Since 1999, Miami’s Ultra Music Festival has gained a reputation as the world’s premiere dance music festival. With Miami and a week of packed clubs and pool parties as its backdrop, Ultra brought hundreds of thousands of dance music fans around the world together for the biggest event of the year. But with the rise of “EDM”, dance music festivals popping up all around the world, many wondered if Ultra still held the throne – if it had gotten too mainstream, too big, too repetitive? In 2016, the answer to all three is a resounding no.

Before anything else, you can’t talk about Ultra this year without talking about Deadmau5, who was far and away the festival’s MVP. He’s come a long way from bashing the festival four years ago, to this year keeping the entire thing together. On Saturday, rumors swirled that The Prodigy, a highly anticipated act set to play their first US set in 5 years, was forced to cancel. Deadmau5 luckily was around for the save, performing a packed set at the live stage, even working in Prodigy’s classic “Smack My Bitch Up” into his set. And, on the last night, with the Knife Party/Pendulum mash up party (the performance marked Pendulum’s first live band performance since 2011) coming to a close, after a brief guest appearance by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello on the new Atlas Underground track “Battle Sirens”, it was Deadmau5 who was again called upon, this time to take that closer spot and really bring the whole festival to an end with a bang, dropping “Ghosts n’ Stuff” with Rob Swire and Pendulum live, giving the packed main stage a song to sing along too after a bunch of new Knife Party songs and old Pendulum songs that the younger main stage crowd probably didn’t quite get.

Knife Party/Pendulum Full Set:

But, Deadmau5’s most impressive feat came during his set at Armin Van Buuren‘s A State of Trance tent. For a bit of back story, two years ago Deadmau5 tweeted that Armin’s A State of Trance was “as much trance as Nelson Mandela is indie rock”, to which Armin promptly challenged him to “come and play #ASOT700 and show us what real ‘trance’ is”. Since then, everything kind of fizzled out until Deadmau5’s name showed up on the Armin’s ASOT line up. There was a serious buzz around the tent throughout the day – would Deadmau5 “troll” Armin? Would he pull the greatest trance set of all time out of his ass? Would he play a set of nursery rhymes? The possibilities were endless.

What we got, was a masterful one hour set full of deep underground techno, keeping the crowd dancing and happy while barely digging into the standard Deadmau5 bag of tricks. The brilliance of the set was that, afterwards, the crowd wasn’t really sure if they were “trolled” or not. Sure, Deadmau5 opened with an obscure German death metal song, but Deadmau5 later explained it was a nod to a sound engineer from Funktion One who was on site. And yeah, he closed by playing Motorhead‘s “Ace of Spades”, but was he really messing with Armin and the trance kids? Or simply performing a tribute to Motorhead’s recently deceased lead singer Lemmy? Throughout the set, he dropped mostly techno tracks, tracks from DJs like Maceo Plex, Joris Voorn, Pan Pot, and Boris that you would not expect to hear at a Deadmau5 set – or at the ASOT for that matter. He only briefly teased a cappellas like “I Remember” and “Sometimes Things Get Wet, Whatever” over some of these tracks. Finally, about 50 minutes deep, Deadmau5 told the crowd he was ready to play his own stuff, jumping into one of his deeper cuts – “Faxing Berlin” – which hasn’t been played live in several years, to the delight of the Deadmau5 fanboys in the crowd. It was a masterful, weird, and awesome set – did Deadmau5 just try and prove that trance was dead by playing straight techno? Who knows, but post-set, Armin said “Some call it trolling, I call it character. He played a fantastic set”, so I guess that’s one beef squashed.

Deadmau5’s ASOT Set:

[via World Live DJ Sets]

This year’s lineup was extremely diverse. While the Tiestos, Afrojacks, and Hardwells of the world were all still prominently placed, Ultra, like last year, really put some attention into the dance music subgenres. The Resistance stage was amped up with the Arcadia Spider, a giant, animatronic spider which shot fire and smoke out of its eight moving legs. Featuring names like the aforementioned Maceo Plex and Joris Voorn, as well as Jamie Jones, Guy Gerber, Art Department, John Digweed, Sasha, and many more, this was an underground music fan’s dream, a place where you could have spent your entire weekend. On the other end of the spectrum, UMF Radio and UMF World Wide both hosted a lot of bass over the weekend. Between the two stages, names like Marshmello, Yellow Claw, Snails, Brillz, and Jauz could be found, along with a Saturday takeover by Skrillex‘s OWSLA that featured Getter, DJ Sliink, Wiwek, and Mija, among others. The bassheads were definitely covered this year at Ultra.

One set that didn’t get as much attention as it should have was Rabbit In The Moon‘s return to Ultra (and live performances in general) for the first time in several years. One of the most influential live dance music acts of all time, these guys headlined the first two Ultra Music Festivals back when it was on a beach. The American act started off to a pretty sparse crowd which slowly filled up overtime – their name overshadowed by the superstars of today. But Rabbit In The Moon put on one of the greatest acts of the entire weekend, bringing about a dozen stage performers out on stage, performing a tribute to David Bowie with their incredible remix of “Let’s Dance”, as well as a Donald Trump protest which saw videos of the presidential candidate (including one where he repeatedly gets punched in the face from WWE) appear on stage. This set was more like a Broadway show than anything else – lead singer Bunny was consistently changing costume, shooting stuff into the crowd – at one point he took a girl from the crowd and apparently chain-sawed her face while sparks flew into the crowd. It was an incredible performance from these visionary artists.

Arguably the best area for music overall at Ultra was, once again, the Carl Cox tent for the first two days. A mix of perfect sound, mind bending visuals, a covered area in case of rain, and a solid amount of space if you get there early, makes this a techno fan’s dream. It’s also the only real place where the DJs get extended sets, which gives each DJ more time to really get in a groove. The first night saw one of the best sets of the weekend with Loco Dice‘s two-hour affair, which featured pounding beats and slow builds that grew the crowds into a frenzy. He was followed by Carl Cox who, by the time his set start, had filled his crowd far beyond the tent. The second set saw two hours each from legends Richie Hawtin, Marco Carola, and a finale from Cox. Each set just provided dirty beats and perfect sound – almost the opposite of the main stage experience.

Carl Cox Tent Set:

[via Johny 7]

2016 was a great year for Ultra. Besides the cancellation of The Prodigy, which was a major disappointment, everything ran extremely smoothly. The entrance, bathroom, leaving, traffic, and other hassles all seemed to be handled much better than in years past. The lineup was expanded to offer something for everybody. Ultra really has become a dance music haven for absolutely anyone – each area of the festival is big enough, with a solid enough lineup, that it’s worth the admission in its own right. So, to have the options to bounce around and explore new sounds really makes it the best dance music weekend on earth.

Words by Justin Charles, Photos by Andrew Dolan. Full gallery: