Ultra Music Festival is a living embodiment of the term 'over the top'. Miami's South Beach already does this pretty well, WMC week even more so, and Ultra pushes the boundaries out until they break - and then some. 165,000 dance music enthusiasts are crammed into a park in the centre of the city for three days and are privy to the genre's biggest names, while experiencing complete sensory overload due to the festival's jaw-dropping level of production. After spending over an hour trying to get a taxi to take me from South Beach to Ultra's downtown site, and ending up joining up with complete strangers and paying off a local Cuban family with a van doing illegal runs between the two places, DJ Mag walks in ready for the brain bludgeoning that is the next few hours.
Struck with a feeling of confused nostalgia, there's the overwhelming sense that the candy raver era of the 1990s is not only alive and well within the confines of this electronic theme park but also bewilderingly hip. Men sucking on blinking dummies (or pacifiers as they're called in America), women wearing day-glo fishnets without knickers but with equally bright furry boots and haircolours to match, and more glowsticks than you ever want to see in your life without the slightest hint of irony – this is all the costume de rigueur for a lot of the attendees. The second thing one feels is OLD which, when you're this correspondent's age, isn't all that old at all! This isn't neccesarily a bad thing though: the large amount of 16-22 year old punters bring an incredible amount of energy to every stage and have a refreshing air of doe-eyed enthusiasm about them. The only downside is the amount of crying girls, vomiting boys and drug casualties amongst them. But they'll learn.
Onto the music though; the main reason this journalist is at Ultra Music Festival this year are two of the most 'WTF' bookings amongst the largely commercial trance and bro-step saturated lineup, New Order and Kraftwerk. We walk onto the site just in time to see New Order start proceedings to a more than half-empty arena since Benny Benassi, a much more appropriate booking for Ultra's early 20-something crowd, is playing at the same time. The people here seem much older than the norm, dressed in black clothing as opposed to the usual Ultra fluorescence. We make it straight to the front with ease and settle, overcome with eager, decade-baked anticipation to see the band live, minus some of the original members of course (including Peter Hook), to be enchanted and wooed by frontman Bernard Sumner's voice and guitar jangles sounding as fresh as the band sounded as a young teenager. The band go from hit to hit, working hard to fill more of the seats until, slowly but surely, more and more passerbys stop in to give them a chance. The visuals behind them are a fantastic spiral of images and colour and the sound absolutely spot on, testiment to Ultra's slick, professional approach to production. A fair few people lose it to 'Bizzare Love Triangle', while 'Blue Monday' manage to get everyone dancing, even though we hear a few people around us asking if this is yet another cover version of the song that US rock band Orgy did a version of. The last song, however, is an all-time favourite, 'Temptation', introduced as “soul music” by Sumner and responsible for a large part of the older crowd blinking back tears of bittersweet reminisce.
The two hours inbetween New Order and Kraftwerk afford ample time to take in all of the stages that Ultra boasts. The main stage is by far and away the biggest and best spectacle with a solid 60-80,000 people there at all times and DJs projected onto huge screens, playing out of ginormous Daft Punk-like structures. The visuals are so massive, the festival opt to project them not inside the festival but on the side of a hotel building next to the festival site at least ten stories tall. Regardless of personal musical taste, it's impossible not to be impressed by the sheer size of it. Every other stage is similarly mind-boggling, with Carl Cox's sprawling with colour-changing hexagonal designs and even fireworks amongst other pyrotechnics as a wall of bass fills every crevice with pummeling peak-time techno. Despite being more suited to a southern European coast or island, at 4am instead of 9pm, there is nothing about the intensity of the music, crowd, anything in fact, to lead us to believe that it isn't the middle of the night. Not only has Ultra managed to visually and auditorially stun, it has made time irrelevant.
After heading back to the Live Stage twenty minutes before Kraftwerk, we encounter the incredibly surreal experience of being able to walk up to the front row with hardly any problem. It's this correspondent's fourth time seeing them. The rest, all at festivals, had been a case of standing on tip-toes miles from the stage accompanied by tens of thousands people who'd been waiting to see the German pioneers for hours. But Skrillex was coming up on the mainstage and here at Ultra the laws of popularity and legend at work at major British and European festivals clearly don't apply. Are we complaining? God no! Seeing Kraftwerk in the front row isn't something we expect to happen again anytime soon.
Ralf Hütter and three others take to the stage as part of a quartet of Macbooks. It's hard to say what the guys are doing behind their laptops, aside from Ralf's half spoken and half sung vocal contributions, but the live renditions of Kraftwerk songs are always different from their album versions; a bit more updated without losing their integral components. The result is an hour-long ode to changing technology, society and human innovation full of both euphoria and suspicion. Perhaps the repeating title of the last song in the set, 'Musique Non Stop', as they leave the stage one by one says it best. Timeless electronic music that spurred countless genres and will never cease to impress.
The rest of Miami during WMC is pretty intense for sure but, as we hear a fair few locals say, 'shit got real'. Yes, Ultra. Well done. Shit got very real.
Pic & Words: Zara Wladawsky