By Rory Winston
Thank God, chaos, serendipity, the Sziget Festival organizers, or [insert your deity of choice] for the maddening marvel that is PJ Harvery. In our genre-aware, over-exposed era, it’s a rare force of nature that can leave a signature on a listener’s soul. Rarer still, the beguiling artist capable of convincing us that we possess a soul in the first place.
And so, a debt of gratitude to Sziget Festival 2017 for celebrating its 25th anniversary to the sound of Harvey, a singer/songwriter whose perpetual evolution is an apt reminder of what it takes for an artist or, for that matter, the festival hosting him/her to thrive.
Sziget Festival has certainly evolved. Bypassing ingénue, country bumpkin and crack whore, this ‘smart is sexy’ week-long International Music Festival held annually in Budapest has gone from the Happy Hungarian hippy she once was to being everything from a punk princess, rock rebel, dancing doll, benevolent bitch, ending as an internationally respected sovereign with her own island. Creating a sonic realm of increasing magnitude and stylistic elasticity, she’s sidestepped a quarter century’s worth of fleeting trends without missing a single groovy beat.
A Quick Recap of 25 years
For a quick recap: by her second year, the precocious Sziget Festival, had blossomed into a debutante, courting international class acts like Blood, Sweat and Tears, Jefferson Starship, and Jethro Tull. By the time she turned four, Iggy Pop, Slash, Sonic Youth, the Prodigy and the Stone Roses were spending the night. By five, she was slumming with Faith No More, Motorhead, Foo Fighters, the Cardigans and even David Bowie. Eclectic, passionate and hungry to experiment, Sziget had an uncanny ability to attract an ever-broader range of talent. From Lou Reed to Placebo, Massive Attack, Franz Ferdinand, Alanis Morissette, Nine Inch Nails, Tool, The Killers, Stone Roses, LMFAO, La Roux, Outkast, Ellie Goulding, Limp Biskit, MØ, Muse, Marina and The Diamonds, Rihanna, Sigur Ross, Sia, Sziget’s love of diversity grew while, nevertheless, always recalling to pay tribute to her country of origin.
With 65 different venues – including ones for theater, circus, dance performances, comedy, jazz, classical music, gourmet foods, fine wines, interactive multicultural events – Sziget has become a destination of choice in her own right, a veritable country to visit where ‘Szitizens’ with faux passports-for-schedules can explore a panoply of arts while indulging in a lively form of cultural and musical bacchanalia. As an oasis from the diurnal (even for bands like Oasis), Sziget makes one forget all that which lies beyond her borders while simultaneously making her guests aware of the changes necessary for society at large.
At least, this had been Sziget until now Sziget 2016. Sziget Festival 2017, however, was different. Something had occurred, something that made our daring diva more cautious, more conservative, more mainstream, even, when it came to some of her choices – especially, if one considers the main stage’s closing acts. It was almost as if Sziget Festival 2017 were suffering from a case of the blues, with little in the way of blues to show for it. Perhaps, it was a mild hangover from 24 awe-inspiring years. But whatever the reason, by the fourth night into her silver anniversary, she seemed headed for an overdose on EDM headliners.
Fixing the Functional
It was then I found out that Sziget Festival had sold 70% of herself to Providence Equity, a US investment firm. Although there had been only a slight drop in the number of attendees (a number that was generally, otherwise, on the rise from year to year), it was clear that the festival was in the process of realigning to new partners. The informality, insouciance, and enduring enthusiasm had slightly dissipated and been replaced with something a bit timid. Whether the new partners had forgotten the adage “don’t fix what isn’t broken,” or whether they felt it’s financial safer to opt for closing sets by DJ’s rather than bands when it comes to headliners, a shift could be felt.
While Steve Aoki, a genuine hit-maker boasting a festival’s worth of collaborators, was savvy enough to optimize the cloistered world of the Telekom stage, the wannabe-boy-band DJ’s, The Chainsmokers took to the main stage. As one of those post-ironic ‘they’re so bad they’re actually quite bad’ artists, the non-dynamic duo of Alex Pall and Andrew Taggard went through their entire wink-wink, nudge-nudge self-consciously dumb EDM set with all the usual assortment of badly timed dance moves and gratuitous middle-fingers. The team renowned for their addled adolescent antics was rapidly aging before our eyes. Not a pretty sight. As loutish lads who once amused the NY Chelsea-based gallery insiders with over-the-top genre-hopping sets that caromed from rock to hard rock to country, hip hop, alternative metal, classical, the Chainsmokers had taken an inside joke to its unnatural conclusion (sic).
