Live Review: Sziget Festival 2011 [Hajogyari Island, Hungary] August 10-15, 2011

It’s a great thing when we cover festivals all year all over our home country, and just as soon as we go abroad to a foreign one to do exactly […]

It’s a great thing when we cover festivals all year all over our home country, and just as soon as we go abroad to a foreign one to do exactly the same thing, and we think that we’ve seen everything, we are pleasantly surprised. 385,000 fans, artists from 43 countries, 59 venues: Sziget’s (now in it’s 19th year) many strengths are rooted in its relaxed nature (and at least for our five days here…) the weather is frickin’ sweet – indeed, everything from the press tent to the main stage via the chillout tent (complete with loads of chai tea..) has a “homely”, welcoming attitude and that is why it has become one of Europe’s most popular festivals with around 4,000 people entering the massive Hajogyari island (Sziget translates as Island Festival) everyday.

Sziget_crowd

Enough of the fluffy intro stuff though, our first band of the weekend is a powerhouse – on days of Monday and -1 (Tuesday) we spent most of our time carrying around heavy bags and getting lost trying to find our way from Prague to Budapest and into the fest (via a visit to some incredibly warm and spacious swimming baths in central Buda). Before the five days of music (from August 10 -15), is Prince (in the evening of day 0). Now, we know Prince isn’t exactly the don of all things metal, but he is one of the most important pop figures of our time. His material, including ‘Purple Rain’, ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Kiss’ sound simply epic within this massive setting, whatever you are into, it’s very difficult not to appreciate Prince’s impact on every type of modern music genre from pure glam to electro via rock – okay, it’s mainly ballads in all categories, but we are still going to heartily recommend that you see this man perform (on the very rare occasion that he does…) before you die, or…he goes back to simply being a symbol.

After getting a little sleep in our tent near the picturesque river surrounding the island (a little is pretty good, as it is an arguable point that at many UK festivals our tent would already be on fire, or peed on, or something like that…), we embark on our journey for DAY 1. Our start here is a weird one, We set about touring the various areas created on the island to entertain the thousands in attendance this weekend, these including the suitably chilled Raggae Stage and space (featuring everything from an oxygen tent to a shisha bar), the sports area (where we played table tennis and jumped around on trampolines in the sun…for a bit, ‘coz we are working, obviously. All that aside though, we found a labyrinth (told you…weird). Taking a trip into this rather large (and very winding) structure we take the role of different cards (this scribe is The Chariot, for example), and we are tasked to journey through it, chatting to various prophets and guides along the way until we reach the other side (and a meeting with Death which involves being shut in a black box for about 30 seconds while listening to a poem…not what was expected). Without going into too much detail, it was pretty spooky how the card picked, matched with some life experience – free, and worth a visit if you go, and great for kids as much as adults.

Raggae_tent

After sampling some great Hungarian food including Goulash (a meat and vegatable stew) and Gyros (a proper meaty dish, not unlike [but far more healthy than…] donner kebab meat, we ventured over to see US alt-rockers Rise Against perform. Indeed, their impassioned take on modern rock perfectly suits the diversity (which the organisers seriously do champion), on the Pop-Rock Main Stage this week. Old-school tracks like ‘Saviour’ and the classic ‘Ready To Fall’ meet with new songs like ‘Help Is On The Way’ to perfectly set an uplifting mood for the weekend. There’s a great energy here and the band’s mix of punk and alt influences keeps the crowd moving and motivated before things slow down slightly for Interpol.

This lot (Interpol) are a funny band to examine, not to look at, or within their music, but because they seem to have one of the most frenzied and energetic live fanbases for a modern goth-tinged indie band that we’ve ever seen. The massive space here in Hungary on this colder evening. The influence of Brit legend Morrisey is clear as the band churns through its eerily addictive catalogue; ‘Evil’ and ‘Slow Hands’ of course, standout but other great additions to the set include more recent and progressive material including ‘Success’ and ‘Barricade’ – these tracks act to soothe and warm the capacity crowd as we opt to move indoors (to the A38-wan2 stage) for the more chaotic Bloody Beetroots Death Crew ’77 and their techno-punk sound. Inside here, it’s hot and we mean bloody hot (no pun intended there, mind), and their songs sound blistering in this setting – it’s a no-holds-barred rock-rave for the masses and the tracks; from the pounding ‘Warp 1.9’ to their own ferocious take on Refused’s ‘New Noise’ (the band today features Refused singer Dennis Lyxzen on vocals for this tune), the Beetroots manage to sever any Pendulum comparisons with this live performance. Really, it needs to be said, that they are much faster, and that much more dangerous.

