Wednesday 12th August
The plane touches down in Hungary, and the passengers walk onto the airport tarmac. The first thing they notice, once they stop hugging the tarmac and thanking their God that they're alive, is the heat. It's 37 degrees Celsius and the sun is blazing down upon them. I head to the hotel, and then the Sziget site, to just catch the last few numbers of Public Image Limited.
John Lydon is bouncing around. The early evening heat doesn't bother him as PiL fair blast through their classic set. There seems to be almost no deviation from their sound on record, which means that he's whipped the team of mercenaries behind him into pretty good shape. The volume of the crowd is overwhelming before the end, and bizarrely they drop in 'Open Up'. It's a good version, which the audience laps up, but seems out of place. Then again, PiL sets used to have Sex Pistols songs in them as late as the Nineties. Best to take their choice of material as it comes.
The Specials are much more the real deal. They're not really missing Jerry Dammers that much, and the band look reinvigorated and happy. Even Terry Hall seems to be enjoying himself, while looking like a tramp given a spray tan and stuffed inside a Marks and Sparks suit. The band are racing through the hits, and even though they look a little rickety at points, they look good too. They're into it, throwing themselves about as much as possible without breaking a hip, and that plays well anywhere. There's a brief lull towards the end of the set, but it's just an old showmans trick. A manipulation of tempo so they can close with a bit more gusto. 'Nightclub', 'Too much, Too Young' and 'Enjoy Yourself' rolling back the years.
Moving away from the main stage and into the parklands that make up most of the site, I move towards the MTV Headbangers Ball stage to catch a few minutes of The 69 Eyes. One of Finland's more notable exports, they're pleasingly straightforward. Part Guns N' Roses, part Cult, part Sisters of Mercy, it's fair to say they aren't going to win any contests for originality. They are however, fist pumping rock of the highest order. For example, rest assured that if there's a single note closing a song, you can bet everything you have that it will be ALL about the sustain. Their singer, Jyrki 69, is a black leather and sunglasses at night, preening and whirling, old school frontman. Songs like 'Dead Girls Are Easy' and 'Gothic Girl' might not win them an Ivor Novello, but damn, they're good fun. Twenty five years ago, performances like this might have owned the Sunset Strip. Tonight they have to settle for dominating a half full MTV shed in Hungary.
Everyone should know the drill with Faithless by now. Even if they've dropped of the radar a bit in the UK, they're still a well oiled festival machine; bringing the spirit of pounding electronica to the masses. As a visual spectacle, few bands can touch them, and Maxi has the crowd in the palm of his hand by the time I get there. They finish 'We Come 1' to a sea of hands raised in the air, a touching sign of unity, and for some no doubt, reverence. They're not show of the day, but of the headliners I see at Sziget, they're by far the best.
Thursday 13th August
Today the weather is warm and sunny once more. After spending most of yesterday wandering around the site, today my best bet lies with conserving my energy, so I camp by the main stage. It's a decision I later come to regret, as it means that one of the standout sets of the week from Enter Shikari goes unseen. Still, you can't have it all.
My, Jacoby Shannix sweats a lot. Under a blazing sun, he and the rest of Papa Roach work up an appetite, and by the end of the set everyone knows his call and response routine by heart. Woah-oh-oh-ohoh. And again. And again and again.
The crowd is much bigger and busier than it was yesterday. People crowdsurfing in from over a hundred meters busy. And everyone is singing back all the words. This is very weird. Papa Roach are inexplicably popular here, supported by the kind of fervour saved only for your heroes. But who am I to begrudge that many people their fun? Everyone claps along. Again. Finally they do 'Between Angels and Insects' and 'Last Resort' back to back, and it's almost like 2002 never went away.
What to say about Mika that won't upset Brian May? He is on every level insufferable. But people like him, assemble en masse for him. And at least his zany onstage persona is a change from the serious norm. He plays a piano with broken mirrors on it. He has dancers. Everyone is dressed in black and white. The stage is decked with giant sunflowers. Some of the people dressed in white have sad clown masks on their faces. Clown faces with tears. He wears a stove pipe hat, and a pinstripe waistcoat, and hops around like a child given uppers. Oh God, he has mirrored shoes.
Prepare yourself for the finest trumpet solo you have ever heard, he says, cupping his hands together and making a vaguely realistic trumpet noise. Thousands upon thousands of thousands of people laugh and applaud. In the distance I even see critics clapping. Is this some sort of parallel universe? HelpmeIaminHell. Eventually a grudging, respect is too much, a grudging acceptance comes upon me. He sings well, he dances well, his songs are well composed. There is a prevailing talent there, in a poppy, Queen-ish sort of way. Hungarians must know the words to all the songs ever made, because they sing these as well, while clapping in time. They are a clever people.
Perhaps they are clever enough to explain to me again how 30 Seconds to Mars are headlining this festival? The first few songs are desperately weak sauce, and the band don't improve much after that. They're sloppy for a headline band, and mistakes in songs are evident here and there, if not quite to the legendary Stone Roses car crash standard. Jared Leto himself barely manages to finish a lyric, preferring instead to hear the crowd sing his words back to him in adulation. Again, lots of people jump up and down, but the crowd is noticeably thinner and perhaps only a few hundred are really going as crazy as he desperately wants them to be. He has to instruct them to scream repeatedly, and to jump time and time again. It's an excruciating sight.
