One week every August, a leafy, tranquil island in the middle of the Danube, 10 minutes from the centre of Budapest, is transformed into Europe’s biggest music festival. A total of 382,000 visitors from more than 50 countries pass through the gates of Sziget festival, and the number of foreigners is increasing. In a move reminiscent of Gordon Brown’s professed love of the Arctic Monkeys, a group of Hungarian MPs recently described the event as “Hungary’s third biggest cultural export after Puskas and the Rubik’s cube”. After a week on the island, you can’t help feeling even this is a gross undervaluation.
Grotesquely-costumed heavy metal troupe Gwar kick the festival off in unashamedly indecent fashion on the main stage. Having severed a monster’s head, its neck proceeds to shower the front rows in litres of pressurised blood. Musically talentless (think childish scream with a drumbeat written by a 12-year old) the band rely on sheer shock value to entertain. Yet after they murder a policeman and Hitler ejaculates blood following a bizarre, disjointed dialogue with Jesus, it seems as though they’ve run out of ways to cover the crowd in goo, and they lose the modicum of entertainment value they had.
Fortunately for times like this, Sziget is far deeper than its main stage. Wandering around the island’s smaller venues never disappoints. Rather than corresponding to the bands’ reputations, Sziget’s stages are themed loosely by genre, meaning that there is less mad rushing to cram everything in. The MR2 stage plays host to local talent, which sparkles. Though overshadowed by the big international acts on the main stage, there is no reason to suppose that the Hungarian bands couldn’t hold their own at big English festivals, if their reputation grew enough. Balkan Fanatik electrify with their heady mix of folk, electro and rap, as their MC, Sonia Ferenczi, struts up and down, hurling tightly-rhythmic vocals like a Hungarian M.I.A.
The Hives are the first internationally-renowned act to hit the main stage, and deliver an energetic performance, kitted out in matching sailor outfits. Pelle Almqvist’s cartoon-like arrogance propels his band through a rip-roaring set, but grows tiresome. Instructing the audience to ask for an encore is bad enough; stopping and restarting the final song six times to maximise applause is a step too far. The Hives are good, but not that good.
The normally-perfect scheduling is slightly awry this year, partly as a result of the organiser’s efforts to include festival favourites past and present. This first presents itself as Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club & Omara Portuondo, and they clash awkwardly with both Peaches and Madness. Nevertheless the Cuban veterans light up the World Stage, proving that half a century on, they still have it. 80-year-old Portuondo shrugs off the years as she stalks the stage with aplomb, belting out perfectly controlled lyrical lines and flirting outrageously with anything that moves. Peaches, meanwhile, delights her fans and wins some new ones over in the process, filling the darkened A38-Wan2 stage with crisp electropop and a stage show that gives the likes of Lady Gaga a textbook lesson in high camp.
One of Sziget’s major attractions is the sheer abundance of things to do after the music finishes. Several dance tents keep going until 6am, and the island is dotted with dozens of bars and pubs, which by the standards of most European festivals are dirt cheap (half a litre of beer costs 500 Forints, which is about 1.60.) For the more adventurous, a gargantuan climbing wall finishes with a zip wire across the back of the main stage. However you choose to spend your evening, though, you are thankful for another distinguishing feature of this festival – the lack of separate camping area. Tents are dotted in between the stages, alongside all the major concourses and in the woods around the island’s shores, meaning only a short stagger back to the tent at the end of a hard night’s revelry.