It’s always bitter-sweet when an event once celebrated for its humble DIY roots and local authenticity implodes into global success. On the one hand, the event loses its exclusivity and organic community spirit, but on the other, budget increases bring with it the most popular of performers, the best in tech and a tribe of internal representatives. In theory, resulting in tourism and authoritative recognition from all over the world.
Over a quarter of a century ago, the first edition of Sziget Festival took place on Budapest’s Óbuda Island, a cultural event established by Hungary’s student body (makes your fresher’s week look a little tame, huh?). It became a shared space for music fans to congregate to enjoy a self-curated line-up of rock music, a place for local Hungarians to escape from the impacts of ever-tiring totalitarianism.
Today, Clash steps onto the island in the midst of a seven-day, 76-venue extravaganza, a plethora of music (from international DJs to US rappers and Britpop’s finest), performance and arts which anticipates over 500,000 visitors across the week. Despite its developed position as one of the world’s largest festivals, what strikes straight away is that Sziget has not failed to compromise its core values.
The year after celebrating its 25th anniversary, 2018 is themed as Love Revolution, a blowout of everything the festival has always stood for. It’s a vibrant, all-inclusive celebration of love and equality, with an increasingly international feel; Sziget today is a shared escapist experience far more humanly poignant than its initial roots as a local affair.
Attendees come from over 100 countries, this year the UK overtaking the Netherlands as the festival’s biggest group of foreign visitors. We could put this down to a lack of Glasto, or possibly the continuous disenchantment from British politics - although it might simply be a natural progression in Sziget’s growing popularity for fans our side of the continent via the (verified) rumour that a pint of beer averages at 650HUF (approx. £1.80).
When Clash arrives at this haven of cheap booze and 24-hour party, it’s a struggle to know where to start. There’s stages for sweaty bands, glitzy pop acts, Eastern European circus, TED talks and theatre, with artistic instalments and street performances around every turn. It’s an ambitious feat.
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A week-long, Clash are disappointed to miss the first three days of the festival - yep, even we aren’t allowed that much continuous fun. The likes of Stormzy, Lykke Li and opening headliner King Kendrick Lamar help start the party, with a 40 minute wait for Kenny fans due to equipment malfunctions proving that even the biggest of festivals incur the occasional technical mishap.
Bonobo prepares fans for return of Gorillaz, Albarn and co’s 24-track set revitalising their position as worthy headliners. Friday sees post-punk faves Shame take to the MasterCard A38 tent - the sweatiest place on the island (perfect) - while Lana Del Rey gives an enchanting headline performance later on at the main stage.
Clash hears much of the island describe her as a ‘literal angel’ for the rest of the week, which seems a fair comment following the release of last year’s undeniably spectacular ‘Lust For Life’. Three incredibly diverse, incredibly HUGE headliners in, and Clash arrives in time for Mumford & Sons...
We’re not sure why, but despite consistently uninspiring sets, the folk-rock quartet always manage to sustain a big enough fanbase to be booked for top-line slots. We might have been spotted tapping our feet at ‘Little Lion Man’, but while Mumford and the boys debut three new tracks from their upcoming fourth LP, we head to the bar; ‘See A Sign’, ‘Woman’ and ‘Guiding Light’ appear to continue down the road of arena-rock that we saw with last album ‘Wilder Mind’, a style which tends to receive much less enthusiasm from fans than the tunes from their banjo-n-tweed days.
In a similar light, main stage predecessors Bastille fail to make us move, but their crowd still proves them as relevant festival bookees. Sziget know what the people want, at least. It’s okay though, Everything Everything have just taken up much of our energy over at the A38 tent with their ever-thrilling live show of erratic art-pop.
From their underrated beginnings, the Manchurian four-piece pack out the venue with an international crowd who applaud their every track, from last LP’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’ to hook-heavy, wonky pop favourite ‘Spring / Summer / Winter / Dread’. Sunday is for Slaves, who Clash manage to miss, but they’re the talk of the town with their brash approach to live performance and their raucous British punk mentality to making music.
Lucky fans were invited on stage during hit ‘Cut And Run’ to help perform the dance from the music video - friends of Clash are a little confused as to how perfectly the dance is executed from seemingly random picks from the crowd, but it really is down to surprising international *hardcore* fanbase of the Kent duo.
