Tucked away amidst the chaos of EDC Vegas is Palace Blue, a collection of curving domes supported by bamboo spires, inspired – according to the festival guidebook – “by the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Instanbul.” That description may be a stretch, but it’s true that the structure is a pretty retreat for party-weary festival-goers. It’s well-lit and offers an expanse of cool, well-maintained grass on which to lounge between forays into EDC’s more raging attractions.
The one thing Palace Blue does not offer, however, is music. The soundtrack here is a garbled din of beats and bass from several other nearby stages. Which, for anyone who’s been going to electronic music festivals for over a decade, begs the question: Whatever happened to the classic rave chillout room, where you could take a break from dance music’s pounding beats with the soothing sounds of ambient and downtempo music?
In fairness to EDC Vegas, it does a better job than most EDM festivals at providing spaces for attendees to kick back. In addition to Palace Blue, the festival also offers a Buddha Garden, a black-lit Dandelion Forest, and a platform called the Caterpillar’s Garden, full of fuzzy green seats centered around a giant, spinning caterpillar sculpture. There were also several smaller “oases” with additional seating scattered throughout the festival grounds, ranging from artificial trees festooned with fairy lights to more utilitarian concrete barriers that seemed meant to serve more as meet-up spots than places to chill.
But with the exception of the Buddha Garden, where a massive Buddha statue presides over a small grassy area that’s at least somewhat sheltered behind the house-focused Neon Garden stage, none of these spaces provide much relief from the persistent pulse of EDM. The Caterpillar’s Garden, in fact, though billed in the festival guidebook as a “chill space,” offered pretty much the exact opposite of chillout music: clashing soundtracks from the Wasteland hardstyle stage and a DJ spinning electro-house atop a nearby art car. (A spokesperson for Insomniac directed me to another chill area with actual couches, but I was unable to find it.)
Ironically, the best place in the entire festival to take a break from the music isn’t a “chill zone” at all, but the centrally located Carnival Square, where food and merch vendors surround a cluster of built-in, food-court-style seating – which doesn’t invite lounging, exactly, but at least provides the opportunity to talk at normal conversational levels.
EDC Vegas’ lack of a chillout area with its own soundtrack is probably due to a combination of factors. For one thing, today’s festival sound systems are much louder and more bass-y than those of 15 or 20 years ago, the era when nearly every rave with more than two areas had one dedicated to ambient music. Even back then, sound bleed was always an issue, and many a chill room was marred by the muffled bass of a nearby house or jungle DJ. To seclude any part of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway from all eight of EDC’s booming stages might simply be an impossible task.
It might also be a matter of changing tastes. For today’s EDM fans, taking a break from the roller-coaster crescendos of big-room house and electro can just mean seeking out the relatively lower BPM of trap, or the mellower vibes of deep house. The classic sounds of great ambient producers like The Orb and Boards of Canada might hold little interest for a generation of younger fans, at least in a party setting.
But the most obvious – and, admittedly, cynical – explanation might be this: In the past, chill rooms were often havens for the party’s most drugged-out attendees.
Tripping balls on shrooms? That second ecstasy pill hitting you a little too hard? To the chill room you would go, where there would always be psychedelic music playing, some dirty pillows and fun fur to sprawl on, and probably a few random video projections to zone out to. That may have been fine and dandy in the early, underground days of rave, but now that it’s a multi-billion dollar industry, it's become a business imperative for companies like Insomniac to disassociate their events with the culture's druggier aspects, both past and present.
Still, it’s too bad that in this latest stage of its evolution, electronic dance music no longer has much place for its downtempo cousins. Not only because those great ambient artists of the ‘90s are an important part of the music’s history, but also because some of today’s most gifted electronic producers are following in their footsteps.
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A chill room of today wouldn’t have to rely solely on “Little Fluffy Clouds” and Selected Ambient Works. It could also feature the more ambient efforts of artists like Flying Lotus, Shlohmo, Teebs, Nosaj Thing, Bonobo, Tycho, Nicolar Jaar and dozens more who continue to innovate on electronic music's less dance-oriented frontiers. They represent the music’s future as much as any of the artists on the current U.S. EDM festival circuit. It would be nice if, eventually, festivals like EDC can find a place for them amidst all the more high-energy sounds.