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Nocturnal Wonderland: A Festival for the Ages

After some debate and controversy as to whether the 19th rendition of Insomniac’s Nocturnal Wonderland festival would take place in California, Insomniac’s longest running festival ultimately returned to the San Manuel Amphitheater and it blew away all expectations. After facing backlash and poor reviews due to the traffic situation and the weather conditions, Insomniac’s Pasquale Rotella faced the decision of either keeping its longest running festival in the Los Angeles area, or moving it to a new location that would be better suited to handling the number of attendees that it was expecting. Luckily for Southern Californians, Pasquale decided to turn Nocturnal Wonderland into a two-day festival that encouraged camping and featured four uniquely themed stages, art installations as far as the eye could see, and a lineup that lived up to its billing.

Over the course of the weekend, Nocturnal Wonderland was the home to over 55,000 dance music enthusiasts, who all made the trek out to San Bernardino to experience the world that Pasquale had created for us. Walking through Nocturnal was like a page straight out of “Alice in Wonderland.” Performers in costumes and on stilts could be seen making their way through the crowd, and the four themed stages definitely didn't disappoint. The main stage of this year’s Nocturnal was The Labyrinth, which showcased the same all-seeing owl that was present at last year’s Nocturnal. Accompanying the “Labyrinth” this year were three other stages: The Queen’s Grounds, the Sunken Garden, and quite possibly the most surprising and my personal favorite stage of the entire weekend, the Upside Down Room.

The Labyrinth stage was over 65 feet tall and spanning 200 feet wide with over 2,500 video tiles and 200 lighting fixtures. Throuhgout the weekend, the Labyrinth stage saw an influx of great talent  - Swedish progressive genius EDX, Insomniac’s very own Arty, and even heavy-hitting dubstep producers Flux Pavilion. No matter the performance, it was clear that each person in the crowd took at least one moment to admire the stage's mystical appearance.

Alongside the awe-inspiring Labyrinth stage, the Queens Grounds and Sunken Garden stages were placed in relatively close proximity, creating a problem with sound bleed as you made your way between the two stages. The Queens Grounds stage hosted a variety of talented DJs from producers like Two Fresh, who killed it at Coachella’s Do Lab this year, Bare, and Mat Zo, who laid down an amazing throwback trance set to close the festival. Sunken Garden on the other hand, which was hosted by Bassrush, was this year’s go-to drum & bass stage. With talented acts like The Glitch Mob, Netsky, and Excision making their appearances, every basshead in attendance had their fill.

The very last stage of the festival, and perhaps the most impressive stage, was the Upside Down Room.  Adorned with live painted walls, red drapes, and a laser setup that rivaled even the best stages and festivals, the Upside Down Room was an immersive 360 degree stage that saw DJ legends like Donald Glaude, Moon Boots, and DJ Dan take the stage. One of the smallest stages that I’ve ever seen at an Insomniac festival, there seemed to always be about 200 to 300 people in the Upside Down Room, grooving to the music and showing everyone what it was like to rave in the 90s. 

Any Insomniac festival wouldn’t be complete an adventure to check out all the art installations.  This year’s Nocturnal saw the recreation of the giant Caterpillar - who was first seen at this year’s EDC Las Vegas.  The Caterpillar was a giant 30-foot tall, caterpillar sculpture that projected lights and colorful patterns, and would rotate 360 degrees with the help of a couple of headliners.  Also present at this year’s festival were painted tents, which were reminiscent of the Neon Koi Pond at this year’s EDC Vegas as well.  Headliners could be seen hanging out and cooling down while enjoying the colorful and vibrant patterns in these 3D blacklight painted tents.

Aside from all the aesthetics and the experience that any Insomniac festival provides, the musical talent did not disappoint either.  While the lineup release initially received some backlash from fans because of the lack of superstar talent, the talent that was booked quickly quieted any doubters.  Audien dropping his remix of Bastille’s “Pompeii” and his hit “Circles” quickly had the entire crowd at the Labyrinth going absolutely insane.  Martin Garrix closed the first day of the festival with a high-energy set that kept the mainstream EDM fans happy.  As we were all leaving the festival, you could feel the crowd’s collective excitement to come back for the second and final day of Nocturnal. 

As I made my way into the festival on the second day, EDX was just stepping up to unleash a heavy-hitting set full of fan favorites. Dropping classics and new tracks alike, he had the entire crowd at his beck and call.  As he was closing his set, the all-too-familiar voice of Sam Smith rang through the speakers as EDX bootlegged Latch with his 2014 hit, "Breathin'."  As the sun started to set over the Queens Grounds, Two Fresh was just finishing up their high energy trap set, full of hits like A$AP Ferg’s “Shabba,” Drake’s “Trophies,” and What So Not’s hit with RL Grime “Tell Me.”  As we made our way out of the crowd, the beginning notes of Bounce Generation blasted through the speakers, signaling the start of electro house favorite Bare.  

The highlight of the entire second day was the Upside Down Room in my personal opinion.  House legends like Charles FeelgoodDonald Glaude, and DJ Dan had the entire stage eating out of their hands. A legend in the dance music community, Glaude opened his set with Alex Metric’s “Hope,” before dropping it into Don Diablo’s new hit “Any Time.”  Blending just the right amount of future bass with tech house classics and dance music songs that would make even the most seasoned of ravers feel like they were in The Warehouse in Chicago, Donald Glaude masterfully wove together a 90 minute set that left everyone in awe. A highlight of Glaude’s set was his sample of Kraftwerk, one of the earliest pioneers in dance music.  

We made our way back to the Queens Grounds for a taste of Melbourne bounce, courtesy of Will SparksJoel Fletcher, and Timmy Trumpet. The three Aussies easily take the crown for most fun set of the night. Dropping Melbourne bounce classics like "Ah Yeah" as well as a brand new Joel Fletcher remix of "Latch," these three did not disappoint and left the crowd out of energy and excited for the rest of the night. The Glitch Mob closed the festival at the Sunken Garden stage, and I must say, that was a perfect venue to see them. The acoustics in the stage were just right, and their light show was one of the best I’ve ever seen.

As the festival wound down and the crowd dispersed, you could feel the appreciation for Pasquale Rotella, and you could see the love, care, and time he put into making this the best possible festival for his headliners. Nocturnal Wonderland 2014, you were everything we could've wanted and more. 

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