Zeds Dead at Aragon

Writeup by Isabelle Johnson

The lights dim, the intricate stars of Aragon Ballroom’s ceiling illuminate, and the eerie intro to “Blood” by DJ Caroline Cecil, better known by the name of “Whipped Cream,” begins. Her white hair is barely visible above the raised platform on the stage, but her music speaks for her.

Having only attended one other electronic music concert, I was skeptical. How good can one person turning knobs and pressing buttons really be?  Where was the talent in that? Where were the instruments? I found my answer as I watched hallucinogenic images play on the large screen on stage and listened to the galloping beat of her song “Selfish.” A Buddha statue appears followed by a pulsing, blue iris and later a dark forest. Whipped Cream jumps across the stage, pumping her fist and shouting “Can you feel me!?” I can feel her alright. An unknown, female vocalist underscores the pulsing beat of “Selfish” in an unrelenting trap beat that shakes the dance floor. At the same time, the ethereal sounds of “Mirrors” lull the room into a trance-like state with a blend of bass, synth, and unusual sound effects that sound like the song title itself: reflective glass.

Unlike some of the later DJs on the lineup, Whipped Cream’s music mixes the heavy, thumping beats of typical trap music with a more unconventional and natural sound that creates a powerful and emotional duality while also energizing the crowd. Would Mozart be rolling in his grave? Most likely, but Whipped Cream, the first of four openers for Zed’s Dead, still brought the house down last Friday night.

On the other hand, the second opener, the DJ duo Barely Alive, validated all of my worst fears about the electronic genre.

“Is that…Marshmello?” I wondered as I watched an enormous white marshmallow-shaped head appear on the screen. One half of the DJ duo walked on stage wearing some sort of rectangle shaped mask that closely resembled another electronic music artist named Marshmello who wears a white marshmallow head. Lacking the energy and creativity of Whipped Cream, Barely Alive’s use of lights and the background screen fails to impress. The screen alternates between the group’s signature rectangle head and a cityscape backdrop, and the lights simply flash intermittently. The music subscribes to the dubstep stereotype: high-pitched screeching that grates the ears and focuses on a heavy bass and as much distortion as humanly possible. While the crowd continues to grow as the night’s headliner approaches, after half an hour of indistinguishable songs and a DJ that steals Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” by simply adding a bass drop, I noticed I wasn’t the only one that was checking my phone.

By the time the third opener, Sub Focus, took the stage, the real fun began. Midway through the first opener my camera died, and I had removed myself to lean against a pillar on the right side of the enormous, castle-like ballroom. I was almost certainly the only sober person there. Throughout the night, security removed three people to stand facing the wall for a pat down. One person walked outside in handcuffs, and I even watched EMTs wheel a stretcher down the side of the venue never to return.

“Yeah, that’s the EDM crowd. What did you expect?” My boyfriend texts me.

And Sub Focus, for the most part, is your typical EDM. Most of his songs are fast-paced, featuring synths and a distorted male voice. This all leads up to about three indistinguishable bass drops per song. Some unnamed hype man even appears on stage to sporadically shout “Jump!” into the microphone and wave his arms around. It’s club music at its finest.

After enduring a couple of formulaic DJs, some spilled beer by thousands of stumbling drunk fans, and some practically pornographic PDA, I finally got to witness the somewhat disappointing Zed’s Dead.

“Collapse” by Zed’s Dead from their 2014 album Somewhere Else has been one of my favorite electronic songs for years, and when the Canadian duo of Dylan Mamid and Zachary Rapp-Rovan raised their hands to the lily pad-soft intro of this song, I couldn’t help but smile and dance along.

“You’re so used to walking away, and I’m left here on my own.” I raised my voice along with the thousands of fans there at the venue, which felt like it had hit its capacity of 5,000 that night. The bass drop was coming, and everyone knew it.

“You’re gone. You’re gone. Gone. Gone. On. On. On.” The crowd tensed, and the familiar anticipation built as the couple next to me held each other close. I held my hand up. Here it comes.

And it did, but it wasn’t my song. It was just another mix. Just like most of the DJs before them, Zed’s Dead had decided to use clips from other artists to mix into their own music. The duo waved their arms around and dialed their knobs as blue lasers projected geometric shapes onto the back walls of the ballroom. I wasn’t disappointed at first. I knew that was how the story went. Entertainment came first.

Confetti burst out into the crowd as machines dispersed puffs of smoke. The couple next to me jumped on each other to make out as the crowd behind me thrusted their hips and waved their arms around. Blue, red, white, and yellow lights synchronized with the music as some scene from an anime that looked like Dragon Ball Z played on the stage screen. Anime, lights, geometric shapes, lasers, smoke, confetti, makeouts, glitter-covered torsos, balloons in the air: the sober me realized that the electronic music concert is not about the music, but rather the experience.

That night, Zed’s Dead chose to play far more of their heavy, bass thumping trap songs over their more tranquil, softer music. The chillstep of the album Northern Lights took a backseat to more dubstep singles like “Samurai” and  “Magnets.” Under the smoky lights and the arching, galaxy ceiling that spanned half a football field, I remembered Whipped Cream’s tendency to stick to her songs in their entirety rather than rely on clips of pop songs for mixing. I remembered her originality and her unique sound that stood out from everyone else that night. She might have been the first opener, but she was the only DJ for whom I thought, “I’m definitely going to listen to her music when I get home.”