I wasn’t thoroughly enthusiastic about going to NYC’s installment of HARD Summer. Just something about taking a ferry to the small Governor’s Island only to be surrounded by personified irony and unbearable heat didn’t get me ecstatic. I’m also not a huge fan of neon apparel or accessories. Then there’s the fact that I really don’t love electro-pop or electronic music in general. I like it, I just normally wouldn’t go to an isolated island to see it performed for eight hours. But, alas that’s exactly what I did on Saturday.
Do I regret this decision? HARDly! (Oh my god, my work here is done.) For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed what HARD NYC had to offer. While the day may have started off shaky, things were rather enjoyable. The crowd was laid back and fun, the music improved at an almost exponential rate as the day progressed, and when it was all over I finally understood how cattle feel on a day-to-day basis (we were herded onto mainland destined boats like it was Ellis Island).
However, that’s not to say I don’t have some critical words about the event . . .
HARD Stage, 5:30 p.m.
With no posted schedules anywhere (my phone also had no signal to look at one online), I made do with memory and chance. My first experience with HARD was a DJ by the name of Destructo playing a warbled “Good Vibrations” sample and repeatedly telling us “This is just a warm up.” Well, it certainly felt like one. This guy was allegedly the Master of Ceremonies at the festival’s main stage. However, he was definitely not the man for the job. His introductions and attempted pump-ups came across as superficial and his beats were generally pretty monotonous. Granting him a time slot at the stage confused and angered many patrons, one of whom, thinking my press pass signified some inherent knowledge of every band at the festival, asked me who this guy was. I had no answer for her. But she responded, “Well, he’s responsible for providing our entertainment.” She was not pleased by his attempts to do so. After a few sets, it got to the point where I actually dreaded his intermissions and would have preferred a silent wait. Nonetheless, the less critical of audience members seemed to be enjoying the hot dance party, no matter how much sweat they produced.
HARDER Stage, 6:00 p.m.
Bored with Destructo, I wandered over to the secondary stage and caught a few rappers by the name of Ninjasonik. As I neared, I began to make out the words “Somebody gonna get pregnant!” being repeatedly shouted. Woo-wee, this was going to be good. But while these guys were certainly full of energy, spitting each word with rapid-fire succession, their infantile lyrics and unwarranted cockiness quickly turned any enthusiasm I had into distaste. A song about girls getting AIDS didn’t help their case. Then, I thought I heard one of them say something about Fugazi, but presuming I had misheard, ignored myself. To my surprise, that’s when the infectious opening riff to Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” played over the sound system. The guys began sloppily singing along as the diminishing crowd dispersed. A dude walked by me saying “This isn’t even music” to a friend. Well, it was music, it just wasn’t theirs. That’s when I decided to leave.
HARD Stage, 7:00 p.m.
Baltimore bred Rye Rye provided the first glimpse of hope for Hard Fest’s future. Her hard-hitting, girly, glitch-pop with attitude was a breath of fresh air. Strutting on stage in a bright, sparkly, neon-green and orange leotard, she and her male backup dancers spastically danced along to the pounding beats. Her blend of slick, Missy Elliott-esque egotism over electro-crunch was entertaining enough. But then one of the Ninjasonik members joined her onstage to perform “Art School Girls” and sucked some of the joy out of the performance with his overly mixed vocals. He left before he ruined it all, and as the country fiddle sample of “Exotic on the Speakers” mixed things up. “MIA’s Protégé” was definitely a great example of the better things to come at the festival.
Skream + Benga
HARD Stage, 8:00 p.m.
UK Dubstep pioneers Skream and Benga stole most of the show at Saturday’s Hardfest. Their hard-hitting, truly exhilarating production, which included Skream’s famed remix of La Roux’s “In For the Kill”, was entirely consuming–and for nearly the entirety of their hour and a half plus set. I’d be hard pressed to say I saw a more electrified crowd the whole night. As a hype man continually shouted near incomprehensible phrases, yelling like a monkey (“Where my monkeys? Where my Barbie ravers?”), outstretched hands bumped along to skittish rhythms, sub-aquatic interludes, and smack you in the face beat drops. The hyper Benga bounced around the stage, while the nonchalant Skream chain-smoked his way through a set that made a strong case for the potential power and excitement of live dubstep.
