Then the pandemic descended, thwarting Ultra’s return for two years and leaving people wondering if the festival would ever come back. But here we are. On Friday, March 25, the festival returned to Bayfront Park with dominance, bringing a sense of familiarity between PLUR-crazed ravers, pyrotechnics, tropical shirts, and fan clickers — so many fan clickers.
There were also new flavors — live music taking the spotlight and the Cove Resistance stage offering a blend of relaxation and deep underground sounds. With perfect weather and fireworks lighting the sky, the crowd of more than 50,000 flocked to every stage to shake off pandemic woes and expose itself to illuminating LEDs and bass-to-the-proverbial-face.
With one day down, the festival has reasserted that home is where the rave is: in Bayfront Park.
Known for his progressive-house-meets-pop sound, Alesso covered the Main Stage with all of his favorite hits, including “Progresso,” “Again,” and his Katy Perry collaboration, “When I’m Gone.” The crowd was thoroughly entranced and dancing during the set, while local celebs like David Grutman and Dave Portnoy were spotted enjoying the beats backstage. The setlist included Alesso’s newest single, “Only You,” featuring Sentinel, a fan favorite that had the crowd singing and swaying along to the catchy pop number. Mary Gibson
Armin van Burren B2B Reiner Zonneveld
Sure, the Dutch DJ/producers could’ve taken the easy way out. The duo could maybe take turns throwing in lovey-dovey lyrics and candy-coated build-ups with a few shouts of “Miamiiiiiii” and be back in the artist lounge for a beer. But the mixture of a live DJ set on Zonneveld’s side, Armin tapping into those fast-paced trance days, and the inverted-parabola Worldwide stage shooting fire and blinding lights created an intense blend of old-school trance and fast techno. “We did rehearse, but it was more about checking the technical configurations,” Zonneveld told New Times before the set. “We didn’t plan anything. It’s a hybrid set — but maybe less rave and a bit more trance, but we’ll see where it goes.”
Instead, the two took the high road, touching the border of trance nostalgia and melting emotions. Synths and other hardware bulwarked Zonneveld as he controlled the power of the humming synth with a calm hand while van Burren brought the breakneck trance speech that made you remember what the State of Trance is about: the moment. “When you’re playing live, you can adjust everything to fit the moment,” Zonneveld said. “It’s once in a lifetime; it’ll never come back.” And you’d be mistaken to believe Zonneveld did not perform a synth solo to close the set. Grant Albert
It was sound system versus DJ, and the sound system won. A usual Cox Ultra set features teeth-shaking bass, stunning rhythm, and endless energy. Yet, the sound system faltered somewhere amid Kraviz’s set, requiring attendees to find the right spot to get some bass and avoid the sound from being filtered. Regardless, Cox held true to his stadium-techno style: stripped-down percussion, pulsating bass, and an “oh yes, oh yes” thrown in for good measure. Cox can create energy where there should be none and build atmosphere through even the thickest haze of bass. It should be a condition to see Cox setting the theme of his stage on his terms before venturing anywhere else. A man behind the decks, getting relentlessly primal with creeping techno and joyous house. Grant Albert
The sunset slot gives a DJ diplomatic responsibilities. They must ease relations between the sunny, festive music and techno’s furious, dark side that shows its face at night. It’s not an easy balance, which is why Ultra keeps recruiting the Italian DJ/producer Joseph Capriati as the prime track selector. “Definitely some groove with techno at the end,” Capriati told New Times earlier in the day about his set. Revered for his house and renowned for his techno, Capriati controlled the decks for 90 minutes with beefy basslines peppered throughout with soulful and house vocal samples.
“I never play something without soul,” he told New Times. Capriati began with an a cappella rendition of Blaze’s “My Beat,” while heavy house rhythms cannonballed through the speakers — a sign of his new music stockpiled during the pandemic. “I remixed a track from Agent of Times that was just released off Kompakt. I don’t have one style when I produce or play, but I try to go far away for production,” he explained. As night set in, Capriati shifted to unabashed techno: Hi-hats sizzled, and the bass reverberated down the neck. Yet, true to his roots, Capriati threw in the house-spun vocals that give his sets perspective. He looped in Liza’s soulful chants in “I Need U” shortly before wrapping up, taking his hard-hitting tenacity skyward as he balanced light and dark. Grant Albert
For the first time since 2017, Kygo was set to headline Ultra in 2020. So, in many ways, Kygo’s closing performance Friday on the festival’s Main Stage was five years in the making. After a minor delay, he took the stage with a remix of his song “Stole the Show,” featuring Parson James. Playing a blend of his most famous songs and popular club tracks, he had the crowd hanging on his every note. His performance featured special guests, including 50 Cent, who jumped onstage to perform his 2005 hit “Candy Shop,” and the Joe Jonas-led band DNCE, which joined the Norwegian producer for their new collaborative single, “Dancing Feet.” Mary Gibson
Stepping onstage to much acclaim and fireworks, Martin Garrix was a much-anticipated highlight of the first day of Ultra. His set included well-known cuts like “Tremor,” “High on Life,” and, of course, “Animals,” and a bit of deeper house and electronic beats that turned the Main Stage into his own personal nightclub. “We can do anything we dream of, how about now?” rang out one of his songs, potentially his new single that he had been rumored to be dropping during his set. Mary Gibson
For the first time in years, it was uncertain how the crowd would react to Nina Kraviz. What was unconditional love for Kraviz has turned sour in certain circles of her fanbase and colleagues; the Siberian DJ has been the subject of criticism for not explicitly calling out the Russian invasion of Ukraine on her social media platforms. It was unclear how Kraviz — who, throughout her career, has not appeared to express sympathy for the Russian government — would be received by an international audience. But any tension dissipated as Kraviz brought her blizzard of furious techno and acid for her Megastructure debut. The first half of the 90-minute set introduced acidic rhythms, and Kraviz even hopped on the microphone for a second (though what she said was inaudible). She bounced between no-holds-barred techno and her more profound, vocal-centric productions, including a remix of her “Skyscrapers” single and an unreleased track, “All His Decisions.” What was supposed to be a set in the middle of a bayside metropolis slithered into an eerie warehouse aesthetic with drop after drop of speedy techno anthems while the LEDs reigned an inferno red. Grant Albert
We owe a lot to Pendulum. They’re living proof of a prototype of a live band infusing electronic elements. They formalized a way for a raver to thrush and a live music enthusiast to dance the night away and dare to venture inside the Ultra gates. The drum patterns are homages to those drum ‘n’ bass beats that any attendee at Ultra craves, all while you can lie on the grassy lawn of the live stage. The four-piece ensemble stormed through its extensive catalog, playing, for example, 2010’s buzzy, synth-ridden “The Island,” toward the end of the night. “Ultra, let me hear you clap!” yelled lead singer Rob Swire while the Australian band strummed thick chord progressions and kept the crowd, whether sitting, lying, or standing, seeing that a full-on band and the DJ are more harmonious than once believed. Grant Albert
Svdden Death presents Voyd
In what can only be described as a “nightmare dreamscape,” Svdden Death provided a narrative of visuals during his Live Stage set. Wearing his signature animal skeleton head, Svdden Death presented Voyd, a darker story aptly described by his voiceover, in which he proclaimed, “We are all born to die.” Rising above the crowd, seeming to float in a demonic séance from a horror movie, the DJ played eerie sounds and beats as the crowd sang each ungodly beat drop along with him. Welcome to Hell; the fire’s fine. Mary Gibson