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Festival Review: Ultra Music Festival 2013

on March 19, 2013, 10:00am
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The aerial view of Ultra Music Festival is massively deceiving. When perched some 50-stories above downtown Miami, the Bayfront Park location looks like a serene beach side environment with shade-producing palm trees lining the short walk in-between stages. In reality, the jaunt between the northern UMF Radio Stage and the intimate Bayfront Stage takes an approximate 20-minutes and requires revelers to weave through the crowds of the Main Stage, Live Stage, indoor public restrooms, the spill over from vending, and a hill scattered with resting fatigued Ultranauts. The simple reaction would be to avoid the hike, but for those that don’t want to spend the weekend awash in big room electro-house and saw-jaw trance, the two smaller stages offer a dark glimpse into the more subterranean aspects of dance music.

Celebrating their 15th anniversary, the minds behind Ultra have provided some small extras to remedy the problems that often arise in city-centered festivals; including multi-hour waits Friday evening, major traffic congestion, and the aforementioned lay-out limitations. For the first time, party-goers were kept hydrated with water stations (a true no-brainer when producing an all-day, no-reentry South Florida event) and connected with free Wi-Fi; the latter nearly impossible to access during the majority of the weekend. However, in similar fashion to EDM’s artistic talent, Ultra has started to fall into the trap of over-production as it’s gained international acclaim.

ULTRA

Even before a single beat hit the speakers, the festival was plagued with publicity issues like a falling Main Stage L.E.D. section that injured four workers early Friday morning and the City of Miami Commission’s vote to cancel the second weekend of the festival less than two-months prior to the festival (a decision eventually withdrawn). Post-event, Ultra is sure to receive feedback about poor communication regarding adjustments in set times and multiple technical issues that continue to plague the Live Stage. Transitioning between DJ sets is as easy as switching a few cords, but the amphitheater stage requires the production team to set-up complex rigs and high-tech lighting structures with very little padding around set times. This pressure resulted in abbreviated times for many, and major complications that hindered the sets of Matt and Kim (who had to end their set early with broken equipment) and Boys Noize.

Derived from the need to constantly please capacity crowds, the errors are a minor hiccup for a festival that continues to draw both the most marquee names in club culture and the new talent within underground sounds. For the many haters that blast social media about Ultra continuing to feature the same dozen headliners, they fail to peruse the five stages that surround the opulent Main Stage and brilliantly-lit Mega Structure (which has actually been reduced in size for the better since 2012). Be it trap, tech-house, deep house, or old-school Florida breaks, nearly every sub-genre within club-ready production could be uncovered within enough wandering amidst the gated concrete jungle. While dubbed an “electronic music festival”, Ultra 2013 continued to shy away from the less-energetic forms of digital production, forgoing artists that excel in analog, IDM, ambient, dub (sans the step), the West Coast beats culture or anything that could be deemed experimental.

ULTRA 3

For all those fond of the disco nap, Ultra still proves to be a must-visit the world over. Personally, there are several reasons why I haven’t made the annual mid-March Staples’ family reunion in nearly a decade, and they are not David Guetta, Tiësto, and Calvin Harris (truly no disrespect to that big room, pop sound). Rather, it’s the artists still more concerned with exploring the boundaries of the dance floor and not the potential of a cross-over top 40 hit. It’s these artists that make blisters, sun burns, and a substantially lighter bill fold all minor sacrifices for three days of dance music appreciation.

-Derek Staples
Senior Staff Writer

Friday, March 15th

Jamie Jones Friday Main Stage 1

Jamie Jones – Mega Structure – 6:00 p.m.

For those in search of sexy house music early Friday evening, the Mega Structure was the go-to destination. With the masses still clamoring to make their way through will call and security, Hot Creation’s Jamie Jones worked the small crowd with a set more fit for a crowded pool party. Aided by the stage’s cacophonous sound system, Jones’ deep house grooves marched atop a broad bottom end that rests so low it isn’t easily audible on your typical set of speakers. As the deep house movement finds its way across the pond, Jones’ set Friday was an indicator that the sound can lose some of the underground edge and energize a pre-peak dancefloor.

Modestep Friday Live

Modestep – Live Stage – 7:10 p.m.