In short, they had succumbed to the Peter Principle. Their status label (Interscope) and their fame may have accorded them the main venue but that didn’t guarantee they’d be a good fit. Streamers. Lasers, confetti… the Chainsmokers had more paraphernalia than a parade for astronauts returning from a distant galaxy. Despite this, the show was remarkably forgettable. Their distinctly unsatisfying fusion could easily have been entitled the Laurel and Abbott Show, a show about two straight-men (both in the comic and sexual sense) attempting to perform a camp tour de force without their better halves (Hardy and Costello, respectively). Though Stan and Bud outlasted any single audience member, I imagined a disapproving Costello and Hardy backstage reiterating ‘yup, this is exactly what they’d have looked like without us.’
Swedish DJ’s Outplay US Counterparts
Though I suspected that DJ’s did not for a good match make when it came to Sziget’s main stage, Galantis proved an impressive exception to that rule. In terms of ‘danceability’ and overall musicality, Galantis was more than a surprise – they were a category 4 sonic hurricane, an upset that made me rethink what best suited the main stage. Not only did the songwriter/producer/DJ duo from Sweden out-funk, out-groove and out-play all their American and UK counterparts, but their energy and infectiously good mood spread through the crowd in wave after wave of original tracks. If not for Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis whose final act for the evening followed, I would have concluded that the spirit of Galantis was contagious to a fault. But, alas, the two American guests were adequately vaccinated.
When Genius Falters
Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis proved to be an enormous letdown. With mock-seriousness, Mackelmore followed each of his songs with a paragraph’s worth of pseudo-candid commentary that read like a legal affidavit. Improvising with a sex doll borrowed from an audience member, he allowed the doll to whisper sweet nothings into his ear while he shouted sweet nothings into ours. Content with preaching platitudes to the converted, he went on to lambast Donald Trump, ensuring that the humor for which he was famous showed up neither in his shout-outs nor in his anthemic choice of songs. After receiving some midlevel applause, Mackelmore treated the audience to more in the way of effete soliloquies citing how much he loved refugees while, simultaneously, stating how much he loved Hungary – a country, that, incidentally, barred the former from entering. The fact that he could love both with impunity was a testament to what he loved most, an ever-growing if indiscriminate fan-base.
As for the grand finale of the entire Sziget Festival, the anemic pair, Dmitri Vegas and Like Mike, were chosen for the task. Though Vegas lived up to his moniker by pumping colorful laser lighting with all the subtlety of Fremont Street, the unlikeable Trite Mike (sic) repeated ‘we love Budapest’ shout-outs with the frequency of CNN’s ‘breaking news’ banner. The Belgian duo’s music-to-take-massive-amounts-of-E’s-to felt strained given the more-tipsy-than-high, music-loving crowd.
Major Lazer Doesn’t Rely on Lasers
Besides Galantis, other brilliant main stage shows from DJs included Major Lazer – an act that, paradoxically, relies far less on ‘lasers’ for a noteworthy show than many of the other acts. Though their chart-toppers often depend on featuring artists, Major Lazer gave a stirring performance. Clearly, Diplo along with DJ’s Jillionaire and Walshy Fire are consummate enough musicians to keep Sziget’s massive crowd moving and grooving.
Artistically savvy choices for the main stage included the US-based punk rock duo The Kills, UK’s alt-rock outfit the White Lies and synth-pop duo Hurts, the highly talented mild but not meek singer/songwriter Birdy, as well as the genuinely entertaining and ‘like to have fun and like to smoke weed’ hip hop star Wiz Khalifa.
Phoning It In
More disappointingly, there was the pop-friendly and wholly unthreatening UK rockers Kasabian, and the winner of most lackluster performance of all-time, Iggy Azalea. As an antidote to zeal, Azelia is a beacon of ‘light’ – as in Coke light, Fanta light or any other light where taste is substituted with synthetic fillers low in energy value and high in artificial sweetness. Dialing it in from “down under” (whether from Australia or from her celebrated behind), Azalea gave little in the way of motion or emotion. For those worried about cultural appropriation, legt me reassure you that Azelia has neither soul, groove nor anything remotely hip hop in her presence. What she highlights instead is what Anthony Ray aka Sir Mix A lot back in 1992 described as ‘baby, got back’ – an attribute she’s determined neither to guide nor even dance with but one she offers forth with all the allure of a convict being forced into a cavity search. If charges of cultural-appropriation are warranted, they should be coming from groups like Robots Lives Matter.
