Ultra Music Festival 2016: Surprises, Reunions And A Triple Dose Of deadmau5

John Cameron

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On March 18th-20th, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Bayfront Park in downtown Miami to usher in the beginning of the 2016 festival season by attending the 18th edition of Ultra Music Festival. While the massive boasted a lineup sure to pique the interest of any informed electronic music fan, the execution of the festival itself would suggest that it’s been surpassed by other industry-leading festivals throughout the North American market.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it was that Ultra became just another festival. As promoters the world over continue to come up with methods to present their events’ attendees with an experience that can never be duplicated, the organizers of Ultra seem content to stick to the same tired-out formula: stock a half dozen stages with famous DJs for three days.

Even the production values seem to have suffered to some degree. In all its LED-paneled grandeur, Ultra’s once epoch-making main stage, which this year featured performances from the likes of Armin Van Buuren, Hardwell and Martin Garrix, didn’t come close to competing with those of festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival or TomorrowWorld.

The Arcadia Spider of the Resistance Stage was perhaps the most spirited addition to this year’s edition of the festival. The three-story structure built to resemble a robotic spider played host to underground house and techno artists like Hot Since 82, John Digweed and Art Department, providing a safe haven for those intimately familiar with dance music’s more sophisticated side.

The Worldwide Stage, meanwhile, featured an awning-like arc that extended over the heads the audience members in front of the DJ booth, and the 7-UP-sponsored Stage 7 shared a raised platform with various vendors and a handful of charger mounts. The Live Stage used Bayfront Park’s existing auditorium structure at its disposal, and the smallest stage, Oasis, was built into a small storefront. Finally, in the far corner of the park was a stage which was hosted by Carl Cox and Friends for the first two days of the event, and A State of Trance (ASOT) on the last.

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What Ultra Music Festival lacked in regards to production elements and a personalized experience, however, it made up for with A-list talent. On Friday, Julian Jordan and Blasterjaxx warmed up the decks on the Main Stage for Dash Berlin before Kygo played a typically skillful set full of new music from his upcoming album.

Jauz took the the Worldwide stage shortly thereafter, playing tracks like his breakout single, “Feel The Volume,” and his Ephwurd collaboration, “Rock The Party” – although his set was unfortunately not a great deal different from the ones he’s been playing on the Friendzy Tour.

Around the same time, Loco Dice brought his dark and brooding brand of techno to the Carl Cox and Friends stage – that is, before Cox himself took the stage while the lighting techs finally broke out the lasers. On the Resistance stage, Hot Since 82 did the same for John Digweed before Jamie Jones closed the night out – while on the Main Stage, DJ Snake unleashed his relentless brand of bass music before Martin Garrix used his set as a platform to debut 10 new tracks.

On Saturday, the Carl Cox and Friends stage opened with a long back-to-back set between Cristian Varela and Jon Rundell before Nicole Moudaber took over. During the second half of her set, OWSLA export Mija showcased her bass music chops at the UMF Radio stage while Thomas Jack played a bit of a topsy-turvy set at the Live Stage. The latest DJ/producer to adopt the slow reveal gimmick, Malaa, played afterwards at the Worldwide stage – followed by Don Diablo, who, despite his mediocre recent releases, actually played a very solid set of music.

To the dismay of a small portion of fans (whom were undoubtedly outweighed by the majority in attendance), The Prodigy would not be able to perform their closing set at the Live Stage and progressive house mastermind deadmau5 would take the time slot instead. While he was already scheduled for a slot on the ASOT stage the following day, his impromptu performance gave him an opportunity to play the kind of music he’s been feeling more lately – and apparently, the ‘mau5 has been big on dark, introspective techno.

However, it would be the third and final day of Ultra Music Festival that set the tone for what this year’s festival season will probably have in store. After artists like Fedde Le Grand, Black Coffee and Markus Schulz performed on the massive’s various stages, an unheard-of influx of attendees swarmed to the ASOT stage for deadmau5’ set. As he previously hinted, the Canadian DJ/producer opened his set with a Slayer track, making a mockery of his highly anticipated performance right off the bat.

While his set featured the cerebral, intelligently arranged sort of progressive house that has become the deadmau5 calling card, technical difficulties about midway through (which he blamed squarely on Pioneer) halted the sound for a length of time before he got his hardware back up and running.

Then, there was the close. After playing one of the experimental tracks from his Project Entropy stage show, deadmau5 got on the microphone and addressed the audience:

Thank you for coming out, everybody. Thank you ASOT. I mean, a paycheck’s a paycheck, right?

And at that, the controversial producer cued his final track, “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead – which might as well have been a giant middle finger to the festival’s organizers as well as the audience.

It’s hard to know how to take deadmau5’ larger-than-life gesture; at this point in his career, you can’t help but feel that trolling has become such a major part of his persona that it’s a special treat to find yourself on the receiving end during a live performance. Nonetheless, you can’t get around the fact that he casually disrespected his fans. When it’s all said and done, doing so loses him respect points.

Luckily, an artist who holds themselves to the utmost standard of professionalism and artistic integrity followed him on the same stage: None other than Eric Prydz. The Swedish progressive house virtuoso delivered one of his transcendental live sets, drawing tens of thousands to the ASOT stage in the process.

Elsewhere, after live dubstep band Destroid experienced some technical difficulties of their own on the Live Stage, they were followed by the reunion of one of electronic music’s most celebrated relics. Rabbit in the Moon (RITM) played their reunion set on the Live Stage – one which, as they told us in an interview the day before, consisted of 80% new music.

In addition to their sublime fusion of breakbeat and techno, their otherworldly stage show set them above the rest as the best set of the weekend for anyone who was lucky enough to catch it. Between Cirque Du Soleil-style performers and visceral stunts like Bunny leaping into the audience and shouting, “Take me as your sacrifice,” RITM’s reunion set was easily the most memorable of the entire festival – which says a lot, given their competition.

Shortly afterwards, Gareth McGrillen and Rob Swire of Knife Party were met on the Main Stage by the members of Pendulum for the group’s own reunion. The drum and bass band may not have put as much into their reunion as RITM did, but considering their history it definitely made for a fitting way to close out the weekend.

If you regard this year’s edition of Ultra Music Festival as an indicator of what’s to follow now that festival season is underway, it appears as obvious as ever that a tectonic shift is taking place in the world of electronic music. Fans are tiring of the status quo, and their search for music of substance takes them to strange, new places – owing in no small part to the commentary of disenfranchised tastemakers. Ultra Music Festival may have peaked some years prior, but it nonetheless remains a rite of passage for electronic music fans on a global scale.