(Original Photo by aLIVE Coverage for Inosmniac)
There are so many massive and iconic electronic music festivals all across the country, from EDC to Ultra to Electric Forest to Paradiso, there’s festivals in all parts of the country for every fans’ tastes. However, few festivals stand the test of time and become truly legendary festivals. While EDC is the largest and most well-known electronic music festival in the US. The longest running US electronic fest is actually another Insomniac product, Nocturnal Wonderland. This year’s 21st edition of the festival, stationed at San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino, CA, was a truly magnificent three-day extravaganza that was easily the senior festivals biggest incarnation yet.
Spread across the top and bottom parts of the hill that make up the San Manuel Amphitheater grounds, Nocturnal truly was a Wonderland of black light art installations, a carnival ride in the center of the south plaza, and of course most importantly, some of the most colorful and unique headliners you’ll see at any festival. Not only was there the festival, Nocturnal also offered up the full camping experience for its headliners. Although I am a veteran festival goer, this was my first experience camping at a festival, and the friends you’ll make and people you’ll meet while camping at a festival are unforgettable. Insomniac also provided such much-needed amenities as porta-johns, showers, and a fully functional town square with general store and food trucks for all headliners to enjoy.
I checked into the campsite around 2:00 PM on Friday afternoon, just barely beating the gnarly traffic that would snarl around the San Bernardino area over the weekend due to a small wildfire. The campsite was massive and divided up into several sections, general tent camping, car camping, RV camping, and premier camping in Acorn Village, where I was situated for the weekend. Once I went through the necessary security checkpoint and got a parking spot, I was warmly greeted by the incredibly helpful and courteous Insomniac staff. I got a personal tour of the campground, Acorn Village was situated at the edge of a serene pond that had herons patrolling the mud around it. Paper lamps were strung across the sky, tied around the many trees in the campground turning Acorn Village into a nighttime playground. We’ll get back to the camping experience later, for the first day, I just threw my bag down and got ready to head up to the festival.
It took about 20 minutes for the gates to open for campers, however, once they did, the line moved pretty smoothly. If you were camping and arrived early enough, it should have been a pretty smooth entrance into the festival grounds. Restrooms and concessions were conveniently located right inside the festival entrance. From there, headliners headed up a ramp that was surrounded by black light hoops and balloons. During the daytime, it didn’t appear to be much, but once the sun sets, Nocturnal truly comes to life. I made myself familiar with the layout of the festival upon entering. To the north side was the main hill viewing the Wolves Den (main stage), in amphitheater fashion, and way up at the top of the hill was the Upside-Down House stage, which sadly I didn’t make it to over the course of the weekend. There was also a Boombox Art Car at the side VIP entrance to the Wolves Den. There was always a boisterous assortment of headliners gathered there throughout the festival.
(Original Photo by Marc van der Aa for Insomniac)
After gathering my bearings and listening to a bit of Convex’s melodic opening set at the Wolves Den, I ventured down the main thoroughfare of the festival, which was a rather steep and tricky hill that lead down to the South Plaza. Whereas the main stage was the focus of all the action on the North Plaza, it’s all the activity going on around the South Plaza that’s the attraction. Anyone wandering around down there at night was treated to a fantastic display of lights, hoops, and brightly colored headliners making their way around. I made my way over to the Sunken Garden stage to check out Matt Lange, and he brought it with some deep and techy sounds. For the opening set of the first day at what was essentially the third or fourth stage, it was a solid crowd. Everyone was vibing and dancing to Matt’s thumping grooves.
Time make the trek up the hill and back to the mainstage and the friendly confines of VIP. Wuki was on the decks for the second set of the day, dropping a fun mixture of old-school rap and hip-hop, and surprisingly uplifting trap. However, Wuki changed the game near the end of his set when he dropped a thunderous trap-remix of the Chainsmokers smash hit “Closer.” I was beside myself at this incredible remix, afterwards, Wuki asked the crowd, with a chuckle, “What did you guys think, was that a banger?” The final 15 minutes of Wuki’s set gave me second-degree burns. After that Wuki gave way to Chris Lorenzo, who dropped a nice set alternating between dubsteppier bass lines and his signature UK deep house. Perfect to get the crowd loose and really warmed up for what would happen as the sun continued to set.
