Imagine Music Festival has grown quite significantly in just three years, from a central Atlanta gathering in Old Fourth Ward Park to a full blown arena festival comparable to EDC or Electric Zoo. The lineups have always been strong, and have done a good job of representing a variety of tastes ranging from psychedelic bass to main stage thump-out bangers. This year was no exception, with an astonishingly good lineup of artists, but where Imagine ran into troubles was with the new venue and massive scale of operations. I want to talk about the good parts and some of the drawbacks of this festival, as it certainly had plenty of both, and both deserve consideration.
I bought my ticket very early for around $80, so I didn’t have to worry about any of the disappointment that a lot of people had after spending hundreds of dollars on tickets, and especially for those in VIP. I never go VIP unless someone else is paying, just on personal policy, but there were some people who paid as much as $5,000 for VIP seats and cabanas. While I personally think that’s ridiculous, I can understand their frustrations when things didn’t exactly match up to their expectations. Even for the general audience, things were frustrating with shade zones being hard to find, and only two water stations on opposite sides of the whole venue, at least until they added a third station on the last day. There were also issues with theft, and a friend of mine got his phone stolen right out of his pocket. I saw very little security at any of the stages, and the whole event felt pretty loosely organized to me.
It’s important to note that I also didn’t camp, and opted to drive the 35 minutes each way back and forth to the festival. As I was mostly sober this entire weekend, and rode with other people with whom I was able to rotate DD responsibilities, there was no reason for me to camp, and I was able to enjoy sleeping in a comfortable bed, taking proper showers, and spending a solid 8-10 hours in air conditioning in between days. For those who camped, I really feel like the heat was a major factor in why they might not have had a good time. Each day, the heat was above 90º by 11AM, and with music going until 3AM each night, it left very few hours for relaxation and rest before the sun began to beat down again.
When I arrived Friday evening, it was already getting dark, and it was honestly quite confusing and disorienting trying to get into Atlanta Motor Speedway. Signage was definitely lacking, and I walked quite far in the wrong direction before figuring out where I needed to go. When I finally was headed in the right direction, I joined a line going in through a single gate. Security was relaxed, and didn’t even check inside my bag, though that might have been because I was media and was allowed to enter through the VIP gate. I have a feeling that it was pretty relaxed for everyone, though. For the first day, only two stages were in operation, and by the time I arrived, it was down to one, just the main stage of the weekend, named Oceania.
When I got inside, Black Tiger Sex Machine was in the middle of their set. They were playing really hype electro, and it was a fun way to kick off the weekend. I really like their music, and have seen them a few times (check out our interview with them when they were last in Atlanta), but it was cool to see them performing with their new helmets this time. Soon to follow was a DJ set by SBCR of The Bloody Beetroots. He played more hype electro house mixed with some grimy dub. At times, he even played some straight rock & roll, while shouting at the crowd from inside a leather jacket and a Venom mask. He kept running around to the front of the stage and seemed to take himself a bit too seriously for my tastes, but the crowd loved his high energy and there was even one fan in a matching mask. I was pouring sweat in a t-shirt, so I have no idea how he was handling life inside that jacket, but I’m not Italian.
Next to the stage was one of my most anticipated acts of the weekend, Caspa b2b Rusko. These guys are pioneers in dubstep and true to form, they played a very fun and wobbly set of UK dub and classic early dubstep bangers. I don’t often see DJs who are having as much pure fun on stage as these two do, and it was refreshing after so much posturing to just see them bouncing around like the silly lads they have always been. Snails kept things rolling on the international dubstep train by bringing his Canadian bouncy style and mixing in some really heavy stuff, too. He played a lot of his hits through the first half of his set, and I was getting a bit bored just because I’ve seen him several times before, but he really surprised me at the end of his set my playing straight metal mixed into the dubstep. I’m waiting for him to move beyond his "vomitstep" sound and give us some new sound design. He’s so talented, so I hope he’s cooking up something fresh in the lab for 2017.
The end of the night was where things started to unwind a bit, and the frays in modern festival culture began to show. Steve Angello played a main stage show full of big room anthems, poppy sing-alongs, and even some weird moments of children’s choirs. He would get on a good house or even trance groove for a few minutes, but then abruptly lose it. It was very frustrating to dance to, and he even had a few drops that were off beat or out of key. The real issue for me was the loss of energy I felt every time he dropped to silence between tracks without a clean transition. When I see a world famous DJ, I want something more than someone just shuffling tracks, and his performance was honestly disappointing. Borgeous was even more frustrating, playing lots of trap bangers, but again with no flow. He seemed incapable of playing more than two songs in sequence without wiping to silence and shouting at the crowd. It was like a tutorial on how to develop attention-deficit disorder and I lost track of the number of times I was ordered to “put my fucking hands up.”
