Despite stifling heat and a Saturday marred by tragedy, HARD Summer provided plenty of highlights for its 65,000 attendees. Here were some of our favorite and least-favorite moments, along with some thoughts on HARD's future in the wake of Saturday's two deaths.
Best: Porter Robinson
The only thing wrong with Robinson's set was the one thing he could do nothing about: It wasn’t Saturday night's last. Along with the heart-wrenching music he’s become known for lately, Robinson’s performance also came with a fancy, storylined light show and some spectacular fireworks. The consensus was clear: You really can’t get tired of the special set that comes along with his alternative album, Worlds. The story visuals change, and how you interpret the plot is up to you, but each scene and each song contributes to telling something complete. His set ended with the first song he made that directed him, musically, towards Worlds. “Language” puts the show to bed with a bang. (Which is why, when the stage transitioned into a party throne for Dillon Francis, we were kind of bummed the organizers didn’t decide to switch the slots.) — S.P.
Best: The Chemical Brothers
That Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are still making music 20 years after their landmark debut album, Exit Planet Dust, is remarkable enough. That they have managed to stay relevant is, in the fickle world of dance music, nothing short of miraculous. Playing songs that were sometimes older than half of HARD's attendees, the Chems threw down a relentlessly energetic 90-minute set that made few concessions to today's build-and-drop EDM formulas, sticking instead to their patented brew of breakbeats, acid house, hip-hop and psychedelic noise. Their set's weirdest moments, including a freakout mashup of “Escape Velocity” and “The Golden Path,” probably sent some of the younger fans scurrying back to Dillon Francis. But even the ones who didn't quite get it knew they had never heard anything like it. — A.H.
Best: Kick-ass totems
Donald Trump’s disapproving sneer. An intricate Pikachu brandishing a bright red mushroom. A giant praise-the-heavens emoji. That’s the kind of stuff that will help you find your friends. As usual, totems — basically, giant signs that groups hold up in the air to try to stay together — were out in full force. HARD fans took their game to the next level with some pretty funny signals. Surprisingly, they were also all, for the most part, different (unlike that year we saw about eight Kim Kardashian crying faces within 10 minutes). — S.P.
Best: The “Cooling Station”
A small building in the middle Fairplex grounds offered a single attraction: air-conditioning, and plenty of it. With temperatures topping 90 degrees both days, and climbing well above that at some of the indoor stages, it was a savior for many HARD-goers — although since it was usually empty, it seems as though many were either unaware of its existence or put off by its spartan layout. The room offered no party atmosphere and no seats — just a vast expanse of carpet, with a single, non-alcoholic beverage vendor. Next year, the Cooling Station could do with a little decor (perhaps paid for by a corporate sponsor — Ice Breakers? Cool Ranch Doritos?) and maybe even some chillout music. But bare-bones though it was, it was a welcome resource. — A.H.
Worst: The 5K between stages
We’re bigger fans of the Fairplex than we were of Whittier Narrows, but HARD Summer’s newest home also has its issues. Number one? The sheer amount of space and bodies that anyone wanting to get from, say, the HARD to HARDer stages had to traverse. Especially towards the end of the night, when more people and darkness set in, the trek between stages added up to 20 minutes of walking and missed music. — S.P.
Best: Zeds Dead
Playing on the early side (aka: when the sun was still up) didn’t stop Zeds Dead from attracting thousands out of the beer gardens and into a massive, headliner-sized crowd at the HARD Stage. The multi-talented, melodic trap/house/dub duo played a bass-heavy set to appease the party-people festival vibe, dishing out killer dirty trap drops like they were tossing candy to a giant group of toddlers. The show was just another reminder that these dudes know how to adapt to the mood of the event. They have the production chops to do it, and they will blow your mind. — S.P.
Best: Die Antwoord
South Africa's self-described “zef rap-rave” crew (“zef” being an Afrikaans slang word roughly equivalent to “bling”) delivered Sunday's weirdest, wildest set. Storming the stage dressed in ridiculous Pokemon and Pikachu costumes, Ninja and Yolandi quickly worked the crowd into a frenzy with their wild antics and double-time raps, as their monster-masked DJ, Hi-Tek, supplied beats and buzzsaw synth hooks so massive they bordered on self-parody. Several costume changes later, Ninja was stage-diving and Yolandi was spanking a twerking backup dancer, and an overflow crowd at the HARDer stage was going ballistic, especially when Ninja urged everyone to jump for the climactic “I Fink U Freeky.” Oh yeah, Jack Black showed up at one point, too — but their entire set was so fantastic, his cameo was almost an afterthought. — A.H.
