A House/Techno Fan Goes to Dreamstate (Review)

If you would have asked me who I was most excited for as I was walking into day 1 of Dreamstate, I wouldn’t have had an answer. As somebody who listens to progressive house, deep house and techno, Dreamstate, the biggest American trance only festival, had little I was familiar with. For the first time in years, I did not know the vast majority of the lineup, and it was exciting. Thanks to two generous friends, this house and techno fan was able to go undercover and experience the many shades of trance music for the first time.

The Music:

It should be said from the beginning that my trance knowledge is very small. I didn’t know the newest singles and wasn’t able to sing along to the classics. This, however, did not hold me back from learning a lot about the less-mainstream trance subgenres and enjoying myself to the fullest.

At it’s core, Dreamstate consisted of four trance subgenres: uplifting, tech-trance, psytrance, and bigroom/mainstage. As with any subgenre discussion, these can be divided down, but these four paint an overall picture.

My first impression of tech trance was how similar to techno it is at times. High-bpm, driving tunes with minimal hooks and an abundant amount of energy, tech-trance quickly established itself as my comfort genre. During certain songs, I could have even closed my eyes and been at Resident Advisor’s Underground Stage at Movement Detroit - home sweet home.

Uplifting trance felt like the standard impression of trance that the average electronic music fan holds. Massive chord progressions, multiple arps, female vocals, and enough reverb to slow down a production CPU. I personally had a hard time getting into certain uplifting pieces as they felt a bit generic and cheesy, but all the arms in the air during those euphoric breakdowns let me know I was in the minority with that opinion. That being said, there was one magical moment I shared with my friends where we stood with our arms around each other while Bryan Kearney’s “All Over Again” showered the crowd with uplifting bliss. Our smiles could have been spotted a mile away.

I held off on psytrance until the grand finale of the festival: Ace Ventura into Astrix into Alpha Portal (Ace Ventura & Astrix). Walking into that giant psytrance warehouse for the first time was a jaw dropping experience. Every light in the building was engaged in a staggered, rotating pattern on full brightness while the LED screen showed endless fractals zooming in at a rapid speed. The combination of both of these created a hypnotizing vortex of production that immediately pulled me in. It certainly set the tone for the psy marathon that was about to occur. At its core, psytrance is a producer’s wet dream. At times, there will be nothing but a rolling bassline and a kick, but together they somehow fill the entire frequency spectrum perfectly. Every sound is designed to be bizarre and unique, and reverb is applied very precisely and tastefully. I wish I would have listened to more psytrance at Dreamstate, but depriving myself of it until the end also made the experience much more epic. Astrix easily sits in my top three sets of the festival, and I felt that he performed better on his own than as Alpha Portal. The star studded duo might look to add some sort of live element to their Alpha Portal performances, as their long mixing styles seemed to leave them without much to do with two people behind the decks. This left Astrix to awkwardly reach for his solo cup for a microsip a few dozen times during the set.

I didn’t experience much of the last category of trance, as I’ve been out of love with bigroom styles for some time. Occasionally, when grabbing food, I’d hear a massive banger and its percussive, reverb-slathered lead shaking the air around me, signifying it was time for the crowd to transform into a sea of bouncing hands in the air. Bigroom trance is still alive and well, rocking main stages as the crowd wants them to be rocked.

All that being said, my favorite set goes to Bryan Kearney - a name I had heard before, but didn’t know well. My crew headed over after a fantastic set from Stoneface & Terminal to find a massive line to get in to see Bryan. After weaving our way inside, we were greeted with a packed warehouse nearing capacity, and Bryan slamming out a very sped up “Stay With Me” by Pryda. I was visibly excited as my friend said to me, “HE’S THE KING!” “The king of what?” I asked, which only got a puzzled stare and a response of “KING KEARNEY!” His set proceeded to navigate through a variety of tech and uplifting sounds, and with every change of pace the crowd seemed to go more crazy. The typically frustrating “whoop whoops” were replaced with “BRYAN, BRYAN, BRYAN FUCKING KEARNEY” which had me doubled over laughing the first time it happened. Thankfully, Bryan has already uploaded the recording of his set to Soundcloud, and I plan on revisiting it a few more times.

Venue and Logistics:

Upon entering the NOS Event Center, where Dreamstate was hosted, there is a lovely pond with a fountain surrounded by the only grass at the festival. Trees covered in LED lights illuminate the resting area and create the perfect space to give tired legs a break.

The main stage, otherwise known as The Dream, and Timeless, the smallest stage of the four, sat in tents just past the pond while the remaining two stages, hosting the Psytrance and tech/uplifting sounds, are in pre-existing warehouses that come with the venue rental. It would be odd to call a festival of this size small, but after attending Insomniac’s most massive undertakings, EDC Vegas and Middlelands, Dreamstate almost felt quaint. You could get from one side to the other in only a few minutes and never have to worry about a cross-festival commute causing you to be late to your next planned set.

