Ultra Music Festival 2012 successfully captured the magic of hundreds of DJs simultaneously descending upon the astonishing tropical playground that is Miami Music Week. Somehow, the festival merged the atmosphere of daytime beach parties with the experience of going out and clubbing with its combination of oceanfront views and an electronic night world of lights and lasers. Miami was vibrant, both due to the neon colors and the general state of mind that accompanies 165,000 like-minded individuals who came with the singular purpose of getting their faces blown off. Ultra is part of something bigger; the festival is the heart, pumping the beats that serve as the lifeblood bonding all of Miami for one week. Downtown overflows with energy, as the roars emanating from Bayfront Park and the beats being blasted into the streets from each of the pool parties and clubs permeate the air. This synergy between events makes Ultra unique in that some people wait for the festival headliners to arrive while others only attend the festival during the day (or skip entire days) to attend other events in the evenings. Everywhere we looked, one thing was blatantly obvious; as Will.I.Am said in the EDC movie: “Electronic music is taking over because it’s the truth.” Check out the rest of our comprehensive review after the jump, complete with videos and downloadable sets.
This writer started the weekend trying to compare Ultra to the past several Electric Daisy Carnivals. Ultra has many advantages, including its downtown location and view of the ocean (Insomniac held events in Downtown LA up until Nocturnal 2008). The towering condos of sleek concrete and modern glass that flank the park provide the perfect backdrop for an event that symbolizes the future of live digital entertainment. When you see video elements projected onto the side of a building, you know there is a special relationship between the music and the city. Additionally, the video stream from the main stage was projected onto a tower in the park, allowing attendees at the Live Stage to see the action happening across the way. UMF and EDC had very similar main stages. When it comes to logistics, however, Insomniac is unrivaled. Ultra still has changeovers between some of their acts, and noise pollution from various stages was an occasional problem.
The two festivals are both so extraordinary and have such different strengths that picking a favorite would seem impossible. What we can say for certain is that we relish the idea of Ultra and EDC competing with and improving each other. Pasquale Rotella has announced that this year Las Vegas will be hosting Insomniac sponsored events at clubs every night from the Tuesday before EDC until the Tuesday after. This is presumably influenced by Miami Music Week. Hopefully in the future Ultra will follow Insomniac’s lead by providing water refill stations, or at least not intentionally turn off the drinking fountains near the main stage to make more money.
Nicky Romero – Immediately upon entry, he was the first act on the UMF Korea stage. Nicky wasted no time and was immediately throwing down bombs, and it took him roughly five seconds to get the crowd riled up in a frenzy with “Nicktim” (formerly known as “Fuck School”). His new release “Se7en” almost tore down the stage, as did “Toulouse.” This was an exceptionally fitting manner in which to start off our house music expedition.
Michael Woods – Not to be outdone, Woods took the baton and proceeded to use his full range of skills to get us even more excited. The highlight of Woods’ set was his genre-bending mashup of the lighthearted proggy “Feel” (Third Party vs. Cicada) with “Zombie Nation” (Kernkraft 400) into his own “Last Day On Earth,” while he teased the buildup until the crowd was begging for the beat to drop. When it finally came, the entirety of the audience bounced in unison, ascending to another level. Chris Lake followed Woods with a solid, but not mind-blowing performance. His wife came out to sing the vocals for “Build Up,” which was the pinnacle of his set and definitely quite memorable.
Afrojack – Now, it was time to move to the main stage and see what Afrojack had in store. He started off by telling us that he was a bit nervous, since he was going to play a few new tracks in his set. He didn’t spin like he was nervous, more like a seasoned veteran ready to work the crowd. You could then feel the palpable excitement when the starting notes to “Bangduck” cranked through the speakers. For the next hour or so, Afrojack kept up the energy, and one of his new tunes in particular was a certified face-melter. Overall, this was honestly not the best performance we’ve seen from him. This was confirmed by looking at his setlist; there are a lot of “good” songs in there, not necessarily “great” or “mind-blowing” ones. That being said, it was thoroughly enjoyable and led to maniacal dancing from the crowd at large. This was an example of Afrojack being a victim of his own greatness – he causes us to set the bar higher than almost anyone else for his live performances. Download the full set HERE.
Miike Snow – With remixes by artist ranging from Sebasian Ingrosso to Crookers, Miike Snow came endorsed as a must-see performance. The band is actually a trio of talented and decorated musicians, and none of them are named Mike. Their reputation puts them in the realm of electronic hipster pop, with a relaxing and comfortable electronic sound with veins of something darker. Their sound is distinct, yet familiar. On stage they have a grand piano run through synthesizers, and the effect was chilling and unlike any act we have ever seen. Miike Snow is an EDM compatible Bon Iver, with an abundance of talent that we hope will be providing remixers with material for years to come.
