5,000 Miles from Miami: Our festival experience at Ultra Europe, because one continent isn’t enough
Over 5,000 miles away from its origin in Miami, Ultra Music Festival has set up shop in Split, Croatia. Geographically speaking, there’s an entire ocean between the annual South Florida spectacle and its European counterpart, but Ultra doesn’t let its attendees across the pond feel that gap. We made the trip, and we’re bringing you our experience; because one continent isn’t enough for Ultra.
Ultra, the word itself, is a term most closely linked with anything EDM-related in the United States. The Miami-based festival organizer has established itself as the premiere dance music weekend on this side of the Atlantic. On a global scale, the organization is steadily making a similar impact — expanding to multiple continents, redefining the experience and taking the lead internationally with its Ultra Worldwide brand.
This month, we found ourselves in Croatia for Ultra Europe. W had already visited for the inaugural 2013 event, which consisted of two festival days and one beach party. On our visit just two years later, we’d find not only a well matured festival, but an all-new dance music event model: Destination Ultra. Before opening up all that was magical about the seven day, seven night experience, we’re going to take a closer look at the festival itself, how you know it in Miami, and how it’s been exported to Europe.
Friday, Day One
Upon entrance, we transfer our Kuna (Croatian currency) to our Ultra wristbands. The exchange rate in Croatia is favorable, to the American dollar, at least — so while buying beers or grub at an American event might put a dent in your wallet, prices here are more than reasonable. You’ll find alleviating the spending burden from your festival experience to be quite the luxury.
Poljud Stadium plays host to Ultra Europe: a massive soccer arena that takes on the shape of a bowl. From front and center, staring outwards from the stage, you’ll see an endless sea of attendees. (The Main Stage has been pushed back since our first visit, making room to fit even more fans.) As you glance up, you’ll see a partially enclosed dome, just enough for the arena to still operate as a wide-open outdoor space. And, as far as you can see, the backdrop is a beautiful mountain range that the sun sets behind each evening just as the fans begin filling the grounds.
The first act we’d see in this setting is DVBBS in the finals moments of their set followed soon after by Alesso. The main stage hosted big-name headliners for nearly 12 hours straight and they’re just as hot abroad as they are stateside. By the end of the Swede’s set the crowd was primed to explode, and the music would only get better as the night went on.
Finally, The Chemical Brothers. While their positioning between Alesso and Tiësto proved awkward, with 30 minutes change-over time to allow for their own stage set-up, the legendary artists brought the most impressive act to all 3 days at the Main Stage. Ditching the usual, over-the-top Ultra theatrics — blacking out the huge productions, the side panels, the signature strobing Ultra logo atop and all — The Chemical Brothers’ own custom visuals took center stage.
The Chemical Brothers set began with an elongated, eerie introduction before opening with “Hey Boy Hey Girl” as the catchy “Superstar DJ” lyrics synchronized with a large mouth that soon moved into an illuminated body digitally dancing to the subsequent beats. New material from their newest album Born In The Echoes dominated the early half of their set. The Q-Tip-assisted “Go” and lead single “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” being unanimous standouts. All records to this point had been synchronized with their own set of incredibly thorough production; visuals that were more like mini-movies than hyper-vibrant LEDs.
Late night or early morning? Which ever way you’d look at it, Tiësto took the stadium full of fans eager for arena-filling beats and he did what he does best: crowd pleasing. The biggest moment of the night was courtesy of a guest appearance from The Chainsmokers, who joined Tijs to premiere their new collaboration that was tentatively titled the name of the city we found ourselves in, “Split.”
Meanwhile, at the Resistance stage, Solomun was making the most of Arcadia’s setting. Admirers of the deeper forms of dance music circle the engaging stage set up, dancing beneath spurts of flames as they blasted into the sky with each provoking bass plunge. At 5AM, Solomun brings his highlight set to a close while Knife Party are doing the same over at the stadium. Those with appetites for more music and more dancing would head over to the Giraffe Club next door and party through the morning hours, witnessing the sunrise.
Saturday, Day Two
As we enter the gates on our second evening of Ultra, we run into some friends we had met the night before. Ukrainian friends, Italian friends, Brazilian friends, American friends. It doesn’t take too long to recognize the diversity of Ultra Europe. You’ll find visitors from all over the world. If you make some conversation through the language barrier you’ll meet people from all walks of life, with one thing in common: they’ve been brought together by Ultra and electronic music. Stepping into the stadium at 9PM, Dash Berlin is on the Main Stage. Only a day after rumors circulated the frontman had gone missing in Mexico, “Hey, we found Dash Berlin!” was a common joke heard in the crowd. An hour later, the stadium is filled nearly to capacity for the most scheduled performance of the evening according to Ultra Europe’s mobile app.
