Inner Ear: Hungarian Music For September Reviewed By Jakub Knera

In his latest report on the contemporary music scenes of Eastern and Central Europe, Jakub Knera compiles his highlights from Hungary, and talks with artists about the scene, the meaning of ‘underground’, and how they operate under the country’s political situation

Új Bála

“I always try to create unique-sounding worlds,” says Bálint Szabó. “The music should have the same effect on you as when you first hear an unknown bird singing to you, like the Birds Of Venezuela record by Jean C. Roché.” The Hungarian guitarist’s use of non-standard tunings began after he read László Krasznahorkai’s book The Melancholy of Resistance, and he first created his Gosheven project in 2017, to present microtonal guitar sounds and to push his practise away from the “male ideals” that surrounded him in his education. In an effort to share his interests with others, he founded the Decolonize Your Mind Society two years later. He likes to call himself a “guitar anti-hero”, meaning many things simultaneously: non-macho and non-heroic, but also non-Western and non-professional.

I’m speaking with a number of artists from across the Hungarian music scene. “The rhythm of my tracks is always my breathing pace,” says Alexandra Abigél Bánházi, aka Swanasa. “For me, the most important thing is to create my private mythology, to tell my own story,” says Gábor Kovács, aka Új Bála. “I guess these days, if you want to make music, you can do it, download an app or Ableton, and there you go; it’s no different in Hungary. The real question for me is why you want to make music and what makes things so-called ‘underground’.”

Kovács left Hungary a year ago because of both the country’s worsening political situation and his disappointment with the national music scene, particularly his view that as more musicians are willing to compromise their values, critical voices are disappearing. “I’m finding it impossible to perform dance music that has a huge history with queer people and people of colour in the same space – House Of Music – where a week before Viktor Orbán spread his xenophobic, homophobic, populist propaganda. It’s like playing the blues and getting paid by the KKK”.

Szabó, too, discusses how the country’s political leadership is affecting the music scene. “The regime does nothing about contemporary art and how artists live and work; they are not at all supportive. Or, it would be more proper to say, that they are against contemporary art since it doesn’t support their ideology in any way. It’s less repressive than the communists who pushed so many underground, but the current regime is doing it more intelligently and in more hidden ways”.

The Hungarian electronic music scene is centered around Budapest, except for a university in Pécs with an electronic music and media arts program that has supplied many producers to the scene in the past few years. Bánházi studied there. “I had only good experiences with the uni,” she says. “It summed up the many scattered thoughts in my head about electronic music, sounds, and myself. It helped me find my voice and sound.”

The most exciting things happen in underground spaces. Kovács cites Gólya, a leftist bar, venue and community centre run by the group behind the independent Lahmacun radio station, calling it a “kindergarten for investigative journalism and leftist media outlets.” Another essential space is Kripta, a DIY venue where the label Szégyen Tapes record most of their albums, and Art Quarter Budapest, a space in the suburbs containing many studios and a vast basement. There’s also an event series, Küss Mich, presenting music from hardcore punk to all kinds of bass music mutations to synth primitivism, as well as the initiative Noise N’ Roses, which sets up events in apartments and other unusual locations. Elsewhere the illegal rave scene is in bloom through crews like Pénz, Davoria, and Family Fast.

Crucial labels from Hungary include Farbweschel, Dalmata Daniel and Exiles, on the latter of which Bánházi released her new album. “Erik [Kolbenheyer], the head of Exiles, is always willing to help all artists even if there is no profit from it,” she says. She also shouts out UH Fest, an experimental music festival with more than two decades of history. There, Bánházi says, people from the scene can “charge and educate ourselves.”

For Kovács, ‘underground’ means something with a strong grassroots base, coming from an actual functioning community with shared values and morals. But this kind of scene in his homeland is small, with few promoters, so looking outside the country is necessary. “If Flixbus had a platinum membership card, I would be a proud owner,” he laughs. Autumn will see his new abstract post punk album with Hungarian vocals released via French imprint Tanzprocesz, while he’s recently launched a duo called Wash Club via Belgium’s Third Type Tapes.

Bánházi has also lived outside Hungary. “I can see how small our budget is compared to a Western one. Especially if we talk about gear and equipment or any support from the government, getting some financial support would be good to put ourselves on the world experimental music map.”

Says Kovács: “The word ‘European’ means something different from an Eastern and a Western point of view. The music industry when navigated from the West often sees the [Eastern] area as an exotic post-Soviet, post-Cold War zone that only attracts attention occasionally when, for example, a nuclear plant explodes, or war occurs”.

Decolonize Your Mind Society – A Second Invitation To An Uninterrupted Katabatic Lens
(Hunnia Records & Film Production)

Bálint Szabó’s band is inspired by non-European traditional music and non-tempered tuning systems, from which they create a psychedelic ritual based on a distinctive sound, unnervingly and polyphonically reminiscent of Horse Lords or Sunwatchers. With glissonic wind instruments, refretted guitars and retunable analog synthesizers, they paint with a colorful palette that has a rock emanation but at the same time neatly combines polyrhythm with a multi-layered approach to composition, microtonal sound and a search for non-obvious ideas on the peripheries of guitar traditions.

