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Untold Festival 2023 review: stepping into The Light of the Phoenix

Now up to its eighth edition, Romania’s Untold Festival is one of Europe’s largest electronic gatherings. But the hundreds of thousands of fans who travel there annually are attracted by more than just a stacked line-up — they come to be part of an ephemeral story that has to be seen to be believed

Transylvania is steeped in mystery. Peppered with gothic architecture and home to sights predating medieval times, the region spanning Central Romania is known for some pretty spooky stuff. Lovers of the grotesque trek to Bran Castle, the location associated with the blood-lusting figure, Count Dracula. The Hoia Forest is another paranormal hot-spot, recognised by ghost hunters as one of the most haunted places on Earth. But these mythic attractions aren’t the only reasons to check out this lesser-travelled European country. Each August, more than 420,000 attendees from across the globe come to participate in Untold Festival, a taste of night tourism offering four non-stop days of electronic and pop performances all set against a fantastical narrative arc in which every guest plays a starring role.

We’re a tad disoriented when we arrive at 2AM on day one. It’s not often that wristband pick-up stays open this late, and even rarer to find a city festival with zero curfew restrictions — Untold has us covered on both fronts. In a land revered for its vampire-rich roots, you make the most of every night, right? (We find out later that many attendees are here because of the Blood Network Program — they donated pints at official drives in exchange for free tickets!) We haven’t been sucked dry yet, but it’s just getting started in Cluj-Napoca where acts like big-room house producer KSHMR, Lenske label boss Amelie Lens, and A State of Trance darling, Ben Gold, are about to drop their first tracks. When we peek at the timetables and discover that festivities are in store until 7.30AM (at least), we realise we’re in sync with a different brand of ravers.

“I would say with Untold, even though they are a very connected crowd, they are not easy — you really have to surprise them and you’re gonna have to do your best, but once you have them, it’s amazing,” Brazilian DJ and producer Alok tells DJ Mag when we catch up with him following an explosive set. A familiar face on-site, he’s just played a major part in an important tradition as master of the opening ceremony. Taking up the torch, he showers a packed stadium with dazzling four-to-the-floor beats and enough fireworks to light the sky all the way from Romania to Rio.

Photo of the stage and an excited fan at UNTOLD 2023

“It’s interesting, because if you come every year, it’s the same festival, same place, but every experience is very different.” – Alok

He’s a good shout for the gig — the son of psy-trance DJs who are themselves festival organisers, Alok knows exactly how to set the tone. “I was very inspired by them, but at that same moment in life, I just wanted to connect with more people, and that’s why I changed my style because I didn’t want to limit my creativity,” he shares of his counterculture-infused upbringing, and how he found bliss in the pop lane. “My dad won’t even join me on stage because he says my music is too mainstream,” the Top 100 DJ shares, flashing a smile that has us wondering whether he’s pulling our leg. Following high-energy appearances by singers Bebe Rexha and his recent collaborator Ava Max, Alok is in his happy place — and it shows. “It’s interesting, because if you come every year, it’s the same festival, same place, but every experience is very different,” he adds, noting that his weekend is off to a magical start.

And ours is, too. The 2023 event features eight stages, each with unique immersive designs. There are tree-covered coves dubbed Time and Daydreaming that transport dancers to another realm. These woods are ghoul-free, but expect to spot pumping house and techno names like Stil Vor Talent head honcho Oliver Koletzki, Afro-house producer Themba and the impeccable Anna Tur. The Fortune Stage serves as home base for trance seekers — arranged in front of a former casino and decked with lasers that cut the air, it’s the best place to witness extended sets from genre leaders like Markus Schulz and Andrew Rayel.

The trippy Alchemy stage is the destination for dubstep, hip-hop and heavy bass, and within the Galaxy arena, deeper sounds bang until the (dreaded) sun crests the horizon. Hop aboard the Tram Stage, or stay outside for the foam party, and then swing by the riverside Retro Future stage if little’uns are in tow — it’s a family favourite at this all-ages shebang. Each setting is crafted with intention, and co-general manager and architect Razvan Luca is largely responsible for this eye-popping aesthetic. When we ask him whether it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to the designs each year, he answers without hesitation. “No! I love it especially because it’s temporary, because it’s something that you have to take in,” he expresses, proudly. “Even if it becomes firewood, I do not mind.”

Photo of the mainstage and two fans kissing at UNTOLD festival 2023

“We cannot get that many people in one place and not do something magical.” — Razvan Luca, UNTOLD co-general manager and architect

Of course, this rarely happens — most set-pieces will take on new shapes the following year, or get donated to the city for future use. After completing his dissertation on short-term construction projects, Luca realised his passions would lead him beyond the boundaries of classical architecture. He joined the Untold team in the festival’s fledgling years, and has experienced his imagination expand in tandem with the internationally recognised event. “We spend a lot of time trying to get people in an atmosphere that is broken from their daily reality, so they can understand that what is happening here is special — that it’s not from this world,” he shares of what influences the festival’s tangible aspects, as well as the thunderous storybook narratives that boom over the loudspeakers in Cluj Arena. “We cannot get that many people in one place and not do something magical.”