Next up was Valentino Kahn, and he brought the energy like no other. I spent most of the set just head banging away in pure joy. Also, now that it was night time at Nocturnal, headliners were really able to bask in the glory of the Wolves Den stage. The higher up on the hill you were, the more it felt like you were at a drive-in. The stage had it rows of LED lights arranged in a stair pattern cascading down the stage. Along with rows of lasers and tons of pyro, the main stage took full advantage of the amphitheater setup of the venue. Valentino delighted the crowd with a non-stop barrage of bass, all the while the mainstage’s main LED screen showcasing Valentino’s logo mixed in with old-school video game graphics. It was exhilarating.
Things took a dramatic turn as 3lau and Audien took the stage for a special b2b set. Fans of the two progressive house stars got an amazing treat. Whereas it was headbangers ball for Valentino Kahn’s set, the feelings of love and positivity were palatable in the air the second the duo took the stage. 3lau manned the mic while Audien spun uplifting progressive house throughout the night air. I had to go backstage to do an interview with Laidback Luke, but 3lau b2b Audien was just what the crowd needed.
Next up was Oliver Heldens, and wow, did he deliver. Oliver showed off just how versatile a DJ he is mixing in everything from old school dance hits like ABBA’s “Voulez Vous” and “Return of the Mack” to modern electro. With perfect mixing Oliver threw down a barrage of his hits including Wombass, Koala, Bunnydance, and Renegade Mastah. This was not the first time I’ve seen Oliver Heldens, but this may have been his best set I’ve ever seen him throw down. Oliver was on point for Nocturnal. Laidback Luke followed up with another high-energy set of electro hits. Although I decided at this time I wanted to walk down the hill and check out some of Mat Zo’s set at the Labyrinth stage.
I was not disappointed. Not only was the Labyrinth a thoroughly enjoyable stage with its bright purple and green lasers, whimsical stage design and actual “labyrinth” of ropes and fixtures, the crowd there was on another level. As for Mat Zo, I’d never seen him before, and I can’t say I’m all that familiar with his music outside of a few remixes. However, Mat Zo erased any doubt as he barraged through a variety of genres all the while the lights and lasers of the Labyrinth stage taking all of its headliners on a journey. Mat Zo was one of the pleasant surprises of the weekend. Time for another walk up the hill. Again, the Wonderland part of Nocturnal was really going on at the South Plaza, nighttime was something else. And so I made my way back up the hill to watch the last of Laidback Luke and catch Above & Beyond.
Above & Beyond played their signature brand of emotional, uplifting, trance. They flashed messages and names of fans across the massive LED board of the mainstage, and they did invite a lucky fan up on stage to “push the button.” However, I was good after about a half-hour of Above & Beyond. I wanted to check out Grandtheft at the Upside-Down House, alas, at that time of the night/early morning, trudging even further up the hill just wasn’t going to happen, so I made my way back to camp. I was hoping to check out the Silent Disco, and I did for a little bit. However, what I later realized was my mistake was I went there too early. Although the Silent Disco opens at 2:00 AM when the festival ends, it really doesn’t start going off until around 2:45 once all the campers have gotten back. However, calling it a night early was not a bad thing at all. Festivals are a marathon, not a sprint.
It was the next morning when I finally got to meet some of my fellow campers. Everyone was charging their cell phones and it was a great opportunity for people to sit and chat. I met headliners who had traveled from all corners of the state, from Oakland to San Diego. I even met the headliners who didn’t sleep the previous night. It was during the second day that I realized how truly special this camping experience was going to be. Having made some friends, the campsite became home. After meeting some fellow campers, I decided to walk up the hill to the waterpark, (it was two waterslides and a wading pool). Acorn Village was absolutely serene compared to the rest of the campsite. The RV campsite was party central as everyone with an RV had their flags proudly displayed (whether it be for Bassrush, Basscon, or Above & Beyond) and was just blasting music through whatever sound system they had. On my way back to Acorn Village, I got stopped more than once to slap a wine bag and take a swig. Needless to say, the campsite was lit.
(Original Photo courtesy of Insomniac)
After some much needed R&R it was time for day two! I’m usually one to set a very solid schedule when I go to festivals, but I made a friend at camp so I kind of just followed her around all day, so this was one of those days where I encountered a ton of new music that I normally would not have experienced had I done my own thing. Getting a slightly later start on the day, we caught the second half of Illenium’s set at Wolves’ Den. Although I’m not familiar with all of his songs, we definitely got a hearty dose of the melodic bass I was expecting from Illenium. After Illenium’s set, my friend and I made our way down the hill to check out the Labyrinth stage which was hosted by Bassrush for Saturday night.