It is noted to me that he's going through the motions of being a real singer, pretending to be a rock star, and it's almost impossible to disagree with that notion. As such, no real emotional impact is ever fully relayed from behind the mask, making the show seem hollow in every sense. As a side note, they've banned photographers from the pit again, as they have at other festivals. The photographers all shoot from the sound desk tonight. This is truly head to desk time for all concerned in reporting the show then. But Sziget has somehow warmed to them slightly by the end. Perhaps this is due to the contrived, handpicked by Leto 'stage invasion' during 'Kings and Queens', where the young and beautiful die hards are given a moment in the spotlight after being touched by greatness. Whatever it is that does it, 30 Seconds to Mars get a brief round of applause at the end. So it turns out that Hungary is a very forgiving nation too.
Saturday 14th August
Most of today is spent wandering around the site. The festival organizers have tried to fit as much cultural intrigue as they can, so today, I catch an impromptu display from a horde of traditional Hungarian folk dancers. This is balanced between things you'd normally expect to see at a rock festival, such as climbing walls, zip lines and bungee jumps, and some other things you don't. Halfway through the evening I see a boy with a sign saying 'Rubiks Cube Solved for Beer', and they does. His fingers move so quickly they're actually blurring, and the puzzle is solved inside 20 seconds. Later on, before the metal onslaught that is Iron Maiden, I stumble across a mobile disco in a forest clearing. This wouldn't be as much of a surprise if it weren't for the fact that the disco, which is pumping out some serious volume, is being run from the inside of an old Trabant. Incidents like this make the festival seem more alive and spontaneous, and separate it from the Band. Drink heavily. Band set ups of festivals like Reading and V.
All of this wandering and drinking means that the first band that I get to see play a set today are The Cribs. Despite by now having a decent back catalogue to pick a set from, and giving it a fair shake of the stick on another hot and humid day, The Cribs leave me a tiny bit cold. It's because they're mostly immobile during their set, which is well paced, well thought out, and well delivered. Sadly, everyone seems stuck like glue to their mic or their specific spot on the stage. The brothers Jarman appear to be having fun though, bashing away at their instruments like toys, while the more senior figure of Johnny Marr takes care of business on his part of the stage. He looks incredibly healthy and tanned, and it is a real pleasure to see him in action finally, even if the material isn't really pushing his talent very hard at all. You get the impression he could handle most of the guitar work here with one hand tied behind his back.
After the Cribs, there's a vain attempt to get into Calvin Harris' set in the Party Arena. He's ridiculously over-subscribed, and there's absolutely no chance of getting in late. Never mind. Later people tell me it isn't one of those sets that you cry yourself to sleep about missing.
Most of the crowd in attendance today is here to see Iron Maiden anyway. It turns out they're not a band afraid of a build up. The stage set is unveiled and it looks like something out of Space Hulk, all pistons and walkways for Bruce Dickinson to careen and spin around. There's an overly long, space themed intro film, and then we're off. Only we're not off. Bruce Dickinson tells us they're focusing on their later albums, with an odd nod to the past and my heart sinks. There will be no 'Run to the Hills' tonight. No 'Two Minutes to Midnight', no 'Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter', no 'Aces High'. Given the Sziget crowd's tendency to be very enthusiastic about most of the bigger acts on show here, it isn't unreasonable for the band to consider this to be a good place to test a new set. However, considering the cost of the tickets isn't inexpensive for the native Hungarians, a few more of the classics would have been a welcome touch. Their absence also hints towards the arrogance of a band who believe that all their material is all to a equally high standard, when it obviously isn't.
That said their good new single, 'El Dorado' is wheeled out. And 'Dance of Death' is decent storytelling about a journey into Hell (could there be a more Heavy Metal subject?). But it isn't as good the stuff of old, and in humid conditions, under even hotter stage lights the band are suffering, and dripping with sweat. Steve Harris' bass is up a little too high in the mix, audibly muddying the sound. Nicko is missing beats, and while the guitar interplay is to their usual standard, they are waning live and wilting in the heat. Even the massive crowd singing along to everything cannot hide the gulf in songwriting quality that becomes obvious when a rare hit like 'Fear of the Dark' is wheeled out. Unfortunately for the first hour, those hits are non-existent. They are a legendary band, with their commitment to performance and instrumental skills dazzling even on this off night. But it is an off night, and one of their own making.
And that's it for my Sziget. Due to wheels up in the early evening, I miss most of the Sunday, and sadly Monster Magnet. On the whole, despite being a long running and massive yearly event, as a festival it's still not quite the finished article. There are gaps in the bill throughout most days, and the mix of metal and pop doesn't always work. I'd still pick it over the most of the trudging genero-fests that make up the British festival circuit though. The weather, as mentioned numerous times above, is sensational. Beer is around £2 a pint, t-shirts are £7-ish. The crowd is very enthusiastic indeed. The people are friendly in general, and Budapest itself is a very beautiful city. Chances are I'll go back next year as a paying punter. For me, there isn't much of a higher compliment than that.