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The worst clash of the festival comes down to Wolf Alice and Liam Gallagher - contemporary indie vs. 90s Britpop. To be fans of both seems quite natural, but Clash head out for Liam’s signature wit. We set ourselves up with a strong view and a strong drink, but it’s seems as though minimal effort has been put in on Liam’s part, who appears pitchy throughout. He’s a Gallagher, though, so it is to be half-expected that tunes will be smashed out before a brief “nice one” into the mic. At least he’s aware of his surroundings - “There are many things thatI would like to say to you / but I don’t speak Hungarian”. No surprise, it’s the Oasis hits that triumph.
Top of the bill tonight is pop royalty, Dua Lipa, with her first major festival headline slot. The crowd is quite possibly the biggest of the week, and her vocally sound, energetic pop performance establishes her position as highly deserving. Tracks such as ‘One Kiss’ and ‘New Rules’ prove highlights of the set, bring the ‘popstar’ back to unironic popularity among typically ‘rock’ festival crowds.
Monday brings the choice of Canadian sweetheart Shawn Mendes or... the Goo Goo Dolls - to say Sziget has curated a versatile line-up is most definitely an understatement. Kygo takes position as headliner, spinning endless tunes including Avicii’s ‘Without You’, a heartfelt tribute to the late DJ who played the festival back in 2015.
For such a huge stage the sound quality is impeccable, reaching even those enjoying the set from the side lines of the street food stands. After such a climax to the evening, Clash’s attempts to enjoy a late night set from Nick Murphy (FKA Chet Faker) don’t last longer than a couple of tracks; everyone’s in the mood for raving, and so heads to the festival’s infamous Colosseum venue, boasting the best in electronic and techno until 6am each night.
The next morning brings a heavy head and later on, heavy rain. Apocalyptic winds sweep the island which is densely overcast for the first time all week - it’s the final day. Stockport five-piece Blossoms take to the main stage with their saccharine brand of indie-pop to contrast whirling dust, before heavy rain takes half the crowd to the dry for Nothing But Thieves in the A38 tent. Despite not masses of stage charisma, frontman Tom manages to sustain a reasonable crowd of fans for the rest of the set. Let’s be honest, though, most of the island are simply hoping the rain eases off for festival closers - and 2018’s festival-season dons - Arctic Monkeys.
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There’s nothing Clash can really say of the band; frontman Alex Turner charms as ever, while the band knock out banger after banger of indie disco hits (‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, ‘Arabella’) and sensual cuts from recent LP ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ (‘One Point Perspective’, ‘Four Out Of Five’). The Monkey’s afterparty - the festival’s official closing fiesta - comes into the form of the Ibiza- famous elrow in the Bacardi Arena, which has been going since 10pm on the final day.
The immersive club experience is an impressive psychedelic trip amongst actors sailing (literally) through the crowd, and decor to rival Disney’s ‘It’s A Small World’. Ending the week within a true fantasy world seems apt having made home the ‘Island of Freedom’. This year was a line-up to rival many, opening with Kendrick Lamar and closing with Arctic Monkeys a clever technique in making the seven-day ticket the only true option for those prone FOMO. It worked. We came down with a serious case of it.
As a general rule, the festival isn’t one for discovery of new international music; many of the artists on the lower end of the bill are local to Hungary. Discovery is left more at the hands of the arts. Clash enjoys the show FAMEFatal, a mix of LGBT cabaret, emotional interpretive dance and a Magic Mike-esque performance around a poll... enough said.
So much more than a music festival, Sziget can be your Ibiza, your Reading and Leeds, your city break and even your beach holiday - the island’s beach can be found at the foot of the island. A pre-purchased ‘CityPass’ wristband can be bought for unlimited travel throughout Budapest, and gets you discounted entry into the city’s infamous baths.
It’s Sziget’s position within the thriving Hungarian city that gives it its vitality. Budapest’s authentic character, cultural and architectural beauty and friendly atmosphere continues onto the island. The ‘Island of Freedom’ is a true celebration of music, art and collective humanity, an escapist festival like no other.
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Words: Alice Mortimer
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