If you had told us five years ago that in just a couple of years, Saudi singer Ahmed Saad and Egyptian hitmaker Mohamed Ramadan would perform alongside Dutch DJ Afrojack during a three-day-long electronic music festival in Saudi Arabia, we would have laughed at the sheer absurdity of the idea. You see, parties have long been an underground affair in the Kingdom, where strict adherence to Islam meant that music, although never explicitly illegal, has been frowned upon by religious conservatives. Dancing at a rave could, for the longest time, get you fined or land you in prison. So, you can understand why we could have never concieved a scenario that consisted of Lebanese superstar Nancy Ajram singing a techno-ified version of Ah w Nos with Bosnian-Swedish DJ Salvatore Ganacci behind the decks unfolding in a thousand years, let alone half a decade. But that’s exactly what happened over the weekend, during the third edition of the annual MDLBEAST Soundstorm festival. The event kicked off in the Banban desert on the outskirts of Riyadh on Thursday, and it was, for the lack of a better word, epic.
Initially launched in 2019, the techno extravaganza, which was put on hold in 2020 due to a Coronavirus pandemic-related hiatus came back last year with performances from some of the world’s most top-rated artists across four-days. This year though, organizers opted for a three-day format with a line-up that was the festival’s most diverse performance genre offering yet despite a slimmer structure.
Catering to every kind of music lover, there are seven different stages that offer unique sonic experiences to suit any attendee’s music taste. First, there’s the Guinness World Record-breaking Big Beast, which is the largest stage of them all. Measuring 135.5 feet, the stage welcomed hard-hitting international DJs such as Tiesto, DJ Snake, Swedish House Mafia, R3HAB, DJ Khaled (and friends), Bruno Mars, as well as David Guetta, who said that though he received some criticism for performing in Saudi Arabia, he is very proud of being in the Kingdom. “This is a country that’s young, and the efforts that are being made to make young people happy here are amazing,” he said, “Why would I not be here for that if they want to party? If they want to party, I’m here.” Guetta was one of the most packed sets before the festival brought out its final headliner of day two, Peggy Gou, with streamers and strobes in tow.
Nosebleed beats, mind-altering visuals, and George Lucas-level lasers could also be found at Dance Beast. Throughout the three days, the massive closed tent played host to a spectacular lineup of some of the world’s most celebrated musicians and techno titans, including Steve Aoki, Claptone, Timmy Trumpet, Afrojack, Morten, Dmitri Vegas, and Dish Dash.
And, if “oonts oonts” music isn’t really your thing, there’s Down Beast. The stage, which marks the first time the festival ventures into non-electronic music territory, is dedicated to hip-hop, trap, afrobeats, and RnB lovers, featuring a billing that comprised of Rae Smemmurd, Jorja Smith, and Wiz Kid (though he flaked last minute.) The Down Beast not only brought together some of the biggest international names in music on one stage, but also beloved local talent such as Saudi artists Tamtam and Skinny, as well as Palestinian-Chilean hitmaker Elyanna and Jazzy Spa Sounds, the brainchild of pseudonymous pair Warchief and Chindy.
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Meanwhile, for those who prefer something a little less commercial and mainstream, there’s four different neon-lit Underground stages evoking a nightclub in Berlin with musical lineups that mirrors the underrepresented vibrancy and diversity of Saudi Arabia’s youth, bringing together Cosmicat, Daddybisht, Baloo, Vinylmode, Kayan, and Solskin under one roof. More intimate, the spaces are illuminated with beaming lasers and flashing lights that cause more than their fair share of sensory overload. Sunglasses are highly recommended.
Each stage is connected to the other via an elevated bridge, that is accessible to Premium and VIB (Very Important Beast) ticketholders, and which served as an excellent addition to this year’s festival— especially for those who love EDM but hate large crowds (there were about 600,000 guests recorded in attendance during the three-day festival). The bridge was also a lifesaver for female attendees, who were able to access all of the concerts and performances without the fear of getting sexually harassed or assaulted on the way, an issue that Soundstorm has worked tirelessly over the years to prevent.
The first edition of the music festival saw hundreds of disturbing sexual harassment complaints filed by female attendees, and as a response the festival introduced “Respect & Reset,” an anti-harassment initiative aiming to create a safe and respectable environment for all attendees and making reporting instances of abuse and harassment easier for guests. For this year’s event, organizers took it a step further and installed massive, hard-to-miss signs with a text that said something along the lines of anyone who assaults or harasses another attendee could face prison time in addition to a fine of hundreds of thousands. And, to further ensure that everyone enjoys a seamless and safe festival experience, organizers upgraded their safety and security measures with more than 3,800 security personnel on site, which is an average of one security guard for every 35 attendees. Meanwhile, the whole venue was monitored by more than 300 CCTV cameras.
Elsewhere, for those searching for quick respite from the electronic beats, this year’s festival was punctuated with park-like spaces for a much-needed break, a selection of clothing and cosmetics shops to browse, a glitter pop-up to bedazzle your face, and a number of mouth-watering food options to fulfill any gluttonous needs. The best part about the festival was mostly experienced in the small and thoughtful details: complimentary water bottles in coolers dotted throughout the venue, staff giving out hand sanitizer to guests, a large screen to catch up on the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar so you didn’t miss out on the USA national team getting eliminated from the football tournament.
However, if three days of pounding techno, house, vocals, and minimal beats were not enough for you, then you will certainly relish in the fact that Balad Beast, a two-day music festival, is taking place in Jeddah next week.
Unfolding in conjunction with the second edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival, the success of MDLBEAST’s Soundstorm festival marks a positive development for Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 program, which includes a series of royal decrees spearheaded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that saw the loosening of many restrictions as part of the country’s plan to diversify the economy away from oil.
Soundstorm has set the bar extremely high for what an unforgettable musical experience should look like, and at this point, we’re not so sure if any other music festival could top it. The event was mind-blowing, even if you’re not into EDM (such as myself). No matter what your view on electronic music is, you don’t quite know what production quality means until you visit Soundstorm. It has been dubbed as the “Coachella of the Middle East,” but respectfully, we would have to disagree. It’s a lot cooler.