The Soundstorm festival in Riyadh continues to rack up the distinctions.
In addition to landing the Guinness World Record for the tallest stage as part of its inaugural 2019 event and to placing the kingdom firmly on the live music touring map, the mammoth four-day gathering achieved what arguably no other popular Middle Eastern music festival could: it made Arab pop-superstar Elissa a footnote to the proceedings.
Such is the all-star line-up of more than 150 leading DJs – including Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren and Carl Cox – the Lebanese show-stopper’s presence was relatively muted, amid all the electronic music fire power on display during a blockbuster opening day on Thursday that welcomed up to 180,000 people, according to organisers.
“Elissa was here?” Waleed Al Awad, 27, said as he strolled to the Big Beast main stage in time for R3hab’s set. “Man, I didn’t know. There is so much going on that I really can’t keep up.”
The life-long "Riyadh-awi" could be referring to the festival’s all out sensory assault as much as the changes sweeping through the Saudi capital’s entertainment and leisure sector.
Soundstorm is part of the 7,000 events taking place under the Riyadh Season banner, running until March 2022. “Am I surprised by what has happened here in my city and Saudi Arabia? I would only say ‘yes’ in terms of how quick it has been,” Al Awad says.
“But I am not surprised in the reaction of the people. Look at everyone here, we are acting like this has always been part of our lives.
“That is because Saudi youth know what is going on. A lot of us travel the world and attend festivals like this in Europe and the US. Now we don’t have to. Even if this Soundstorm is not as over-the-top as 2019, it is still fantastic and I will be here for all four days.”
A maturing music scene
Al Awad’s comments are more an observation than a criticism.
Where the 2019 event, formally known as MDL Beast, was all shock and awe with its gargantuan 38-meter-high mainstage and a dream artist line-up that made Belgium’s Tomorrowland festival seem like yesterday’s news, the 2021 version exhibits all the signs of a maturing festival and electronic music scene.
After all, you can’t separate one from the other.
While Saudi Arabia has been hosting EDM concerts since 2018, it was the 2019 MDL Beast festival that laid the foundations for the community to really take shape.
The historic event had a catalytic effect, with the festival’s parent company, also called MDL Beast, going on to launch a record label featuring Saudi artists, as well as the XP Music conference, which connected the local music scene with industry leaders for three days of discussions and workshops.
All that work is bearing fruit. Soundstorm is no longer relying on bells and whistles – although all six stages remain spectacular in scale and design – to hold the attention of its audience, but rather offering a well curated line-up spanning mainstream and independent artists.
All stages were well attended throughout the first day.
The Dance Beast stage, resembling an airport hangar, was packed with fans pogoing to the heaving house beats of US spinner ACraze.
A 10-minute walk away, amid a well-lit concourse home to dozens of food stalls, featuring everything from shawarmas and pizzas to Amsterdam style fries (with satay sauce and mayonnaise) is the Underground – a complex of three subterranean looking stages built from industrial crates.
This is the place to experience the ebullient and sometimes uncompromising sounds of techno and tech-house, best exemplified through standout performances from Germany’s Claptone and Hosh.
You can’t stop the movement
Which brings us back to the festival’s nerve centre, the Big Beast stage.
Where the 2019 version had star acts performing from a towering edifice that looked like it was carved out of a mountain, a new design reflects a festival taking flight.
Throughout the night, artists such as the Swedish duo Axwell and Ingrosso and recent Abu Dhabi Formula One headliner DJ Snake performed in the middle of a falcon’s wings.
The backdrop worked, as Big Beast is the place to hear the soaring anthems that made EDM the new pop music, with thousands singing along to festival staples such as Swedish House Mafia's Don't You Worry Child and Avicii’s Levels, played by Axwell and Ingrosso and Tiesto respectively.
Watching Tiesto's set were Syria’s Kinan Khalid, 28, and Lubna Ali, 29. “I am a civil engineer,” Khalid says. “The music is great but I am so amazed by the constructions of the stage and the event. I know this was set up relatively quickly so it’s just impressive to see how it came together.”
Wearing a shirt emblazoned with illuminating headphones, Ali was clear about her reasons for coming to Soundstorm.
“We didn’t have entertainment in Riyadh for such a long time and I feel now that we are in a movement that we can’t go back from,” she says.
“This was a long time coming and all that we needed was that final push and here we are. The fact that this all looks so easy and natural shows that we have always been ready for this.”
Soundstorm runs until December 19 in a purpose-built location in Banban, Riyadh. Tickets are from 399 Saudi riyals ($106), which includes a shuttle bus from various locations in Riyadh. Doors open from 3pm. More information is available at mdlbeast.com