The 2016 festival season kicked off last weekend with Ultra Music Festival in Miami, one of the biggest EDM events of the year. Ultra, rivaled only by EDC in scale and production among American music festivals, boasted a typically stacked lineup of headliners including Avicii, Deadmau5, Knife Party (and Pendulum), Armin van Buuren, Martin Garrix, The Chainsmokers, and many more.
With so many incredible artists playing simultaneously across seven stages, one person couldn’t possibly cover them all. What I can share with you is the experiences from last weekend that I will never forget. This is a list of the five most incredible sets I had the privilege to witness at Ultra 2016. I hope they hit you just as hard.
#1. Eric Prydz
Eric Prydz‘s hypnotic, thrumming techno set at the A State of Trance stage on Sunday night was augmented by a typically exceptional light show that gave the music shape and color. It was an hour of pure energy and excitement, propelled by the beats of Eric and his alter egos, Pryda and Cirez D. The set consisted mostly of newer material, such as “Rebel XX,” and, of course, included a few IDs. It was such an absorbing performance that I couldn’t peel myself away from the experience even as friends texted me warning that I was going be late to Knife Party’s mainstage closing show. I just couldn’t imagine being any happier than I was basking in the repetitive beats and dazzling lights of Mr. Prydz as a cold, light rain fell on my skin. By the time “Opus” started nudging its way into the set toward the very end, I knew I had just witnessed the best set of Ultra 2016.
#2. Deadmau5, ASOT Stage
You can always count on a last minute twist or two at Ultra – and odds are that Deadmau5 will have something to do with it. This year, it took the form of an unexpected hat trick by Mr. Joel Zimmerman himself. Already scheduled to perform on Sunday at the A State of Trance stage (a shock in itself, as host Armin van Buuren alludes to in the recording of his set), Deadmau5 was called in to replace the Prodigy on Saturday at the last minute. Then on Sunday, the the Mau5 was briefly trotted out onto the mainstage by Pendulum when they played “Ghosts n Stuff.”
While I felt that his Live Stage set on Saturday night was disjointed (the highlight being when he dropped NOISIA‘s searing remix of the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”), Deadmau5 rose to the challenge of Sunday’s performance in the ASOT megastructure. Like Eric Prdyz, Deadmau5 went deep for this set, crafting a delicious techno treat that shied away from his own extensive oeuvre in favor of a consistent, subterranean sound featuring artists like Maceo Plex and Jooris Voorn. (Of course, it wouldn’t be a Deadmau5 set without some conspicuous trolling. He kicked off his otherwise coherent set with a furious metal track, apparently a reference to a joke he’d made on Twitter. Feel free to skip the first two minutes of the recording. Beware also a NSFW rant about 40% through his set when his DJ equipment briefly gave out.)
On Sunday, dubstep titans NERO rocked the Live stage with an electrifying live set, amplified by drum pads, synths, and of course, the live vocals of singer Alana Watson. Despite the relatively simple stage setup (when juxtaposed with the overproduction of the Main Stage, Resistance Stage, and Megastructure), NERO managed to absolutely slay the audience with their signature bassy riffs. This was the rare live set that may even sound better recorded than it was live, as it is easier to tell where the songs were augmented from their studio counterparts.
Squirreled away on Stage 7 was one of the most potent weapons on Friday’s lineup: bass music duo Botnek. Their high-energy, vomitstep set was far the highlight of my Friday at Ultra. Filled with remixes of 90’s throwbacks and dirty, dirty drops, Botnek got the crowd thrashing around and dancing with a visceral fervor. It was one of those special sets where the music wordlessly brought me together with other dancers to rock out to one special song or another, whether it was Botnek’s definitive remix of The Chainsmokers‘ “Selfie,” or an edit of Rage Against the Machine‘s testosterone-tastic anthem “Testify.” At the end, I even heard one dancer wonder aloud that he couldn’t remember “the last time I danced that hard sober.”
SNBRN played the Worldwide stage on Saturday in the mid-afternoon Miami light, a perfect setting for the captain of the “sunset house” movement. The only daytime set on this list, this one is a marked contrast to the techno and bass-heavy sounds of the immersive minor-key experiences of Eric Prdyz, Deadmau5, NERO, and Botnek. I was pleasantly surprised by SNBRN’s feel-good set, which was a well-mixed serving of groovy melodic house songs with considerable trap and hip-hop influence, including his hits “Gangsta Walk,” “California,” and “Raindrops.” While the others on this list left me feeling exhausted and fulfilled, SNBRN’s set recharged me and left me feeling good.