1) The DJ who represents best value for money is...
With three of the world's ten highest earning DJs playing at Sziget this year, I take it upon myself to establish once and for all which of them gives the most bang for your buck - for science, of course. The experiment suffers an early setback when I make a hasty exit from Deadmau5’s set, realising that an hour of laboriously teased drops and four-to-the-floor thuds is not my idea of fun. Still, I resolve to see my plan through, and show up to Skrillex’s show the following night. On the one hand, there's no faulting him for crowd engagement - even if his voice is like nails on a chalkboard. On the other, it becomes abundantly clear early on that he's not actually doing a whole lot - it becomes difficult to suspend one's disbelief when the DJ has abandoned his decks and is stood atop the DJ booth, arms aloft. So essentially, attending a Skrillex show is just like watching the world's whitest MC shout along to ear-bleeding brostep, but I’ll still chalk it up as a minor success, if only because I stuck around for longer.
All of this leaves Calvin Harris with the potential to cruise to victory on Sunday night, and he earns his no-doubt eye-watering price tag by virtue of having enough actual tunes to be forgiven for the bits that sound like a synthesised kazoo solo or someone repeatedly banging their head against a car horn. He’s aided by a willingness to swipe other people’s songs - mixing in the likes of ‘I Love It’ and ‘Eat Sleep Rave Repeat’ as if he owns them - and also by the festival going all out on the show’s production, with lasers, fireworks, and a veritable sea of oversized glowsticks providing spectacle even when the music failed to do so. So congrats Mr Harris, you’re the winner - but if any festival organisers happen to be reading this, I’d like to suggest that you book Jon Hopkins instead.
2) Veteran rock acts are showing no signs of ageing... for the most part.
Rock fans must have been satisfied with the genre's representation at Sziget this year after it's almost non-existent showing in 2013. Placebo’s androgynous angst is always a hit in mainland Europe, and thus the band only need to continue being Placebo to satisfy their audience. Their performance on Wednesday night is a little slow to get going (i.e. too heavy on the new stuff), but it only takes three minutes in the proximity of Tom Odell to realise that I've actually got it pretty good with Placebo, particularly as the setlist gets stronger towards the end. Dropping their cover of Kate Bush's 'Running Up That Hill' in the encore serves as convincing proof that Placebo are still a pretty damn solid live act.
Manic Street Preachers occupy the same slot on the Friday, and despite playing to a noticeably smaller crowd, they give it their all, showing very little sign of having been around for nearly 30 years. They play a career-spanning, hit-packed set taking in everything from ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ to ‘If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next’, and there’s not much time for chatter, save for a brief but poignant dedication to Richey Edwards midway through the set. Queens Of The Stone Age also look (and sound) ageless on Tuesday evening - I swear Josh Homme will sport that same handsome, chiselled visage until the day he dies. There’s one moment where he looks the epitome of effortless cool - cigarette in mouth, silhouetted against white light and smoke. Even when offering praise to a wheelchair-bound crowd-surfer, his air is approving rather than deferent, pausing mid-way through ‘A Song For The Dead’ to observe: “Look at that guy crowd-surfing in his wheelchair... that is one badass motherfucker."
The only rock act on the bill who have no intention of growing old gracefully are Blink 182. Well, that’s unfair to Travis Barker, who is the silent, lean powerhouse that holds the trio together. Tom Delonge, on the other hand, spends the first three songs not even attempting to sing in tune before exclaiming “I want to stick my penis up your nose!” The look of quiet despair on Mark Hoppus’ face says it all, but the presence of multiple flags emblazoned with cartoon penises indicates that this is all part of what the crowd came here for - this is the band’s first visit to Budapest, so their fans missed out on all this the first time round. It’s worth noting how far we’ve come since Delonge and co were first making dick jokes over two decades ago. A young kid sits at the side of the stage playing with his PS Vita, disinterested in all the rock and roll shenanigans, and later on someone can be spotted filming the show using an iPad. Most incredibly, there’s a guy in the audience who video calls one of his friends for a good 10-15 minutes of the concert, waving his phone in the faces of complete strangers so they can greet his absent compatriot - I’m not sure whether that’s an act borne of genuine compassion or just a particularly modern form of sadism, but nevertheless, you wouldn’t have seen that back in the days of The Mark, Tom And Travis Show. Still, the crowd show as much fervour as you might expect for an act of this stature’s first visit to their country, and the atmosphere only benefits from it. The most enjoyably goofy moment comes when Delonge hammily declares that he’s going to make a song up on the spot. Spoiler alert: it’s ‘All The Small Things’.
3) Noughties nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
Perhaps I’m just getting jaded/old/cynical (or all of the above), but I found I was left cold by many of the acts I caught at this year’s Sziget who had their heyday in the Noughties. Bombay Bicycle Club do a reasonably impressive job, though they’ve always been a band who’ve passed me by. Their rhythm section is definitely worth a mention, all tight drumming and pleasingly punchy baselines, but until set-closer ‘Carry Me’ they lack a certain urgency that would make them feel truly compelling. The Kooks, on the other hand, require rose-tinted spectacles at best, and at worst inspire utter apathy, with the band chucking out nuggets from Inside In/Inside Out to satisfy the crowd in between new songs that nobody seems to care all that much about. I feel weirdly disconnected while watching Kelis perform, almost as if she’s in another room - ‘Trick Me’ and ‘Millionaire’ get early airings, but after two tedious newies in a row I decide I might be better off elsewhere.
