Qing Yang and Ben Fruehlich flew from Houston to Las Vegas last weekend to rave. But they weren’t going to Electric Daisy Carnival. They were going to American Gabberfest 2016, a two-day festival of hard electronic dance music held under the brutal Las Vegas daytime sun. (Full disclosure: My publication, The Hard Data, co-sponsored the event.)
These ravers wanted their music raw, distorted, complicated, aggressive and defiant, like a sonic triple-loop roller coaster compared with EDM’s merry-go-round. Though Gabberfest's attendance is microscopic compared with EDC, the disharmonic convergence of sounds, already huge overseas, is starting to attract more American fans.
“It’s the only place we know of anywhere near Houston to find really good music. I listen to a lot of other types of music, like hardcore grindcore from the metal world, but there is no other music in the world that has this much energy,” said Fruehlich, who is originally from Germany, as I spoke with him under one of the few shady spots at the festival.
While EDC’s multimillion-dollar festival preparations were under way at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a school bus painted black with one side removed rolled onto the asphalt parking lot of the Hardhat Lounge, located on (appropriately enough) Industrial Road. There it blasted a cacophony of distortion and riveting drum beats to a small but dedicated contingent of fans like Yang and Fruehlich, who danced at 200 beats per minute in 110-degree heat. Respite from the heat could be found inside the bar, which featured a secondary stage, but a surprising number of fans braved the unforgiving sun despite the availability of air conditioning.
“Whenever the bass is driving me … I can’t stop in the middle of kick drums going crazy. It’s physically hard for me to stop,” said 27-year-old Stephen Richard Hughes, aka “Metal Jesus,” who drove up from Victorville.
The sheer number of black T-shirts and tattoos betrayed the fact that, unlike other EDM sub-genres, hard dance music attracts plenty of heavy metal and hardcore punk fans. “I love heavy metal,” said Lauren Bragg, who flew from Seattle, not to go to EDC but to see the Gabber Twinz perform at Gabberfest. “Hardcore techno is on the same lines as heavy metal. A lot of people think it’s a dude’s type of music because it’s harder and faster, but there’s a lot of girls who are interested in it. Like metal and hardcore, all the guys would go, then their girlfriends would go, then they would say, 'Hey, this music is really awesome and I want to be a part of it, too.'”
Yang seconded this. “I came from China to study mechanical engineering at university in Germany. Ben took me to a party one time there and at once I knew I found my new music.”
You will find the words “gabber” and “hardcore” (meaning hardcore techno) used interchangeably at Gabberfest. “Gabber” is a Dutch-Yiddish term for “friend,” which became associated with the hardcore techno scene that grew enormous in the Netherlands in the 1990s. Though the term is considered a bit dated today, it’s still one of the genre’s unique identifiers, which led Brandon Ramirez, aka the White Ape, to adopt the word for the festival he had been contemplating.
Standing 6-foot-2, weighing 260 pounds, the former amateur body builder and current big rig truck driver was initially swept up by the power and energy of the mid to late '90s Southern California raves where gabber was prevalent. “There is a void of hardcore during EDC weekend in Las Vegas," he explained. "Over a hundred thousand electronic music fans arrive for EDC. A fraction want to hear hardcore. America never had a meeting place for a national hardcore meet-up. So this seemed like the obvious location and perfect weekend for it to happen. The same people we were aiming for just so happened to be traveling to Las Vegas from different parts of the country.”
The idea quickly caught on with the small contingent of enthusiasts in the American hard electronic scene. Movers and shakers across the country started lending their services, such as the Inland Empire’s Ryan Macias, aka DJ Arcid. Last year, his production company, Techno Belligerent, started booking Gabberfest’s secondary indoor stage. “I try to book the hardest and best in the underground. Most organizers are afraid to book any terror or speedcore. I include that, plus some breakcore," he said, referencing several hardcore techno sub-sub-genres and offshoots.
This year they were assisted with hardstyle programming by Arizona’s SDK Events and its founder, Brandon Adams. "I bugged the shit out of White Ape," Adams said. "I wanted to help him as much as I could after the first one, because I loved everything he was doing. Finally, after the second one was over, he asked if I would host a stage.”
Between the two stages and two days, 43 artists played at Gabberfest this year. Many performed their own works, which they debuted at the festival. I was among them, testing a rough mix of a new track I’d been working on with Lenny Dee of Industrial Strengh Records, “King of Style.”
But the real hype this year was the festival’s foreign guest, D-Ceptor from Germany, and the debuts of several “super-bands” of American gabber talent: God Squad, a new act consisting of American gabber powerhouses Cap, KORE and the aforementioned Brandon Adams, and Extreme Team, consisting of Tim Shopp, Levenkhan and MC Mad Effort. Internet video streaming startup Grooveo captured audio and video of mainstage performances on both day one and day two.
Despite its small but growing following, Gabberfest is already attracting serious attention. Enough so that one wonders if it will retain its integrity in the future, a concern that Fruehlich touched on as we stood sweating together in our small patch of shade.
“The coolest thing you can find here is true underground," he said. "What we had in Germany 20 years ago you still have here. The other stuff going on in Holland has been commercialized. ... You can make it bigger, but don’t commercialize it. Keep it as it is."
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Added Yang, “Good music and small family atmosphere. I like that.”
Joel Bevacqua aka DJ Deadly Buda is an American graffiti artist and rave pioneer. He publishes the EDM magazine The Hard Data.