Tomorrowland 2012: The epic review

Beyond any doubt, it was that 2011 ‘Aftermovie’ that sold the entire world on Belgium’s Tomorrowland. Dutch promoters ID&T had set the bar over the years via their Sensation parties worldwide, while the standard for the multi-genre day events had been their own Mysteryland festival in Amsterdam. At one point though, the company’s ever-growing Tomorrowland event overtook them all. Staged every year in the humble Belgian town of Boom, this year it expanded into a three-day event for the first time, hosting in excess of 180,000 people over its duration.

And most likely, you’re one of the 45+ million people who watched that ridiculously over-the-top ‘Aftermovie’ from the 2011 event on YouTube. Those sweeping aerial shots, that ecstatic crowd, those utterly insane looking stage designs, all that colour, music, emotion and excitement. It was enough to bring a tear to the eye of even the most grizzled, jaded dance fan. It was a masterstroke of marketing, firmly cementing the festival’s enigma in the eyes of partygoers. This year, inthemix embarked on an adventure into the heart of the De Schorre National Park, to see whether all the hype around Tomorrowland was really justified.


For a modest country of only 10 million people, Belgium certainly hosts an impressive number of massive festivals. As one local explains on Friday afternoon, Tomorrowland ain’t even the biggest, with events like Rock Werchter and Pukkelpop drawing even bigger crowds every year. And while the festival this year drew people from all corners of the globe, 60-percent of the tickets were still sold to Belgian residents in the initial presale. The country clearly likes to party.

While the glee levels are definitely on the rise throughout the afternoon, there is a sense on Friday the energy of the festival hadn’t quite settled yet. Attendees are suffering possibly from over-stimulation, the scope and scale of the party so grand that they don’t know what to do with themselves. If you’d had a peek at the timetable of acts playing over the weekend, and wondered how anyone would have decided how to spend their time, you’d have an idea how attendees felt every time they folded out that massive festival program; bewildered and overwhelmed enough to just fold it up again and put it back in their pocket.

The first stop is the Q-dance stage, flanked by entrance fences on either side made out of tall spiky wooden slats, in the fashion of a barricade in ancient Greece. The stage itself towers 20 metres high, with several long columns of spiky metal studs reaching skywards towards two intertwined cobras, rising out of the Q-dance logo – a slightly more modest version of the excess seen at the mainstage of the Defqon.1 festival every year.

The De Schorre National Park’s infamous natural amphitheatre hosts the insanity of the ‘ID&T Mainstage’; and it’s hard to imagine a natural space that could have been any more perfectly formed by the gods to host such a massive dance event. Stretching out from the front of the stage was a big flat, grassy plain, the majority of which had been covered over by a massive wooden platform for punters to dance on; eventually the plain reaches the foot of a hill that circles the stage on both sides. It’s steep enough to ensure there are some hilarious slips, slides and tumbles down its steep and sometimes muddy incline over the course of the weekend (typically met with a roar of appreciation from the crowd).

For those wanting to avoid the slopes though, two viewing platforms are built on the far right and far left sides of the hill respectively, with immaculate views of the action below. It cannot be overstated how much the amphitheatre contributes to the magical vibe of the mainstage – the acoustics, the capacity, the layout, being able to look out from the front of the stage and see tens upon tens of thousands of people packed into the hills.

And the design of the mainstage itself – oh golly. This year’s theme was based around the idea of spectacular fantasy bookshelf, a sprawling array of books stacked on top of each other at various angles, the stage dominated by a massive hardcover book standing upright in the middle, emblazoned with the Tomorrowland logo on the cover, and opening and closing on hinges to reveal a giant video screen on each of the open pages. Get up close to observe the little details, and on the spine of each book, you can see a tiny window that peeks inside a little house, the lights inside switching on and off after dark; implying they’re home to the kind of elves and gnomes taken straight from an Enid Blyton novel.

Techno and house fans are particularly well catered for on Friday, starting with the mighty Castle stage that is hosting the ‘Carl Cox & Friends’ arena. The first high-point of the afternoon comes when the rather unassuming presence of John Digweed is ushered onto a stage that is anything but unassuming. The ever-dependable ‘Diggers’ has shown he’s a craftsman versatile enough to play anything from a bristling warm-up set to balls-out techno, depending on the occasion. On Friday, he’s dropping a tough-edged selection of big-room progressive records that couldn’t have been better matched to the context.