When it came to one of the main headliners of the entire festival, Pink, she performed with her usual gumption, defiance and headstrong show-womanship. With fearless aerials and resolve, she captivated the audience, her rock-steady set and nuanced arrangement surpassing expectation. In short, she was everything technology and talent could muster in the form of a world class star. Not so, the festival itself. Unlike Pink, their state-of-the-art equipment retained a sense of unwarranted nostalgia. Case in point: a sadly underwhelming performance by the overwhelming screen in the VIP area which was suffering from a 1970’s syndrome known as ‘delayed broadcast.’ Looking at the screen and hearing the partially muffled sound as it filtered in from the adjacent main stage through the VIP speakers, it was hard to make sense of the fact that Sziget Festival – which had never had similar problems in any of the earlier years I had attended had allowed this to happen and, more importantly, to go on for the full duration of the festival. And though errors of this nature can be ascribed simply to a bad case of beginner’s fuck-ups associated with the new management, it was an odd shortcoming considering the recent American involvement.
Private Moments in a Crowd
As for compelling, moving, haunting and memorable… Well, back to PJ Harvey. As main stage show’s go, Harvey’s managed to pull off what may sound like an oxymoron: intimacy on a massive scale. From the funereal marching band opening through to the ascending dirge that ends the show, the experience is both unforgettable and wholly personal. Transfixing, foreboding, vulnerable, PJ Harvey’s universe is a tensely charged world capable of finding meaning in chaos. There is a romanticism to her astringent moments and hope to be had in the void. With unforgettable chord progressions, shamanistic momentum, rapt melodies that hover tantalizingly overhead and are just as easily abandoned, Harvey’s show is like a Harold Pinter adaptation of a bildungsroman – a reigned-in minimalist presentation of grandiose and effusive emotions. At times, her world is the dimly lit barren hillside that recalls the sunlight that had once formed its unforgiving terrain. At other times, it is a tidal wave of feelings hidden in a sigh. In Harvey’s presence, the main stage was an off-Broadway show for unfiltered emotions, a safe space in which to examine the most personal of memories. It’s hard to imagine anyone capable of delivering more within the given venue.
Contenders for showmanship included: the gloriously unruly Biffy Clyro , the artful and convincing Jamie Cullum whose jazzy show tune crooning had just the right amount of hi hop to create nice hooky moments in otherwise touchy-feely songs. And Birdy whose genuinely soulful rendering of songs have kept her within our orbit throughout her adolescence. Tom Odell still has the feel of a studio singer/songwriter, his exceptionally pretty tone all but buried under a far-more trite emo-glare of feigned intensity and overwrought wanna-be-bad boy demeanor. The strongest of these, however, to hit the main stage was without a doubt, Two Door Cinema . Filled with more verve and jouissance than even their fans had anticipated, the band was in full throttle by the time Do You Want it all? had the audience singing along. Whether pop funk or dreamy rock disco with just enough of an anarchistic jolt to make you forget about their advert-friendly tunes, and the 80’s AOR revisitation, the band made one feel easy and energized all in one go. Not bad for a post-punk indie band from Northern Ireland or for that matter from anywhere.
Sziget Festival’s A 38 Tent Venue
When it came to the festival’s largest indoor venue, the A38 tent, the list was as prodigious as ever. Likewise, each performance was venue-specific in terms of having perfect acoustics, mixing and lighting. GTA, the electro house, hip hop, trap duo hailing from Miami are perfectly-timed artists whose humor, groove, and fusion of sounds make one feel like both an unselfconscious part of a moving organism while provoking a maelstrom of associations. The UK’s industrially edged garage/indie band The Vaccines, had catchy melodies whose execution rippled under our shirts, stroked our cheeks, lifted us to our toes and left us dangling and swaying to the sound. Then, there was Alex Clare.
