Nocturnal Wonderland 2016 Recap: Still On Top

After 21 years, Nocturnal Wonderland still somehow stands as a landmark event in SoCal's fall festival season
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After 21 years, Nocturnal Wonderland still somehow stands as a landmark event in SoCal's fall festival season

Last year's Nocturnal Wonderland was my first Insomniac Events festival, and it was quite the experience. I'd heard about Pasquale Rotella's large-scale productions and about how they're a cornerstone behind the commodification of EDM, but seeing it for myself really cemented how impactful his world has become. 

That was the festival's 20th anniversary, and it set the stage for another twenty years of success. Once again this year, Nocturnal returned to the beautiful San Manuel Amphitheater grounds. 

Seeing mountains in the background behind the stages does wonders for a festival's environment, and I was surprised by some welcome changes to the festival's site plan. Last year there were some gnarly sound clashes, especially around the obnoxiously commercial Toyota area. Thankfully, Insomniac replaced this zone with equally commercial but more palatable sponsored stages from Smirnoff and Corona. 

The former continued its excellent Smirnoff House collaboration with Mixmag, bringing DJs from the festival in for intimate and interesting sets. Their top-notch programming included a '90s R&B set from Laidback Luke, a throwback hip-hop set from the Bingo Players, and a stacked "Ephwurd & Friends" set (Ephwurd B2B Kennedy Jones B2B Kayzo B2B Stranger B2B Deorro B2B Jayceeoh B2B ANGELZ B2B Swage).

Photo by Da Black Swan.

Photo by Da Black Swan.

The Corona Beach stage also had a chance to shine with its central location and retooled lineup after an underwhelming bout at HARD Summer. They thrived at this year's Nocturnal Wonderland. With special guest bouts from Ghastly and Giraffage to name a few, Corona Beach became a musical oasis (pool included) for people to discover at the festival.

Photo by Get Tiny.

Photo by Get Tiny.

Nocturnal Wonderland also introduced a new stage, Temple Noctem, which was dedicated to hardstyle. That's cool and all, and they booked some good acts like Darren Styles, but I still feel like an entire hardstyle stage is heavy handed. For most of the night it just pumped insanely processed 909s into the heart of the festival ground. It replaced the open-air Temple of Om stage with yet another tent, though this was probably necessary to contain sound bleed. It also pushed the Sunken Garden off to the side, making it feel like an afterthought and ensuring less fans discover the underground acts that make that stage great. On the bright side, they also brought the Boombox ARTCAR to town for Nocturnal this year, enlisting L.A. hometown hero Fawks to close out the weekend atop the famous mobile stage.

Photo by Adi Adinayev.

Photo by Adi Adinayev.

That wasn't the only installation they ported over from EDC Las Vegas. Insomniac also brought the black light tunnels with reactive chalk to Nocturnal Wonderland, encouraging people to draw and contribute their own work to the festival environment. These smaller sorts of installations made the festival light up with excitement and liveliness.

On the other hand, cigarette brand Newport had an awful booth where you could buy $1 packs in exchange for handing over the keys to your life. Their intrusive entry process scans your state-issued ID, ostensibly to verify your age, but actually takes your address and other data in order to send you coupons and other endless snail mail. Not cool, Newport.

The Wolves' Den seemed like the place to be early on Friday, with Wuki, Chris Lorenzo, and Valentino Khan heating up the stage in anticipation of a major one-two punch in the form of 3LAU B2B Audien. Their main stage set was the duo's first-ever back-to-back set, but it came across like they've done it a million times before. It made for one of the festival's most talked-about sets on social media, and surely its success bodes well for the prospect of more back-to back-sets from 3LAU and Audien in the months to follow.

Photo by Jake West.

Photo by Jake West.

The highlight of Friday, of course, was Above & Beyond's headlining set. The uplifting trance heavyweights brought out every ounce of energy possible from the audience as they rocked their set. Meanwhile, John Digweed took the Sunken Garden back to the early 2000s with a two-hour set.

Things got started early at the Sunken Garden on Saturday as Above & Beyond's Anjunadeep label took over the stage, bringing out George FitzGerald in the afternoon and closing out the night with Âme's intense, classic live show. Feed Me brought a rare Spor drum-and-bass set to the Labyrinth before Minnesota B@B G Jones brought their signature mix of unrelenting bass onto the grass. The biggest Labyrinth act of the night, of course, was the massive duo of Caspa B2B Rusko who played all sorts of classic dubstep tracks in their hour long night closing set. ODESZA, meanwhile, took closing duties at the Wolves' Den, playing out records from their classic debut album but coming short when it came to new material.

Photo by aLIVE Coverage.

Photo by aLIVE Coverage.

Sunday night was dominated by Bassnectar, who, much like last year, ensured no one could compete with their midnight time slot. That's despite the booking of Eats Everything B2B Skream, two members of the J.E.S.u.S. DJ supergroup that's become a White Isle specialty. For such a large booking, bloghouse mainstay Doorly came through for a raging set at the Upside-Down House that attracted all those old enough to remember. Everyone else made it out for Alison Wonderland, who absolutely slew the main stage.

Allison Wonderland. Photo Credit: aLIVE Coverage.

Allison Wonderland. Photo Credit: aLIVE Coverage.

We don't have much to say about the camping experience, as we didn't partake, but all the praises in the world go out to Camp OG -which has taken on the mission of educating the younger audience about the history of dance music through endless sets of classic tracks. Security was proactive rather than reactive, resulting in record-breaking numbers of arrests. While we never like to see music fans getting in trouble, we'll take arrests over deaths any day.

Overall, Nocturnal Wonderland's 21st incarnation was a big success. It was relaxed and yet turned up, while everyone had fun safely. Insomniac Events' production values and handicraft at converting a festival site into pure magic have been well documented over the years, and they did not disappoint.