Skrillex – The Ultra main stage was the largest crowd Skrillex has ever played for, and the most energetic crowd we saw all weekend. Skrillex marked the occasion by debuting a new spaceship stage that raised him ten feet in the air with a small scissor lift. Sonny then reminded us of his eclectic sense of humor by putting “Nyan Cat” on the video board behind the ship. The set was especially heavy, and the crowd was simply ecstatic. Check out this ten minute video of his new stage:
Dada Life – If you have never seen Dada Life, it’s time you went and saw them. Their set was a nonstop onslaught of banger after banger. There was constant jumping from the entire crowd, giant inflatables being tossed around (not just bananas, but also a 6 foot tall flamingo, to give one example), and champagne spraying. This was also the first time we heard “Kick Out The Epic Motherfucker,” which may have been the song of the festival judging by the number of times we heard it. However, the apex of their performance was undoubtedly “Happy Violence.” It’s difficult to describe, but the crowd got into it with a certain fury that is really best described only by the track’s title. These Swedes have a bright future in this industry if this set was at all representative.
Tiesto once again proved why he is one of the best. It was an exhibition of flawless track selection, mixing, and transitioning. The manner in which he is able to manipulate the emotions of the crowd is nothing short of masterful. It’s almost an out-of-body experience when you know you are in tune with the DJ. The last half of his set really brought us to another level, highlighted by a mashup of Sandro Silva vs. Dada Life in “Epic vs. Kick Out the Epic Motherfucker,” and Axwell’s mix of “In My Mind.” Seeing Tiesto as the last act of the day on the Main Stage with about 100,000 people is an experience everyone needs. Out of this world.
Pretty Lights is a unique act in that the entire multimedia production is controlled by the artist, Derek Smith. When asked about his stage production, Derek explains that he gets bored watching regular DJs on stage staring at their decks. He controls the music and visuals in real time with Ableton, while improvising the set with his drummer. The result is that he is able to tailor the lights to an audience’s responses the same way DJs do with song selection. This made the Live Stage amphitheater perfect for Pretty Lights, as the slope allowed everyone to have an unobstructed view of the stage. His music is an eclectic sample-based mix between heavy hitting electronic jams and soulful G-funk, held together with cunning bass. Pretty Lights are definitely a must see performance.
12th Planet / Skrillex
Sultan and Ned Shepard
Laidback Luke is always a solid way to start off your day. He played his usual assortment of tracks, and got us in the mood for the day. Unfortunately, he was not spectacular. It’s also a fact that crowds are less responsive with a daytime slot such as his, but we have grown to expect a lot from LBL. We have now seen him many times at festivals; this was certainly not bad, but also far from one of his best performances. Download his full set HERE.
12th Planet – Unfortunately, we missed Skrillex playing with 12th Planet. Thankfully, you can listen to their set here:
Flux Pavilion – It was time to go to the UMF Brazil tent where Flux Pavilion was playing. This was everything the dubstep lover could have wanted. So much bass, lots of breakdowns, and womps like no other. This was a great change of pace from all of the house music we had been hearing, although there were entirely way too many people left over from the prior set (Skrillex crashed 12th Planet’s set).
Sydney Blu – We were making our way over to the other side of the festival ground when we stumbled across a diamond in the rough. On the largely ignored UMF Radio stage was Sydney Blu – a woman with incredible stage presence, dancing around, singing along, interacting with the crowd, and most importantly, actively (and flawlessly) DJing while doing all of the above. Having been in the front, we were not surprised in the least to turn around and see that the previously tiny crowd had multiplied exponentially. We could not spot a single face that was not enraptured with Sydney. She closed off by playing an original track called “Give It Up For Me” and informing us that it’s out on Mau5trap. They are lucky to have her, and we’ll be anxiously awaiting to see one of her tour dates pop up in a nearby city. She was one of the best acts of Day 2.
Sultan and Ned Shepard started off their set on great footing. They got the crowd going by dropping Hard Rock Sofa’s remix of “In the Air.” We did notice that Nadia Ali was hanging out with them behind the DJ booth, and hoped that the self proclaimed “Queen of Clubs” would be incorporated into their set. We were not disappointed. The ante was upped as she came out dancing on top of the speakers belting vocals as they played Alesso’s remix of “Pressure” followed by “Call My Name.” The set was a perfect mix of trancey undertones and big beat drops, where the DJs were in sync with the crowd, DJ booth and crowd feeding off of one another.