Entering A38, I was met by a billowing crowd edging closer to the stage. With little idea who the soulful crooner beckoning them with his music, I unwittingly shuffled forward with them. It soon became apparent that although Alex Clare’s sensibility was one of R&B-infused blues with an electro alt-rock arrangement, the underlying feel was one of liturgy. The ever-altering stylistics and tones had an odd sort of integrity. Not desperate on nuance for its own sake, not trying to maintain an artificial sense of purity in terms of genre, Clare was simply sharing an understated spiritual moment. He was a contemporary oracle who neither feigned shamanistic intensity, nor Joe Cocker-like demonic possession. Clare wasn’t selling us on anything – least of all, not on some made-to-order image of himself.
What Clare was doing, instead, was politely going about a form of contemporary prayer and psalms. Comfortably awkward, Clare is a cantor of our post-modern age, one rendering a cosmopolitan intellectual’s version of gospel. Or, perhaps, he’s simply an ancient prophet communicating with a contemporary crowd.
One thing was clear: Hungarians were listening. For the most part, Hungarian are a musically confident lot who trust their own ears and emotions. Like Russians when it comes to all forms of dance (especially ballet), Hungarians won’t be convinced something is good or bad in music simply by reading renowned reviews. Since even the average local enthusiast is – by American Standards – an aficionado (boasting what to us would considered a Music Academy sophomore’s worth of understanding), he/she may read magazines like Pitchfork to discover under-the-radar artists, but will rarely if ever formulate an opinion based on critical reception. While acclaimed critics may help locals to articulate what they already feel, they won’t alter the basic response. The same can’t, unfortunately, be said for a vast number of Americans and Europeans who regularly rely on experts to tell them what’s smart to like in a given genre.
There was a plethora of diverse genres and artists playing at A38: Tycho, a Chemical Brothers for a newer generation; Gus Gus, one more in the way of singularities from the eclectic musical world of Iceland; Vince Staples, the edgy and funky documentarist of a rapper who sets each of his stylistically differing narratives against innovative background beats that mark a total departure from hip hop; DJ Shadow, the mad British space station scientist of DJ that fuses industrial, psychedelic and ambient in a big bang of radiant sounds; DJ Flume, the young Australian father of that airily cinematic breed known as Future Bass; American metal-edged alt rock band Breaking Benjamin; the young nouveau Irish Mods that make up the Strypes whose blues-injected indie rock is a highly punctuated performance of precision, passion and cool; and NY city’s very own post punk pilots of the subdued Interpol (still cool and still without any memorable melodies).
Sziget Festival’s Europe Stage
In terms of memorable surprises from unexpected sources, there were two standouts from the Europe Stage – one being OLIGARKH and the other being Elle Exxe.
Without a doubt, one of the most exciting sounds, moods and grooves to strike the contemporary music scene is the Russian band OLIGARKH, an imaginative powerhouse of genuine moods and sonic nuances, one whose emotional chord progressions and relentless groove leave most dancing, crying, nostalgic and awestruck all at once. Whether OLIGARKH recalls NIN-meets-Hedningarna, Slavic Industrial as it reimagines Peter Gabriel or, simply, the logical culmination of dance, folk and classical music as it unreservedly embraces technology is immaterial. What is clear is a definite sense of dark magic to the approach, an urgency and relevance to each song, an all-encompassing scope to the proceedings.
The soul of OLIGARKH is a young hip hop producer who had early in his career pulled off an organic fusion between Russian urban, folk, religious, Schlager, noise, and just about anything else floating around in St. Petersburg’s colorful cosmopolis of sound. Employing Church bells, balalaikas, shamanistic chants, suburban ghetto grit, pimp-styled barkers, Russian Orthodox chanting, political rants, Siberian winds, howling sounds of nature or simply howling mad media, OLIGARKH is a finely composed symphony of all the confused sounds that surround our daily lives. From incantation to lament to rabble-rousing rhetoric and Russian styled poetry reading, the swell of melodies, beats, rhythms and cries surrounds one like the prayers of a post-modern dervish in full flight. With an unforgettable VJ set to accompany their sonically disturbed and disturbing realm, OLIGARKH is like the history of Russian dance – an art wherein Western, Eastern, classical, folk, modernist, internationalist, elitist, commonplace, primitive, showy and minimalist traditions all collide to form an eclectic universe all its own. OLIGARKH is, for lack of better definition, a cultural oligarch who’s irreverently riffled through the best and worst in culture, in order to shoot it all up for a single moment of timeless pleasure. Defiling the past has never felt quite so good.
