Festival Review: Nocturnal Wonderland
By: Aidan Meehan
San Manuel Fairgrounds
San Bernardino, CA
21 September, 2013
On September 21st, at the San Manuel Amphitheater, Insomniac truly outdid themselves. Nocturnal Wonderland was by far the most memorable EDM festival I’ve attended in Southern California.
What set this event above and beyond the other electronic music events in the region, including last years’ Nocturnal and Escape from Wonderland, was the high level of pageantry and production. The stages and art installations at the sister festival to Electric Daisy Carnival were similar in style and intensity to the massive Las Vegas event. Artists stepped up the quality of their live performances, according to the size of the event, playing bigger and more intricate sets compared with what I’ve experienced at the earlier incarnations of Wonderland.
I began my day in Nocturnal Wonderland by casually wandering the festival grounds, mentally noting the locations of all important landmarks such as restrooms, water stations, and the various stages. After enjoying the atmosphere of the festival, I stopped by the Labyrinth (Main) Stage to see heavy-hitting Canadian Dubstep DJ Excision. He dropped bass filled anthems and minimalistic trap sensations behind a ever changing background of visuals and the mechanical ‘Alice’ themed stage. After my first taste of the main stage, I went to the Queen’s Grounds Stage to see the up-and-coming artist Bro Safari. He played a surprisingly powerful set, selecting some of the best of moombahton, trap, and dubstep. Highlights include his own track “Scumbag,” Dillon Francis’ hit song “Bootleg Fireworks (Burning Up),” and sleeper producer Jackel’s future trap banger “Shakedown.” After leaving such an exciting set, I began the long hike around the festival grounds to make it back to the main stage.
While the San Manual Amphitheater offered an amazing change of pace from other festival grounds, being hilly, spacious, and covered in soft grass, it had an unfortunate flaw. The grounds are shaped like a giant ‘U’, with stages at either end. It was a twenty minute walk from one end to the other, considering the chaos of the constantly moving crowd. This meant that festival-goers had to plan ahead if they wanted to make it to the beginning of a favorite set, or to get close to the stage. After pushing past the Sunken Garden stage, I made it to Labyrinth in time for the start of pop influenced dubstep/house giants Krewella. Krewella sets themselves apart from other artists in the scene by performing vocals live, making their performances a unique experience. They played personal hits “Legacy” and “Alive,” off their newly released album, Get Wet, along with remixes of tracks such as Skrillex’s “Summit,” and MIA’s “Paper Planes.” At this point I decided to take a break from the music and return to the festival grounds for a little, exploring the scenery at night.
When the night rolled around, Insomniac’s efforts to make the festival experience safer, in light of the recent deaths at Made Events’ Electric Zoo, became apparent. Water was made freely available at a refill station by attentive volunteers. Misting fans were placed at numerous locations around the festival grounds, to help cool down anyone who could be overheating. Local sheriffs and policemen were also stationed on the outsides of crowds, which prevented any obvious illegal actions. Insomniac’s owner Pasquale Rotella is quite aware of the realities of the electronic music scene, and that shows in the planning of his events. After speaking to a group of friendly volunteers handing out refraction glasses, I decided to jump back into the crowd.
Back at the Sunken Garden stage, Martin Solveig shocked the crowd with a diverse and uplifting progressive house set, dropping both sing-along festival classics and high-energy grooves. Solveig took to the microphone, leaping up on the DJ booth and telling the people of California to “turn up” for the Madeon remix of his famous track “The Night Out.” My favorite moment of his set, and perhaps the whole night, was a mash-up of the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Californication” and Sebastian Ingrosso’s club banger “Reload,” blending a regional favorite with the epic drop of Ingrosso’s hit.
I quickly ran over to Queen’s Grounds to catch some of Carnage, whose set was disappointingly plagued with technical and volume issues. After just a few songs, the crowd became sick of hearing their neighbors conversations over the music and began to scream “Louder!” until Carnage himself began to curse the sound technicians. Despite the quality of his eclectic set, the sound issues were too frustrating for me, and I began the hike back to the main stage to catch headliner Porter Robinson. Porter’s set contained a mix of his signature progressive and electro house sound, characterized by tracks such as “Language,” and “Spitfire,” and hits from a wide array of artists, including M83, Zedd, Capital Cities, and Martin Garrix. Fireworks lit up the sky for most of his set, with explosions set off in time to crowd-favorite “Easy.” Robinson displayed pure talent and musicianship during his performance, and I highly suggest any fans of his music to make the effort to see him live one day.
As the music came to an end, attendees rushed to the exit, backing up foot and car traffic so far that people began to jump fences and defy the traffic officers in a defiant attempt to escape the insanity. While the traffic entering the festival was managed very well, I hope that Insomniac finds a way to alleviate the exit bottleneck at the next event, perhaps by creating a second exit.
Although the San Manual Amphitheater has a few structural flaws, it is still a much better venue than the Nos Event Center, where the previous Wonderland events have been held. The massive size of the venue and stages allowed the crowd to spread out, preventing the pushing, shoving, and violence that happened so often at the Nos Center, and giving ravers room to really dance. The upgrade in venue, production size, and the emphasis placed on safety proves that Insomniac Events are comfortably sitting at the top of the industry. Pasquale Rotella has stated that you do not need superstars to have a successful festival, but instead you must focus on the fan’s experience. This principal is expressed by the Insomniac motto “You are the headliner!” a motto that rings true as soon as one walks in the gates. This year’s Nocturnal Wonderland was an event of a whole different caliber, and I strongly recommend any electronic music fan to consider the other Insomniac events coming this year, such as Escape From Wonderland or White Wonderland.