HARD Stage, 9:30 p.m.
After hearing some of the hypnotic beats of Borgore in passing, it was Sleigh Bells‘ turn to wow. What little of the show was up for grabs after Skream and Banga vacated the main stage was pretty much snatched up by this duo. Right when I saw the 8-pile stack of Marshal amps, I knew one thing: This was going to be pretty fucking loud. And, loud it was. It’s not that I had any doubt it would be before I saw the amps, it just really sunk in at that moment. As guitarist Derek E. Miller took the stage with his metal-typical Ibanez, the thrash began almost immediately. The duo ran through a short but sweet set of the earsplitting, overdriven noise-pop that makes up Treats. The smoke-filled stage set the scene for Alexis Krauss’s interchangeably coarse and sweet vocals, drowned out by a flurry of distorted riffage and blaring drum machines. This was not for the faint of heart, but neither was the festival. Finishing things off with the crowd pleasing “Crown on the Ground”, the duo left before we could even get acquainted with them.
HARD Stage, 10:20 p.m.
Do I have Die Antwoord figured out? Absolutely not. But that’s why they’re so fun to watch. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but from what I understand, the South African rap troupe is full-fledged performance art, taken up a few levels. Think if Ali G was in a rap group, and they became overnight sensations, but the songs were actually kind of catchy. The joy comes from personal theorizing. Their music isn’t all that good, save for maybe standouts “Enter the Ninja” and “Beat Boy”, but it’s certainly not bad. For being a presumably fake group, their songs are better than a lot of actual artists (see Ninjasonik). I personally think their sole mission is to see how far they can get with this. They must revel in their success, the fact that they’ve almost duped people into thinking they are legitimate. It’s like they are doing a study of what a successful band needs to do, and how hipsters respond to certain levels of irony. They must love listening to a large crowd sing along to lines as ludicrous as “Your ma’s a puss in a fish-paste jar.” Regardless of their intent, the crowd was pretty into the bizarre stylings of Ninja, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, and DJ Hi-Tek. Whether the joke’s on us or them, it’s fun to try and figure it out for an hour.
HARD Stage, 11:40 p.m.
In the case of Maya Arulpragasam’s performance at HARD NYC, disappointment is an understatement. MIA‘s set was worse than awful. It was one of the worst sets that, as a lifelong concert-goer, I have ever seen. Sure, we could blame it on technical difficulties or a mid-set, event ending flash downpour. Or we could stop lying to ourselves and just blame it on her.
The stage was set, literally, for an epic, awe-inspiring performance. The set-up was pretty exciting: Flashy LED screens, neon, black-lit drills, burka clad back-up singers, the works. But when Maya emerged from the darkness after one of the longest waits – lights-off to performance – I have ever experienced, things just kept getting worse.
Right from the start, MIA’s vocals were incredibly muddy, apparently due to a faulty microphone and a bad sound team, but I don’t think that was the real issue. She could have responsibly stopped the performance until the sound was fixed, but she didn’t. Instead she made fans suffer through a remarkably atrocious display. The music was barely even music. The mix was so high it hurt. The noises she subjected us to were so unpleasant that I almost couldn’t take it. I felt like I was watching a talentless, attractive girl aimlessly prance around a stage, yelling into a faulty microphone, all while a firing squad, team of construction workers, and an air force base started making as much noise as possible at once. There was little to no melody, no steady beat, and the performance was as sloppy and thrown together as the artist’s latest album cover. The vocals didn’t even seem to be in time with any semblance of a rhythm that may have existed. This narcissistic excuse for a musical performance was baffling.
I can’t recall a less interested audience in a festival headliner. It was depressing to watch the crowd dwindle down as the girl we all wanted so much to save herself from drowning in the swampy sounds continued to disappoint. She even spent 10 minutes telling us that she didn’t have a setlist and asking for audience requests. “Boys” was apparently the song the crowd wanted, and its performance was one of the few remotely enjoyable ones. I was actually relieved when it started raining so hard I had to take cover to protect my camera. Luckily, the show ended before things could get much worse. If anything I just feel bad that the MIA I was so impressed by at Bonnaroo two years ago may never return. I pray for her and her fans that the performance was a fluke, because if not, this could mean the demise of her as-of-yet prosperous career.