Modestep follow in the path of British-based live electronic outfits like The Prodigy and Chase & Status. Suggesting the four-piece has reached the artistic aptitude of either outfit is a bit of a stretch, but they do manage to merge the current bass-heavy rebellious EDM within the classic structure of a four-minute alternative radio single. Led by brothers Josh (vocals/production) and the masked Tony (DJ) Friend, Modestep delivered a much more visually stimulating live experience than the festival’s laptop musicians, but less than three years into existence the members are still developing the overall intensity of Saturday night headliners Infected Mushroom. Given the pop-qualities of tracks like “Time” and “To the Stars”, however, Modestep seem more on a Linkin Park trajectory than that of their European live-electronic brethren.

Crystal Castles Fri Live 1

Crystal Castles – Live Stage – 10:00 p.m.

Drummer Christopher Chartand receives only a small portion of the credit he deserves. Not only does he provide a tight rhythm for the electro-punk pulses of Ethan Cath, but he also has to deal with the fluctuating screeches of Alice Glass, improvise when she takes her leaps into the crowd, and maneuver around the petite lead singer when she climbs atop his kick drum. Cloaked beneath the mask of Crystal Castles’ live strobe lights, Chartand provides a powerful dynamic that re-energizes live staples like “Baptism”, “Alice Practice“, “XXZXCUZX Me”, and “Untrust Us”. Having seen Crystal Castles no less than six times, it’s their unshaking ability to maintain a raw, bar room energy that makes the live trio such an appealing multi-sensory experience — even when the setlist changes infrequently.

SHM Fri Main Stage

Swedish House Mafia – Main Stage – 10:30 p.m.

Watching a few moments of the Swedish House Mafia was like celebrating the retirement of a dreaded acquaintance. Showing up seemed more like an obligation and opportunity to eat a few slices of delicious cake than a real chance to remember their career achievements. Quite possibly the second to last show for the threesome of Axwell, Sebastian Ingrosso, and Steve Angello, SHM were notably quiet about the farewell portion of their highly-publicized farewell tour. Possibly expecting something more grandiose from the trio, the Ultra production team was amped to light the downtown skyline with an escalating series of fireworks and building projections. Axwell cracked a small joke prior to epic-hit “Save the World”, but SHM just let the stream of hits speak for the revolutionary success of their solo and group careers.

Porter Robinson and Zedd Mansion Fri

After Party: Mat Zo and Porter Robinson – Mansion – 1:00 a.m.

After seven years of Ultra, I was set in 2013 to finally dive headfirst into the weekend and explore a few choice after parties. Absent from the festival, the progressive house beats of the wise-beyond-his-22-years Mat Zo, which also happened to be taking place at Opium Groups Mansion Nightclub, seemed like the ideal way to drift into the pre-dawn hours of a brisk Miami morning. Although often releasing through Above & Beyond’s trance-heavy Anjunabeats imprint, Zo was down to rinse bolsterous big room sounds ranging from short stints of 128 BPMs to DnB productions normally foreign to the well-dressed clientele.

As the club sardine-canned around 3 a.m., one could get a sense that something was bound to happen during young-gun Porter Robinson’s set. That something was an appearance from both Hardwell and Zedd, with the latter taking to the dials to share a new Zedd track alongside Robinson. The careers of all four gentleman are in their infancy, but the Zedd, Hardwell, Zo, and Robinson bill may be the coveted collection for the next few decades.

Saturday, March 16th

Disclore Sat 1 Live

Disclosure – Live Stage – 3:00 p.m.

Expect for Disclosure’s upcoming album to be massive. The Lawrence Bros. aren’t simply regurgitating classic house with an updated 21st century energy and bassline. Their Saturday afternoon set was the type of Live Stage performance that works best: minimal percussion, laptops, analog synthesizers, and some guitar. It’s a simple and easy set-up, lacking all the excessive frills of later evening sets but maintaining all the necessary essentials to live music. Each relegated to their stand of equipment, older brother Guy provided a live bass line and melody courtesy of an Akai controller and keyboard while Howard proved a competent world percussionist. The duo didn’t imitate their brand imaging with masks, but the live renditions of “White Noise” and the remix of “Running” by Jessie Ware. The brothers might not have had any surprise guests, but their first visit to Miami was successful in demonstrating they’re much more than a couple of bedroom laptop wunderkinds.

