Electric Zoo Returns With Drug-Sniffing Dogs, Tightened Security and Smaller Crowd

Fans gather on the first day (Aug. 30) of the Electric Zoo Festival on New York's Randall's Island (Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images)

This year's crowd is thinner, the weather is breezier and the sound is lower.

To borrow the ubiquitous Lil Jon lyric, Electric Zoo has “turned down.”

Electric Zoo Festival Tightens Security

After two drug-related deaths at last year’s scorching event forced its cancellation and made national headlines, the electronic music festival returned on Friday (Aug. 29) to New York’s Randall’s Island, hyper-aware of the microscope it's under. If you’re planning to attend this weekend, here’s what to expect.

The vibe is different. The crowd is thinner, the weather is breezier, the sound is lower. In an effort to prevent against casualties, the festival has overcorrected and made widely known its use of high-tech cameras, drug-sniffing dogs and ramped-up security. The substance checkpoints are more thorough, requiring attendees to remove shoes, and cops -- both in uniform and undercover -- seemed to almost outnumber the fans.

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Necessary? Yes, but there was a palpable sense of nervous energy among revelers as guards and police loomed. It's possible that some Zoo regulars predicted the shift and passed on this year's event. It is not sold out.

For fanatics, though, this was a blessing in disguise. Crowds were always manageable, even during superstar DJ David Guetta’s headlining set in which you could stroll right up to the front lines. Across the grounds, Gesaffelstein, the rapidly rising French DJ known for his productions with Kanye West and Brodinski, played to a half-full tent. But it was star-studded: Fool’s Gold label boss A-Trak jumped on stage to give him a hug as Kanye West collaborator Virgil Abloh watched from the crowd.

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It’s impossible to talk about first-day highlights without mentioning German producer Tensnake, whose set in the Beatport Riverside stage drew a slew of industry folks, including Electric Zoo founders Mike Bindra and Laura de Palma.

The Vinyl Only stage is underrated and has by far the best sound. While the main stages and two large tents were frustratingly quiet, the bass from Vinyl Only could be felt in the back of the bathroom area. (A quick note about bathrooms: There are only oddly few of them and by 6 p.m. the lines snaked out into the grounds. Try to go early.)

There were, of course, a few mechanical hiccups. Will call lines were on the long side. Las Vegas duo Caked Up complained to the crowd that their mixer was broken. But strangest of all was the cashless system organizers implemented that requires attendees to upload money to an account connected to their wristband in order to pay for food and drink.

When this approach was tested at Mysteryland over Memorial Day weekend, the system went down, leaving fans without means to pay vendors for hours. SFX decided to give it another try, and the system was down an hour into Friday. By sunset, most of the cash tents were back up and running.

Saturday and Sunday are bound to be busier, so do yourself a favor and go early. Saturday's must-see sets include Clockwork and GRiZ, who overlap at the Hilltop Arena and Mainstage East.

If you’re looking for something harder than pop-leaning Madeon or trance ambassador Armin van Buuren, swing by Knife Party, an Australian duo poised to explode when their debut album, Abandon Ship, is released on Oct. 27.

On Sunday, everyone will be buzzing about Jack U, the Diplo-Skrillex supergroup that headlines Mainstage East, but there’s plenty of talent earlier in the day, too. Hip-hop lovers should check out UZ and Seven Lions, and longtime house fans should swing by Dirty South, who will likely play a few tracks from his forthcoming sophomore album, With You, to be released next month.

But the act with the most potential to have a benchmark 2015 is What So Not, a supergroup of Australian producers Flume and Emoh Instead (currently, only Emoh tours for the act). Skrillex recently signed the duo to his OWSLA label, and they've dropped hints that a new EP is on the way. Take the downsized Zoo as an opportunity to get up close and personal. Next year, it probably won’t be so easy.