It’s sweaty as hell and all eyes are on Will Sparks.
A small but passionate army of believers are watching the Australian export work through a USB full of Melbourne bounce crowd-pleasers, while blindingly fluoro visuals light up the screens behind him. To stage left, one particularly enthusiastic dude is giving the juicy wiggle his best shot, his singlet growing soggier and soggier by the second.
It’s a scene that could play out at a club anywhere around Australia, only we’re not in Australia. We’re a few thousand kilometres north of Darwin, just above the equator, at one of the biggest dance festivals on the planet. “Singapore, if you don’t know what the bounce is, this is it!” Sparks yells into the mic, the drop lands, and a hundred punters lose their shit in unison.
The festival in question is, of course, Ultra Music Festival — one of the two dozen currently operating around the globe. What began as a one-day event in Miami nearly two decades ago has, in 2017, grown to be dance music’s most successful festival brand. These days, Ultra operates in five continents and 21 countries, eight of them in Asia alone. In 2018, it will add Australia to the list.
This weekend, Ultra will bring over 170,000 fans through festival gates in Asia – both here in Singapore and in Seoul, where it’s holding a simultaneous event – with a further 320,000 tuning into the livestream.
Later, in a press release, Ultra’s PR team will describe UMF as the world’s “most international” festival brand. They’re not wrong about that.
The scene outside the Ultra Singapore gates is a lot like it is at Miami’s flagship event: guys in low cut singlets and girls in high waisted shorts rush in, smelling of booze and carrying homemade Tiesto signs under their arms.
Inside, it’s just as familiar. There’s no chicks making out with trees or Paris Hilton sightings, but all the hallmarks of Ultra are there: the brand activations, the scantily-clad dancers, the VIP bottle service areas. Even Miami’s mainstage hypeman has made the trip out, here to remind crowds to drink water, look out for their friends and please use the #UltraSingapore hashtag. (Uniquely Singaporean touches that would raise the armhair of Australian authorities, however, include the sale of one litre bottles of spirits over the bar.)
It’s a testament to the globalisation of the festival scene that in 2017, you can be anywhere in the world and see a girl in a Native American headdress, a white guy in an animal onesie or a couple holding hands, seemingly unbothered by the fact they’re completely covered in mud as they stroll past.
The feeling of déjà vu isn’t helped by the line-up: this year, at least, Ultra aren’t pushing any envelopes. Unlike Ultra Japan, who will mix it up in September with acts like Porter Robinson and Empire of the Sun — or Ultra Miami, whose 2017 curveballs included Justice, Underworld and rapper Ice Cube — Singapore is almost all mainstage regulars. Tiesto, Hardwell, Steve Angello, Steve Aoki, Martin Solveig and the rest are all here, stamping the timecard for another day in the office.
One surprise appearance comes from Knife Party, who stepped in for the first 45 minutes of Don Diablo’s set on Sunday when his flight was delayed. (What played out after that secured Diablo — an artist who, after six years of working in dance music, I still couldn’t pick out of a police line-up — the most press of his career. But what’s an edition of Ultra without a little bit of drama, right?)
“What’s an edition of Ultra without a little bit of drama, right?”
It’s a different story at Resistance, Ultra’s dedicated “underground” arena and the smallest of Singapore’s three stages. Despite it’s niche target audience, the crowd was full when it came time for the always-excellent Sasha and Digweed to step up — a special back-to-back set that stood out as one of the Singapore line-up’s more noteworthy inclusions, and a testament to Ultra’s pulling power. Even more raucous was the turnout for Dubfire the next day, while Brazilian techno queen ANNA proved a mid-afternoon timeslot is no barrier to an Ibiza-worthy vibe.
Whichever stage you settled at, a first-rate experience was guaranteed. Despite Singapore’s relatively small festival site, there’s no sound bleed between the mainstage, Resistance and live stage. And the sound is loud. Really loud. Like, better-run-to-the-chemist-and-buy-some-earplugs-oh-god-this-is-how-tinnitus-happens loud. Rumour has it Steve Angello could be heard asking the crowd to show them his hands at Singapore’s iconic Raffles Hotel, a half hour walk away.
The production, too, is slick. The biggest bells and whistles are on Ultra’s mainstage, which is what those at home on the couch will tune into via the live stream. By day, the stage is an intimidating, towering mass of steel. By night, it lights up like nothing else – I count 50 television screens, plus regular bursts of confetti, flames and fireworks. When it comes to production, Ultra still outclass the rest.
“When it comes to production, Ultra still outclass the rest”
There’s also a sense of smoothness to the festival: lines for the bar are manageable. There’s plenty of seating for those who want to stop and eat dinner, and ample grass at the live stage to recline on. The site itself is easy to navigate and move through. And most DJs are given two hours to play with, a far more generous set time than festival crowds are used to.
No matter the continent, Ultra Music Festival is a well-oiled machine with no nasty surprises.
But as ever, Ultra saved its biggest acts for last. On day one, Hardwell used the penultimate set of the night to prove there’s still some mileage left in Swedish House Mafia’s ‘Don’t You Worry Child’ and telling the crowd to make some noise.
Day one closer Tiesto stayed mostly off the mic, instead working his way through crowd-pleasers like Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’, and ‘Lose My Mind’. Even Angello, who had the honours on day two, dipped back into 2013 for material with a ‘Save The World’ remix.
Capping off the live stage on Sunday night was another Australian act: Perth D&B heroes Pendulum, playing a rare live set. (Ultra secured the band’s first time on stage together in six years for Miami 2016.)
Gareth McGrillen and co started 20 minutes behind schedule, but wasted no time dialling up the theatrics as soon as they stepped on stage. Right from the get-go, it was a whir of screeches, bass thuds and lip-syncing, with the boys at work on the guitars, drums and keyboards.
“Are there any Aussies in the crowd?” they boomed into the mic to a roaring response (no, Singapore’s crowd isn’t just locals). After a long intro, Pendulum launch into ‘Witchcraft’, before weaving in ‘Internet Friends’ samples and moving onto fan favourites like ‘The Island’ and ‘Propane Nightmares’ — all peppered with lots of requests for those who knew the lyrics to sing along. It’s delightfully cheesy, and a whole lot of fun.
So what can Australian audiences learn from Singapore? No one pulls off a festival quite like Ultra — from the production to the organisation and the line-up pulling power its name assures, UMF goes as big as dance music can.
And if you can’t wait until the full scale event lands in 2019, Singapore’s only an eight hour flight away.
Katie Cunningham is the Editor of inthemix and travelled to Ultra Music Festival at the expense of the promoter. She is on Twitter.