Birdy Nam Nam Sat OWSLA

Birdy Nam Nam – UMF Radio – 6:30 p.m.

Say what you want about Skrillex, the OWSLA imprint is one of the most forward looking labels in the U.S. With artists saturating sounds across the EDM spectrum, Saturday at the OWSLA-curated UMF Radio Stage offered a sonic adventure far more expansive than other label-curated stages.  Hailing from France, the four-piece award winning DJ crew known as Birdy Nam Nam possess the party busting energy of Skrillex’s predominately Southern Cali crew but explore the sonic layering with expertly crafted turntable arrangements. Utilizing live scratch vinyl, three members of the outfit (DJ Need, Lil Mike, and Crazy-B) all weave their deconstructed beats into structured chaos around DJ Pones’ syncopated bassline. With the art of turntablism all but extinct, Birdy Nam Nam fill a key void in America’s progressive hip-hop instrumentals once ruled by the likes of DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist.

Yeasayer Sat 1 Live

Yeasayer – Live Stage – 7:00 p.m.

It was never intended, but I was drawn into the psychedelic pop of Brooklyn’s Yeasayer. With the typical jam-tronica names absent (STS9, Lotus, Disco Biscuits) it was the groove of guitarist Anand Wilder that first pulled me into the amphitheater and then the humility of front man Chris Keating that kept me planted throughout the length of their set – a tough chore given my constant urge to keep moving during festival season. Wilder seemed overtaken by the pomp surrounding Ultra. Whenever the stage’s confetti guns or smoke machines shot off, Wilder scoffed at the antics, and the vocalist was sure to comment on the absurdity of outfits, or lack thereof, worn by both genders at the festival.

During a weekend dominated by bass beats and high-energy house, the human presence of Keating and co. was a welcome early-evening respite. Very little bleed over is normally associated with Ultra, but due to the volume shifts of Yeasayer, at times the synth blasts generated at UMF Radio dominated the melodies of Yeasayer. Quite possibly the ultimate approval of a set, Yeasayer’s appearance at Ultra has driven my interest, and most likely countless unsuspecting others, to connect with their back catalog.

M Machine Saturday

The M Machine – UMF Radio – 7:30 p.m.

Having seen an M Machine DJ set during Electric Forest 2012, the full live experience trumps the solo work of Ben Swardlick. Completed by VJ Andy Coenen and producer Eric Luttrell, the full lineup produced club-appropriate remixes of their own “Faces” and a “King Alone” with Swardlick providing his highly-distorted vocals for each track. Often, festivals help you discover a talent, this performance appreciated the trio’s work on Metropolis Pt. 1 & 2 in a way that wasn’t possible in lieu of the live setting. Placed at the OWSLA-curated stage, the trio weren’t able to employ their highly-touted “M Machine”, but their custom visuals were painted on the stage’s multiple small screens. Second to the absence of Infected Mushroom’s new dual-orb live setup and deadmau5’s set, the missing custom visuals may have been my largest let down when compared to pre-festival expectations.

deadmau5 sat main

deadmau5 – Main Stage – 10:45 p.m.

The greatest thing about deadmau5’s new live performance was Zedd running seven laps in tight pink briefs around deadmau5’s customary cube at the behest of a lost dare. And, it didn’t appear the villainous deadmau5 (aka Joel Zimmerman) even cared that a few nearly-nude moments trumped his performance. Still planted in his tilted-cube, fans were not able to see how deadmau5 was producing the music, so whether he was pressing start on his laptop or actually sequencing triggers and performing via keyboard ended up being irrelevant. Neither the mau5head nor setlist were all that memorable, as well; although the performance was filled from top to bottom with collaborative singles like “I Remember” (feat. Kaskade), “Professional Griefers” (feat. Gerard Way), “Channel 42” (feat. Wolfgang Gartner), and “The Veldt” (feat. Chris James). Unlike the over-the-top antics of just a few years ago, Zimmerman now seems content matching the entertainment value he has become known for and grasping the international audience with his abilities as a live producer.

Freq Nasty Sat Chalk

After Party: FreQ Nasty – Chalk – 1:00 a.m.