Interpol

Finally for today, we get to witness South Yorkshire’s finest in Pulp. Completely deserving of their headline slot, Jarvis Cocker is a true frontman in every sense of the word. Confident, passionate and proud. He greets the diverse crowd of rockers and indie kids in their native Hungarian, and English and launches into ‘Do You Remember The First Time’ and with added bombast, he leaps around the stage as his band look on, smiling gleefully. It’s not often that a band so rooted in pop culture can transcend genres so well and keep fans of heavy music entertained, but Pulp manage this, seamlessly, if not through the sonic output, through sheer entertainment value. Songs including, ‘Disco 2000’ and the ever-anthemic ‘Common People’ will always incite a mini-riot and unite fans to create one massive, uplifting gathering of people. Top marks.

As DAY 2 commences, we are feeling good. – how could we not, though? The sun is beating down again and we face the prospect of seeing some bands we’ve never experienced. Indeed, one thing we can already say about this place, is that it is more diverse than any other European festival that we’ve been too (that includes the sweltering Exit in Serbia, or the UK’s Download, Sonisphere and Leeds). That is simply because, Sziget pulls the best in unsigned, local and internationally talent from all over the universe, and we ashamedly can’t see everyone playing across the weekend (but we’d like to name-check some bands and artists that we’d love to catch one day including: Dutch electro band Baskerville, Serbia’s Goran Bregovic Wedding And Funeral Band, Senegal’s Cheikh Lo and Manchester’s own Hurts) – we certainly appreciate the maga-talent on offer here. We do however, randomly manage to catch Hungarian electro-pop band FlyJam in the Ambient tent on Wednesday (DAY 3), and they impress greatly with their Nine Inch Nails-influenced commercially-accessible sound.

We digress, though. This afternoon, we check out US pop-punk act Good Charlotte – the band work hard to entertain its young crowd here, with some of their most recognised tracks including ‘The River’, ‘I Just Wanna Live’ and ‘Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous’. Because we are nosey, we can’t help but overhear a few UK and US attendees at the festival laying into GC, talking “smack” and calling them “a band for kids and nothing more…” and such, but we’d like to defend them. See, while their music does mainly communicate to the 16-18 year old age-range, they certainly do have a unique energy and live, they come across truly grateful to be in their position, hitting every note tightly and making the songs sound even bigger here in the heat, than on record, to the delight of those dedicated enough to stick with them. Basically, we are saying don’t dismiss this band, at least until you have seen them perform live.

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Switching gears next we check out Leicester’s own genre-defying Brit rockers Kasabian. This lot take us by surprise as we were not expecting the hi-octane onslaught that we receive in advance of this passionate showing. The mighty ‘Club Foot’ and dirty indie soundscapes of ‘Shoot The Runner’ stand out here as the tracks rock Sziget to its very foundations most easily. For many, at least on record, they are dismissed as a simple indie band, or at least, that’s the case on record. Live however, they come-off as much more; an electronic rock powerhouse that takes influence from the best in 80’s and 90’s British indie music (The Stone Roses, are a great example) and fuses it with dirty electro music that rocks harder than any metal band we’ve ever seen (that includes you, Slayer). Don’t get us wrong, there’s no screaming from anyone, or epic mosh-pits, but there’s some crowd-serving, mass-jumping and a frenzied energy unlike what we have seen so far this weekend on this main pop-rock stage. Nice work, lads.

Kasabian

Excited about the impending Chemical Brothers set, we ready ourselves with some pure chaos and electronic noise with Crystal Castles over on the A38-wan2 stage (the one that looks a but like an aircraft hangar – there’s a slight problem, in that we can’t really see it. It’s rammed. Like, totally – even more packed than it was the last time we were in for Beetroots. Well, we came to party, and fortunately the crowd and band are happy to oblige, so as we bounce around with hundreds of other people to the ever-catchy ‘Baptism’ and get shoved about, we don’t really care. To be fair, it’s not like we totally understand Crystal Castles’ commercial appeal, but then, we don’t really need to; it’s a bit rock, a bit punk, an aesthetically pleasing vocalist (Alice Glass) and a whole load of noise, and we dig it.

Following on, it’s back over to the main stage for The Chemical Brothers and their ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ – in fact, we arrive just in time to get squished in the crowd to this track. It sounds proper epic live and it’s very cool to see rockers and electronic fans alike bouncing around and enjoying the unrivalled atmosphere here at Sziget 2011. Our personal defining track of the set is ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ as it seems to perfectly capture the aforementioned mood perfectly. It’s all about feeling good here in Hungary (and that, really is what the festival’s Roma culture ideal [foreigners, gypsies, travellers and other “free-living” festival-goers are completely free to enjoy themselves via good music, dance and culture from a variety of sources]) is. Following the immense intensity of the Bros performance we retire again to our tent (we’re rock ‘n’ roll press, you know? No fancy hotels for us…no – we wish!) to rest on plastic and stones, and look forward to the ‘morrow (Friday, DAY 3) and more baking heat.

