Agnes Klos reports back from the festival some regard as the 'little sister' to Tomorrowland
The first festival of the season plays a crucial role: it sets the tone for the rest of the summer, so it's important that it hits the right note. The ninth edition of Extrema Outdoor Belgium (7-9 May), beautifully located around the recreational lake/beach of Kelchterhoef, near Hasselt in the country's northeast, more than achieved that goal, so it comes as no surprise that this year's event has been acclaimed as “the best so far”.
For such a small country, Belgium seems to be a truly unique place when it comes to the quality and sheer number of festivals it produces each year – not least, of course, Tomorrowland, one of the biggest dance music events in the world. Extrema Outdoor itself was actually born in the Netherlands in 1992 – making it, alongside Dance Valley, one of the world's first purely electronic music festivals – but hopped across the border into Belgium (where it's known as XO Belgium for short) in 2011. At that time, it was the only outdoor festival focusing on house and techno in Belgium, and it won the title of Best New European Festival at the European Festival Awards that same year.
In the eight years since then, Extrema has grown from 4,000 visitors to 60,000 over three days, delivering a long weekend filled with the best quality house, tech-house and techno from top national and international artists and DJs. Spread over seven stages and known for its inland beach, with festival-goers dancing barefoot on the sand surrounded by natural elements, fun creative areas and activities, Extrema is truly an experience in its own right.
Extra attractions include a shisha lounge, glow-in-the-dark jellyfish, a massive parade of Mad Max-style vehicles, stilts performers with XO flags, circus acrobats, a great fireshow, head-turning fireworks flying like torpedoes above our heads on the main stage, and a beautiful army of ‘PretVormers’ - a smiley tribe with big animals or robot-like figures attached to them. Whenever they entered an area you could see people’s faces lighting up as they danced joyfully with these weird creatures.
There's even a tattoo studio for any brave souls who wish to make the experience truly unforgettable. No wonder dance music fans flock to these enchanting woodlands and lakeside each year, to immerse themselves in a line-up packed with A-list house and techno names – though the Extrema team try to find a nice balance between the international artists and the local heroes, with at least 50 per cent of the headliners classified as ‘upcoming’ in some way.
Either way, we were spoilt for choice. Even on the Friday, when only four of the seven stages were open, powerful soundsystems were blasting pounding beats from every direction. The Hangar in Distrikt 6 kicked it off with a melodic bang, while on the Desperados Stage next door in Distrikt 3, local hero Thang, from Ghent, got us properly warmed up with his groovy electronic tunes. Shortly afterwards we found ourselves in the mood for some harder sounds, and legendary German DJ/producer Monika Kruse duly obliged, providing us with the techno chills we desired. Our Friday finished off with a monster set from Joyhauser in Distrikt 4, while at the same time ‘Papa Sven’ smashed it on the main stage, Distrikt 5.
Saturday breakfast time delivered a pretty astounding treat - a three-hour set from one of the fastest-rising female stars in techno, Amelie Lens. With her own Exhale stage in Distrikt 2, fans of techno were treated generously, with upcoming talents such as Milo Spykers followed later by established names such as Rødhåd with his deep, melancholic sounds and finished off with a hard, heavy set delivered by Chris Liebing.
Mind you, it was hard to choose between Distrikt 2 and Distrikt 5, because the latter was headlined by heavy-hitters including Nico Morano, Loco Dice, Nic Fanciulli and Stephan Bodzin. Elsewhere, Jungle By Night made a lasting impression in Distrikt 1 with their live trumpets and saxophones, while Distrikt 7 with Anjunadeep hosting was a perfect place to be for the sunset.
New blood arrived on Sunday and the dancefloors became more lively than ever, with the sun shining and summer vibes in the air. Modern day composers Eelke Kleijn and Satori, playing live in Distrikt 1, stole the hearts of their audience while Distrikt 7 was graced by the charms of Dutch producer Kölsch, playing B2B almost the whole day.
This year, immersive stages were designed following the theme ‘a modern traveller’. As a result, we saw a world map as decor in Distrikt 6 where unearthed soulful gems provided the soundtrack, while the Ibiza-themed Distrikt 4 brought us quality meditative, melodic house from Hernan Cattaneo, Adriatique and Tale of Us.
The main stage was blasting at full power as a monstrous crowd gathered for some of the last sets of the festival: from Pan-Pot, Richie Hawtin and, finally, Amelie Lens again, who with her irresistible smile and tears in her eyes said, “Years ago I was dancing in that crowd – now I get to close the main stage!” But it was actually Distrikt 2, designed to represent an enormous boat, that blew us away the most. We sailed away into another galaxy on a tide of relentless techno laid down by the UK's Paula Temple, before being left flabbergasted by the thunderous, earth-shaking Ben Klock. By the end, we were simply speechless!
If you were still hungry for more, there was an official afterparty each night till 3am, so it's doubtful that anyone left unsatisfied. We also discovered the epic Desperados Secret Party, where the Desperados crew ask their customers to share their party dreams and then help them realise their craziest wishes. Graphic designer Yann Laissy (‘Pache’) was behind the theme: guests had to go through a teeny-tiny tent with the Desperados logo, which was the entry to a conceptual tunnel that led them to the enlarged hidden party tent. The surprising “XL-experience” was, we're told, the first worldwide party concept to work with such crowd-sourced ideas.
Driven by a passion for music, people and creativity, XO Belgium focuses on creating a high quality holiday feeling, and lush countryside and a beautiful lake make it an idyllic spot for a summer festival that any self-respected party-goer simply cannot afford to miss. The festival season is officially upon us, and this year’s Extrema Outdoor was definitely one to remember.
Words: Agnes Klos, Gino Van Herp Pics: Leyla Hesna, Thomas
Tags: Extrema Outdoor Belgium, XO Belgium, Monika Kruse, Thang, Joyhauser, Sven Väth, Milo Spykers, Amelie Lends, Exhale, Rødhåd, Chris Liebing, Nico Morano, Nic Fanciulli, Stephan Bodzin, Jungle By Night, Anjunadeep, Eelke Kleijn, Satori, Kölsch, Hernan Cattaneo, Adriatique, Tale of Us, Pan-Pot, Richie Hawtin, Ben Klock, Paula Temple