The show was the finale of Ultra’s big comeback in downtown Miami — where the festival returned this year after a much-maligned 2019 outing at Miami’s Virginia Key — but it was only the beginning of a new chapter for the Dutch hitmaker.
“Looking in the mirror staring at my own reflection, what do I see?” Hardwell said in a recorded intro. “Let me show you who I truly am.”
Of course, a big Hardwell return would be no simple affair. He gave us high drama, theatrics, misdirection and, for some reason, a sort of hard to understand sci-fi subplot. Did it all work? It did.
While Hardwell’s set had not been officially announced, with his name blurred out on the lineup poster, Billboard revealed he’d be headlining a week before the festival started.
Still, anticipation was high as tens of thousands of fans gathered under the starry sky to see who would appear on the massive stage, where French star David Guetta had just wrapped a pop-fueled performance that included an appearance from Joel Corry. Suddenly, the stage erupted in smoke and sound. Three white circles appeared on the giant LED screens, while the big banners on the left and right simply read “Swedish House Mafia.”
Cries of surprise, shock and confusion spread through the crowd. Had it all been a guise? Were the superstar trio really about to stage their big comeback on the Ultra main stage, as they had four years earlier?
In fact it was a tease in the form of an advertisement for the supergroup’s soon-to-be-released debut album Paradise Again, delivered with a promise that SHM will be Ultra’s main-stage headliners during next year’s festival, March 24-26, 2023.
Good-natured laughter followed from wide-eyed ravers, eager to get on with the real show. They didn’t have to wait long. A few moments later, the stage came to life in dark blue and blinding white sparks. A clock ticked heavy over the speakers, as Hardwell’s voice boomed in vulnerable tones.
“Am I living the dream, or am I the prisoner of my own creations?” his recorded voice asked. “Sometimes I feel pressured by expectations because society profits from our self doubts. Being true to yourself is a challenging act, why should I follow the rules? Aren’t rules meant for people who don’t know what to do?”
The monologue touched deep at the heart of Hardwell’s story. Breaking out in 2011 with the international hit “Spaceman,” the Dutch producer born Robbert van de Corput quickly became a leading face of the nascent EDM movement. His signature brand of hard-hitting drums, razor-blade synth lines and intense build-drop formulas helped define the “big room” sound of the 2010s.
His popularity as a leader of the scene helped him launch careers and solidify his own, while — like it did for so many DJs — a relentless touring schedule took a silent mental toll. He announced an indefinite hiatus in September 2018, citing a desire to spend more quality time with family and rediscover inspiration in the studio.
Spoiler alert: He found it.
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change, I am changing the things I cannot accept,” Hardwell said in his intro recording. “The world made me what I was, but my faith made me what I am today. Now you have your opinion, but let’s be honest; your opinion of me does not define who I am. Because I know what you want me to be. Now, I’m gonna show you who I truly am.”
Flashes of red light covered the stage from all corners as Hardwell dove head-first into his new sound: hard, dark and pulsating techno. For the next hour, he finessed a steady, hard-hitting beat, delivering a set that was 75 percent thundering kick drum, weaving in little hints of the hallmarks that were his past. A synth tease of “Spaceman” here, a touch of the vocals from Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” there.
It was a powerful performance packed with pyro, lasers and all the standard big show mayhem, and was surely something not entirely typical for the UMF main stage, but if we’re being honest, it was also not all that surprising.
Just 15 minutes away from Ultra’s main stage is the festival’s Resistance stage, which attracts hordes of dance music lovers well-versed in the pounding blackness that is the hard techno. Over the last few years, Ultra promoters and festival organizers worldwide have responded to the “maturing” tastes among ravers who’ve aged out of EDM and into sidestage genres by booking more of these acts. “Underground” sounds of house, tech house and techno are no longer underground, and Hardwell, honest as his personal and sonic evolution may be, is simply responding to the changing tastes of the international scene.
Trap and bass king Carnage recently made a career shift to focus on a more “elevated” style of house mixed with his Latin cultural roots. Diplo, king of diversity in style on the decks, has also put most of his weight behind the cooler house scene, launching his new record label and party series Higher Ground, which saw two events during the larger Miami Music Week.
Hardwell’s time away from the spotlight gave him space to explore his own inspirations and influences. Fans on social media noted that Hardwell’s sound has always been quite progressive and varied, arguing that you can hear the forebears of this sonic twist in earlier releases. Still, if you were going to rebrand yourself as a harder, darker producer, now is certainly the right time.
What’s to come of this new approach remains to be seen. A forthcoming Hardwell world tour has already been announced, and we’re sure some of the numerous IDs played during Sunday’s set are well on their way, including a funny little ditty now being called “Pacman” that features lyrics about kids listening to repetitive electronic music and “munching pills,” much like the namesake video game character.
As for claims, which some fans have made on Twitter since the show, that Hardwell will singlehandedly re-educate the main-stage masses about techno or change the landscape of EDM? We think house and techno legend Carl Cox and the success of his 21-year-old Ultra stage kind of speaks for itself, but if anyone is capable of delivering a fully main-stage iteration of this sound, on Sunday night, Hardwell proved he’s up to the task.