With HARD’s recent decision to go 21+ leaving me shut out until January, I decided to embark on my first Insomniac experience and attend Nocturnal Wonderland. Arriving at the San Manuel Amphitheatre, I immediately took in the venue’s hilly beauty. Nocturnal has spent years refining its layout and making it more convenient compared to the last few HARD events, which have been migrating from location to location. However, the sound clash caused by the Toyota stage frustrated me immensely. The sound reinforcement of the Labyrinth, Temple of Om, and Sunken Garden all converged on the walk between the three stages, and the Toyota area DJ only added to the sonic chaos in a totally unnecessary way.
On Saturday, L-Vis 1990 opened for J. Phlip, who delivered a top-notch 5 PM set, followed by the tension and release of Mark Knight’s rhythm-centric set. I moved to the Queen’s Grounds to check out Craze, who released a heavy-hitting call-out mixtape right before Nocturnal, and came in with a refreshing set based on tight selection, quality mixing and turntablism that wove together hip-hop and trappy electronic. Despite his distaste for mainstream festival fodder, he gave love to the genre of the moment (future house) by dropping two Jauz tracks back-to-back. After Craze, I stayed for Kiesza, whose voice and free-form choreography had the crowd enthralled at full attention.
The Queen’s Grounds were packed in for Flosstradamus, but I took off to the Sunken Garden, where Alan Fitzpatrick brought it big, wearing a bandana that made him look like Bane as he sleuthed through his set. I skipped out on the beginning of Adam Bayer to check out Deorro, who surprised me with the effectiveness of his set and won me over to the Panda Funk side. Of course I had to return to Adam Beyer, and I stayed through the end of his set into Nicole Moudaber, one of Saturday night’s best. In retrospect, I wish I had stayed the whole time instead of leaving early for Pretty Lights, because Drumcode undoubtedly dominated the Saturday lineup. Still, Pretty Lights was totally worth it, spanning his whole career throughout his set.
Beckwith opened Sunday with a jacking house set filled with fierce rhythms, followed by Justin Jay bringing Dirtybird vibes to the 5 PM slot once again, towing some buddies along to jam on the guitar, and even introducing his own vocals. The Sunday sunset slot slot was the most jam-packed of the weekend, pitting Chris Lorenzo against Eats Everything (who were both phenomenal), but the undercard of the weekend revealed itself when Landis LaPace’s Temple of Om set attracted denizens of festivalgoers walking between the two sets based purely on the insanity of the music he was playing. LaPace, who recently opened for Tchami in Los Angeles, is definitely an act to watch closely.
From there, I headed towards Tensnake, followed by Booka Shade, whose live performance also counts among the best of the weekend. I stopped by Galantis, who underwhelmed compared to the last time I saw them at HARD Day of the Dead last year. Instead of their own tracks, they were dropping into festival tunes like “Deep Down Low”, which is a great song by Valentino Khan, but far from Galantis and their traditional style. Afrojack bored me, but I stuck around to grab food and check out the fireworks ceremony that followed his set. Catching the beginning of Duke Dumont was awesome, before I left to finally catch a Bassnectar set in its entirety. This was a wise decision, and I was rewarded with plentiful bass. The closing slot was another difficult festival decision — Paper Diamond vs. Dusky — but Bassnectar had given me my fill of bassheadedness, leading me to Dusky for a smooth, silky finish to my weekend.
The stage production at the smaller Nocturnal Wonderland stages definitely outclassed the smaller HARD stages, though HARD Summer’s main stage held its own against Nocturnal’s. Still, if this is the difference at a small Insomniac festival, I can’t imagine the difference in stage production between HARD Summer and EDC (which I’m going to next year). Insomniac definitely impressed me, and despite my indifference towards the whole ‘kandi raver’ scene, I will be back for more Insomniac events given their high quality of showmanship.
Best of the weekend: Booka Shade (live), Bassnectar, Nicole Moudaber, Alan Fitzpatrick, Landis LaPace, Dusky