By Rory Winston (Photographs by: Rockstar Photographers)
Echoing the zeitgeist, the feeling evoked by the city of Budapest and the mood of the nearly half-million passport carrying ‘szitizens’ of Sziget Festival 2016, one voice stood out seemingly capturing it all. The singularly incandescent sound shuddered its way through the audience carrying with it the familiar but evocative cry: “Shine bright like a diamond.” No. The voice did not belong to Rihanna, the gyrating megastar who had just days earlier jived and jabbered about on the same main stage to ovations; rather, it was the vulnerable soulful sound of the inimitable artist, Sia (Sia Furller) who – together with producers Benny Blanco and Stargate – had penned the chart-topping tune Diamonds. Reiterating the self-generated sentiment of our post-ironic age, she belted out “I choose to be happy” while several thousand gaping mouths merrily concurred.
In truth, Sia’s show was a watershed for large venue performances – one that will undoubtedly become the new benchmark in ‘how to’ when it comes to dazzling festival audiences. Hidden behind her iconic window-curtain of a two-toned wig with oversized bow, Sia stood unobtrusively stage right while her leotard clad alter-ego – played by a top ranking modern dancer – in the company of several brilliant mimes, articulated her vision in a highly entertaining cross between installation art, performance art and modern dance choreography à la Ryan Heffington. Relying on large screens, laser lighting and smart stage sets and costumes, Sia reconciled the world of pop music with something that would otherwise have felt as remote as Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. Singing Cheap Thrills (presently #1 on Billboard Hot 100) along with classics like Breathe Me, Sia’s multi-layered performance is a keen reminder of why she is the mastermind behind songs for Beyonce, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Christine Aguilera, Jessie J, Will Young, Kelly Clarkson, Kate Pierson, Kylie Minogue, Gwen Stefani, Shakira, Neon Hitch, and, among many others, of course, Rihanna. So whether or not you acknowledge her as one of the most innovative forces in pop today, it is more than likely that Sia is already the hidden voice behind one of your favorite hits. As a festival that prides itself in being a cross between Art and Music, Sziget did well by being the first to host Sia’s formidable fusion of a show – a paradigm shift of an act that will go on to leave audiences world-over in awe.
As for the ‘Shooting star I see, the vision of ecstasy,’ part of the Diamonds song, well, that glitz-blitz of a title still belongs to Rihanna. Coming on with her usual aplomb and her characteristic penchant for revving up anticipation by starting late, she made good on expectation, delivering a glam-slam of a performance with just enough ‘flirt and dirt’ to keep her audience happy. Though the heartfelt evening of sultry song, steamy dance, and touching asides came with few surprises, she managed to keep the momentum going strong till the end. One interesting note: the singer renowned for ‘Bitch better have my money,’ never asked for her own retainer. The fact that a box office-draw like Riri forwent the usual guarantees and got paid only at the starting gate, had festival organizers dub her as ‘the most Bohemian world star to ever have graced our stages.’
FROM BROODING TO AMUSING TO MUSING
If there is such as a thing as antidote to hosting Sigur Ros – the ethereal slowburners whose swirling mass of architectural sounds flow endlessly between the icy sheets of static melodies while Jonsi Birgisson’s frail but gravity-defying falsetto hovers plaintively across a cacophonic swell of complex chords – it is the operatic circus-like push-it-beyond-the-limit melodramatics of Muse. Muse is a band forever attempting to recreate the big bang, going from zero to hero, from supernovae to black hole in a matter of incalculable decibels. With all the subtlety of Queen on steroids, Muse is a band made for a massive audience. As for the visuals, the show came off like a puppeteer’s digital nightmare with godlike electro-magnetic hands moving the band to play, sing and finally recoil. Like deities of yore, Muse relies on bolts of lightning and thunder. They are in their element when covered in mounds of riffs and heaps of reverbs.
For fans who have more of a proclivity to metal – albeit with a decidedly romantic melodic core – there was Bring Me the Horizon. While the lyrics and delivery screamed: blood, mud, and gore, the compositions palpitated with longing and woe. Still the most interesting thing to hear was when the main stage lent itself to brilliant lyrics, wry wit and a pop psychedelia sensibility that boasted lush harmonies with genuine dynamics. For this there was The Last Puppet Show – the recurring project band of Arctic Monkey’s Alex Turner and Rascals’ rocker Miles Kane. From understated to playfully over-the-top, theirs is serious music that doesn’t take itself seriously. In a sense, this band has Hungarian temperament written all over it.