We arrived on Saturday in time to catch Bleep Bloop’s set of grimy bass music at the Amazonia stage. He's become one of my favorite producers for his forward-thinking and constantly interesting compositions that stand out in the world of bass music alongside artists like Sayer and EPROM. He was followed by ill.Gates & KJ Sawka, though I didn't stay long at their set as I didn't find it very interesting. It was presented as live finger drumming by Gates vs Sawka’s sticks on pads, but I found the music, while hard and bass-heavy, to be rather uninteresting and typical of an EDM show. I ended up ducking out early to head over to the main stage.
Back at Oceania (main stage), it was time for Funtcase b2b Cookie Monsta. These guys played a really hard dubstep set, and while I’m normally a fan, I found that it got a bit boring. Maybe it was for anyone front row deep up in the bass, but I stayed back at the back of the crowd trying to catch some shade and rest. The heat was absolutely brutal, and it was still early into day 2, so I didn’t feel like spending all my energy just yet. They were followed by Doctor P who played much more bouncy UK style dubstep, while still mixing in some head from Excision and other US artists.
We left Doctor P’s set early to head all the way back over to Amazonia for G Jones. He played an excellent set of glitchy bass, as he always does, and featured the work of several of his friends including some unreleased EPROM that sounded great. G Jones' good friend Minnesota came on next, and he played a surprising amount of dubstep among his familiar midtempo and trap hits. As soon as Minnesota wrapped up, I headed over to Cazzette who was in the middle of laying down some really groovy house. He held my attention solidly for the first ⅔ of his set, but started to lose me when he switched over to some future bass, trap, and other genres. Again, it wasn’t about the song choices as much as it was his constant drops to silence in between sing-along songs. DJ Hanzel, Dillon Francis’ new deep house alter-ego came on next, but I didn’t catch much of his set. He was a lot of fun from what I did see, with his ridiculous fake German accent and faux mockery of the EDM crowd. It was very silly, and very Dillon indeed. From people who stayed for his whole set, I heard it was great.
Instead of staying for DJ Hanzel, I headed over to Dirtyphonics who were playing really hard trap and dubstep. It was fun, but wasn’t fitting the mood I was in, so I headed back to the main stage to see Showtek. They were EDM incarnate playing lots of really bouncy big room and electro. The lasers on stage were absolutely nuts, and the music was actually pretty fun, but already the crowd was starting to show signs of wear after two hot days, and there were a few people passed out on the grass while muscle-bound bros leapt around in the spaces between them.
Back at the Disco Inferno stage, EDX was playing a set which honestly disappointed me. I felt like with all his arm-waving and smiles at the audience, he was more focused on getting people to like him than on the music, so I quickly left to go check out Pendulum. Pendulum played lots of great drum & bass and pulled in the really heady freaks for their set. I had a great time catching lots of drum & bass sets this weekend, but theirs was one of the best. After dancing to their set for a bit, I got some food from one of the vendors and headed over to Phutureprimitive. I should note at this point that the food vendors were a disaster compared to most festivals. With no food trucks, and only options of carnival food like funnel cakes and corn dogs, pickings were thin. I eventually found one BBQ vendor and got some pulled pork nachos, but these were stadium-vendor-level at best. I would have really liked to see some better options, but my guess is that whatever deal Imagine had with AMS disallowed outside vendors.
Phutureprimitive was playing at the Incendia stage which had fire and steam pouring out of a geodesic dome. It was one of the best stage setups at the festival, and his set was arguably my favorite of the weekend. He played an excellent mix of industrial and organic beats, layering in gothic vocals and lots of trance elements. He’s always excellent, but in the midst of so much EDM hype, it was great to just sit and relax in his music for a while while I ate.
After Phutureprimitive finished (I stayed to the end of his set), I walked over to Adventure Club just in time to catch the tail end of their set. As the stage wound down from their very hyped-up set, things started to get weird again. A helicopter flew low over the crowd and landed amidst a swarm of cop cars behind us. We had no idea what was going on, but based on reports I heard later, I think it was an emergency medical situation. Either that or an artist being flown in, but we never got firm details. We stayed to watch the beginning of Dillon Francis’ set which was absolutely ridiculous party EDM, and then as we left we saw EMS standing around a girl being resuscitated on the ground. The heat and lack of shade combined with substances took a heavy toll on everyone there, but it’s always a shock to see someone in real trouble at a festival.
