage benches -- pumped. At 6:30 p.m., Denver's own electro/progressive house DJ duo, Manufactured Superstars, was taking the stage and shaking things up with a blend of dirty basslines, a clapping beat and deep techno bell sounds.
The Superstars definitely have a retro feel to them, with their white tracksuits and choice of tracks; it gives their music a synthesized, retro vibe, like disco meets the '80s. Progressive house needs to be carefully selected and mixed tightly in order to avoid the cheesy trance feel that's so prevalent in that genre, and the Manufactured Superstars are experts at both track selection and mixing, choosing pieces with strong, sassy female vocals.
Up at the Global NRG Stage at the top of Red Rocks, Technical Endeavor was spinning with MC Dozha. Another drum-and-bass DJ, Technical Endeavor meanders toward the "intelligent" end of the spectrum -- and although drum-and-bass is one of my favorite genres of electronic music, I have to admit to not enjoying this set. What I heard was spaced-out and cheesy, with soaring female vocals that sounded better suited to Paul Van Dyk (who'll be playing the second evening) than a drum-and-bass track.
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Meanwhile, Manufactured Superstars continued to tear it up on the main stage, mixing in samples from political speeches before dropping into a slow roots/reggae vibe, then speeding it back up into dancehall. They threw on Fedde Le Grand's tech house anthem, "Put Your Hands Up For Detroit," but changed the lyrics to "Denver" -- and yes, we do love this city. The Superstars were full of surprises, dropping from dreamy female vocals into dirty, siren-filled electro tracks.
On the Global Bass.Code.0 Stage, located downstairs to the west of the upper stage, Ishe vs. Soleil with OPM were mixing in weird, eerie noises with vibrating bass and wa-wa sounds. I stayed for only a minute, because upstairs at the Global NRG Stage, Heavyweight Dub Champion was throwing down an excellent trip-hop/dub set, mixing in KRS-One lyrics with funky downtempo beats and spooky noises before moving into spaced-out intervals with meandering melodies going no place in particular before dropping back in with deep and serious piano melded with tight, quick drumlines and deep, dirty basslines moving in slow syncopation. Heavyweight Dub Champion uses a lot of hip-hop tracks in his mixes, but he spent a little bit too long in the spaced-out intervals, losing the unity in the crowd before building it back up with another superb trip-hop track.
Back on the main stage, Axis of Evil had taken over from Manufactured Superstars with a synth/electro meld offering up snare drums and frantic beeping sirens dropping into syncopated beats and mixing in the stellar guitar line from Blur's "Song 2" to Simian's "We Are Your Friends" (a track I heard all over Coachella in 2007; classic) to Daft Punk's "Around the World." In a tribute to 4:20, the emcee encouraged the audience to "put the blaze up" while a smoke machine spewed its issue into the sky. They even had an electric violin playing live on stage, adding an extra component to the set.
I was drawn back to the Global NRG Stage by Kraddy, who mixes a blend of music unlike anything I've heard before. He cuts hip-hop with dubstep and dancehall in a sort of breakbeat-like hybrid. The result is dark and slow, offering up quick, irregular high hats and introducing deep bell tones that start off clean but eventually distort into dirty basslines, accented by the fast, sibilant drumlines. It's funky and dirty and utterly danceable -- in fact, I'd say some of the best dancers at the festival were right in front of Kraddy for this set, breaking it down; I enjoyed watching them. He mixed in Ludacris and Nate Dogg, among other hip-hop icons.
Back on the main stage was Savoy, a local trio who blend dance music with rock. Something delayed the group until 8:45 p.m. (their start time on the lineup was listed as 8:30), but once they came on, the live drum kit combined with synthesizers and mixers played up their strengths -- in my opinion, the pounding drums, which gave a harder edge to the trance-like piano lines before dropping into deeper, more complex beats.
On the Global Bass.Code.0 stage, SPECTRE was just finishing up his set and making room for Alert, who's been classified as electro/progressive house, but ... I don't know what you would call what Alert does. He produces all his own tracks, comprising eerie haunted-house noises, distorted vocals, quick and snappy and irregular drums, alien computer sounds, dark and extremely dirty basslines and more. It's slow, almost plodding, until he brings it up to a frantic pace for a few moments, then slows it back down.
"You know what happens when it gets dark at the third stage," the emcee declared as the sun set over Red Rocks. "We send the security guards home!" From this vantage point, you could clearly see the unfortunate souls who couldn't get into the amphitheatre on the hill behind the venue, spinning their glowsticks and apparently having almost as much fun as they would have inside.