Following immediately after, Marco Carola is more than enough to inspire thoughts of, “This is just too fucking good…”, banging out a set of stripped-back party techno that draws increasing levels of whoops from the crowd. Sets from Umek and the big man himself Carl Cox are still to come, and the setting is entertainment enough in itself; giant water fountains on either side of the DJ platform, confetti exploding over the crowd whenever a build-up leads into a massive drop, the grandiose Ferris Wheel spinning behind the stage, the eyes of the sun peering benevolently down upon the crowd as the sun begins to set. The ‘minor’ stages certainly aren’t being given short shrift in terms of production.

For the trance fans, Above & Beyond’s ‘Group Therapy’ tent is definitely the best place to be on Friday (and the whole weekend, for that matter). By around 8pm a sweaty, heady, happy energy has settled over the dark confines of the tent, with Anjuna’s archetypal warm-up DJ Jaytech busting out with the kind of mid-tempo trance and house fusions that have defined his recent shift in direction. It’s booty-shakin’ euphoria that sets the tone for the even bigger dose of euphoria to come.

The ‘Group Therapy’ tent stands head and shoulders above any other trance heard at Tomorrowland over the weekend.

Above & Beyond themselves step up after 9pm, and their set is as perfectly tuned for a festival as you could wish for. They bring plenty of the expected uplifting moments, but with all of the dynamic excitement we’ve heard from their Anjunabeats label as of late. There’ll be a dash of energy throw in, then followed up immediately with a slamming bassline. The bottom-heavy grind of Norin & Rad’s Pistol Whip nearly shakes the tent to the ground, while the set’s explosive peak comes with the progressive, techy grooves that lead into the melodic explosion of Audien’s Eventide. What’s heard in the ‘Group Therapy’ tent stands head and shoulders above any other trance heard at Tomorrowland over the weekend.

Elsewhere though, house and techno fans are given even more of a ridiculous range of options to choose from. The pier stage on the river is hosting a drool-worthy line-up that includes Deetron, Ame, Solomun and Martyn, while the ‘Eastern Mysticism’ themed stage features sets from the likes of Maceo Plex, Guy Gerber and Jamie Jones. An appearance from Joris Voorn warrants a visit after 10pm, and he’s holding back on the techno tonight for a set mostly focused on inviting house grooves.

However, the journey to reach Voorn’s dancefloor proves the most memorable. Strolling over one of the river’s wooden crossings, little bursts of flame are shooting up from either side of the walkway, and to your left there’s one of the grandest sights to be seen during the whole weekend. Far across the water you can see the Ferris Wheel of the ‘Castle Stage’, lit up with colourful lights and surrounded by smoke, lasers shooting out into the sky from every angle. It looks amazing enough to make you stop, stare and gape.

If anything is going to top that, it would be a visit to the mainstage for the final two hours of the day, to witness things at full force after the sun has gone down. Weighing a hefty 180 tonnes, it’s also apparently the heaviest stage ever been built for a dance festival. It looks cool enough during the day, but these events truly come into their own when the sun goes down, the lights turn on and the lasers are ignited.

Standing all the way at the back of the amphitheatre’s incline is one way to soak all that excess in. By this stage, the length of the stage just looks absolutely colossal, and the crowd is being bombarded by a combination of intense flashing lights and flickering strobes. Smoke is billowing from the bottom of the stage, confetti and streamers exploding from above the stage, flames reaching into the sky, fireworks going off overhead, lasers lighting up the tens of thousands gathered with a glorious green glow.

Avicii is playing the peaktime slot tonight, and the Swedish golden boy (and forthcoming Stereosonic headliner) has been the surprise mainstage class act during this year’s European festival season. There’s little doubt this is house music for the masses (or ‘trouse’, if you will), but he’s giving the likes of Tiesto a run for his money in terms of the class in which he’s delivering it. Tonight he proves himself a pro when it comes to delivering tightly-constructed sets for ridiculously-sized crowds, and by the time he inevitably winds his set up with Levels, the crowd is exploding in fits of unrestrained joy. “Come on and dance, ya jerk!”, I’m instructed by my friend next to me. No one would have been immune at that point in time.

Tonight, Avicii proves himself a pro when it comes to delivering tightly-constructed sets for ridiculously-sized crowds.

Epic levels of idiocy are expected from the Bloody Beetroots in the evening’s closing DJ set, and the duo gloriously embody the overblown, opulent spectacle of the mainstage. While you’re gaping at the sights, the Beetroots provide a soundtrack that stretches even the boundaries of what’s referred to as “maximal”. Everything is thrown in there – including the kitchen sink, a buzzsaw bassline, a cavalcade of screeching white noise, several ‘wub wub’ breakdowns, an extra heavy dose of silliness as well as two angry, masked Italians waving their fists in the air.

By the time the evening’s end is signalled at 1am by one of ID&T’s familiar dramatic voiceovers, you’re reassured by the fact you’ve got two more days of this wonderful madness to go.

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