Apashe was throwing down a thunderous bass and dubstep set that only barely set the tone for what the Labyrinth had in store for the rest of the night. After Apashe it was time for that trip back up the hill to check out Bro Safari at the main stage. Again, after the sun went down, Nocturnal Wonderland came to life, and that’s exactly what Bro Safari did to the Wolves Den, throwing down the ultimate festival trap set. Bro Safari and his iconic imagery took full advantage of the main stage’s capabilities and threw the Wolves Den into a frenzy of bizarre and humorous imagery to go along with plenty of gun pulls and trap drops. I had seen Bro Safari before at HARD Summer in 2015, but this performance was a whole new level.
We caught a bit of TJR’s set before departing back down the hill to return to the Labyrinth stage. As we departed TJR was dropping his classic festival collab with Dillon Francis, “What’s that Spell?” I was shouting like I was at the most R-rated spelling bee ever. Once we got to the Labyrinth, Swedish bass DJ/producer Liquid Stranger had taken the stage. His Facebook page describes his style as “underwater extraterrestrial bass,” I’d say that’s an apt description. It was a consistent and sinewy bass line that was pumping from the stage along with some airy, ethereal synths. Probably my favorite set at the Labyrinth stage.
However, at this point, I needed to venture back to familiar territory. Showtek was about to take over the Wolves’ Den, so again we marched up the hill and kicked back to enjoy the sheer energy of Showtek’s rip roaring set. I was bouncing up and down as the Jansen brothers dropped banger after banger of big room and progressive tracks. No matter what, Showtek always brings the energy and this was no exception. After I’d bounced to my heart’s content we again headed back down the hill to end our night at the Labyrinth. We got up close to the railing for Sub Focus, and it was…interesting. I tip my hat to all of those going super hard in the trenches, and being under the lasers was insane. After that it was Troyboi, who dropped a filthy set of just grimy trap music, rear ends were hanging low to the ground as the bass thumped throughout the night. Completely fatigued, we made our way back to the campsite. The artists I saw on night two were certainly not what I expected, but it was a fun night exploring the grounds of Nocturnal.
Sunday morning at the campsite was definitely a day for everyone to recharge their batteries. I actually went over to the medic tent to get some ice for my knee that got a little bruised up from covering so much ground the previous day. My neck was pretty stiff too. There were a couple of other headliners at the medic tent, doing the same thing, icing up some minor bruises. One headliner I met at the MASH unit was telling me his favorite stage of the festival had been Temple Noctem, the Basscon stage, where it was mostly hardstyle being played. He mentioned how the stage was packed to the brim and the stage design and lights were superb. Alas, I did not make it to Temple Noctem over the weekend, but I did see it overflowing with headliners every time I went down the hill to the South Plaza.
It was pretty much back to business for me on Sunday, and I didn’t really get a chance to hang out with my friends who I made at camp, one of whom lost her phone. No matter, I just pulled up a comfy spot along the railing in VIP and made the Wolves’ Den home for the final day of the festival. Anevo was up on the stage once I got myself situated at the venue. Another Swedish artist, Anevo actually played one of those perfect, early festival sets. It had the perfect blend of melody, mood, and bass sprinkled in.
I decided to make my way down the hill one last time and I found myself at the Corona Electric Beach where Keys & Krates were dropping a DJ set. It was a cool little spot, but with the sun starting to set and me wanting to get more comfortable, I went back up the hill to the VIP to catch the last of Dabin at Wolves’ Den. Dabin brought an edgier, more bass driven sound, and he delighted by playing both guitar and live keys. A great performance by the Canadian DJ/producer to help set up the rest of the madness that would ensue at the Wolves’ Den.
Now that the sun had set and the main stage had come to life, it was time for Ephwurd. Ephwurd is the collaboration between Datsik and Bais Haus, I got watch their debut performance at Escape last year, and they brought even more energy this time around. Dressed in matching white W t-shirts and basketball shorts, the duo took turns patrolling the DJ booth, firing the crowd up into a frenzy, and firing a t-shirt gun into the crowd. They dropped a barrage of house and bass mashups as well as hits like “Bring it Back,” “Duckface,” and of course, “Rock the Party.” Although the good natured duo put everything on display, it was especially poignant when Datsik declared to the crowd that he hoped everyone was having a great time with their best friends, just like he was with Bais Haus.
(Original Photo courtesy of Insomniac)