In partnership with Sziget Festival
“So far, I’ve gathered that you guys like to party,” Remi Wolf suggests to Sziget in what must surely rank amongst the understatements of the century. Sziget loves to party like Foxy loves bingo. Out in the woods of the Island Of Freedom right now the Szitizens of this six-day island nation of art, culture and music are riding mechanical bulls, rolling in gigantic barrels, raving in every glade and, at any opportunity, conducting a strange, flash mob-style, Hungarian version of the hokey-cokey. Sziget – the eye-popping wonderland of music and art set on an island in the middle of the Danube in Budapest – is where ‘guys who like to party’ are forced to seriously up their party game in order to to keep up.
Remi, however, means “party” in the bedroom/tent/dirty weekend Airbnb sense. “You like sex?” she asks, biting the bullet as her opening set at Sziget 2022 sets a raunchy tone for a scorching Wednesday afternoon. As DIY videos of Wolf shimmying around child-drawn villages and diving into psychedelic swimming pools loop on the screens, she raises 80,000 pulses with ‘Sauce’, where classic boudoir funk gets a laptop-pop makeover, with added bursts of psych rock. It’s a fertile formula: Wolf may play merry with modern sounds (take the sunny hip-pop of road trip anthem ‘Monte Carlo’) and mentalities, but her music is rooted firmly in classic soul, jazz and funk, as evidenced by a cheery cover of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’.
At one point, to showcase her drumming skills, Remi takes to the kit while her drummer shouts “positive affirmations” along to her stickwork. They’re mostly about his pride in being able to do his taxes properly, but also include a chant of “Dua Lipa summer!”. It’s certainly Dua Lipa Wednesday, as the woman herself headlines Day One in a blitz of synchronised strutting and lizardskin-effect leotards.
Arriving for ‘Physical’ in a flurry of ‘80s Street Fighter visuals – with a touch of the cap to her late fitness-class-glamour forebear Olivia Newton-John – she delivers a confident cabaret of tropical Latino funk pop and disco surrounded by a dance troupe variously on rollerskates, wielding umbrellas or, during the INXS-like ‘Break My Heart’, glitterball hearts. It’s a set of memorable moments – Dua lifted aloft by her dancers during ‘Pretty Please’; waving a LGBTQ+ flag along to a video of Elton John on ‘Cold Heart (PNAU remix)’; and lounging casually on a podium while at risk of imminent attack from a giant inflatable lobster for ‘We’re Good’.
It’s fair to say the girls owned Day One. Over in the FreeDome, Isreal’s Noga Erez proved a new master of Billie Eilish’s nocturnal pop, while at the Europe Stage, Nova Twins spectacularly come of age. “I’m a samurai, I’m a warrior” yowls Amy Love as they pile-drive into the industrial buzz rock of ‘Cleopatra’ from their acclaimed new album ‘Supernova’, but she and bassist Georgia South are something more akin to sonic revolutionaries, charging into previously unexplored areas between grime, punk and slasher metal and planting a fresh freak flag.
On the outer stages, mind, the locals hold their own. The energetic Duckshell are living proof that South London’s jazzy post-rock phenom has found its way east, where it’s been given additional Balkan-inflected pipe work to do. And psychedelic soul futurists Mörk are masters of cosmic jazz pop, part Khruangbin, part ‘80s R&B, entirely engrossing.
If the dust is rising across the island on Day Two, it’s because Kings Of Leon kick it up. “I don’t always have fun up here, but this is nice,” Caleb Followill half-grins, having powered into the set with ‘The Bucket’, ‘Taper Jean Girl’ and Satan’s hoedown ‘King Of The Rodeo’, and proved that the tunes from their latest album ‘When You See Yourself’ are as fired-up as their classics with Wild West banger ‘The Bandit’. Visuals of the band silhouetted in retro fuzz or cast as glowing, golden gods of glam on ‘Crawl’ reflect their current period of reinvigoration, and their set is growing finer by the tour – billowing canyon ballads like ‘Use Somebody’ have grown richer in texture, and 2016’s ‘Waste A Moment’ more than holds its own in the showstopping stakes against the inevitable barnstorming finale of ‘Sex On Fire’.
Friday acts as a microcosm of Sziget’s anything-goes attitude. In the FreeDome, Fontaines D.C. peers and latest purveyors of cavernous post-rock noise The Murder Capital flit between dirge and delight, touching on the sounds of Echo & The Bunnymen and The Smiths in their malformed youths. Such is their unhurried pace in reaching their crescendos that singer James McGovern occasionally lays back in the arms of the front row to watch.
On the mainstage, meanwhile, Stromae delivers chic Belgian world rap from a podium, like a dictator commanding the CGI army on the screens. If his sonics – with their synthesised harpsichords, bagpipes and beats – might be considered cutting edge, it’s nothing compared to his show. His set is accompanied by Hollywood-level digital animations of scientists at work and sweet cartoon love stories turning sour, and his spare jacket is delivered to him by a twerking robot dog.
Back at the FreeDome, against a glaring neon white backdrop, and over murder rap beats, Slowthai later indulges the forlorn agonies of his “trials and tribulations” (depression, grief, the fallout from his behaviour at the NME Awards in 2020) like the most defiant of rap survivors. “How you gonna cancel me?” he spits on ‘CANCELLED’. Buoyed by the response when he asks how many people in the crowd are from his hometown of Northampton – most of Sziget, by the sound of it, has flown in from Northampton – by the monstrous ‘Psycho’ he’s stripped to the waist and communing with his people. For ‘Inglorious’ he even gets a local onstage to rap Skepta’s part, while he jumps into the crowd and returns triumphantly waving a bra.