Új Bála – Letters Are Weird To Look At

Új Bála merges noise, psychedelia, and techno, but he says he is very much into minimalism; silence is very tempting to him these days. His music is getting slower, allowing him “to present how everything is falling apart,” resulting in the album Letters Are Weird To Look At. The tracks are slowed down – the rhythm tripping over itself, psychedelic beats alternating with acidic synth passages, and plastic swirls reminiscent of artificial woodwinds. The whole thing glides slowly, sometimes sounding like a march, as if someone has pulled down the tempo on a turntable, and from it a dark, muddled narrative emerges.

Ábris Gryllus – Nucleus of the Decay

If Új Bála looks at everything in slow motion, Abris Gryllus, known for his performative works with choreographers, sculptors, and dancers, creates music of decay and resignation. Nucleus Of The Decay is shorter than its 2020 predecessor AD, but similar in structure, with microsounds appearing against a backdrop of hauntological passages. The album is reminiscent of the work of Philip Jeck or The Caretaker, where he builds an ambient, spatial story among noises and loops reminiscent of post-classical synth layers. It is melancholic, sad, and alluring but also lyrical and seductive.

Fausto Mercier – Misinput Tycoon
(Genot Centre)

Misinput Tycoon is the sequel to Fullscreen, released four years ago, on which Roland Nagy, a sound engineer, former media arts student and producer, explores futuristic sounds that “reflect […] wasted time and digital traumas”. Despite its dense accumulation of electronic sounds and its juxtaposition of rhythmic parts and synth lines, the album draws me in with its unusual emotionality. Melancholy hangs over this record’s delicately woven compositions, in which ambient forms intertwine with distortions that do not explode but float and smolder.

Fattyú – Häxen
(Kajdum’s Tower)

Dungeon synth has been an increasingly explored aesthetic lately, and, as is often the case in such instances, it’s full of cliches. Fattyú (meaning ‘bastard’ in English) is a Hungarian black metal composer, songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist. His music sounds primitive, but the swirling synth sounds do not descend into overly nostalgic analog sounds. He generates a moody, immersive atmosphere in which rhythmic passages alternate with dense layers. The overall effect is of a medieval acid synth story, full of exciting counterpoints.

Pletyka – Demó
(Szégyen Kazetták)

The label Szégyen Kazetták (Shame Cassettes in English) targets the contemporary punk, post punk and black metal scenes. It often releases demos, emphasizing their particular openness to newer bands. Pletyka’s music differs from the rest of the label’s catalog, offering a soulful atmosphere, melodic vocals, and fascinating lyrics about the reality of being a young woman in Eastern Europe. The pace speeds up and slows down, but electronic interludes build up a hazy and non-obvious mood to complement this strangely suspended, psychedelic music. It’s simultaneously a rough yet delicate piece; and as a bonus includes an exciting cover of Wire’s ‘The 15th’.

Kamon Kardamom – Trifocal Wedding

(Kamon Kardamom)

This group formed by Bálint Bolcsó, Orsolya Kaincz and Gida Labus focuses on experimentation and improvisation. The acoustic-electronic trio creates analog music using numerous different objects, generating something more akin to a sound sculpture than an album. Their gently smoldering music has elements of musique concrète, consisting of delicate metallic rumblings and electronics reminiscent of the work of the Staubgold label. Unhurriedly built up, the tracks form a dense sonic mesh from which the individual elements emerge, building up dehumanized music while simultaneously sounding natural and free.

Swanasa – When You Need to Rest, Let the Sounds Hold You

When You Need To Rest, Let The Sounds Hold You contains four pieces and lasts just over 20 minutes, but is meticulously constructed. Alexandra Abigél Bánházi knows how to build sustained tension, dense drone-like passages (‘Dark Night of the Soul’), but also metallic and noise-like details. The whole thing has a subdued, delicate mood, ‘River’ veering between monotonousness and heaviness with elements of kosmische musik. A brilliantly constructed drama, this EP has both a certain restlessness and darkness, and at the same time something healing and soothing.

Fixateur Externe / Abstract Household Warfare

On this split of ten-minute recordings by bands from the Hungarian improv underground, Fixateur Externe combines free jazz with elements of sound poetry, language-play and psychedelic visions, where saxophone convulsions are joined by percussive beats that explode ecstatically with every minute. Abstract Household Warfare, meanwhile, represents the combined forces of two noise stalwarts, Rovar17 and Xpldnglke. In the build-up of noise vapors, we get lost amidst metallic phantasms, non-obvious transformations, a controlled multi-channel sound in which modulations, playing with textures, and a build-up of noise, which in the finale drifts away in a spatial drone.

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