Walking about Sziget is like being lost in a post-apocalyptical wonderland where the most versatile artists have made an attempt to save all that is best of this world on a last remaining island. Besides the main stage, there are five large venues that hold a wide range of music. The A 38 stage boasted renowned acts like the theatrical and highly eclectic electronic trio Chvrches, the electro-rock band the Editors, the gypsy punk band Molotov, the fearless post-disco singer Roisin Murphy, Bullet for my Valentine and the angry Canadian band, Crystal Castles, (now without their dynamo stage villain, Alice Glass) to name but a few of my favorites. On the World Music Stage, there was everything from a contemporary tribal Finnish band like Värttinä to Leningrad to Goran Bregovíc Wedding and Funeral band, Yiddish Twist Orchestra, Félix Lajkó, Les Hurlements D’Leo and from the US, Kultur Shock and Rupa & the April Fishes. On the Colosseum stage – true to its namesake – masses stood cheering while modern day gladiators strolled onto the DJ stand one after the next setting fire to the night. Andras Toth, Demi, Nora Matisse, NY’s very own The Martinez Brothers all got people to lose themselves in the sound. One of the more interesting stages for me was the Telekom Festival stage where I finally got a chance to listen to some noteworthy Hungarian artists like the stark hypnotic electro vibe of indie band Passed and the quirky world of Bin-Jip where clever electro grooves try desperately to keep up with vocals that sound like Karen O overdosing on Bjork with lyrics that oddly juxtapose Beat poetry with advert slogans. Then there was the conscientiously savvy Mary Popkids with their well-integrated indiepop by way of funk, electronica, soul and Motown; as well as the synth world of MGMT meets Hole by the highly dramatic and stage worthy Anna Pasztor of Anna and the Barbies.
For me the two most memorable bands in this Hungarian series were Kiscsillag – whose unpredictable chord progressions moodily unbalanced very authentic melodies – and Péterfy Bori Bori and the Love Band which – despite classification as alternative rock – defies even the most ‘alternative’ of expectations. The Love Band is one that veers from spaghetti western motifs to ethnic themes to chanson moods all while managing to come off as though these eclectic juxtapositions were the most natural things in the world. With cinematic soundscapes, rock drive, indie matter-of-factness, punk edge and even ethno-electro moodiness, this is retro-music as defined by someone living in the year 2500. Of course, as it turns out that someone is the musical genius whose signature one can hear throughout each song, Ambrus Tövisházi, an artist who makes even the most difficult leaps in genre sound like the most conventional step someone could have taken. In my own opinion, just about anything Tövisházi touches – whether its Erik Sumo and the Ice Cream Band, Amorf Ördogok or the many intriguing film scores he has created – is a world onto itself, a fun-loving world that is very much worth worth listening to even for those of us who are not privileged enough to make sense of the the seemingly random but always emotionally genuine choices.
Of course, what’s a festival without odd and pleasant surprises. On rare occasions, one can even be lucky enough to encounter both odd and pleasant (or oddly pleasant) simultaneously.
Sauntering towards the river, I was suffering distinctly from music overload. A silent break… I was certainly in need of one. A quick swim in the water, a bit of food, a… But, for some reason, I found myself relentlessly moving in the direction of the Jazz stage. A twisted albeit mellifluous sound had caromed about the trees and was enticing me to follow. Stop it. Enough. ‘Intellectual masturbation,’ I rationalized to myself while drawing nearer. ‘I was always a sucker for things that eschewed cliché,’ I reiterated while conjuring forth images of rapt silence under some shady tree. ‘Beach, swim, rest, breeze, eat…’ Still, it was getting harder to ignore that internal Bob Dylan mumbling away in my head: “Because something is happening here. But you don’t know what it is? Do you…” Oh for god’s sake. Yes, my weakness. Never one to be mesmerized by the snake charmers but an obvious sitting duck when it came to falling for charming snakes.
