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“The best experience”: UNTOLD 2023 shows why it’s one of Europe's favourite festivals

With giant-scale production, immersive stages, and diverse music for everyone, this year’s celebration was a showpiece event for Romania’s electronic music scene

  • 15 August 2023

It’s approaching 8:AM on Monday morning in the Cluj Arena, an expansive, modern stadium usually reserved as the home of FC Universitatea Cluj. But instead of watching the local team kick off in a Romanian Liga I fixture, the grass has been rolled out from the pitch, turning it into a 70,000-capacity dancefloor, as thousands raise their hands in the air, pumping them with joy to the final trappings of Armin van Buuren’s five-hour epic closing set of UNTOLD Festival.

Taking to the Main Stage decks at 3:AM with no scheduled cut-off time, just after David Guetta played a slew of his biggest hits and fresh pop edits, the Dutch trance master has already etched himself into the stadium’s folklore, having played a marathon eight hours previously at the 2019 edition. With this year being the first time he has returned to UNTOLD since then, much of the festival chatter has focused on how long he will go on for.

“We’ll see, I don’t think I’m going to play eight hours – everybody’s been asking me but I think it should not be about the length, it should be about the connection with the crowd,” Armin says to Mixmag just before going on, with a glint in his eye. “There’s so many endorphins releasing into your brain when you feel that connection to the people, when you hear the music, and you feel the love and I really feel appreciated here.”

And all the way until the end, with a rendition of his 2018 hit ‘Blah Blah Blah’ – via live singalongs with Sam Martin, and of course plenty of soaring trance – that connection between crowd and DJ reverberates around the stadium, and could be felt from the floor to the terraces.

“I’d like to say trance music has more of a connection with people in Eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania,” Armin says. “I’ve been coming here a lot and I just feel like people here are more ready for that melodic element – it feels amazing, like coming home and I’m thankful to be back.”

Armin’s set was just one of the several moments of this past weekend, where that sprinkling of festival magic could be felt in the air. It was UNTOLD’s eighth and most ambitious edition to date. Set in Cluj-Napoca, in the Northwest of Romania, each of the four nights attracted comfortably over 100,000 partygoers – packing out each of the festival’s eight main stages, while showing why the event has quickly become Romania’s biggest, and one of Europe’s most important musical celebrations.

I arrive on Thursday evening to a festival already in full swing. With most festivals around the world, this tends to be a day of warming up and easing into the festival environment. Not at UNTOLD though – by 10:PM the festival already buzzing, with the stages filled and a slew of big-name acts playing across them. Brazilian EDM superstar Alok performs at the festival’s opening ceremony, with fire and fireworks aplomb. Meanwhile Kasia brings melodic techno stompers to the Galaxy Stage, before the fast-paced energy of Amelie Lens takes the crowd deep into the early hours of the morning.

“I was actually worrying about it [before], like having my set at 10:PM on Thursday,” Kasia says afterwards. “But no – it was fully packed and I am super grateful for that. The music and the people make [UNTOLD] the best experience, it’s like a family here.”

Keeping with the sporting theme, the Galaxy Stage is set in a giant indoor sports hall across from the stadium, where local teams play hockey and basketball. Focusing predominantly on the sounds of four-to-the-floor house and techno, there’s performances across the weekend from the likes of chart hitters CamelPhat and Tale of Us, while also featuring local Romanian underground sounds of Sublee, Priku, SIT and Mihigh.

“When I started playing, I was like: ‘Whoa, there’s a lot of people there,’ it scared me a bit,” Sublee says after his dubby, spacey set on Friday evening got the crowd moving, gradually building into a frenzy of twisting keys and driving kicks. “But the crowd was with me and they helped me a lot with my set actually, to move it forwards. And at UNTOLD Festival where there are a lot of people coming together, it’s good for the underground people, getting the recognition that we should.”