Yep, as we predicted it’s pretty gosh-darn warm when we wake up late on the Wednesday (I [Dom] personally didn’t sleep too well as a number of pesky creatures (mostly likely mosquitoes…I would hope, anyway) had decided to take some of my blood and leave annoying marks for me to scratch at, and moan about to my fellow press counterparts. Pity me…go on. Any ways, we arrive at the Pop-Rock main stage in time to see the delightfully bald Skin and her Skunk Anansie counterparts rock-out. You know, it’s great that Skunk Anansie has the following and respect it does over here, but equally, it’s a shame that the popularity isn’t (arguably) matched at home; by this we mean of course, that over the years, with the over-saturation of alternative bands that have come out of the UK (and Skunk’s own absence from the worldwide scene from 2001 – 2009), some of their following has dwindled. Here though, Skin commands her crowd like subjects in her kingdom. Ever passionate and completely explosive, as her band launches into the career-defining ‘Weak’ and ‘Little Baby Swastika’, Skin dives into the thousands of people in attendance and enjoys being treated like the Queen of Sziget 2011. With their angst-ridden alternative rock and newer anthems like ‘Tear The Place Up’, as a group Skunk’s members definitely put on one of the performances of this weekend, and in doing so get the respect that they deserve from an international audience.

Next up, we change pace a considerable amount and welcome the UK’s “number 1 MC” Dizzee Rascal to the stage, and we have to admit, we really do enjoy it. It’d be nice to see this artist use a full backing band as his sound could really be amped up live, rather than simply having the two MCs rapping over samples. It’s a good show, and the stylish rap verses are complimented by great synth lines on ‘Dance Wiv Me’. As we expected, one of the craziest responses from the crowd this entire weekend was for ‘Bonkers’, and on ‘Sirens’ we particularly enjoyed the Korn sample (from ‘Here To Stay’) where the guitars are used to create mosh-pits and turn this rap show into unadultared rock chaos. Alongside the older material it’s cool to watch Dizzee breakout ‘Bassline’ which features some killer disco elements (compulsory for his manic party tunes) and some nifty drum ‘n’ bass licks. This artist is definitely one of the only MCs that can appeal to fans of heavier genres without having to compromise on his confident rapping style, phat (yeah, we used the ph) synths and bouncing processed beats. Nice, Dizzee, nice.

Dizzee_Rascal

Before sampling some more proper electro madness with The Prod, we head over to the Rock-Metal Stage to sample the emotive progressive rock sounds of Sacremento natives Deftones. It’s great to see so many alternative music fans here at this appropriately-named stage and, it’s equally good to see Chino Moreno so healthy and on fine form producing quality riffs on ‘Minerva’ (dedicated to bassist Chi Cheng who is still in hospital), and bouncing around to ‘Shove It (My Own Summer)’ with that great passion that has led Deftones to become one of the longest lasting modern rock bands to survive the nu-metal era (and tag) from the 90s. Treating their stage at Sziget like a personal playground moving around freely and screaming into the spotlight, Deftones prove themselves to be worth festival headliners, and we hope to see them in this position more over the coming years.

What can we say about The Prodigy that hasn’t already been said? Energetic? Mental? Epic? Frenzied? We’ve heard it all. You really do just have to see this band to believe how good they are. Very worth the hype and very entertaining. One of the best live acts in the world, and probably the best live electronic act in the world? Tracks like ‘Firestarter’ never get old, while ‘Omen’ and ‘World’s On Fire’ allow for the fans in attendance to lose their heads and making expensive international calls to Basement Jaxx to find out exactly where they’ve gone…yeah, we went there. While The Prodigy don’t do that many interviews and not too much is known about them publicly, live the band is definitely driven by fans when it comes to performing live – the members feed off of the crowd. There’s an indescribable energy here that trumps any other pretenders out there who are currently championing crossover music (the amalgamation of rock and electronic/techno music) right now. The Prodigy reigns supreme and they look to be on top of the world for at least another ten years yet. Keep it up, boys.