Justice awed Miami with an old school house set. The progressive sounds that have been permeating House music has made no impact on their sound. They relied on old school elements like using ten seconds of silence to build tension before beginning one of their signature songs. They also eschewed the hundreds of square feet of video boards that adorned the stage, opting instead to only use the white moving spotlights for the majority of their set. This added to the old school feel, reminding festival goers how long Justice has been playing on such massive stages. This writer has wanted to see Justice again ever since their Hard Haunted 2009 set (which was one of our favorites), and they were equally impressive two and a half years later. Their sound is clearly surviving the test of time. Download their full set HERE.
Avicii – We made our way to the main stage to watch Avicii with mixed feelings – we love and appreciate his skill as a producer, but have been disappointed on a couple of occasions with his skill set as a live DJ. Though in all fairness, he has always admitted to being a producer first and DJing as a requirement. While there were many positives to his set, namely a favored track selection, an unbelievably vibrant and impressive stage setup, and a great crowd, we simply were not that impressed due to aforementioned lack of live DJ prowess. Improving in this area would deem him unstoppable, given his popularity. That being said, the crowd surely loved his performance (despite the “MDNA” backlash against Madonna). Download his full set HERE.
Bingo Players‘ set was truly special. We wrote last month that they were the standout performance from LED’s Anniversary Party in San Diego. Their set was at two in the afternoon, well before most festival goers arrived at the park. Thousands in attendance had made the sacrifice of coming at 2 just to see the duo. The energy they evoke from the crowd is unreal. They opened their set with “Cry (Just a Little),” and had the crowd dancing for the rest of their hour. This pair has mastered controlling the crowd from the decks. Expect great things from them in the future. Download their full set HERE.
Steve Aoki and Knife Party was exactly the way this writer wanted to start off Day 3. Aoki brought his usual high energy and intensity, unleashing both his and our excitement with “No Beef” and “Warp 1.9” (although this would prove to be the second-best drop of “Warp” of the day). For “Turbulance,” Steve was joined onstage by Laidback Luke and Lil Jon for a live performance. Listen to his full set here:
Knife Party followed on the main stage with a good, hard DJ set; essentially what we expected. After hearing “Internet Friends” all weekend, seeing them play the song was fantastic. Every face lit up in anticipation of the kick as soon as we heard “you blocked me on Facebook, and now you’re going to die!” Listen to their full set here:
Dash Berlin – Next up was the trance tent, set up in honor of Armin Van Buuren’s 550th podcast of A State Of Trance. Up in ASOT was Dash Berlin. He looked like he was having more fun on stage than any member of the audience. There were members of the crowd who were longtime Dash fans, and those who came just to check him out; his excitement was infectious and contagious to both groups alike. Once he started, he never slowed down. Next time Dash comes through town, you should attend.
The Bloody Beetroots had one of the most energy-packed sets of the festival, hands down. There really is no other way to put it. They had to overcome a setup at the Live Stage that was not at all conducive to a DJ set. Not to mention, it’s been FOREVER since BBR played a DJ set, since they took a turn to live performances with BBR and Death Crew 77. It looked like an amphitheater with stadium style seating best suited for casual listening, which if you’ve heard the Beetroots, isn’t their style. None of it mattered. When the Beetroots took the stage, people began hopping fences and seats to push to the front and be as close as possible. Not one person was seated. From the opening notes, the energy was the highest it had been all festival and only went up from there (not bad for one of the last sets on Day 3). We really started to feel like something special was happening when the riffs from Bingo Players’ “L’Amour” started reverberating through the speakers there was a look of sheer delight on everyone’s face that only heightened as the riffs sped up. The beat drop led to sheer mayhem that is frankly, indescribable, unless you have been in a massive group of people jumping up and down with for no reason other than that are compelled to by the music. When that seemed unbeatable were we taken to new heights by “Warp.” Each subsequent drop felt like the crowd was being brought that much closer to a full on riot. The Beetroots mercifully ended their set with this track. Faces of surrounding kids all had the same look following the set – euphoric and exhausted.
Kaskade – We saw him from a distance. People were loving it. He mixed the vocals of “Angel On My Shoulders” with Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” and it was incredible. This is the second time in the last six months this writer has seen Kaskade embrace harder remixes of his songs and just heavier drops in general – when mixed with the sexy female vocals and his slower songs are interspersed, it combines for an incredible effect. Really a good look for him.
Gareth Emery – opened with “Tokyo,” everyone immediately feeling it. The next hour was full of hard trancey bliss. This writer has never been a huge fan of trance, but I walked away from this set extremely impressed.