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Massive Sandsystem!

At six in the morning, the Monegros desert festival resembles a refugee camp at least as much as it does a music event. Huge searchlights swing across the sky, bodies lie prone beneath tables and scaffolding, and clouds of dust billow where feet disturb the sun-blasted gravel. When a helicopter buzzes overhead — 13 hours after we first arrived, and with another nine to go before the fireworks explode in searing heat, and gritty bodies make their exodus out of the desert — they could be documenting a humanitarian tragedy.

Things get less UN as we pick our way between the passed-out towards the far end of the festival. The sun’s slowly creeping over the mountains to the east — bathing this arid, rock-strewn dustbowl in a pink and purple glow — and when we hit the stage those shades are echoed in flashing LEDs that encircle a forest of enormous plastic flowers, their stems and petals speckled with lights. Beneath them, bodies pulse to bruising kick-drums as somewhere in the distance, minute on a stage that’s lit like a Hollywood premiere, Luciano slots Sound Stream against Oner Ozer as tightly as the cogs in a watch mechanism.

Then, with ten minutes of teased violins finally realised, he drops 'Strings Of Life', the sun breaks across the mountain ridge, and thousands of hands reach for an unbroken orange sky. This is Monegros at its best, where you’ve gone through exhaustion into a Zen-like state of thoughtlessness. When you’re 200km from the nearest city, there’s no campsite and the only place to sleep is in the dirt, there’s little point entertaining thoughts of taking a rest.

It might seem counterintuitive to stick a festival as far away from civilisation as possible, in a desert where temperatures nudge the 40s at noon and rainfall is as common as a covered bicep at DC10. Monegros, which crams the line-up of a three-day party into 22 punishing hours, couldn’t be much further from the current festival fashion of a week-long holiday on the Croatian coast, complete with boat parties, cocktails and, if you feel like it, a spot of dancing. Monegros, as it will proudly claim, is more hardcore than that. The approach has clearly worked, though. This is Monegros’ 19th year, and it lays a pretty solid claim to being “the biggest rave in Spain”, as we join 40,000 people making the trek to the badlands between Barcelona and Madrid.

We drive in through a landscape of blasted grass and sand dunes, broken intermittently by concrete factories and the odd petrol-station-cum-tapas-bar where grizzled men lounge in deck chairs, their cigars demonstrating a remarkable lack of concern for the fuel tanks 30 yards away. It’s been two hours since we left Barcelona, and a half-hour since we last saw anything not carved out of rock by long-dead rivers, when the glimmer of stages suddenly appears over the horizon. These flashing stages look like the fenced-off hangars and silos of a secret military base — an Area 51 hidden deep in the Spanish wilderness.

The first thing we notice when we pull up is the noise. Monegros is loud. Really loud. Out here, there’s nothing to dampen the sound, and there’s no-one to complain to the council if the main stage keeps their cats awake after midnight. There’s probably no council. We leave the car and, before we even get in, are nearly deafened by the boom of Justice and their breakout 'Waters Of Nazareth' track, its scything hi-hats drowning out the chatter of cicadas. It’s a presciently Biblical choice — so loud it seems to crack the sky — and is soon accompanied by peals of thunder that roll around the valley and bleed into the bass, the sky lighting up as raindrops the size of golf balls thwock into the ground.

This is unexpected, in a desert, but welcome. The storm glues down the sand that’s intent to lodge in lungs and eyes, and provides an impressive display of natural pyrotechnics. Nature’s bombast may not match the Gallic duo’s, but it’s clear from a setlist that blends 'Cross'’s greatest hits with CSS, Soulwax and Boney M, that Justice are still trapped in the amber of their late-'00s heyday. It’s uninspired and overwrought, especially this early, but elsewhere — on the stage littered with glowing foliage — first Matador and then Marcel Dettmann plough a more cerebral furrow, the former lacing his minimal with proggy splashes, the latter laying down a set of characteristically muscular techno.

Dettmann’s set especially is one of the night’s highlights. There are few DJs who can work with rhythm quite so well, who can collide the sparest elements and create something unique, and yet make it all seem so effortless. But the timing’s less ideal, the crowd still fractious and settling, not quite at the point where they can disappear into a set for half-an-hour. They mill between stage and bar, a whirl of human corridors that interrupts us every time we sink into a groove.

This is Monegros’ main problem. The line-up’s laudably varied, but with only four stages on offer — one for house and techno, one for hip-hop and electro, one for hardcore and a main stage — for large swathes of the night we’re left with nothing we really want to see. Come four o’clock, the choice was between Nero’s senseless racket, Feed Me making very similar noises, hardcore don O.B.I. and the tick-tock tech-house of Marco Carola. No doubt there are some for whom that’s mouth-watering, but the techno-head enticed by a bill boasting Paco Osuna, Ben Klock, Adam Beyer, Surgeon and a host of others finds their favourite acts propping up the top and bottom of the bill. Putting Dave Clarke on while it’s still light is madness. Giving Len Faki the sunrise slot on the main stage, during which he attempts to frighten the star back below the horizon with pneumatic kick-drums and blasts of white noise, is certifiable.

What Monegros sorely needs is somewhere you might stumble across something new. They’re certainly not pushed for room to expand. Last year the bill included underground acts like Appleblim, Addison Groove and Axel Boman, but for 2013 the focus is solely on bill-toppers. Yes, the likes of Loco Dice, Luciano and Richie Hawtin have enormous fanbases, and for good reason, but seeing only what you know can be a little underwhelming. So many of the best festival experiences come when you’re exposed to something you’ve not heard before.

These failings aside, Monegros does offer the odd moment of gold, mostly in the form of Public Enemy who, between congaing through the crowd, manage to segue seamlessly between “a song for my brother, Trayvon Martin”, and a stage full of women twerking to 'Shake Your Booty'. It seems debasing himself on reality TV for the last decade has sapped none of Flavor Flav’s swagger, and even Chuck D’s incessant demand that we immediately follow him on Twitter can’t undermine the impact of 'Fight The Power'. 
That Monegros’ organisers chose to put something so frenetic in a tent, and plonked Richie Hawtin on the main stage, is an error. His po-faced tech-house, delivered with little fanfare by a man dressed in black — dwarfed by an enormous black stage — is too clinical, too rigid. The audience expects more than the same hypnotic rhythm all night, and despite a solid showing when Hawtin takes to the stage, they soon begin to thin.

Monegros regards itself as a 24-hour Burning Man, a psychedelic desert trip where fire-breathing dragons wander the crowds, stilt-walkers try not to trip over prostate sleepers, and you can forget about your real life for a night of hedonism. But where Burning Man embraces the hippy ethic to the hilt, Monegros’ VIP area, open to anyone willing to pay for it, huge amounts of branding and uncreative programming, mean the experience feels a little corporate. The exhortations to excess feels less like Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and more a team-building coach on a company away-day telling you to “let go and get primal”. But while Monegros might be aimed at those who, musically, prefer to be in safe hands, it's not for the faint-hearted

Words: Tom Banham