Two weekends ago on a sprawling horse farm outside Atlanta, tens of thousands of teenage and 20-something ravers gathered for the inaugural CounterPoint Music Fest. For a three-day festival boasting the biggest names in popular contemporary electronic music you’d be hard-pressed to find much news about it in the city—our proudly rock-centric scene pretended nothing of interest was going on the last weekend in September—and the folks aware of CounterPoint had nothing in the way of specifics about what, exactly, was going on down there. And nobody knew where the damn thing was being held in the first place.
First year fests are prone to logistical and infrastructure issues, and CounterPoint was hobbled, but thankfully not defeated, by both. An intense thunderstorm Friday afternoon temporarily closed the festival grounds, throwing off set times and causing some acts to cancel. This explained the unexpected traffic I encountered on my arrival, having skipped Thursday’s weak jamband-ish line up in favor of the weekend’s heavy hitters. Traffic gave me time to admire the Georgia countryside and creeping autumnal tones of the trees—CounterPoint’s producers did an excellent job with the location, a pleasant 40-minute drive southwest of the city. While waiting to enter the parking lot, the festival’s twitter informed me that I was missing indie favorite Washed Out, who didn’t have to delay his set after all. I felt like I was going to summer camp.
Getting searched took some time as the parking lot entrances appeared understaffed but when I finally parked and gathered my backpack, I stepped into thick mud. Mud and humidity were the principal annoyances of the weekend; the rolling hills made for great vantage points but sprawling mud pits webbed the lower-lying areas between concession areas and the Point and CounterPoint stages. The festival grounds formed a misshapen L, hinging at a hill topped by a lit CounterPoint sign. If substance consumption wore you out this was a great place for a nap as well as taking in the massive main-stage light shows. Across from the festival staples of amusement park rides and bizarre hippie wares, the Beat and Backbeat tents dominated the far end of the grounds with dubstep-heavy lineups for the true ravers.
As mentioned above, CounterPoint swarmed with an eager, young crowd. The nebulous strains of electronic dance music (EDM) are dominating both pop and underground music at the moment, and this audience likes its beats harder and louder, its synth melodies brighter, and its light shows overwhelming. The traditional rock band dynamic has been swapped for a maximal sensory experience. You could count the number of guitarists over the weekend practically on one hand. And the bands on the bill—Toro Y Moi, Reptar, Zoogma, and Lotus, among others—effectively reproduce the sounds/textures of producers with laptops and synthesizers. For myself, it was refreshing to go to a festival that wasn’t filled with jamband noodling and retro blues revivalists.
The confusion over set times and cancellations allowed me to wander with no purpose other than absorbing the experience. Walking from the stages to the tents took a few minutes (my legs appreciated this after the seemingly endless walking at large festivals like Bonnaroo) and I arrived as Mimosa finished his heavy but generally nondistinct dubstep set. Plugging in laptops made for quick changes between acts, so the start of DJ trio Super Mash Bros.’ set caught me off guard. SMB threw a party-rocking set of electro remixes and mash-ups of popular tracks from the last two decades, the crowd jumping and waving flags in delight with each chorus they caught. The sound was straight out of every raucous party you went to in 2005.
I went back to the main stages in hopes of catching L.A. producer TokiMonsta but was pleasantly surprised when Crystal Castles came on—a group, like M83, hailing from the hipper indie rock scene. Having associated Crystal Castles with gothic 80s new wave and early 2000s trashy electroclash, it surprised me how easily they fit in with the rest of CounterPoint. The heavy, stomping rave elements of their sound really stood out and was lapped up appreciatively. Unfortunately, towards the end of Crystal Castle’s set I overheard that M83 had cancelled, meaning I had to kill the time by heading back to the tents.
Did I mention I’d been looking for the press area since my arrival? Three different staff members gave me conflicting directions while security had no idea at all where it was. I stumbled onto it tucked behind the Backbeat tent between checking out interchangeable sets from Feed Me, 3lau (pronounced “Blau”), and Excision; the glaring sameness of the artists resulted from both the narrow musical scope of the sets and their seeming inability to do anything dynamic with such maximal music. Each DJ immediately began at full steam, banging away with loud, squelching bass drops and never relenting until the end. Every so often a distorted pop chorus cut through the mix. Because it was fairly hidden behind the Beat tent, the Backbeat tent was only a third full each time I passed through, so the energy of 3lau’s tracks died immediately on impact. Ear fatigue made me feel older (I’m only 28) than simply being around kids screaming “more, More, MORE!!!” with each drop.