Alert kept up his slow, syncopated beats and eerie melodies while I tried to come up with a way to describe him. Finally, I decided on "Squarepusher with nightmares," because he's definitely more toward the IDM/drum-and-bass end of the dance-music spectrum than progressive house. It was an excellent set.
Ana Sia was tearing up the Global NRG Stage with her personal blend of self-described "global slut psy-hop." Whatever she was throwing down, I enjoyed it; it sounded like electro with deep, growling basslines and sibilant high hats. It reminded me of '80s hip-hop with more pronounced bass, pops and rhythm. At the back of her dance area were two aerial performers, executing Brandy Dew-esque moves on two hoops dangling in the air, dressed like raver go-go girls, flipping and twisting. (I watched them for several minutes trying to figure out how they were keeping their wigs in place.)
Meanwhile at the main stage, Savoy was dropping dirty electro sounds with pounding, driving drums, dropping in Gwen Stefani's "Keep On Dancing" and the guitar line from Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing," plus extensive samples from the Beastie Boys' "Body Movin'."
Shortly afterward, Infected Mushroom took the main stage; two neon-orange shrooms with vaguely Chucky-like, evil faces emerged from the ground while the live psychedelic trance group played electric guitar, drums and keyboards, spliced in with high female wails. Four space-girl go-go dancers came out, lined in neon and wearing out-of-this-world platform shoes, while the guitar player emitted heavy-metal licks and moves, holding his guitar upside-down while he gyrated with one of the dancers. Trance is one of my least favorite genres of electronic music, but at least these guys kept the keyboards escalating at progressively harder and dirtier levels, ending the set on a high note.
At midnight, Deadmau5 took the stage in a giant cube-like construction covered with lights to provide eye candy for the masses. He went more electro than progressive house, using ominous low basslines, a steady beat and a bark building to a crescendo, warbling higher and higher before dropping in. A few extra beats dropped in here and there loaned an almost tribal feel to some of his tracks, while the cube lit up and flashed in time with the music. (There was one section of the cube that wasn't lighting up properly, and one poor stage hand had the unfortunate duty of hitting it over and over until the lights kicked in -- which they never seemed to.) He worked in a sassy female emcee's vocals -- rhyming, not singing -- and the overall vibe was extremely dirty electro, with some clean effects mixed in for balance.
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All of the effects Deadmau5 used were fairly common, but slightly off (not in a bad way at all -- the unusual arranging made for interesting listening). The whole set had a deceptively minimalist vibe, sounding simple on the surface but offering much wider complexity as you pick the tracks apart. Deadmau5 is a fan of the booming, steady bass melded with scratching or barking sounds, slowing it progressively and then building it back up with sirens winding higher and higher, wooden xylophone noises, barking yaps and deep, brassy tones all blending to create an incredible sound experience.
The entire amphitheatre roared when he threw down "Ghosts n Stuff," singing along while he took the eerie, distorted organ sounds and dropped them into hard, driving bass. It was anthem-y, but still good, and Deadmau5 was raising his hands, clapping and moving to the beat behind the decks, spinning his impressive mouse-head mask around to show a blank neon-lined version on one side and a grinning purple face on the other.
At one point, the cube flashed up a Microsoft "user error" message while all the music stopped. The phrase "sometimes things get complicated," uttered in a distorted dialogue, began to repeat itself before the bass joined in and then dropped into a driving beat, using distortion and syncopated claps, with computer-generated samples providing the melody. Deadmau5 is a strong performer who knows his audience, and he kept this one shaking their asses until it was time to close up shop and go home ... for tonight.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I'm a tried-and-true drum-and-bass/downtempo/trip-hop fan, with some soft spots for electro and hard house. I thoroughly enjoyed everything I heard on the secondary Global NRG Stage -- but I also kept coming back to the progressive house-heavy main stage, which speaks to the talent of the musicians throwing down those sets. Random Details: Denver party kids were all dressed up for the occasion -- I saw a Scooby Doo, a Teletubby (the red one) and paint-on tramp stamps proclaiming "Global," "GDF" or the full title, "Global Dance Festival." Plus one gentleman with a mouse painted on his belly. By the Way: I'm not trying to bitch about parties being dirty -- everyone knows they are. But after attending raves since 1999, last night was the first night I was hit with a thrown beer bottle (plastic, at least -- thank you Red Rocks), splashing lukewarm Bud Light all over my jeans. Shortly after that, someone's glass pipe met the concrete, and she either kicked a piece in my direction in anger -- hitting me in the foot -- or a shard of glass flew off when the piece shattered. (You'll be happy to know the broken glass was properly disposed of.) And you know what happens when you throw your gum down on hot pavement? Sticky land mines that people dance atop and then have to peel off the bottom of their shoes. Gross, y'all.