Transylvania’s Untold Festival: Eastern Europe’s best-kept secret [Review]
Go to a festival in Transylvania they said. It will be fun, they said.
They couldn’t have been more right.
Nestled within the dilapidated beauty of Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s 2nd largest and according to locals, most vibrant city, lies Untold, a behemoth of an electronic festival that oozes as much whimsy and eccentricity as it does musical quality and diversity. This year’s edition welcomed over 370,000 international techno, trance, and even pop enthusiasts to Cluj (which, itself, sports a population of 300,000) to show the world just why the European Festival Awards named Untold the Best Major Festival in Europe in three of its last four years running.
To put the size of Untold into perspective, the festival’s Main Stage was housed in a soccer stadium set to host 70,000, swiftly tipping capacity during headlining sets. For context, Yankee Stadium holds 54,000.
Beyond the main stage, the grounds of Untold were as rich as they were sprawling, spanning the better part of a mile and concealing nine subsidiary stages within the “enchanted forests.” A slight wander from the beaten path would yield droves of art installations and vendors, which included, but wasn’t limited to, streetwear, old-world leathercrafters, and barbershops (for that mid-festival snip). Beat on, and one might stumble on the steampunk-themed Time stage, decked out in brass and fitted with funiculars and gaseliers. Jaunt further and find the shamanistic Daydreaming stage, which effortlessly blended kaleidoscopic visuals with its natural surroundings, perfect for the multicultural acts that it gave home to for the weekend.
Envisioning anyone attending a festival (especially one on the other side of the world) for the far-out stages and atmosphere alone is an arduous undertaking. Essentially, people come for the music. Thankfully, the lineup at Untold was something to behold, particularly for an out-of-towner. Sure, it had the heavy hitters that many of us hope to see at a massive European event, like progressive house’s prodigal son, Martin Garrix, or trance demigod, Armin van Buuren, whose seven-and-a-half-hour Armin-Only set featuring the Romanian National Orchestra and a slew of live guests effectively turned Transylvania into Trancelvania on the festival’s second night. Organizers even fleshed out the main-stage with nostalgia-brimming acts like Busta Rhymes and Bastille. But if those top-tier billings served as the meat of the festival, it was actually the ancillary potatoes that made it a Michelin three-star meal.
To an American’s delight, Untold was brimming with premiere European acts seldom booked for festivals stateside. Boris Brejcha, Germany’s hottest current export, brought his distinctly textured and pristine brand of what he dubs, “high-tech minimal,” to the Galaxy stage: a black-hole-inspired getup among a dim, dank hockey arena, with room for 10,000. The celestial stage also had the honor of hosting Oxia, whose articulate and hypnotic take on techno served a pristine opener on the festival’s inaugural night.
Although the Galaxy stage itself was saturated with techno’s crème de la creme, highlighting Boys Noize’s new moniker ELAX, and giving extended sets to Solomun, Paul Kalkbrenner, and Tale of Us, it was well worth breaking the arena’s gravitational pull to traverse the largely untrodden nooks and crannies of Untold.
Get distracted by one of the festival’s many delectable (and cheap) food vendors, like Cheesecake Pops and you may stumble into a progressive trance set from Kristian Nairn aka Hodor from Game of Thrones or a clandestine 4 am drum ‘n’ bass display in broken down trolley car.
Standouts among the remaining stages included Alchemy and Fortune. The former put on a four-day bass gala with a truly all-time lineup, making it difficult for die-hards of the sound palette to escape the wubs and the snares for the duration of the weekend. Sets delivered from [deep breath] Sub Focus back-to-back Wilkinson, Pendulum back-to-back Friction, Chase & Status, Nero, Borgore, Andy C and jungle patriarch, Congo Natty, not only gave a nod to bass anthems of the past, but offered a glimpse of the genre’s more imminent future, as most of the aforementioned tried-and-true titans of their trade have releases on deck. The Fortune stage, which sat on the front steps of a recently renovated historical building from the 1800s was as awe-inspiring as it was uplifting, giving fans a global selection of melodic bliss with enduring moments from Arty’s Alpha 9 project, Frenchman Sébastien Léger, trance icon ATB, and Coldharbour Recordings founder and tech-trance genius Markus Schulz.
Untold takes place just a week after the infamous Tomorrowland, which celebrated its 15th birthday this year, and if the Romanian festival wants to be a part of the global discussion, comparisons between the two European heavyweights are necessary. A critical look at the festivals’ comparative lineups ultimately comes down to preference, but for some, Tomorrowland has a clear leg-up on Untold, and maybe always will. The Belgium based festival has had 15 years to build their brand, hone in on the details of the event, and learn from their mistakes. To others, Tomorrowland has become too big for its birches. A bit too commercial, a bit too flashy, a bit too… Instagram-obedient. While Untold has exceeded expectations for a five-year lifespan, in third regard, Tomorrowland it is not. People don’t go to Untold in Transylvania because it’s a trendy tourist destination (not until people hear about the nearby underground amusement parks, at least), but because of a deep passion for dance music and its culture (or rather, its counterculture). The result affords a genuine experience among genuine people, a combination that simply can’t be replicated regardless of budget or event planning experience.
Tickets for Untold Festival are notoriously cheap, with the first round of early birds starting at just over $100 for the entirety of the four-day festival. With advance booked flights being in the same ballpark, Untold in Cluj Napoca is a trek that’s well worth the consideration.
Registration for Untold 2020 is now open.