But has the world's biggest dance festival peaked?
All photos by Jennica Abrams
Tomorrowland was launched in 2005 as the younger sibling of Mysteryland, the flagship enterprise of Dutch mega-promoter ID&T. Since then, the fantastico-gothic spectacular has grown into the largest dance festival in the world. For this year's edition, July 24-26, the population of Boom (seriously, that's what the sleepy host town is called) swelled over tenfold from 16,096 to just under 200,000 as ravers from over 100 countries poured in. But driving into town, you wouldn't even guess there was a festival going on. ID&T have got their logistics down, and the grounds are nestled so comfortably between Antwerp, Brussels, and Ghent that there's no traffic bottleneck from any direction.
Still, the anticipation bubbled once you're funneled through the medieval town square. Kids wearing flags from Pakistan to Guam giddily skipped towards the loudening thud of house music along the cobblestone roads, while locals sat in lawn chairs on their front yards, watching the madness that descends upon their lives every year.
Upon entry, an darkening canopy of puffy clouds served as a warning of what was to come, ominously looming over the 14 official stages (plus a few more unannounced). The main stage was a cartoonish, gothic cathedral—the kind of place a villain in a Disney movie (or David Guetta, Avicii and Alesso) would live. Water cannons arose to the beat in see-through tubes and fireworks and streamers shot out from its lofty crown with reckless frequency. Guetta dropping his remix of the kids tune "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands" was only slightly less bizarre than his famous zonk-out 1000 yard stare from last year. There are really only so many times you can be told to "put your fucking hands up" before you have to move to less demanding climates.
Tomorrowland's musical programming favors distinctly European sounds like big room, trance, techno, house and hardstyle. Even on the occasion that they do embrace a new aesthetic or American brands, it's vetted through a Dutch lens. The Barong Family Stage was the only trap excursion of the weekend, but put on by Amsterdam twerkers Yellow Claw. Dim Mak are the only American label to get their own stage, but their sounds are anchored in a big room.
Carl Cox and Friends besieged the The Opera stage—the festival's second largest—on Friday, turning it into a multi-leveled cauldron of energy. Nicole Moudaber, Dubfire, Solomun, and Cox stormed through the night on the techier side of tech-house, facing strong competition from Jamie Jones' nearby Paradise stage, where The Martinez Brothers and Cajmere joined for a descent into engrossing, minimal tones.
By night, a light drizzle began to fall and the blue plastic ponchos emerged. Festivals all over the European continent struggled through storms in July, and Tomorrowland was no different. Last year's festival saw a prevalence of shirtless bros, but this was no climate in which to disrobe. In fact, the sartorial choices of ravers were vastly different to that in the US; people came in regular daywear—no tutus, no lingerie, and nary a flower crown in sight.
The rain continued into day two, where early performances at the covered Kozzmozz stage were a highlight, as proper, churning Berlin techno sets from Rødhåd and Marcel Fengler provided a dissonant aural accompaniment to the stage's fairytale aesthetic. The festival's livestream told the rest of the tale: Martin Solveig and R3hab valiantly manned the decks, but as the camera panned out, it showed a soggy landscape with only a few hundred determined revelers occupying the main stage's massive expanse. The kids who made it out for those early sets raged hard enough for the whole festival, but are probably in the late stages of a wretched cold right about now.
As Viper Recordings artists The Prototypes, Brookes Brothers, and Matrix & Futurebound brought the heavier end of breakbeat to the drum and bass-heavy Star Warz stage, I was reminded of a curious habit people have when trying to procure drugs on the dancefloor. Random people in the sea of Brits kept walking up to me and muttering the name of a substance with an uptick in inflection at the end that makes it unclear whether they're trying to purchase or sell. Either way, sorry dude, I didn't boof any blow for the plane ride over and you can keep the mephadrone, thanks.
Back at the main stage, Martin Garrix and Armin van Buuren brought the masses back to life as the rain let up, proving that if you give a bunch of Euros the chance to chant along to a "Seven Nation Army" remix, they'll devolve into hooliganism in detuned harmony. Their response seems downright Pavlovian and peaked during an unfortunate mash-up of "We Will Rock You" by Queen and "Wonderwall" by Oasis by a DJ who shall not be mentioned. I drifted towards the druggily-named Ketaloco stage, where Marc Romboy b2b Stephan Bodzin's vigorous tech-house set was one of the weekend's best.
Day three was essentially festival Waterworld. The flags of the world, once worn so proudly, had been smothered by the now ubiquitous blue plastic ponchos, and smiles began morphing to scowls. Yet a baldyman named Huxley in MK's bedouin-styled Area 10 dance-tent lifted my spirits. He never fails to disappoint.
Yellow Claw's Barong Family stage was the turn-up many had been waiting for. Dillon Francis dropped an undeniably fun and raucous set of rangy tempos and vibes atop his bizarro-clipart visuals, even dipping into deep techno vibes for a track before returning to his more comfortable US EDM vibes. He was followed by Yellow Claw and GTA, making the stage a virtual American embassy in terms of aesthetic.
In the Rave Cave, a tiny tunnel tucked into a hill that fit maybe 50 people at most, a petite brunette lady brought heavy techno vibes harder than I had heard all weekend to a crowd of twenty slushing it up in the muck. I never found out her name as the lineup for the area wasn't announced—if anyone knows who she was, please let us know. She's got an ON DECK waiting.
Tiësto closing out the main stage was meant to be the climax of the weekend, and his set was one of the more nuanced of the main stage. But it was more like hell on earth as I sloshed in ankle-high refuse amidst a crowd packed tighter than Kim Kardashian's spanx, elbowing for survival as the rain beat down from above and back up from below.
Tomorrowland is, definitely, the world's festival, and to appeal to so many ilks requires appealing to common denominators. The festival maintains a rigid adherence to the sounds of big room, but in doing so totally ignores Twee-DM acts like Disclosure and Flume that merge dance aesthetic with an indie mindset, thereby operating a couple years behind the cutting edge. The event is monumental, but therein lays the issue. Unless its programming wises up, it threatens to become a monument, looking back at the past instead of forward.
Production-wise, the consistency of Tomorrowland's aesthetic has solidified their position on top of the dance festival industry, but their candy-colored fairytale vibes and flat-backed stages come across as dated compared to the more creative endeavors of competitors like EDC Las Vegas, which is steadily moving towards a post-EDM era. Yet, in the annals of of human convergence, Tomorrowland could have a chapter of its own. Nowhere else in the world in the history of man have so many people converged so consistently in the name of dance music. This year, as ravers battled against the elements, one thing became clear: even God himself can't stop the rave.
Jemayel Khawaja is the Managing Editor of THUMP - @JemayelK