Unless there was something in our palinka, at 10pm on a Friday night we’re watching three women in matching blue dresses, red lip dots and patchwork headdresses, like a female Blue Man Group impersonating Carmen Miranda, playing a percussion only version of Nina Simone’s ‘Be My Husband’ on orange crate, handclap and boot-heel. All while a seven-foot inflatable whale floats above the mixing desk.
Strange - we don’t remember even seeing a looking glass on the way in, let alone accidentally stumbling through it. Wander through Kuplung’s tunnel entrance into the courtyard you could be in any Shoreditch shipping container complex. A cosmopolitan cocktail crowd neck shots of pure petrol at beaten-up tables in a tatty chic bar, bitching about the stag dos ruining the city’s bohemian ambiance. Pick your first beard hair from the rim of a jam jar and you’re home.
Venture into the industrial gig venue at the back of the terrace, though, and you’re instantly transported a million miles from The Shacklewell Arms. This trio of Ukranian clown-women playing quirk folk tunes about Yoko Ono on intricate and exotic contraptions designed to go ‘boing’ in previously unimaginable ways are Panivalkova, one of the Budapest Showcase’s New Kids On The Bloc. And they are not, by any stretch, the weirdest thing in Budapest this week.
Something’s stirring in the states of Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Romania, Ukraine - indeed, across the whole of Eastern Europe. Bands are shaping up fast and getting in step with the sonic trends of their Western European counterparts. Where once there was a slow cultural drip eastwards that kept the Bloc decades behind the musical curve, there’s now an internet flood that has catapulted Eastern European music slap bang into the modern age. Sonic creativity and invention is thriving, it’s just that there’s no network in place to help the self-important Western markets take it seriously.
Enter BUSH, the founding of a whole new musical European Union. “You don’t get bands from Hungary going to play in Poland or Latvia, and vice versa,” says one of the organisers, “and the individual markets are very small. So we want to create those connections.”
So by day the label chiefs, managers, promoters and general cultural butt-kickers of Eastern Europe convene in talks and seminars to lay the groundwork for a grand new Eastern European ultra-territory, and by night the finest talents of their respective territories blow the whales from the sky at Kuplung and two other venues - Robot and Instant - buried amongst the labyrinthine cellar bars of the Fogas Haz ruin-pub, where basement speakeasies and DJ rooms stretch off in all directions and someone has installed the world’s longest foosball table. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to going to a gig in the Upside Down.
The launch night suggests we’re in for a mixed bag. Estonia’s Noep is the first of many solo DJ/singers we catch at the event - Dingers, if you will, are clearly a thing out East. A kind of EDM James Blake, he steals the show from under the sweaty pits of local rock heroes Ivan & The Parazol, who only serve to prove that Hungary has heard of both The Rolling Stones and The Strokes. More clued up are Polish electropop trio Kamp!, clearly fully paid up members of the Two Door Cinema Club and with bounce-worthy tunes to match.
As the two-day showcase event kicks in in earnest, the acts split along similar lines. There are the - often very accomplished - imitations of contemporary Western European acts that you’d expect to be emerging from countries little-known for producing bands with their hands on the satnav of the zeitgeist. They have their misty female singer-songwriters waiting for ships to come in (Latvia’s Alise Joste), their synth indie popsters (Polifauna, also Latvian) and their grinding grunge bands whose UK sellability might be marred somewhat by their singer’s uncanny resemblance to a prominent Undateable (sorry, Russia’s Straight Mickey & The Boyz, nice ‘z’ though).
And then there are the inspired nutjobs bringing a twist of eastern Bloc mania to the party and often brilliantly missing the point of the bands they’re emulating. Take Super Busse from Belarus, one jelly-legged beanpole in a hippy shirt doing demented Ian Curtis dancing next to someone clearly sacked from Hurts for playing pounding basslines and 80s synths that are more Bauhaus than Black. Or consider the Czech Republic’s Acute Dose, who combine psych, indie pop, Verve maelstroms and Doors jazz breaks into what can only be called Shoutgaze. Check out the go-go Devo of Hungary’s Dope, featuring what appears to be a young Rob Newman on bass with his shirt unbuttoned to the navel, or Russia’s Wet Red, electro rockers whose singer performs each song in different headgear - lace wigs, beaded masks, plastic halos - like Grace Jones fronting Garbage.
Some acts seem oddball for the sake of it, such as Lazer Viking - imagine Samuel T Herring from Future Islands getting heavily into heroin and turning to cranked up blues rock - or Mart Avi, a gangly solo figure in a flasher’s mac who wanders the Robot stage emitting operatic Bowie croons over a backing tape, swigging lager and rattling strings of beads, like the other one from Sleaford Mods getting so drunk he strikes out solo. Others, meanwhile, are quite inspired, bringing quintessentially Eastern European influences into the sphere of modern art pop.
Amongst these, Hungary’s The Qualitons rejuvenate beat era psychedelia so furiously that The Red Hot Chili Peppers once begged them not to split up (long story), shadowy Hungarian electro noir act Mius, alongside Raf Skowronski, concocts emotronica from pieces of ‘Video Games’ piano, EDM sizzles and Ultravox’s dusk-in-Venice vibes, and Slovakia’s Tolstoys stir up a gorgeous glacial mist akin to Lanterns On The Lake bewailing global warming. The warm hearts, fervent hedonism and stoic grandeur of these fine lands gleams through.
Most charming of all are Poland’s Lor, a bunch of 16-year-old girls in flower crowns infusing sublime Joanna Newsome-ish piano folk ballads with an Eastern Bloc elegance. Like Panivalkova, they care not for accepted rock’n’roll practice - they even have the bands song-writer onstage explaining the inspirations behind each burst of haunting growing pain - The Little Mermaid, kittens and relatives getting locked in the garage at Christmas. And let’s not forget, if Beyonce were to get her songwriters to explain each song live she’d require a 200-seat stand on the side of the stage. They epitomise everything great about the rising wave of Eastern European music; bright-eyed, unconventional and not entirely sure what they’ll be when they grow up. Here’s a hundred more reasons to keep those borders open.
Words: Steven Kline
Featured Image: Acute Dose - Arpad Horvath
1 image: Panivalkova - Reka Vajda
2 image: Noep - Sinco
3 image: Super Besse - Arpad Horvath
4 image: The Qualitons - Sinco