On DAY 4, after waking (again with the stones…sigh), we set off to the festival’s international media press conference and arrive to find festival organiser Gabor Takacs announce with a smile, that this year, around 77,000 fans per day attended Sziget (translated from the aforementioned 385,000), with around 2,000 Brits visiting. This of course, is a testament to the festival’s global appeal (and perhaps the fact that it has a hugging tent?) that it has united bands, artists and people from around the world and in “forgotten” musical hubs – see Belgium electro-rockers Goose, Poland’s folk maestros Transkapela and Serbian world music stalwarts Kal. Also at the centre of the festival’s success is the passionate promoters who rely strongly on the fans each year to not only pick bands, but also make much-needed changes to the festival structure. The program coordinator Fruzsina Szep comments: “We always have a wishlist of bands, and along with the bigger names that we at Sziget management would love to see, we regularly visit music conventions in various areas to find exciting new bands to invite.

“There is a function on the website where fans can pick bands they would like to see as well, so we look at that, alongside requests from various bands and artists to get the best results possible.” Mr Takacz continues on to look at the process of how changes are made to the way that the festival is structured: “We take a survey each year after the festival and take around 2,500 responses from those in attendance about what could be improved in a range of areas, and then make some key decisions based on that.” There you go – massive festivals and their busy organisers (in Hungary, at least) do care about what you have to say!

Moving on, we are excited to see UK electro-rockers Hadouken! On the Pop-Rock (main) stage. Indeed, this festival maybe their first steps toward a headline slot of their own. With party-ready anthems like ‘Mic Check’ and emotive would-be anthems like ‘House Is Falling’, Hadouken! Is well on its way to achieving similar success to that of contemporaries including The Prodigy and Pendulum. Indeed, the thing that separates Hadouken! (formed in Leeds, don’t ya know?) from the other two examples is their heavier reliance on acoustic instrumentation, making them more of a rock band (just!). Indeed, the band’s skill when it comes to causing excitement is equally as good as The Prodigy’s was from just a few nights previous. The crowd is particularly interested during ‘Turn The Lights Out’ with its massive beats and punkish spiking riffs; similarly vocalist James Smith inspires the crowd to take part in a wall of death (a mean feat given the temperature and time of day!) for a monolithic festival edition of ‘Bombshock’. Mint.

Definitely the biggest surprise of our weekend comes in the form of Kate Nash. Her honest and raw performance is wholly impressive and hard-hitting. Songs like the garage rock-styled ‘I Just Love You More’ are terrifically emotive and soulful in nature, showcasing Nash’s own great multi-instrumental skill, while the all-girl band’s uplifting live version of ‘Doo-Wah-Doo’ is totally fun and completely changes many people’s opinions of the artist. To elaborate, many here may have only heard the radio hit ‘Foundations’ up until now, but with songs like the playful alt-pop of ‘Kiss That Grrrl’ and the heavier cover of ‘My Chinchilla’ by Cub, we see that Nash (and her band) represent so much more. Indeed, the beautiful 24-year-old gains some new fans here, but a highlight comes as a fan (wearing the standard “marry me” shirt) crowd-surfs towards the stage and is subsequently invited up by Nash to watch lovingly (following a nice hug and cheek kiss…score, mate) as she runs through more delightfully stories (the best is ‘Don’t You Want To Share The Guilt’…just go listen) to the delight of a blissful sun-kissed and seriously chilled crowd.

After taking a break from the sun in favour of a drink in the sheltered press area, we get to sample another great Yorkshire export, The Kaiser Chiefs. The band has worked hard to keep up with current trends and their exciting amalgamation of indie and electronic sounds works well to start us off. It’s interesting as well, to observe the spacey-post-rock introduction, showcasing the Chiefs move towards slightly heavier, more alt-rock territory. While many people have spoken of the band’s sometimes over-confident persona in the past, there’s none of that here today. Instead, that undeniable confidence that dominates the Leeds-based band’s material is put to great use and the act come across just as stadium ready as some of the greatest British rock bands throughout history (including The Who) – indeed, there is that tendancy towards mod style in songs like ‘Little Shocks’ (from new record ‘The Future Is Medievil’) as well as catalogue stand-out ‘Every Day I Love You Less And Less’ and the energy (and passion) of vocalist Ricky Wilson who gets into (and stands up in), the crowd for ‘Everything Is Average Nowadays’. Kaiser Chiefs are now making relevant electronic-tinged rock music geared for 2011 and they’ve got the power to change people’s lives with their music, just like in 2008 and before, and that statement is backed up as during ‘Ruby’ (and of course, ‘I Predict A Riot’ every member of the crowd chants “Woah!” in unison.