It’s Martin Garrix — who, with a relatively early set time compared to Zedd, Axwell Λ Ingrosso, and Armin van Buuren following — would steal the spotlight on Saturday. Heading down towards the grounds to feel out the crowd, we quickly gained a sense of what they had showed up for. Many of today’s main stage sets, and a few that we had already seen on this given weekend, are quite straightforward: 90 minutes of banger after banger. Garrix, however, manages to stand out in the clutter. How does he manage the achieve the crowd pleasing effect that provokes tens of thousands of fans? He makes sense of the crowd’s appetite for anthemic music and delivers tunes with a roadmap, but holds his highest power in production. Each track comes suited with fire erupting from center stage, or from the pillars atop. Each blasts the audience with confetti patterns. Many fill the sky with fireworks. The perfect example of a provocative Main Stage set that gives attendees a must-tell story to go home with. From there, it’s time to move away from the stadium and find a new rhythm. Luckily, the action away from the Main Stage was just as engaging.
The side stages play as large of a role as the boisterous activity of the Main Stage does at European festivals, and that brings us just a short walk away to Resistance, where Ultra brought their Arcadia-powered underground dance platform overseas. Simply put, Resistance and Europe are a perfect match. The partnership provides a getaway from the traffic of the festival and the madness inside the stadium.
Resistance gives people what they want: the space to take in house and techno and dance, but also enjoy themselves at their own pace. 360 degrees of the Resistance stage makes for a few opportunities; you can situate yourself in front of the DJ and take those vibes on for yourself, you can move around the flame-throwing edifice for an out-of-body experience, or you can observe more casually from beyond the circle and appreciate the high-powered and high-temperature production.
We move to our final destination, Just one stage over: Ultra’s Megastructure. Friday and Saturday night would be Ultra Worldwide, but tonight it’s Carl Cox & Friends.
We arrive with perfect timing. Nicole Moudaber is wrapping up her set and Carl Cox steps in to join her for a back-to-back moment before taking Ultra on a marathon of his own. While grooving through Cox’s journey, the sky is illuminated with fireworks courtesy of Armin van Buuren shutting down the Main Stage nearby.
Sunday, Day Three
The first two days of the festival fly by. Just like every other festival weekend experience, day three creeps up and fills you with a bittersweet symphony; it’s almost over but it’s time to live it up. Tonight, the Main Stage is loaded with can’t-miss talent. So before setting up shop in the stadium for our grand finale, we made sure to experience each facet of the festival for one last time.
We make our way to the highest VIP platform, the Heineken deck, where we took a turn towards the seats in the very back of the stadium, sitting for a moment with a bird’s-eye view to take in the festival from its highest point. Seating is full on the left and on the right. The entire ground surface is filled with fans, the Main Stage is emitting blinding strobe flashes and fireworks. What a f*cking sight.
And so we make our way to Resistance. By the time the weekend closes, Resistance has become a home base of sorts for anyone who wants to enjoy great music in a casual setting. Sasha was closing a surprisingly early set; he handed the baton off to Nic Fanciulli at 10:30. We say our goodbyes to Resistance and head back to the stadium.
It’s midnight and Afrojack is doing his thing. The Main Stage screens flash with the messages “Jump” and ”Make Some Noise.” The crowd followed these directions until David Guetta took over and played 90-minutes of mostly original records, all commercial successes. Sometimes it takes hanging through one of his sets to remember how many hits this guy has under his belt — and this was one of those moments.
The pop-savvy momentum of the music that had been coming from the Main Stage would be disrupted when Steve Angello took the reins at 2AM. As we’ve seen him achieve countless times before, Angello captured the packed-out arena worth of fans with his own insignia; a relentless assault of monstrous electronic music with an edge that any of those in attendance would describe as bad ass. Another set this weekend that took on a journey-like flow, Steve aggressively weaved echoing progressive tunes, both classics and more recent joints, for 90 minutes straight. You could’ve spotted unreleased records, rare remixes, or a decade-old acapella, all before “Children of the Wild” helped close things out to a massive reception.
3 Takeaways From 3 Days
GROWTH: Ultra Europe isn’t Ultra Miami, yet; However, it is maturing at a rate faster than any other young festival. It’s a testament to the power of the Ultra Worldwide brand and their team’s dedication to deliver each new venture with the allure of the original.
RESISTANCE: This is only the beginning for Resistance. The reception from the newly birthed underground spectacle was just as well-received in Europe as it was in America. Ultra and Arcadia have conjured up something truly remarkable when they turned their attention away from the main stage. There’s a sense of community around the 360 degree flamethrower, an experience far removed from the relentless jumping of EDM’s main stage obsession.
DESTINATION: If you want to party while you watch the sunset and continue until you watch the sunrise, all to the best in dance music, Ultra Europe is the destination of your dreams. If you want to explore exotic beaches of Europe and spend a week somewhere that comes as close to Ibiza as you’ll find outside of Spain, look no further than Ultra Europe.