Tomorrowland was launched ten years ago as the younger, smaller sibling of Mysteryland, ID&T's flagship festival enterprise in the Netherlands. Since then, the fantastico-gothic spectacular in a town called Boom, Belgium has grown into the largest dance festival in the world. The sleepy village town has a population of 16,096, but swelled over tenfold to just under 200,000 as ravers from over 100 countries poured in for this year's edition, July 24-26.
Driving into town, you wouldn't even know there was a festival going on. ID&T have nestled their logistics in so comfortably between Antwerp, Brussels, and Ghent that that there's no traffic bottleneck from any direction, but as you're funneled through the medieval town square, the anticipation begins to bubble.
Kids wearing flags from every conceivable nation (Pakistan and Guam included) giddily skipped towards the loudening thud of house music along the cobblestone roads, while locals sat in lawnchairs on their front yards, watching the display of madness that descends upon their lives every year.
Upon entry, the sheer scope of the place is overwhelming. There are 14 official stages, a few more unannounced, and seas of people in every direction crossing bridges over lakes adorned with massive, neon lilies and the maws of outlandish beasts cresting from the water and shooting flames into the air. But even early on, an ominous canopy of puffy clouds served as a warning of what was to come.
The main stage this year was a cartoonish, gothic cathedral, the kind of place a villain in a Disney movie would live. Water cannons arose to the beat in see-through tubes and fireworks and streamers shot out from its lofty crown with a reckless frequency.
The crowd swelled to inconceivable levels for sets by David Guetta, Avicii, and Alesso, but there's really only so many times I can be told to "put my fucking hands up" before I have to move to less demanding climates. Guetta dropping the kids tune "If You're Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands" was only slightly less bizarre than his famous zonk-out 1000 yard stare from last year.
Luckily, Friday released the aforementioned big-room assault, with the appearance of the Carl Cox and Friends at The Opera stage, the festival's second largest, and a multi-leveled cauldron of energy. There, Nicole Moudaber, Dubfire, Solomun, and Carl Cox himself stormed through the night on the techier side of tech-house. They faced strong competition from Jamie Jones' nearby Paradise stage, where The Martinez Brothers and Cajmere joined for a descent into engrossing, minimal tones.
By night, a light drizzle began to fall and the blue plastic ponchos emerged. Festivals all over the European continent had been struggling through storms in July, and Tomorrowland would be no different. Although our recap from last year noted a prevalence of shirtless bros, this was no climate in which to disrobe. In fact, the aesthetic of ravers was vastly different to that in the US. People came in regular daywear, no tutus, no lingerie, nary a flower crown in sight.
I ended the night scoping out the vibes of secondary stages. Trance Addict lived up to its name as the likes of Aly & Fila and Markus Schulz lifted the spirits of their crowds towards a sweet, sweet oblivion, and Qult favored the relentless clangor of hardstyle. I found respite in Derrick Carter's underpopulated Family and Friends stage, where he went b2b with Eats Everything before Mark Farina and Seth Troxler rounded out the night.
Day two began swathed in rain. The festival's livestream told the tale -- Martin Solveig and R3hab valiantly manned the decks, but as the camera panned out, it showed a soggy landscape with only a few hundred determined revelers occupying the main stage's massive expanse. The kids who made it out for those early sets raged hard enough for the whole festival, though, but are probably in the earlier stages of a wretched cold right about now.
Early performances at the covered Kozzmozz stage were a highlight of the day. Proper, churning Berlin techno sets from Rødhåd and Marcel Fengler provided a dissonant aural accompaniment to the stage's fairytale aesthetic, but neither are prone to showing up stateside too often, so it was a welcome treat.
Drum and bass had its day with the Star Warz stage situated all the way up on a hill by its lonesome. The only time I saw more Brits in one place all weekend was at MK the following day, and Viper Recordings artists The Prototypes, Brookes Brothers, and Matrix & Futurebound brought the ruckus on the heavier end of breakbeat.
It was there that I was reminded of a curious habit people have when trying to procure drugs on the dancefloor. They'll walk up to you and mutter the name of a substance with an uptick in inflection at the end that makes it unclear whether they're trying to purchase or sell. Either way, sorry dude, I didn't boof any blow for the plane ride over and you can keep the mephedrone, thanks.