Kaiser_Chiefs

30 Seconds To Mars fire things up next, headlining the main Pop-Rock stage. And, no matter what anybody says about Jared Leto and his band, nobody can deny that the spectacle is something, well, spectacular. Rocking songs with incredible precision including ‘A Beautiful Lie’ and ‘I’ll Attack’ along with the newer melodic powerhouse that is ‘This Is War’ and ‘A Modern Myth’ performed as a fitting tribute (the chorus repeats “goodbye”) to Amy Winehouse (who was supposed to perform in this slot before news of her tragic death broke internationally). This material is delivered using the boundless energy and drive emanating from each band member – when it’s showtime, the 30STM lads become all about their fans and entertaining them with some seriously affecting alternative rock. As the act plough their set accompanied by video visuals (some from existing band vids, which can be slightly off-putting as we don’t always find our focus on the stage), there is a real sense that we are watching something good that fans at Sziget will remember for years to come – maybe that’s because the band releases red balloons and confetti for onlookers to play with (like any credible stadium rock act should, really), it could be the uplifting song lyrics about self-belief and never giving up, OR it could be the fact that various “freaks” from the crowd are invited up on-stage with Leto and co, for the final song ‘Kings & Queens’. In terms of pure entertainment value, this is without doubt one of the best shows of the entire weekend.

Before long, we’re on the last day of Sziget (DAY 5) and watching gypsy punk masterminds Gogol Bordello take everything Sziget is about (remember…passion, diversity and freedom) and convert it into a musical form and shove it back out to the people. With a great mixture of instruments: a violin and accordion stand-out for us and are used to great effect. The immense hype that seems to permanently surround Eugene Hutz and his band nowadays is totally justified here and the excitement created gives way to a sort of “controlled frenzy”. The mood here, on the whole is totally infectious – Gogol is clearly “the people’s band” here and for them it must feel like a homecoming of sorts. There’s nothing pretty or fancy here, just pure and fun gypsy punk in the form of fun-lovin’ tracks like ‘Wonderlust King’ and the delightfully riotous ‘My Companjera’. The great thing that you’ll take away from the experience of watching Bordello in action is how important it is to simply enjoy live music and, to have good people around when you do it. Gogol seems to be a family made up of excellent musicians from a range of cultures and backgrounds; a bunch of immigrants playing light-hearted punk music with Eastern European influences. They are the only world-renowned gypsy punk band in recent memory and what they do, they do so very well – it’s truly unique and innovative on record and out live, where the crowd can see just how good each musician is, it’s even better, because the band’s ability to interact with its audience and create a positive atmosphere is second-to-none.

Gogol_Bordello

As our time at Sziget sadly draws to a close we bear witness to iconic Welsh rockers Manic Street Preachers who seem reinvigorated following the release of their last studio album (from 2010) ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ Tonight they play a mix of their more commercial pop material including ‘A Design For Life’ alongside their earlier punk stuff including ‘You Love Us’, the ferocious ‘Faster’ and ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’; ‘Motown Junk’ remains a favourite for us, though. Indeed, the older material to come from the Manic’s back-catalogue is still the best in our opinion, but the newer work (particularly the western-styled ‘It’s Not War (Just The End Of Love)’ definitely shows that the band have a renewed energy about them. While we have to miss the soulful dark pop of White Lies in order to catch a coach and follow-up flight home, we are more than happy to end our weekend with the Manics who rock through their now extensive back-catalogue including ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ – much like U2 they don’t really need to change things up too much, and while we don’t expect MSP to be making a electronic record any time soon, we appreciate their legacy, and if I ain’t broke, as they say, don’t fix it.

So, Sziget, it’s been amazing. Looking back now, you have offered us a truly unique experience and we feel like we’ve had the best in arts and culture (a special mention needs to go to the members of German theatre group Pan.Optikum for their breathtaking movement-based production incorporating many philosophical and religious themes to make us ask questions about our status on this earth.) ‘TRANSITion’ ran all week long during the festival, each evening and it features/ed experiments in sound and visuals as well as assorted awesome pirotechnics! Indeed, we must applaud the great effort of the festival to accomodate all types of people, as a former wheelchair user, I was particularly impressed with the ability park where members of the general public  and disabled people alike can take on various fun-style challenges (like being blindfolded and manouvering around a space or, playing wheelchair volleyball to see what it’s like to live each day with a condition like blindness or, mobility issues – this awareness on the part of organisers is un-matched elsewhere to our knowledge). In summary, we have had the time of our collective life here in Hungary with staff and fellow festival goers being incredibly accomodating and friendly. If you fancy going next year, then a week-long ticket (7 days!) with camping is €200 (175 pounds), day tickets are €45 (40 pounds) and we can heatily recommend this gathering for its quality line-up each year, great atmosphere and varied activities. Thank you for having us. We will be seeing you next year!

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For more information visit the official Sziget Festival website for the UK.

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