When I could no longer withstand the onslaught of bass I retired to the press tent to charge my phone and rest before the night’s headliner, Avicii. The Swedish DJ has exploded in popularity on the back of “Levels,” a hard house track with a stadium-sized chorus about feelings. Watching from the edge of a small pond while dancers splashed through, I couldn’t see Avicii himself amid the gigantic video screens playing in time with the music. Effervescent, poppy choruses dominated the set, approaching but somehow never fully crossing over into full-on cheese. The loudest roar of the night was saved for when the opening chords to “Levels” echoed across the field. The euphoric Etta James-sampling lyric “Sometimes I get a good feeling/ I get a feeling that I never, never, never had before….” had the crowd singing in unison. I couldn’t withhold a grin.
Saturday afternoon I arrived to a pleasantly different scene: minimal traffic into the lot, a quick search of the car, and hardened mud that made for easier traversing of the grounds. The humidity, however, had a much larger presence than the day before.
The vibe was more positive than Friday, with scantily clad ravers skipping and doing cartwheels across the grounds. Atlanta rap royalty Big Boi performed a high-energy selection of his deep catalogue on the Point Stage, skipping from solo tracks to Outkast classics and constantly reminding everybody that they were not just in the South, but Atlanta. Given how popular Outkast’s remain, and southern rap’s current prominence in the heavy step of EDM, I figured the crowd would be as amped as me to hear some real bounce music; everyone around me was dancing though not that engaged with Big Boi’s show. Their loss, I say.
I then camped out at the Beat tent for Zeds Dead, a dubstep production duo I was told “to not fucking miss!!!” by a guy in a Gumbi suit. I was prepared for more of the same wobble-bass drop-wobble programming from the day before, and the opening remix of 90s hard electro act Prodigy confirmed my fears, when they thankfully swerved into an opening set of (of course) bass-heavy, percussive house music—a sound that didn’t get much play at the fest despite it being equally favored in mainstream club sounds at the moment. Forty minutes into Zeds’ set the tempo was sufficiently raised for them to begin “dropping bombs,” each track more bone-rattling than the last. I made my exit to camp out for Steve Angello and Skrillex, the night’s main stage headliners.
Another Swede who favors pounding progressive house beats with choruses made for arenas, Steve Angello typifies the obnoxious fist-pumping music everybody associates with Jersey Shore club nights. Like the Jersey Shore itself, the U.S. hasn’t decided whether to fully embrace, ironically embrace, or outright reject the swaggering, lowbrow cheesiness of the music. Angello was also roundly criticized a few years back for not even mixing during his DJ sets, preferring to smoke cigarettes and bathe in the crowd’s adulation over a preprogrammed set. With these issues in mind, I was very interested in seeing him perform. Somehow Angello made Avicii’s set seem restrained, as tonight the intensity never abated and the lights were brighter and pulsing harder. Angello himself was a domineering presence, continually speaking over the music about how “beautiful” the crowd was and, at one point, having everybody jump up at the climax of a beat. Every time I looked he was in a crucifixion pose, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Huge blasts of confetti showered the crowd with a frequency I thought diminished the novelty, but the crowd didn’t care. The music—and performance—was certainly focused on complete crowd involvement, but to me it had neither the personality nor heart of Avicii.
Finally it was time for Skrillex. At just 24 years old, Sonny Moore has blindsided the EDM world (and music industry as whole) the way any upstart act does: forcing a new sound into the youth’s ears and not giving a damn about it. His music is truly divisive (check the “Seniors react to Skrillex” YouTube)—a screeching, squelching, stomping beast that completely overtook the skeletal, cavernous dubstep that came before it, and defined the sound in the U.S. in the process. All weekend festival-goers talked excitedly about how wild his live show is, how much it would “rage,” and so on. A five minute countdown began after Angello left the stage; the crowd surged around me in anticipation. At 2 minutes an ominous bass rumbled through the air. At 00:00 the chords of “Right In” tore out of the speakers and we were off; Skrillex’s elfin figure leapt up behind the video screens with a toss of black hair. The crowd’s roar was practically deafening.
Even without diehards in attendance its obvious that Moore garnered his reputation primarily through live show. The “drops” were indeed intense—the music galloped to a climax, sucked into silence with a filter sweep, a pause, then BOOM. It felt like a punch to the gut, but somehow an enjoyable one. Most surprising to me was how, even at its most distorted, Skrillex’s music was audibly connected to his predecessors’ dubstep. The skanking halftime and low-end wobble of dub reggae was more prominent than the other DJs at Counterpoint. Early on Skrillex played his single featuring Damien Marley, “Make It Bun Dem,” followed by a clever remix of Avicii’s “Levels” that had the crowd dancing—or stomping, as it looked to me—in ecstasy. It truly sounded like the past and future of music had collided. To the kids around me, faces lit by the neon lights and lasers of Skrillex’s live show, mouths agape, they obviously agreed. Fireworks marked a triumphant end to his set and, for me, the festival. The kids are having their fun, whether we like their music or not.
For more exclusive pictures from Eide's CounterPoint coverage https://www.dropbox.com/sh/65nj6zh45jcs44f/_wkoZ9Rin9?m