As a fellow dread-head, I felt it a minor obligation to support the talents of longtime bass mastermind FreQ Nasty. Located at South Beach’s Chalk, the club not only featured FreQ’s mix of ragga, breakbeat, dub, glitch-hop, and dancehall but rooms to play pool and ping-pong. Except there was just one major problem, the intensity of FreQ’s set resulted in shaking tables and miscues.

Sunday, March 17th

Flosstradamus Sun Worldwide

Flosstradamus – Ultra Worldwide – 4:oo p.m.

The Trapped Stage is exclusive to Weekend Two, but Chicago’s Flosstradamus shared America’s recent EDM-meets-Trap obsession with the rest of the world. A current favorite of the “rage” crowd, somehow a mixture of Southern hip-hop vocals/beats courtesy of artists like T.I. and Rick Ross, in addition to peak-hour energy, has resulted in a mosh-inducing soundscape within testosterone addled brains. The duo are at the height of their genre, but J2K (Josh Young) and Autobot (Curt Cameruci) are still in need of development as DJs: slow mixes, or layered tracks, or even a sample that’s longer than a minute wouldn’t hurt. For now, the Floss-sound remains best suited for a late-night underground club for about 45 minutes after multiple drinks and some swigs of sizzurp.

Dog Blood 1 Sun

Dog Blood – Ultra Worldwide – 5:00 p.m.

Limited in the amount of time they can practice as Dog Blood, Skrillex and Boys Noize have some kinks to work out in their new collective. Skrillex is currently able to pack the largest of venues, but Dog Blood is far from a Skrillex project; at most, 20% of the Dog Blood performance Sunday sounded anything like a Skrillex set. Drawing extensively from rave techno, the project keeps it at an energetic four-on-the-floor with subtle elements of breakcore, but every few moments Boys Noize would pass over the headphones for Skrillex to cue his Jump-Up dubstep. The duo had one of the best transitions of the weekend, Fatboy Slim’s “Kalifornia” into Boys Noize’s own “XTC”, but on numerous occasions there were flaws when the two would bounce back and forth in the mix.

As Skrillex roots himself futher into club-culture, and out of the rock mentality, it will be interesting to see how he continues to develop collaborations. Saturday evenings’ Alvin Risk, Skrillex, and Porter Robinson 45-minute b2b2b mix to close out the OWSLA stage was unexpected, and probably wouldn’t have been possible during the early stages of Skrillex’ button-pushing endeavors.

Art Department 1 Bayfront Sun

Art Department – Bayfront Stage – 6:oo p.m.

After all the bass abuse of Sunday’s Ultra Worldwide Stage, a trip to thte Bayfront Stage meant a reprieve from the bombastic mid-range not necessarily the rattling low end. Anyone located within 20-feet of Art Department’s set could literally feel the deep groove maneuver past the inner ear and then rattle around through one’s cranium. Reminiscent of Green Velvet’s underground Chicago house music of the 1980’s, many of the AD originals are built atop the sensual vocal arrangement of member Kenny Glasgow. When Glasgow was busy singing through the recordings, and imbibing on a bottle of Jack, it was No. 19 Music’s Jonny White that contoured the groove around Glasgow’s half-spoken vocals. Minor technical difficulties did hamper the beginning the set, but neither Glasgow nor White allowed for the sound engineer’s mistakes to affect the overall sound. Instead, Glasgow concentrated on a quick resolution and entertained the crowd with some of his better behind the deck dance moves.

Booka Shade 1 Live Sun

Booka Shade – Live Stage – 9:00 p.m.

Thanks to Zeds Dead, David Guetta, and Armin Van Buuren, everyone who wanted to witness the euphoric tech-house of Booka Shade was able to get up close and personal. There’s only two men, but Germany’s Walter Merzinger and Arno Kammermeier arrived with a ton of gear to construct their digitally emotive masterpieces. Like a matured Disclosure, Kammermeier was surrounded nearly 260 degrees with electronic drum pads and Merzinger kept busy with multiple computers and layers of synthesizers.

On tour in promotion of their recent Haleshop EP, their first new material in three years, the duo also appeased fans with select favorites from 2004’s Memento and 2006’s Movements with no signs of rust. Admittedly, Booka Shade didn’t offer the same type of closure as artists like the Chemical Brothers or Justice, but the duo’s downtempo energy was a much needed final set for many to clear their minds of the weekend’s madness and refocus on bringing their new found zeal for life to the dreaded workweek.

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