Then there is Elle Exxe. Overused as the term has become when describing every second singer/songwriter, Linda Harrison – the voice, brains, and heart – behind Elle Exxe is an ‘Artist’ (with the capital A still intact). With emotional melodies that careen in unforeseeably counterintuitive ways and songs where mood and emotion are capable of caroming off in distinctly opposite directions, Elle Exxe is a discerning audience member’s version of a pop star. Voice; check, emotional range: check, perpetual evolution: I hope enough people check her out in time. Meaning, before she develops at a faster rate than the niche audience necessary to keep pace with her.
As a talent whose sensibilities scrupulously avoid all the usual pop fillers and go-to devices, Elle Exxe is not grist for the mainstream mill. Though she may belt out songs with the élan of a Jessie J, she rarely succumbs to any of the clichés inherent in the genres she traverses. While this may sound like a good thing, it is also a demanding one that demands an equally smart audience. Don’t forget, MØ allowed her audience to follow her from quasi-slapstick punk to smart pop while simultaneously soothing mainstream listeners with contemporary soundscapes and beats. More profoundly, David Bowie had a substantial audience with Space Oddity before diving into the then nebulous regions of Ziggy Stardust. As for Jessie J, the fact that she was discovered by major names before having her own major audience forced her into abandoning all her jazzy and progressive rock inclinations and, sadly, reintroducing herself to the world in an overtly basic pop format.
Though the scheduling of Elle Exxe’s performance couldn’t have been worse – given that it was the first day of the festival with Pink’s show about to begin on the main stage while Exxe was relegated to the Europe stage – Elle Exxe gave the limited number of listeners a full-on grand stadium’s worth of a performance. With the fiery angst of Zola Jesus, the feisty tonal shifts of Angel Olson with the innately dirty timber of a contemporary Marianne Faithfull, the bass-infused world of Elle Exxe is dark poetry, unpolished sex and sparkly snarl in equal measure. Like an adrenaline drenched Paloma Faith, she is punk as only a poet could imagine it, tough as only a smart girl taking on all the mean girls could be, and as in-your-face as she is inscrutable. As ambitious compositions are purposely laid waste by a gritty gutter-vibe, it becomes evident that Elle Exxe is as hard to categorize as an Off-Broadway show where high art is used to articulate the emotional slum we inhabit. With attitude galore, Elle Exxe gives way more live than her online videos convey.
Hungary Represents at Sziget
Other ‘rock sexy bands’ included Hungary’s finest. Among them: Ivan & the Parasol, a Franz Ferdinand/Doors/Basic Pop rock band whose charismatic lead singer writes catchy lyrics in Hungarian, silly ones in English, is a heartthrob in both. Péterfy Bori and the Love Band, a love child of the very gifted Ambrus Tövisházi whose exceptionally quirky music and moody but fun-loving arrangements set a perfect stage for the locally renowned singer/actress, Bori Péterfy. Akkezdet Phiai is a hip hop band with clever, terse poetry for lyrics and music the makes brilliant use of Hungarian folk motifs. Blahalouisiana an indie edged group with some striking melodies, well-honed hipster swag and indie polish. And Fran Palermo, a 70’s edged indie rock band that veered away from Haim’s rhythmic prowess but managed to create a semi-controlled, progressive folk-infused sound with psychedelically laced asides with good looks and an approachable dress style that seems out of a ‘Williamsburg is cool because’ catalogue.
Anything is Better than Safe
Like some teens who recite the names of those they admire, my mind continues to reiterate the magical mantra of those who stood out for me at Sziget, those who went beyond any specific genre and gave 100% of themselves, those who for me would become symbolic of the 2017 festival, those who would like every year I had attended would sign my memory with their presence. Perhaps, it is my need to utter their names that drives me to write articles in the first place. And so I recite my witches spell for Sziget 25: PJ Harvey, OLIGARKH, Galantis, and Elle Exxe. The diversity of this select group, the individual passion of each, and the singular approach all had taken defines what Sziget Festival has always been about for me. After all, festivals thrive not by virtue of their predetermined highlights but by what one recalls the most – regardless, if what one remembers is the good, the bad or– that wholly forgettable beast – the generic.
The Festival’s Silver anniversary proved that Sziget won its name as a brilliant international festival precisely because it did not content itself by playing it safe. Instead, it allowed for mistakes, even if it meant being sorry later. If there is one thing the organizers of this Festival and all Festivals should learn is that, unlike in the world of security and surveillance, when it comes to choosing performers: it is better to be sorry than safe.