Worst: Getting into the parking lot
An #EpicFail goes to the Pomona police on Sunday for cutting off a left-turn lane into Fairplex parking for no apparent reason, forcing hundreds of cars to drive all the way past the Fairplex and double back into still more traffic. I'm not proud to admit that, finally, out of sheer frustration, I jumped out of my friend's car in grid-locked traffic and moved some cones so we could make a U-turn and get back to the parking lot. I saw many others doing the same at other turn-offs, creating a dangerous situation that could have easily been avoided if the police had actually been directing traffic instead of just pointlessly diverting it. — A.H.
Best: The Boys Noize 7Up stage
German electro-house producer Alexander Ridha, aka Boys Noize, curated the relatively intimate, indoor 7Up stage on Sunday, and delivered perhaps the most reliably awesome lineup of the entire festival. Detroit-bred, Berlin-based producer Jimmy Edgar really got things going in the late afternoon with a dark and dirty techno set, followed by the neon house of Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and an eclectic, relentlessly danceable mix from Montreal DJ/producer Tiga (of “Bugati” fame). By the time Boys Noize himself hit the decks, the building had hit capacity. If he returns for HARD Day of the Dead this fall, he's earned the right to a headlining slot on an outdoor stage. — A.H.
Worst: Trying to charge your phone
Don’t make something a big deal if you can’t back it up (also: how have festivals not this figured out yet?). Most people know to charge their phones to 100% before a festival, but most festivals — including HARD — also advertise charging stations at the venue. Yes, it’s crazy to expect all of them to work. But it’s pretty frustrating to find that all but one of the iPhone chargers at the 7Up stage offers no juice. — S.P.
Best: Other acts too numerous to mention (including the ones we missed)
From Justin Bieber coming out during Jack Ü's set for “Where Are Ü Now” (a cameo that won and lost several people near us some betting money) to DJ Snake's surprise guest set on Saturday (which was way better than his Coachella performance earlier this year), nearly everything we saw and heard at HARD lived up to expectations. Act for act, no other major festival in Southern California delivers a lineup as consistently exciting.
Among the other highlights, too numerous to mention: The Glitch Mob, Gorgon City, Carmada, MK, Salva, RL Grime. Oh, and this guy. Among the ones we're kicking ourselves for missing: The Weeknd, DJ Mustard, Ratatat, Problem, Mija, Maya Jane Coles. — S.P. and A.H.
Worst: Two deaths, and HARD Summer's uncertain future
Though HARD raged just as, well, hard on Sunday, the news that Saturday's festivities had claimed the lives of two teenaged attendees cast a shadow over the entire weekend. Obviously, anything that can be done to make future HARD events safer — whether that be stricter security, more access to shade and free water, increased on-site medical personnel, or greater harm reduction efforts — needs to happen ASAP. But it may already be too late, and not just for the two young women who tragically lost their lives.
Although deaths occur at most large-scale festivals, including Coachella, because HARD is the last EDM-centric massive happening within an hour's drive of Los Angeles, fairly or unfairly, it will attract much greater scrutiny from press, politicians and law enforcement. Already, some officials and reporters are discussing the deaths using language reminiscent of the RAVE Act hysteria of the early 2000s, which does not bode well for HARD Summer's future, at least in Los Angeles County.
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis is already proposing a temporary ban on “raves” on county property (which would include the Fairplex). In their reporting on this announcement, the Los Angeles Times included this rather startling (and misleading, since EDC mostly happens after dark) statement: “Hard’s closest-minded peer, Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, is famous for its seas of overheated young bodies splayed out in the rare shady areas where the 110-degree temperature is slightly alleviated.”
While such language is clearly just as overheated as the “young bodies” it describes, and while there should be no rush to judgment on HARD Summer until toxicology reports for the deceased young women are released, there is no denying that the EDM scene still has a drug problem. What steps HARD and other dance music promoters take to educate their audiences about the risks of these drugs, to minimize their usage at events, and to create a safer environment for those who, inevitably, do choose to partake, will go a long way towards determining whether electronic dance music can maintain its current peak of mainstream popularity — or whether the so-called “EDM bubble” will finally burst. — A.H.