Meanwhile, on the main stage, the Disney Slowthai makes his entrance. In a pink hoodie (for one song at least, until the tattoos come out) Justin Bieber soaks up the hysteria with practiced showmanship, flashing his dreamboat smile and engaging in plenty of Space Invader-style dancing with his troupe. With a bombastic rock band enhancing his pure pop with the necessary Big Gig solos, his set comes in phases. Initially we’re at a cheery street party celebrating his latest album ‘Justice’ (which dominates the set), a record which Justin will later explain is about the modern generation’s embrace of unity and acceptance: “You and I get to be the difference-makers,” he says. Stirring stuff, and even though the slow-grind R&B can be laid on thick over the first hour, he offsets it with a singalong acoustic segment featuring ‘Love Yourself’ and a folky ‘Off My Face’.
The ubiquitous synth line of ‘Sorry’ kicks the set back into gear, and the latter half is peppered with songs deeply embedded in the pop culture psyche: ‘Ghost’, ‘Boyfriend’, ‘Baby’. The lengthy, epic soul workout of ‘Peaches’ suggests he hasn’t quite got the hang of the ideal dynamics of a crowd-pleasing festival show just yet, but my he’s dreamy.
By Saturday – the Day Of The Raver, when Calvin Harris headlines proceedings with an earthquake-inducing set of dance hits from a giant screen podium – Sziget is well and truly losing its mind. Balkan band Besh O Drom draw a lively crowd to the Petofi Stage with their mariachi pop, bongo freakouts and saxophones that sound like kazoos. And on the main stage, Lewis Capaldi is spectacularly oversharing. “I didn’t make my new record in lockdown because I was too busy masturbating,” he admits; later he preludes a remarkably graceful ‘Leaving My Love Behind’ with a lengthy and detailed description of a recent bowel complaint: “I haven’t even come close to shitting myself once,” he beams, “and I put that down to your energy.” Musically he deals in bombastic but formulaic driving rockers and stadium ballads of heroic inadequacies, but its only with the mass singalong finale of ‘Someone You Loved’ that he comes close to being the male Adele he so clearly aspires to.
Ultimately Beabadoobee, over in the FreeDome Tent, steals the day, mixing bursts of perfectly reinvigorated grunge pop – she does a heavenly Hole, with touches of bubblegum pop that nod as far, in places, as Debbie Gibson.
Come Sunday, it’s like we’ve drunk ourselves into another dimension. A dimension where the charming party pop of Sigrid and the tropical vengeance songs of Anne-Marie – who admits her music is all about “mugging off” ex boyfriends and debuts a new song ‘Psychopath’ which is essentially a dark mirror of ‘Mambo No. 5’ from the wronged girlfriend’s perspective – are warming up for Tame Impala.
Cleverly, Kevin Parker’s astral pop voyagers are introduced by a video of a smiling pharmaceutical nurse advising us that now is a good time to take our new patented “time therapy” drug Rushium, as the video itself slows to a very trippy crawl. The set, too, hypnotically draws you in to Parker’s wormhole pop world, where classic styles are psyched almost beyond recognition. ‘Borderline’ resembles an acid flashback to ‘80s beach pop. ‘Let It Happen’ is a ‘70s cop show theme lost in the digital ether. ‘Mind Mischief’ is ‘70s yacht rock half-remembered in a dream and ‘Apocalypse Dreams’ is pure cosmic Motown, featuring the circular lighting rig doing an impression of a UFO landing. Best of all is ‘Elephant’, which reveals new roots with every outing. Tonight it smacks of Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ mating with Muse’s ‘Uprising’ at the behest of Marc Bolan. Freaky indeed.
Just as Tame Impala have reinvented alternative pop and rock for the modern age, back at the FreeDome, Canada’s Caribou – the highlight of the week’s after-hours dance bill involving Jungle, Jon Hopkins and Steve Aoki – are still evolving indie dance, taking LCD textures off into hallucinatory house spaces. On the final night, though, all other early hours entertainment is blown clean off the island by the post-punk powerhouse of Fontaine’s D.C., charging onto the FreeSome stage at 1am as pumped up and punchy as a heavyweight championship. From the dream-like chorale of ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ to the hammering ‘Boys In The Better Land’ there’s little let-up in their hyper-charged intensity.
With Sam Fender pulling out due to vocal problems, Holly Humberstone steps up to the early evening slot on the main stage, warming up for Sziget’s most hotly-anticipated event – the return of the Arctic Monkeys. With just herself and a drummer onstage, she seems a bit overwhelmed by the occasion and rocks softly through her gentle pop songs about supporting loved ones through hard times and feeling lonely in the big city.
There’s no such uncertainty on show from the Monkeys of course. They saunter onstage, cool as a Yorkshire Rat Pack, and pile straight into ‘The View From The Afternoon’ and ‘Brianstorm’ as if the past 15 years never happened. That they did is evinced by a subsequent 90 minutes veering variously into Motown/Britpop mash-ups (‘Snap Out Of It’), slasher carnival freakouts (‘Pretty Visitors’), desert rock behemoths (‘Crying Lightning’, ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’), monster funk (‘Do I Wanna Know?’), Lynchian surf noir (‘Do Me A Favour’) and rock’n’roll R&B (‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’, ‘Arabella’).
With no new album (as yet) to centre the set, what emerges is a head-spinning overview of a band intent on breaking their own rules and remoulding their music at every step, and it makes for a magnificent one-band megamix. One minute Alex Turner is wandering the stage possessed by the spirit of a lost ‘50s crooner on ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’; the next the band are bashing out an encore of ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘R U Mine?’ as if it makes perfect sense that the same band wrote both songs. In a way, the Arctic Monkeys encapsulate the Sziget experience: a wonderland of surprises that somehow magically gels. Go on then, one for the road.