Priku, who played a masterful, deep set on Saturday night, splashed with hefty basslines and tight grooves, has similar thoughts. “It’s special, and it’s also like you’re at home,” he says afterwards. “[The crowd is very nice], I’ve been playing a lot in Cluj, since forever. I love it, it’s definitely one of my favourite cities in Romania.”

On top of the two main stages, the festival’s site is wild. With the gates set a short walk from the centre of Cluj-Napoca’s Old Town, it’s a remarkable feat that the music goes until at least 7:AM each night, with the transformation of the area surrounding the stadium a creative and stunning use of public urban space. “UNTOLD has always been here, it’s grown a bit bigger year by year,” says Razvan Luca, who works on UNTOLD’s management team, as well as the former Creative Director of the festival and Head of Architecture. “It’s in the city with all the facilities in place – you have a stadium, you have a hall, and you have a park which is very nice and gives you a festival atmosphere. So it’s got a city festival vibe, but can also go on until the early hours of the morning like an out of city festival.”

The production across the whole site is also excellent. With this year’s theme being ‘The Light Phoenix’, the team behind the festival have built an immersive playground with its design, as well as costumed dancers and performers wandering up and down the main pathways – drawing gasps and camera phones from passers-by. “It’s part of the very core of what we do,” Razvan explains. “Music is one, but we want to get people into a mood that is out of their daily lives, so we decided to do [the themes], because we also love a lot of fantasy stories and stuff like that. A lot of stories are from Romanian folklore – you find the phoenix in the lore – we take these stories and make them appealing to an international audience.”

And that extends to the music as well. Intricate, psychedelic set design is paired with powerful soundsystems and wild lighting displays. Each stage has its own musical palette, with the melodic, Balearic house and techno of the wooded Daydreaming stage a consistent highlight, with particular standout moments from the likes of Guy J and Iranian-American Dubfire.

Elsewhere, the Alchemy Stage is dominated by trap and bass stage, headlined by Borgore on Thursday night, while there’s also the tech-house sounds of the Time Stage. The Fortune Stage sees big room trance blare from the façade of former casino designed like a Roman pavilion, and there’s a party on rails at the Tram Stage. There’s something for a lot of people, and the huge numbers moving through the gates each day is testament to their work.

“We worked really hard to make it as eclectic as possible from the first year,” Razvan explains. “So you have [the Main Stage] which is really good for bands and live acts, but then other genres that are trending – here in Romania we have a huge following for techno, there was a huge following for drum ‘n’ bass, dubstep that evolved into the trap stage now, and we have the trance stage that has a small but powerful community. So it was basically a lot of ingredients so we can get enough people to make it such a huge event.”

The daytimes and early evenings see the festival’s production come to life, with the various activities for children and warm up music providing plenty to see and do. Meanwhile the Main Stage hosts some of the world’s biggest names in pop and rock, filling out to the likes of Years & Years and Imagine Dragons, with plenty of families packing out its seating areas and the stadium floor, before transforming as the cover of night comes in.

“We don’t want it to be just an electronic festival,” says Razvan. “We want people to experience this – people who come see a live band like Imagine Dragons, then they will see someone like Salvatore Gannacci or Alesso, so they are like ‘whoa, this is so interesting – I feel like I’m in a club, I feel like I’m in a club.’ Then they go to Time or Daydreaming and expand their musical experience.”

And all of that positivity is reflected in the crowd, who across the weekend are open, friendly and totally there for it. “We are Romanians and we know how to party,” Razvan says, with a wry smile. “People from outside Romania, they come here and they know that we’re going to have a huge, huge time. And it’s a crowd that is extremely friendly and when they like what happens – it’s crazy.

“It’s been a roller coaster ride, to be honest,” he continues, reflecting on UNTOLD’s journey since the start. “From 2015, we went right to the top and managed to surpass expectations for festivalgoers until 2019, so it was an ascending ride for us and then everything happened with COVID. So we had a few strange years but now we can say again that we are ascending to whatever heights we can reach so we are very happy that we manage to surprise the public each year and get their vote of confidence to come and have the best time of their lives.”

Isaac Muk is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter

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