Armin van Buuren was an EDM juggernaut before that unfathomable acronym existed — not just a superstar DJ, but a specialist in spectacle, known for the kind of laser-flashing theatrics which have come to define the genre’s sudden explosion of the past half-decade.
For a while, he was untouchable — famously winning DJ Mag's influential public poll five times between 2007 and 2012 — serving up unrivalled, high-spec, high-production conceptual live shows while half the current crop of globetrotting DJs were still in school.
Since 2005, van Buuren's arena-sized Armin Only shows have supplemented the Dutchman's typically lengthy club sets with an expanse of strobes, smoke machines, dancers and guest vocalists. His biggest production to date, sixth edition Armin Only Embrace received a high-profile world premiere over two nights at Amsterdam's 17,000-capacity Ziggo Dome, a showy affair which saw the cast of seven guest acts, and eight dancers, stroll the red carpet on May 6 and 7.
This grand unveil kicks off a run which will see the production on the road well into 2017 — but landing early in the UAE; a May 20 show at Dubai’s Meydan only the second international stop.
We were there to get a sneak preview of the opening night, which proved a beguilingly extravagant, five-hour affair, exhausting the senses in its attempts to reconcile van Buuren’s increasingly diverse recorded oeuvre with the length and breadth of his trademark trance DJ sets.
Since finding his first US billboard success with 2013's commercially minded This is What it Feels Like, van Buuren has been ever-expanding his sonic palette, with last year's Embrace LP brashly incorporating everything from jazz to hip-hop to rock acts into the mix. Many of the featured acts have now generously signed up to devote large chunks of the next 18 months for this accompanying world tour.
Things kick off at 11pm with the somewhat incongruous title track, a seven-minute, cinematic welcoming salvo featuring prodigious jazz trumpeter Eric Vloeimans blowing huskily over rising tempos. The mood sufficiently jacked, next up chart-topping rapper Mr Probz takes the mic for opening singalong single Another You.
Then Armin is left alone on the stage — aside from dancers, smoke and mirrors, that is — to pump the crowd with his trademark onslaught of euphoric trance. At key moments, he dials things back down for more guest stars; Cimo Fränkel's banger Strong Ones and Angel Taylor's darker Make it Right roll fairly naturally into the set. BullySongs shines on new single Freefall.
But often these guest slots are less than seamless. By far the warmest welcome comes for Kensington, an established rock band who topped the Dutch album charts with their last album, Rivals, and will headline the Ziggo Dome for three nights in their own right later this year.
These exotic additions do much to attract and endear a casual crowd, but trance-heads might find these conspicuous mood changes serve to interrupt the flow. Van Buuren has stressed that this is not a prepared show, but a DJ set which will evolve from night to night — but there’s only so much spontaneity you can evoke when cueing in a four-piece live rock band. Still, one can’t fault the scope and ambition of an artist who refuses to stand still.
Which is perhaps why most of the guests were dispensed with early, the bulk of the evening set aside for van Buuren to drive the show solo, doing what he does best — playing without interruption, there’s an infectious force to van Buuren’s brand of blissed-out, hand-waving trance.
After four hours, and countless bursts of confetti, the official Armin Only production wrapped in the expected haze of strobes and smoke. But the real highlight came next, when the 39-year-old trailblazer then moved to the centre of the arena for a no-frills, hour-long vinyl set — a relentless return to his harder, purer roots which should serve to satisfy the faithful.
Armin van Buuren's Armin Only Embrace tour comes to Meydan Dubai on May 20, from 8pm. Remaining tickets from Dh499 (including drinks), see www.arminonlydubai.com.
Check our exclusive backstage interview with Armin van Buuren in next week’s Arts&Life.