New Order playing the first night of Ultra seemed like such an inspired choice at the time of announcement. The seminal band that crystallized post-punk, new wave aesthetics, and electronic dance music during the 1980s — pre-dating and influencing so much of the house music that is the basis of Ultra – performed Friday to a small-ish, though dedicated crowd, one which was waiting in great anticipation for a triumphant appearance that unfortunately got off to a slow start.
This is not to suggest that the band, adorned in black, weren’t good: they seemed tight, focused, and relaxed, opening their set at Klipsch Ampitheatre with “Crystal,” and then forging ahead through defining electro-pop tracks such as “Regret,” “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and “True Faith” — each of which sounded incredible, offering pristine, textured electronics and disco rhythms.
New Order frontman Bernard Sumner addressed the sparse crowd in a typically dry mock-confrontational way against the beautiful Miami evening. Audience numbers began to increase as the sun descended. A propulsive bass-heavy version of “Blue Monday” was predictably immense. Finally, the band wrapped up with “Temptation,” transforming a show that at first seemed destined for inconsequentiality into a resilient, dignified success.
Ultra’s new residence at Bayfront Park has enhanced capacity as well as given license to an increased production size. With all of the different areas relatively demarcated and connected by myriad paths, there’s no longer the sense of a big festival in a park; it’s more a collection of independent adjoined arenas, stages, and tents. For instance, the Carl Cox Arena felt very much like a specialist techno environment: a consciously cerebral enclave and antidote to the ambient trance and commercial house that were pervasive. Then there was the main stage – a huge structure flanked with massive digital display panels – sitting imposingly within the Downtown Miami skyline and, for better or worse, representing the spirit and aspiration of the festival.
Richie Hawtin delivered a rare set, moving dexterously between various hybrids of techno. His appearance felt like somewhat of a privilege amidst the techno purism. Dutch DJ Afrojack got a sizeable late-evening crowd. Backed by a verbose hype-man, hypnotic visuals, and an immaculate sound-system, it was easy to be impressed by the overwhelming spectacle and sense of sonic immersion. It all felt quite standard musically, but for a guest appearance by Lil Jon offering up unhinged crunk rhymes and giving Afrojack’s set a feeling of occasion.
Skrillex followed and, for many, his appearance was clearly the most anticipated event of the day. As the countdown to his set began, hundreds of kids rushed to the stage in a way that felt strangely reminiscent of big alt-rock concerts in the late ’90s. Opening with “Breakn’ a Sweat” and then seamlessly transitioning into his biggest hit “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” Skrillex garnered a rapturous response to his combination of bludgeoning mid-range bass and blog-house melody, not to mention the overall sense of character and drama that sets him apart from other dubstep artists. As he dropped in his remix of Avicii’s “Levels” it was clear he was in his element playing on a massive stage to about 60,000 people. He reportedly took off in an alien space ship at the end of his set: a suitable metaphor for his current career trajectory.
I missed said launch to catch Kraftwerk, probably the most influential electronic act of all time. With a much larger crowd than had greeted New Order earlier, the legendary group took the stage through a blanket of darkness and with tangible kinetic intrigue. The meta-narrative explaining the band’s influence has been readily repeated: essentially their distinctive sound of repetitive rhythms, structural precision, and melody has been the sonic blueprint for electronic music since the 1970s. The fact that they were playing the biggest dance music festival in the world, which celebrates a sound they essentially pioneered, was highly apt and imbued their performance with a rich context.
Led by Ralf Hütter, the only remaining member from the original Kraftwerk lineup, the group opened with “Numbers,” and proceeded to weave hypnotically through an eleven-song set from their late 1970s and early 1980s releases. It was an intense multimedia experience with kitsch, binary imagery, and abstract new hope visuals surrounding the four robotic figures.
Of course, such curation in a performance allows for little spontaneity. It was the type of show one must experience, rather than bounce from isolated highlight to isolated highlight. At various points – like during “Computer World” and “Tour de France” – there was a sense of complete synergy of rhythm, melody, and structure. No new material emerged, compelling one to ask, what remains for the band, now in their mid-60s, apart from delivering impeccable sets drawn from albums released years ago? Nevertheless, by treating the past with such reverence, this performance, within the Ultra environment, wholly illustrated their hypnotic influence on the present.
By Mark Pratt