I was done with the rager crowd, so I packed up my things and walked over the The Disco Biscuits. As if to showcase the choices of the crowd at this festival, while there was at least 10,000 people at Dillon and Zeds Dead, there were probably only about 400 people at The Disco Biscuits. The crowd was so empty that at first I actually thought the show had been canceled. It turned out to be a great thing though, because we got to enjoy a very intimate set with full stage production and no crowd. I heard Zeds Dead put on a really great set, but I was happy to watch all the hippies playing with poi, LED hoops, and I even saw a couple jugglers of lit up balls. I had never seen a full Biscuits set, so it was a real treat. We stayed all the way until the end and then made our way to the camp grounds. It’s worth noting that there was no security to prevent us from getting into camp, so literally anybody could have gone into the camping area, which felt very unsafe, and was also frustrating for everyone who had paid to camp. We hung out with a few friends of ours before walking back to our car and heading home for the night.
We kicked off the sweaty Sunday with Herobust (see our previous interview with him) who played a lot of his normal filthy hybrid trap, mixed in with some old school ATL songs from the early 2000s. He’s from Atlanta but lives in NYC now, so it was nice to see him pay tribute to his hometown while playing a show here. In an attempt to see some locals, I also made sure to stop by Yuki’s set which seemed to be pretty hard trap, and also walked past Arque on the Disco Inferno stage where he was playing a really nice mix of Future Bass.
Over at the Amazonia stage, I made sure to catch Opiuo who played a lot of electro-funk and dub. He certainly wasn’t as good as Griz, but I still enjoyed getting into the mood of the day to his set. I also wanted to check out Spankalicious so we walked over to the Incendia stage where I got to see some of the most amazing fire flow performers I’ve ever witnessed. There was a fire breather, jugglers, hoopers, staff wielders, and even some guys who popped up out of nowhere with tutting skills. The music was great, but seeing those performances as the sun went down was absolutely fantastic.
Just as darkness was settling in, I walked over to SNBRN who started his set with really excellent and smooth house, but started to lose me again as he switched up genres. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs came on next with a solid house set which kept me entertained the whole time. Staying at the Disco Inferno stage, I caught part of Arty who I expected to play trance, but who actually played a load of Big Room House, which seems to be what every trance DJ is doing these days. I personally find this move disappointing, and it’s the reason I didn’t even enjoy Armin Van Buuren’s set when I saw him last October.
I wanted to be sure to catch Delta Heavy, and I’m so glad I did. They played one of the best sets I heard all weekend, perfectly balancing dubstep and drum & bass. I couldn’t stop dancing the whole time, and was pouring sweat by the time their set was over. Bad Company came on next, but they playing just straight drum & bass with a hype man, and I just couldn’t enjoy it as much, so I headed back to Disco Inferno for Thomas Jack.
I’ve seen Thomas Jack a few times, and sometimes he plays very tropical sets, and sometimes he plays more clubby house. I felt this set was a mix of the two vibes, with lots of great tracks, but some boring moments when he’d leave a loop on for a bit longer than I might have liked. I stayed to the end of his set, and then caught a bit of Polish Ambassador who was playing very poppy and chill music at the Amazonia stage. It wasn’t really my thing, but it was nice to relax before heading back over to the main stage.
Back at the Oceania main stage, Borgore was finishing up a set that looked like pure dubstep insanity, and we found our spot in the crowd to see Nero. I had been waiting for years to see them, and was so excited to hear them, but it was honestly underwhelming. It wasn’t a live set, just a DJ set, and there wasn’t really anything to show off real skills. It was just big song after song, played in almost their entirety, and these were all the biggest EDM hits of the last few years without any mashups or surprise remixes. A few points were good, but I expected more.
I stuck around for the first half of Excision. He truly is the dubstep king, and his show was brutal as always, and really fun. He’s one of the few dubstep artists who I can listen to for a complete hour because his mixing skill is so high, and he almost never does a lazy wipe to silence like so many others do. I wanted to be sure to also catch part of Gramatik’s set, so it was time for the final hike back to the opposite side of the arena. Gramatik had a live keyboardist on stage with him, and pulled a much larger crowd than the Disco Biscuits had done. He played a very dubby, bass-heavy set which I enjoyed, but I was so exhausted after a long weekend in the sun that I headed home a little early.
This year was a mix of disappointment in amenities and atmosphere balanced against an excellent lineup of artists and some very impressive stage production. I feel like the Iris crew is trying to compete against EDC and the vacuum left by TomorrowWorld and Counterpoint, but perhaps they tried to run before walking. If they had managed to sell more tickets and provide proper security and water access, things might have been different. I’m hoping that they can learn from their mistakes and provide a better experience, and it’s easy to wonder what this year could have looked like if things had been a bit better planned. Until next year, I suppose we'll just have to imagine.
Photos by Grace Kelly & Lacey Smith for Bullet Music