In terms of both distance traveled and energy exerted, it was a long haul, but by the time the sun rose over the Judaean desert at 6:41am on Sunday, it felt that the 15,000 people gathered at the base of Masada had accomplished something special.
Indeed, the event for which we were gathered, Day Zero Masada: Dwellers of the Dead Sea, was a singular feat. Of permitting. Of organization. Of music. Of ambition. It presumably wasn’t easy to gather a crowd of this size for 16 hours of electronic music at the base of the ancient palace complex built by King Herod in the last century B.C. There were presumably many talks with government officials, historians, police and others invested in the sanctity of the UNESCO World Heritage site.
But if the success of a festival is at least partially defined by the singularity of its venue, Dwellers Of the Dead Sea will rightfully be folded into the already historical record of the place. After Herod, the complex was inhabited by survivors of the Jewish Revolt, who carried out their lives while 8,000 Roman soldiers intent on conquering them sat camped at the bottom for seven years. In 73 A.D., as these Romans finally made their way up the hill, most the remaining occupants of Masada took their own lives rather than getting captured and living as Roman slaves. Millions of tourists have since trekked up the hill at dawn to appreciate the site — and 1,946 years after the siege, a crowd of electronic music fans, from Israel and beyond, gathered to dance.
This incarnation of Day Zero was the first expansion of the event’s flagship show, which has taken place in the jungle outside Tulum, Mexico for the past seven years and which has distinguished itself as one of the most alluring parties on the international circuit. Created by venerable producer and Crosstown Rebels founder Damian Lazarus, Day Zero is intended to connect modern dance music crowds with ancient cultures through music, location and the intersection of the two. In Mexico, this relates to Mayan history, with the one-night party falling just after the new year, hence the name Day Zero.
In Israeli this connection came Masada, with the show falling on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. While Masada has previously hosted opera events and more low-key gatherings at the base of the desert mesa on which the fortress is perched, Day Zero was the first time the site hosted an electronic dance music festival.
"It’s the most magnificent place, and obviously in a very historically important part of the world," Lazarus told Billboard Dance of the show. "My idea was to kind of veer it away from the Judaism and get in connection with the Bedouin tribes and the wandering nomads of that area – people who have kind of traveled across the Dead Sea for thousands of years. That’s essentially how I thought Masada was the best possible follow-up to working with the Mayans in Tulum."
Lazarus and his team collaborated with Israeli event producers Tripping to make it happen, and the endeavor worked, brilliantly, with more than one person in the crowd calling Day Zero the best rave to ever happen in Israel. Altogether, it felt like history in the making.
These are the eight best things we saw at the show.
One Stage to Rule Them All
Rather than spreading the lineup out over multiple stages, Day Zero kept the vibe cohesive with a single stage hosting the full lineup: Ae:Ther, Bedouin, Chaim, Davi, Magit Cacoon, Monolink Satori, Gorgon City, Jamie Jones, Marco Carola and Lazarus himself. And unlike the LED monoliths or standard truss structures seen at so many large-scale electronic events, the Day Zero stage was an artfully designed amalgamation of projection mapping and wooden coves, with a crowning feature that pointed directly to the ancient fortress above it and reflected the sun when it finally came out.
It might not have been easy to get the sound right in vast desert landscape, but whoever was responsible for the acoustics did a masterful job in ensuring the bass and beats all came through in hi-fi. While the sound did cut out a few times early in the evening — sending production staff sprinting to the stage — by the time the party really got bumping, the music not only stayed on, but sounded impeccable.
The Slow Build
The 15-seconds-of-this-song and 15-seconds-of-that-song world of dance music is not typically defined by its patience, but Day Zero was an exercise in a thoughtful slow build that took place over the course of the 16-hour show. Performing earlier in the evening, Chaim and Monolink kept their sets relatively low-key, dipping largely into deep house and tech-house. Then, as the stage itself lit up with increasingly more elaborate lights, lasers and smoke, the music itself became grander as well. By the time Marco Carola blew the metaphorical lid off the place around 4:00 AM, with a set that spanned house to electro to techno and back again, the lights were shining on Masada, the crowd was spinning, twirling, bumping, grinding and throwing its collective hands in the air with peak time enthusiasm and the party was quite likely visible from across the Dead Sea.
The Show Within the Show
As the energy of the music ramped up, so too did the scope of the production, with aerialists, costumed performers and other whimsically attired dancers, drummers and contortionists moving through the crowd, adding a sense of just-because whimsy and getting the crowd more aligned with the spirit of the show.
Of course, Day Zero's culmination was a light show only mother earth can provide, with the crowd turning its back on the stage and gazing over the Dead Sea towards Jordan at dawn as the sky above turned pink and gold. It was at this point that Lazarus played a medley of impeccably selected tracks — a sweet remix of Bill Withers’ "Lovely Day," an a capella verse of “Here Comes the Sun,” the spacious intro to “Fly Like An Eagle” the iconic soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and then, finally, triumphantly, Chic’s enduring “I Want Your Love.” It was a delightful series of non-sequitur tracks that felt not only ideal for the moment, but entirely unique to this show.
The Little Things
Even better than watching the sun rise over the desert while the music plays and everyone around you smiles towards the horizon was doing so while the Day Zero staff moved through the crowd, passing out single red flowers. The thoughtfulness of Day Zero is captured in simple, elegant touches like these. In tandem with the grandiosity of the production and music, they also demonstrate why Day Zero is so often called one of the world's best parties.
While it was already too hot to be outside by the time everyone was heading home around 9am, the night before was a terrifically balmy evening that gave everyone in attendance a dewy sort of glow. The shuttles back to Tel Aviv and down to the Dead Sea resort strip were blessedly efficient, leaving no one to melt in the sun. Food did seem to be a bit of an issue back at the bottom, however, with the Dead Sea McDonald's having to push out patrons and lock its doors after getting swarmed with party people and running out of food.
The show closed with a performance by a group of local Bedouin musicians who played traditional instruments on top of a computer-made beat. (“With research, experience and experiments I think it is possible to fuse some musical traditions and cultures with electronic music in a way that is cutting edge, beautiful and not cheesy,” Lazarus told Billboard of Day Zero in 2016.) Ending the show with music native to the area was another thoughtful touch that encapsulated the cultural conversations that's core to the show's concept.