Back at the main stage, Martin Garrix and Armin van Buuren brought the masses back to life as the rain let up. I'll tell ya, if you give a bunch of euros a soccer stadium-sized chant-a-long, like any overly-rinsed "Seven Nation Army" remix, they'll devolve into hooliganism in detuned harmony. Their response seems downright pavlovian and peaked during an unfortunate mash-up of "We Will Rock You" by Queen and "Wonderwall" by Oasis by a DJ that shall not be mentioned. No thank you.
Marc Romboy b2b Stephan Bodzin was one of the best sets of the weekend at the druggily named Ketaloco stage. They played tech-house with both soul and vigor, and their selections were a journey that had me rooted to the spot for the entirety. That it was such a challenge to wrench myself away to Maceo Plex and Sven Väth at the all-vinyl Cocoon stage is all the compliment I can give them.
Day three was essentially festival Waterworld. Although the morning brought sunshine, the afternoon welcomed a torrent of rain that threatened to suffocate the vibes. The flags of the world, once worn so proudly, had been smothered by the now ubiquitous blue plastic ponchos and smiles began morphing to utter scowls, yet a baldyman named Huxley in MK's bedouin-styled and intimate Area 10 dance-tent lifted my spirits. Pound-for-pound, Huxley might be one of the most underrated house DJs around.
Yellow Claw's Barong Family stage was the turn-up many had been waiting for. Dillon Francis dropped an undeniably fun and raucous set of rangy tempos and vibes atop his bizarro-clipart visuals, even dipping into deep techno vibes for a track before returning to his more comfortable US EDM vibes. He was followed by Yellow Claw and GTA, making the stage a virtual American embassy in terms of aesthetic.
Tomorrowland's musical programming favors distinctly european sounds like big room, trance, techno, house and hardstyle. Even on the occasion that they do embrace a new aesthetic or American brands, it's vetted through a Dutch lens. The Barong Family Stage was the only trap excursion of the weekend, but was hosted by Amsterdam twerkers Yellow Claw. Dim Mak where the only American label to get their own stage, but their sounds are anchored in a big room.
Northern European summers harbor long days. It didn't get dark in the evening until at least ten 'o' clock, and with a curfew of 1AM, the vast majority of the party takes place in the daylight. Still, Richie Hawtin's Minus Stage could bring some darkness to the sun itself. Gaiser and Matador preceded the quaffed techno legend in what was another fine showing of techno thematics.
Before ending the weekend, I stopped off once again in The Rave Cave, a tiny tunnel tucked into a hill that fit maybe 50 people at most. A petite brunette lady brought heavy techno vibes harder than I had heard all weekend to a crowd of twenty slushing it up in the muck, but I never even found out her name as the lineup for the area was never announced. If anyone knows who that was, please let us know. She's got an ON DECK waiting.
Tiësto closing out the main stage was meant to be the climax of the weekend, but it was more like hell on earth as we sloshed in ankle-high refuse amidst a crowd packed tighter than Kim Kardashian's spanx, elbowing for survival as the rain beat down from above and back up from below.
His set was one of the more nuanced of the main stage set and the gargantuan sea of people was a sight to behold, but rammed like sardines and sopping wet while strobe lights attack your senses and a stern German man barks orders at you sounds more like Guantanamo than Glastonbury and is no way to enjoy a dance party.
In the worldwide battle for dance festival prominence, it comes down to two conglomerates: SFX and Live Nation, with the likes of ID&T and Made Event (Electric Zoo) aligned with the former, and Insomniac and HARD with the latter. If you boil it down even further, when it comes to festivals with a worldwide reputation, it's Tomorrowland vs. EDC Las Vegas. For me, there's no question that EDC clinches it as the best dance festival in the world. It's close, but not that close.
Tomorrowland is, definitely, the world's festival, and to appeal to so many ilks requires appealing to common denominators, namely a lopsided focus on big room. The festival maintains a rigid adherence to the sounds that made it, but in doing so totally ignores Twee-DM acts like Disclosure and Flume that merge dance aesthetic with an indie mindset, always operating a couple years behind the cutting edge.
Further, the consistency of Tomorrowland's production aesthetic has solidified their position within the collective dance conscious, but by this point, the candy-colored fairytale vibes and flat-backed stages have dated. The event is monumental, but therein lays the issue. Unless its programming wises up, it threatens to become a monument, looking back at the past instead of forward.
In the annals of of human convergence, Tomorrowland could have a chapter of its own. Nowhere else in the world in the history of man have so many people converged so consistently in the name of dance music. This year, as ravers battled against the elements, one thing became clear -- Even God himself can't stop the rave.
Jemayel Khawaja is Managing Editor of THUMP - @JemayelK
All photos by Jennica Abrams