Maybe it was the unbridled audacity of it all. While the sax ran its course from dulcet to plaintive and the clarinet breached the swell with evocative cries, there was an unremitting urban pulse bumping up against them and beating in their very marrow. It was almost as if someone were thinking their most intimate thoughts while walking through heavy traffic. As for the bass and drums, they ran red lights, came to sudden stops at odd intersections and listened for the dark keyboard grumblings of unseen subways below. Like the wandering backdrop to some long lost Allen Ginsberg poem, the city swayed and buckled – intermittently allowing the guitar to climb its shoulders and sing before losing it in the crowd anew.
Still, within the barrage of motion, a hauntingly nostalgic melody would emerge. It swaggered out from between the seemingly dissonant voices, finding its way to the surface and just as suddenly fell back into the void. The motif would recur several times over, flirting with each of the instruments in an attempt to break free of the throng. Stuttering, wobbly, and shaken, the melody would eventually outlive its carrier. It would reenter our world, but this time in bits and pieces, as if recalled by the community as a whole. It was almost as if someone had died but others were here – each doing their best – to half-accurately recount what the departed soul had said. Somewhere within the maelstrom, a clear vision – or at least the memory of one – was born. Was this the twice-removed world of a classical composer’s impression on Jazz being delivered within a Jazz vocabulary? It was clear that the idiosyncratic vision behind these works owed as much to awareness of nuance as it did to abandoning all theories in favor of an organic dialogue. Methodically composed? Yes. No doubt. But it was like someone writing dialogue for people they have grown up with and known all their lives.
The music came with the sort of clarity one finds when identifying definite patterns in seeming chaos. Or, it was just the kind of chaos one notices after staring at random order for too long. No matter which… This was the sound of The Best Bad Trip and perhaps, it was the sound of my own trip as well.
Like a band schooled on John Zorn, Trey Spruance, and Primus – with a heartwarmingly idiotic touch of the Lounge Lizards – The Best Bad Trip are educated enough to allow for silly, savvy enough to be boyish, nihilistic enough to flirt with romance, cool enough to suffer fits of angst, and smart enough to give way to just the right amount of stupid. Mostly, of course, they are young – young enough to love everything that had come before them and young enough to demonstrate their love in a wonderfully irreverent fashion. In a sense, ‘lovingly irreverent’ defines Sziget Festival itself.
From hybrid circuses like Soap and Paris de Nuit to dancers like Roni Chadash and the National Dance Company of Whales, Sziget is a chaotic field of perfectly orchestrated art.
Having drawn guests from over 100 countries, the festival is one that seems to be growing exponentially by the year. Thankfully, unlike most other massive festivals whose increase in size and numbers has led to a mainstream homogenous look, Sziget has managed to maintain its very distinct personality. It’s signature is evident in the myriad of different activities and in the joy seen on the faces of even those who work there to what I assume is a level somewhere beyond exhaustion. There’s a sense of community and spirit that pervades the atmosphere – one that makes locals and guests alike reluctant to upset the balance. Though alcohol was extremely cheap, I have seen few festivals where young people were better behaved and still looked totally uninhibited and free. Likewise, this Island of Freedom seemed to be free of wasted youths and dealers despite the fact that security presence was barely visible. Somehow people were able to let loose without losing all self-control. It is a testament to the island as well as to the city that flags from every country (from Israel to Russia) were sported without the slightest bit of friction and tension while sexual orientation was likewise a non-issue.
In an attempt to illustrate the level of trust that existed on the festival grounds, let me just add that three different people I know had lost their phones while dancing over night, and -as ‘Szigetian’ fate would have it – all three of those people had managed to get their phones back the very next day at the Lost and Found.
SZIGET SHINES BRIGHT
When it comes to week-long festivals, Sziget is in a category all its own. Throughout the Island one saw wine bars sporting brilliant vintages, pubs with craft beers and even specialized Palinka stops. Likewise, when it came to food, the grounds boasted everything from ethnic to vegan to ones with culinary merit. With pristine beaches, 24-hour nonstop transportation to and from the island, ample toilet facilities, and smartly maintained camping areas, Sziget seemed to have married three ordinarily irreconcilable ideas when it comes to festivals of this size: highly energized ambience within a relatively hygienic atmosphere.
As fireworks lit up the sky on the final night, I couldn’t help but think that Sia was onto something. It was evident in the many thousands of radiant bodies moving to the music, evident in the ecstatic faces glowing in the dark, evident in the many eyes that were as resplendent as the stars they were watching overhead that each and every person at Sziget understood that “We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky.”
VIEW RORY’S NEXT ARTICLE