I also bail early on Lily Allen, partially because she just looks like she can’t be arsed, but mainly because her new songs are pretty rubbish - there’s a heavy-handed number about pill-popping called ‘Everyone’s At It’, and some sort of ode to rave called ‘Bass Like Home’, which strikes me as the point that the shark has well and truly been jumped. By this point we’ve already had the weird spectacle of Lily’s female backing dancers donning dog’s heads during ‘Hard Out Here’ - at which point it strikes me that the rest of Lily’s band are all male. Whether knowingly or unwittingly, she’s proved her own point - it is indeed “hard out here for a bitch” (unless you’re good looking, then perhaps you’d like to be a backing dancer?). Speaking of backing dancers, Andre 3000 of Outkast brings about a dozen or so girls from the crowd on stage, then proceeds to spend the entirety of ‘Hey Ya’ looking like he’d rather be anywhere else (I’m pretty sure he’s just miming along to most of it). It’s a shame, as up until that point the performance has been full of life, particularly during Big Boi’s solo section - prior to that we’ve had obvious highs in the form of’ B.O.B.’ and ‘Ms. Jackson’ of course, but I’d completely forgotten about ‘The Way You Move’, which makes it an unexpected highlight.
Jimmy Eat World are the exception that proves the rule on Tuesday night, with their set containing more than enough tracks from Bleed American and Futures to turn me (and likely most of the assembled crowd) into teary-eyed mush. They start and close strong with ‘Pain’/‘Futures’ and ’Sweetness’/‘The Middle’, and the ever-heartfelt ‘Hear You Me’ brings the swaying arms and lighters out, but it’s the one-two-three-four punch of ’Nothingwrong’, ‘Work’, ‘Bleed American’, and ’23’ that provides the perfect emotional roller coaster. The words of ‘A Praise Chorus’ seem decidedly appropriate - “I’m on my feet, I’m on the floor, I’m good to go, and all I need is just to hear a song I know.” Jimmy Eat World provide us those songs in spades tonight, bringing back memories of a time when emo wasn’t a dirty word.
4) It’s not always about the music.
As someone whose general approach to music festivals is ‘watch ALL the bands!’, it’s refreshing to take a more relaxed attitude to things, even if it does mean I end up missing a couple of acts I wouldn’t have minded checking out. But still, the sheer variety of stuff on offer means you can’t really be bored at Sziget, even if the main stage acts are sending you to sleep. I get lost in the Tarot Labyrinth and end up waiting to meet with Death while Jake Bugg’s irritating twang drifts over from the main stage - it strikes me that if Death did indeed have a waiting room, Jake Bugg would make for an appropriately torturous musical backdrop. At other times, I probably spend far longer than I’d like to admit in the Playstation tent playing Towerfall: Ascension (four-word review: addictive, chaotic, retro fun). The ‘Before I Die…’ wall is always worth a visit for a laugh, with earnest, genuine intentions mixing haphazardly with jokes, innuendo and memes - yes, someone did write 'fuck her right in the pussy.' Hell, I spend the latter part of Wednesday evening watching a massive mechanical, fire-breathing, electro-funk spewing dragon chase four barbarian-warrior-knights-on-stilts around and it was easily the most fun I had all day. And a midweek visit to Budapest proves to be the perfect cure for festival cabin fever - a trip to one of the city’s thermal spas sure beats a festival shower.
5) Wild Beasts are still one of the best bands on the planet.
'Text your friends and tell them to come here… they’re missing the best show of the whole festival,' proclaims INVSN (pronounced 'Invasion') frontman Dennis Lyxzen during his band’s opening slot on the A38 stage on Sunday morning. Fair play to him though, the punchy, agitated post-punk of his self-proclaimed “feminist, socialist, anti-capitalist rock band” is engaging even before he does a surprisingly limber handstand-come-backflip in the middle of the crowd. Sadly for him, however, he’s already been beaten to the punch by Wild Beasts, whose headline set on the same stage the previous night proves that they are one of the most impeccable bands on the planet. They’re not done any favours by the sound, which makes both Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming sound like they’re singing down a really long tunnel, but it’s testament to the band’s song-craft that it the atmosphere doesn’t suffer. Opener ‘Mecca’ swirls amorously into our ears, ‘Daughters’ is suitably ominous and fearful, ‘Nature Boy’ swaggers with menacing intent, and ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’ sees Wild Beasts go pop with aplomb - it’s surely more than enough to quash any who’d doubt that Present Tense is a bloody brilliant record. The older tracks sound great too, particularly a luscious ‘Bed Of Nails’ (the only time you’ll hear those four words used in succession) and a typically engaging rendition of ‘Hooting And Howling’. The only thing that falls a little flat is the group’s usual verbose, libidinous stage banter. “Dare I say you look ravishing tonight,” attempts Hayden at one point “…ravishing translates as sexy”, he clarifies, stumbling over the language barrier - but the music needs no translation to be appreciated by the crowd.
Photo credit: Sziget/Sándor Csudai