Three times is a charm for Saudi music festival Soundstorm.
It all started in 2019 and ran for a third time at the weekend, returning with a revamped artist line-up and festival site.
From forays into new genres to landing rare regional appearances by international pop stars, Soundstorm 2022 shows signs of a festival establishing its feet and finding its own voice amid a saturated market.
Here are 10 things we learnt from this year’s event.
1. Bruno Mars finesses the main stage
Bruno Mars brought some welcome levity to the Big Beast stage on Saturday with a sugar rush of a performance.
Backed by brilliant backing band The Hooligans, the US singer elicited immediate smiles and dancing from the crowd with his polished mix of catchy pop and RnB.
With no album to promote, Mars played a greatest hits set — you only realise how many they are once you hear them back-to-back — including 24K Magic, Finesse and Mark Ronson collaboration Uptown Funk.
After two nights of shuddering dance beats, this was the high point of the final day of the festival.
2. DJ Khaled receives a hero’s welcome
For someone so omnipresent in pop music today, witnessing an actual DJ Khaled concert is akin to seeing a unicorn.
The exuberant Palestinian-American hip-hop star and producer put aside his reported fear of flying for a rare concert performance on Friday.
He brought his friends along for the ride (courtesy of a private jet) with a frenetic set featuring fellow hip-hop stars Rick Ross, Busta Rhymes, Future, Fat Joe and T.I..
“I flew 16 hours to be here with my people,” DJ Khaled said on the main Big Beast stage. “So tonight will not go down, but up, in history.”
That momentous occasion was reflected with a sell-out crowd of more than 150,000 savouring the show.
3. A homecoming for Arooj Aftab
Born in Riyadh, acclaimed Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab acknowledged the moment with a sultry performance.
"I am finally here," the singer remarked when taking the Down Beast stage. "I was born here, so this makes me from here".
Mostly basking in silhouette and backed by a duo on double bass and violin, Aftab delivered a sultry set taken from the acclaimed 2021 album Vulture Prince, and a bewitching rendition of Udhero Na, a Grammy Award-nominated track that could land her a second consecutive Grammy for Best Global Music Performance for next year’s ceremony.
4. The big DJs come out to play
Electronic dance music remains at the forefront of Soundstorm and a magnet for the genre’s leading DJs.
Trance music pioneer Tiesto and DJs-turned-pop-stars David Guetta and DJ Snake delivered the goods on the main stage with explosive shows full of fireworks.
It was Afrojack who arguably delivered the best performance of the bunch with an energetic set deftly blending his Big Room sensibilities with some thrilling abrasive tech-house.
5. Arabic pop stars make their voices heard
Credit to Soundstorm for not treating performing Arab pop stars as a novelty.
From Egypt’s Amr Diab to Lebanon’s Nancy Ajram, their sets were an international collaboration with backing DJs such as Dutch-Moroccan R3hab and Bosnian-Swede Salvatore Ganacci. It shows that Arabic pop can comfortably blend with electronic music.
Afrojack took the approach further by playing his remix of Ahmed Saad’s Wasa3 Wasa3 and El Youm El Helw Dah during his Saturday show.
6. Saudi artists stand up to be counted
Local DJs continued to shine at one of the kingdom’s premier music events.
From veteran artists such as DJs Baloo, Vinyl Mode and Omar Basaad to promising talents including singer Tamtam, Saudi Arabia’s vibrant music scene was well represented within the mix.
“We take this responsibility seriously,” Vinyl Mode, real name Mohannad Nassar, told The National before his set.
“The scene is growing in a big way and we all have a role to play in making it grow as artists by working hard at what we do. Like everyone else, we need to earn our place to perform on a big stage such as Soundstorm.”
7. A more dynamic line-up
For Soundstorm to grow, it had to evolve its musical offerings.
With a sizeable number of this year’s artists playing in the last two events, the festival was at risk of being derivative.
Fortunately, this year’s line-up is the best yet due to its expansion into non-electronic music territory.
From British soul music artist Michael Kiwanuka to Palestinian-Chilean Singer Elyanna and Jordanian rock band Autostrad, the Down Beast stage was home to these wonderfully eclectic sounds and, in turn, attracted more diverse audiences to the festival.
8. A better festival experience
Atmosphere as well as the music are the defining marks of a successful festival.
Where Soundstorm excelled in the latter, the on-site activations — particularly in the general admissions area — were left wanting.
With the vast site, in the district of Banban on the outskirts of Riyadh, undergoing a revamp, bottom-tier ticket holders had a lot to enjoy besides the music.
The site was dotted with a number of small stages featuring various dance and acrobatic troupes. Also available were serene picnic spaces, pop-up stalls from fashion brands and a large screen to watch the Fifa World Cup football tournament in Qatar.
Such additions provided an important psychological timeout amid the onslaught of beats and useful meeting points for revellers.
9. Seven stages of wonder
An enduring highlight of Soundstorm is its distinctly designed stages.
From the main Big Beast stage, where the DJ booth is placed in the middle of what resembles a soaring falcon, to the dystopian and neon-lit industrial warehouses of the Underground section (home to harder electronic sounds), each stage creates a world complementing the music played.
With so much to see, the 10-hour days never seem to drag on.
10. Smaller is better
Soundstorm returned this year in a slimmer format with three days instead of four.
This proved to be a wise decision as it allowed the artist line-up to be more dynamic than bloated and overall it was a less gruelling fan experience.
Further additions, such as the elevated walking ramps ferrying crowds (those with premium and top-tier VIB tickets) to all seven stages, indicate that organisers have listened to constructive feedback.
Such choices bode well for the future of what is already an impressive festival.