Drawing from local folklore, superstitions and legends that have been passed down for generations, Luca and his team dream up a fresh adventure for attendees with each edition. This time, they landed upon the theme The Light of the Phoenix, and it carries an important meaning as Untold celebrates significant growth. “The Phoenix for us was not necessarily a rebirth, but it was an evolution,” Luca shares of the imagery that dominates the main stage. “From 2015 to 2019, it was all better, bigger, stronger. And then in 2020 everything stopped.”

Following the pandemic, organisers reconvened with a calculated plan to rebuild trust in large gatherings after the global health crisis. “2023 is the year where we picked up from 2019 and managed to go bigger,” he explains. “And that’s why we kept the Phoenix for this year — hopefully people can relate to it, and they can get inspired.” The stage’s beauty is moving. The bird’s feathers are adorned with hi-tech lighting rigs which add striking dimensions and a lively glow to the year’s titular character. It’s a memorable backdrop to the tale about the mystical creature that represents resilience. “That, together with the music, can really make you lose preconceptions, lose shyness,” Luca offers of why storytelling remains central to Untold’s mission. “For four days, you just get to be free and be the real you.”

When we speak with Saturday headliner ZHU, we can tell he’s feeling similar sentiments. Hot off of a European run during which he’s dug deeper into his bag than ever before, he’s ready to introduce fans to a more personal side of his discography. “A lot of people don’t know that I write, and this next record is definitely much more cinematic. It’s much more narrative,” he says of his forthcoming album when we sit down together ahead of his Untold debut. “I think it’s gonna be a really committed world for fans who want to experience it.”

Amelie Lens playing at UNTOLD Festival 2023

The former DJ Mag North America cover star starts with his massive NERO collab, ‘Dreams’, before bringing listeners on a journey through his bold and moody repertoire. After intimate gigs in London, as well as stop-offs in Zürich and Istanbul, he’s riding high, and doing it on zero sleep (what’s his secret? “Good bread”, he jokes.) But it hardly seems to phase him as he dishes out hit after hit (his booming electro-house banger ‘Came For the Low’ and a ‘Faded’ sing-along incite huge reactions), but he flips the script and closes with his new single, ‘Changes’.

The piano and breaks-fuelled melter offers insight into the complicated relationship artists share with their spotlight. “Fans are just learning more about me, little by little, I think. I mean, I know,” he says with a chuckle, acknowledging the shift that awaits in his next body of work. “Electronic music, it’s evolving in a big way and the club is one aspect of it, but there’s multiple, different ways to tell a story, and not all of it has to be four-on-the-floor.” Another Untold faithful, Armin van Buuren, knows all about that. A pioneer of the trance movement, he’s watched the electronic music scene transform into a full-blown phenomenon over his decades-long career. He’s also watched Untold grow from humble beginnings to become the global attraction it is today.

One of the original artists to play on the inaugural 2015 line-up, he’s returned multiple times to wow a crowd that’s always with him for the long haul. He remembers his first visit vividly. “I think it was quarter to five? It was almost daylight, and my manager said, ‘Hey, you want to play a half-hour extra?’” he recalls of his first experience on the Untold stage. “I said, ‘Can I do it?’ Because I’m used to festivals having a curfew. Well, that half an hour extra became an hour and a half. So instead of playing 3-5AM, I played 3AM to 6.45. And the year after, it was 7.45. And the year after, it was 8.45. It kind of became a thing to play longer each year.”

Photo of the UNTOLD arena at the 2023 edition of the festival

Armin is on hand to welcome another sunrise, and we’re happy to report that when his final synths sounded before 9AM, no one had turned to ash. The Armada co-founder will help Untold write its next chapter, when the celebration hits Dubai for the first time ever in February 2024. He recently took to the decks at the Burj Khalifa — the tallest tower in the world — to promote the forthcoming event, and Armin was surprised to hear he’d made history. “I was so honoured that they actually allowed me to play there,” he shares of his towering performance. “And I didn’t even know that was a Guinness Book Of Records world record until after I walked off stage, and I thought, ‘Is this the highest DJ set?’”

Though he’ll be decidedly closer to the ground during his Untold Dubai appearance, there will be no ceiling to the love and energy he’ll foster. How long will he dish out legendary anthems like ‘Sunburn’, ‘In And Out Of Love’ and ‘Drowning’? That, like other future Untold events and the festival’s beloved Transylvania region, is a mystery worth exploring.

Want more? Read DJ Mag’s recent feature on Defected’s sparkling Eden Ibiza season finale in San Antonio

Megan Venzin is DJ Mag North America’s deputy editor. You can follow her on Twitter @Meggerzv

Pics: Julien Duval, Alive Coverage