Getting one’s head around the entirety of Miami’s Ultra Music Festival is nigh impossible – and not just because this year, its 15th, the festival has expanded, Coachella-style, to two consecutive weekends with largely the same lineup. For one thing, Ultra has seven stages going at once (to say nothing of numerous after-parties at Miami’s clubs); for another, while big, banging EDM was the clear order of the day, the sheer variety of DJs and live performers defied any attempt at too neatly cohesive a narrative.
Obviously, Ultra is for the kids in a way its primary competition, the longer-running Winter Music Conference (which takes place next weekend, concurrent with Ultra’s part two), is not. (WMC has traditionally focused on clubby house music, as opposed to rave-focused techno or stadium EDM.) But Ultra also makes room for long-timers: U.K. dance mainstays Carl Cox and John Digweed each commandeered stages to showcase their friends and labelmates, while American vets Green Velvet and Josh Wink each appeared on Friday night. And clubbier, subtler sets by the likes of Art Department, Magda and Jozif helped cool things down from the swarming synth buildups and overdriven bass drops that ruled the bigger stages.
The weekend’s biggest surprise came when Skrillex made an unannounced guest appearance on one of the smaller stages. The dubstep star joined rising star Porter Robinson for an unannounced 45-minute DJ round-robin during the closing set by Alvin Risk on the Owsla stage on Saturday night. “Is that really him?” one young woman blurted when a familiar haircut bobbed slowly up from below the decks in the midst of Risk’s set. It was, and the already healthy crowd swelled as the three of them played a mix of familiar and new material, including Risk’s yet-unreleased “SHM” – which the DJ told Rolling Stone, with a laugh, he’d named “because it sounded like Swedish House Mafia.”
Dubstep was in plentiful supply at Ultra, from Skrillex’s two appearances – the second was a scheduled midday show on Sunday with Dog Blood, his duo with Alexander Ridha of Boys Noize – to his L.A. confere 12th Planet and Brits Rusko and Sub Focus, who played Sunday on the Worldwide stage. Rusko, who along with Caspa helped codify the heavier dubstep sound that U.S. producers like Skrillex have taken to the bank, was yelpy, excitable and likable, closing with a new track, “AM-PM,” that blended in hip-hop without sounding mookish about it, something his set did generally.
Not so much for Modestep, who play as a live band with electronics. Sadly, they’re not a particularly good one, as they aimed for Rage Against the Machine – covering “Killing in the Name Of” and throwing in a “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” chorus near the end of their live-stage set Friday night – but sounding a lot more like 311.
But two related styles kept popping through the mix. One was 2-step garage – pronounce it U.K.-style: “garridge” – a heavily syncopated sound that gained traction in late-Nineties British clubs. That’s the style mined by Disclosure, young British siblings Guy and Howard Lawrence (ages 21 and 18, respectively), who drew a hyped-up crowd to the live stage for a set as popping-bright as the Saturday-afternoon sunshine and the endless sea of neon the teen audience wore.
2-step also undergirded the music of Jack Beats, another young Brit duo (Niall Dailly and Ben Geffin) whose Saturday-night set, directly preceding Alvin Risk’s Skrillex surprise, was the most purely thrilling of the weekend. Jack Beats are as digital-ADD as any of the bigger acts, but their beats popped and swerved more than the more aggressively bromantic stuff going on elsewhere, while still having enough pure slam to keep the kids bouncing. They sprung surprises around nearly every corner; rather than a simple slaughter, their set kept building, so that the big synth slams actually felt climactic instead of obligatory.
Jack Beats’ set was highlighted by A-Trak’s four-year-old remix of Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ “Heads Will Roll,” which kept showing its head all weekend: Rusko played it, too, and so did Major Lazer, whose live-stage extravaganza was Ultra’s other highlight. Super-producer Diplo, neatly turned out in suit and tie, moved between frontman and selector (can’t exactly call it “DJ”) duties, tossing vuvuzelas into an audience he also repeatedly fired a confetti gun at (far better than Swedish House Mafia’s cannons of confetti on Friday night), crowd-surfing in a clear plastic bubble (a la the Flaming Lips at Coachella in 2005) and leading a pair of sexy dancers in “our version of ‘The Harlem Shake,'” a song Diplo’s Mad Decent label released. Salsa, dancehall and hip-hop were a small sampling of the styles Major Lazer freely flitted through, shamelessly and supremely effectively.
If 2-step gave Ultra a bubbly feel, the weekend’s other breakout sound took dubstep bludgeon up a step. Hardstyle is the 2010s cousin of gabber, Nineties techno’s equivalent to heavy metal, and it showed up all over the place, from Russian up-and-comer Zedd’s Sunday-evening main-stage set (a flurry of genre-spanning EDM tracks the 23-year-old blended seamlessly) to Tommie Sunshine’s early Saturday session (highlighted by Borgore and Carnage’s raging remix of Icona Pop’s “I Love It”) to Adventure Club, on Sunday afternoon, bulldozing a snatch of the Temptations‘ “My Girl” with some hardstyle stomp. Zedd, by the way, is not to be confused with Zeds Dead, who are a duo, played live rather than DJing, and are way more brostep than the slightly more eclectic Zedd.
“My Girl” wasn’t the only oddly out of place old-school excursion of the weekend. Pretty Lights, the Colorado producer born Derek Smith, plays an appealing, if derivative, mélange of EDM styles, sort of like a mid-Nineties alt-rock band riding that era’s generational musical moment. His live-stage set on Saturday night was aided by amazingly eye-popping visuals, probably the best of the weekend. Fifty minutes into his set, Smith said, “I’m gonna take you back to the old school. Y’all remember this one?” Then he played a snatch of Etta James‘ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” from 1962. Of course, no one in the audience “remembered” James’ original – what they remembered was the track as sampled by, among others, Avicii (“Levels”), Flo Rida (“Good Feeling”), and of course Pretty Lights (“Finally Moving”). The audience, of course, happily sang along. In EDM as anywhere, a great hook is a great hook.