This quaint feel also brought about my biggest complaint about the festival. Just as their medieval undertaking in Texas struggled with sound bleeding, the crowds at Timeless and The Dream were constantly listening to the other stage’s music. The kicks from Timeless could be heard in the back half of the mainstage, and during breakdowns at Timeless, the bass could be heard booming from the main stage behind you. Friends who had gone in previous years said the layout this year was different, and that it hadn’t been this bad in the past. Hopefully this problem will be remedied at next year’s installment.

The warehouses were fantastic to party in. Insomniac packed them full of production and booming speakers, with plentiful lights and iconic lasers decorating every stage. Sound was spotty, with certain areas acting as bass traps and others being a bit muddy, but putting that much sound inside a warehouse is going to lead to complications. To get into the warehouses, attendees were forced to funnel through a single file queue to ensure the spaces never hit capacity. This made getting inside a popular set tricky, but a little waiting and discomfort is a small price to pay for safety and space during the big sets. Overall, security was friendly and efficient, and I give a big nod to the men and women keeping us safe.

One security manager in particular blew me away as he helped me look for my lost earplugs, got me in touch with the supervisor in charge of the security line I went through, and even poked around in a trashcan in which they could have been thrown. Thank you, Mr. mustached security manager.

The Sequence, the psytrance stage in the back of the festival, played host to a hologram in addition to an absurd amount of lighting. It says a lot about the state of production in 2017 that I can walk into a festival stage and rather calmly think, “Oh neat, there are holograms here.” It was no Eric Prydz presents EPIC 5.0 since the hologram was more of a see-through LED panel in front of the main LED screen and suspended DJ booth, but it looked great regardless.

No matter what stage you were at, you were guaranteed lights, lasers, and encompassing sound. Overall, the warehouse stages were my favorite by a large margin, but an authentic festival experience was given no matter where you ended up.

The Crowd:

The first thing worth discussing about the crowd was their massive support of trance act Above & Beyond. The reason this shocked me was because Above & Beyond weren’t even on the lineup. The amount of Above & Beyond shirts, totems, and general memorabilia was astounding. On top of that, merch present for ABGT 250, Above & Beyond’s recent 2 day camping festival, heavily eclipsed the merch for Dreamstate itself. If somebody hadn’t seen the lineup, the crowd’s overwhelming support would have easily convinced them Above & Beyond was closing out the festival that night. Although my purist-trance loving friends recoiled when I said this to him, it appears that Above & Beyond has total control of the American trance market. At one point the Anjunafam were all simultaneously worked into a frenzy when Alpha 9 played a Sun & Moon mashup. I sat and watched people leap from their resting spots by the pond, sprinting to The Dream to go sing along with the A&B classic.

Above & Beyond obsession aside, the crowd was one that reminded me of my earlier festival days spent at America’s first big cycle of EDM fests. Instead of the more mature, casual crowds I have become used to, the crowd was very much there to rave and rave hard. Kandi bracelets colored the arms of most attendees and there were a lot of outfits that might get you turned away if you tried to get food at a restaurant after the festival. The extracurriculars of choice were apparent as wherever you turned, you’d see dilated pupils. As a result, flow props were everywhere. LED hoops and poi could be seen glowing wherever there was space to perform, and LED glovers enjoyed mystifying entire groups of starry eyed ravers at a time. Even the dance floor massages I hadn’t seen in so long made a comeback as midnight rolled around, bringing the explosive peak to the crowd’s collective adventure.

As always, the further you got from The Dream, which hosted mostly bigroom, the more educated the crowd seemed to be. During the times when the style at The Dream changed, such as during Rank 1 and Paul Van Dyk’s performances, a lot of the crowd seemed lost, unable to figure out when to pump their fists and wondering when the bpm got so fast. That being said, not everybody who looked out of place was clueless about the music. I had a humbling experience while waiting in line for the bathroom when a thuggish looking man, who looked anything but PLUR, explained to a girl why trance was so emotional to him and how it brought a lot of light to his life.

The remaining three stages held diverse music and diverse crowds, with people generally being very friendly and outgoing. Apparently the Trance Fam likes my taste in t-shirts as both my “No Texting On The Dance Floor” shirt on day 1 and my “Eric Prydz” shirt on day 2 both garnered a steady stream of compliments throughout the festival. This is just a small example to show that people at Dreamstate were a loving, kind bunch. If I weren’t with such close friends, I would have felt comfortable having a solo festival experience here, running around and seeing what kind of souls I’d meet.

Overall Dreamstate was a phenomenal experience. I have found myself exploring a bit of trance in addition to my normal progressive house routines since getting home, and there are many new artists on my never-miss list. I don’t know when it will be, but I can’t wait for next time I will get to join the trance fam in a laser lit warehouse.

Thankfully, Austin has some trance offerings right around the corner. Anjunabeats’s Jason Ross, who made his stage hit capacity this year at Dreamstate, will be at Kingdom this upcoming December 8th , and that's just the beginning. See the full trance calendar below:

Dec. 8th - Jason Ross @ Kingdom

Dec. 21st - Gabriel & Dresden (Open To Close) @ Highland

Jan. 13th - Paul Oakenfold @ Kingdom

Feb. 9th - BT @ Kingdom

Mar. 9th - Aly & Fila (5 Hour Set) @ Kingdom

Photo credit: Jake West for Insomniac, all rights reserved.