Listen Up: Galaxisok

I have been looking forward to this post—the sixth in my Listen Up series—for a while, with some trepidation: What do I say about Galaxisok? Their music is serious fun, with catchy rhythms and melodies, subtle textures and chords, and some heartbreak and worries mixed in. The songs evoke pictures, films, states of mind, eras, stages of life; they tell stories, ponder dilemmas, and crack wry jokes. They sink into you, so that when you remember them, they are already classics for you. But what is the music like? Their own description (at least I think it’s theirs) offers more questions than answers. All I can do is bring up a few songs. But another problem with Galaxisok is that they have so many good songs, it’s hard to pick just a few. On the other hand, it’s hard to go wrong.

The band members — Benedek Szabó, László Sallai, Ákos Günsberger, and Soma Bradák — have substantial and multifarious musical knowledge (and knowledge of other arts), unusual views of the world, and a knack for a good hook. They bring their own different perspectives and influences together into that undefinable entity that is Galaxisok. There’s something about that tuneful, beatful music, the surreal world-weariness, that not only pulls me to the albums and songs but suggests that there will be many more. The songwriter and lead singer, Benedek Szabó, who grew up in Baja (one of my favorite cities in Hungary), has more stories to tell, more moods to draw and paint, more questions to raise.

At the Müpa concert this coming Wednesday, they will be playing their favorite songs from across their repertoire. So let me bring up some of my own favorites here. I bet there will be a little overlap.

I have to begin with “Galaxisok,” which appears on the first Galaxisok LP, Kapuzárási Piknik, which is basically a Benedek Szabó solo album, with Péter Futó on keyboards on five of the songs. The album title’s literal translation is “Gate-closing picnic,” but it’s a play on “kapuzárási pánik,” “closing gate panic,” or Torschlusspanik in German: the psychological state of terror over getting older, and the behavior that accompanies such panic: trying to act like you’re younger, doing things that younger people do, going out with younger people, etc. The title song sings of a point in life where you wonder if you’ve already lived more than you will live, and other questions and worries that come with that. As for the picnic aspect, there are lots of ways to understand it; I will leave that to you!

The album was released on Szabó’s 26th birthday (March 14, 2013) and was heralded with a wonderful write-up in Recorder.hu. At this point Szabó was already well known as the lead singer and songwriter of the dream-punk band Zombie Girlfriend, whose songs are in English. Kapuzárási Piknik is Szabó’s first album in Hungarian. I have no idea whether the idea was already in place for a band named Galaxisok, but I suspect the song came first, and then the band was named after it. The music is strongly reminiscent of the legendary ensemble Kaláka, but the lyrics take a different direction.

Wait, but now I have to digress, because this Zombie Girlfriend song “Stories of You and Me” (recorded in 2011, a full eleven years ago) is so good. I don’t know who else is playing on this song, but later the lineup included László Sallai, Eszter Kádár (about whom I know nothing), and, on a few of the songs, Dávid Korándi (Felső Tízezer, Cappuccino Projekt).

And now for the “Galaxisok” song! I will translate it, since I think that will help things. I take a few liberties with the translation, to preserve the rhyme, the rhythm, and the couplets. With the syllables placed correctly, this translation could be sung to the melody.


nedves a szemed, száraz a szád
spirálkarokkal ölelnek át
a galaxisok, a kertben a fák
az ablakod alatt ringatják
a lombjaikat, de te nem szereted
se az égieket, se a földieket

viszket a bőröd, a kezed remeg
könnyűnek lenni a legnehezebb
két hete folyton fáj a fejed
az orrodban apró kis hajszálerek
kárörvendően pattannak el
nézed a véred és nem érdekel
wet are your eyes, dry is your mouth
the galaxies hug you and spin you about
with spiral arms, in the garden the trees
under your window rustle their leaves
but you have no love for those in the skies
or those on earth below your eyes

your skin is itchy, your hands trembling
being light is the heaviest thing
for two whole weeks your head has ached,
two capillaries within your nose break,
snapping for good, no chance of repair,
you look at your blood and don’t even care

This song has the mixture of lightness, world-jadedness, and slightly grotesque beauty that I hear in other Galaxisok songs. Its quasi-abstract anxiety seems to flow out of the preceding song, “Huszonöt” (“Twenty-five”), which is about being twenty-five and still not knowing what you want in life but finding it harder to do the youthful things; being too old to rebel and too young to acquiesce; not knowing if you have a place in life at all. “Huszonöt” has a slow, dark texture, with a hint of Bowie, I think.

Their second album, A legszebb éveink (Our Loveliest Years, 2015), now has László Sallai on bass and vocals (in addition to Szabó and Futó). It has beautiful piano, keyboards, organ, and other instruments. You can listen to it and love it without understanding a word. In the interest of time, I’ll just bring up the first song, “A teljesség felé” (Towards wholeness), whose lyrics contain the album title. Interestingly, the video features not only Szabó, but Ákos Günsberger and Soma Bradák, who were soon to form Galaxisok along with Szabó and Sallai. Or probably, by the time of the video, they already had. The song, which begins, “esküszöm, hogy nem fogok hányni” – mondtam a taxisnak az astorián” (“I swear I’m not going to vomit,” I told the taxi driver at Astoria) has to do with solitude, feeling ill-adjusted to life, yet realizing that these are our loveliest years, years of getting up, going to work, getting drunk, lying down, and getting up again.

Their next album, their masterpiece Focipályákon sétálsz át éjszaka (You Walk Across the Football Field at Night, 2017), is the first album with the full band (at the time known as Szabó Benedek és a Galaxisok, later Galaxisok). If you like this kind of music and listen to this album enough, it could easily become one of your favorite albums in the world. It has become one of mine. Brooding, rocking nocturnal songs, with titles like “Boldoggá akarlak tenni (de nem tudom, hogy kell)” (I Want to Make You Happy but Don’t Know How,” “Húsvéti reggeli a Sátánnal” (Easter Breakfast with Satan), etc. “Éjfél” (Midnight), my favorite song on the album, has Domokos Lázár (of Esti Kornél and Lázár tesók) on “angel vocals.” But I am going to talk about another favorite, “Innen El” (Away from Here), because of its brilliant simplicity.

The guitar melody reminds me of other songs by other musicians, the vocal melody of other Galaxisok songs, yet this song stands out with its contemplative tempo, the sparseness of its syllables, its filmlike feel. It is at once a pop song and as far as you can get from a pop song. The lyrics are too sad and cryptic for pop, the arrangement too sparse, the pace too slow; that is precisely the song’s beauty. I love the drum/bass syncopation, the chords just before the chorus, and the slow ascending scale in the break. The song has to do with the dream of taking someone away from here but realizing that that would only be a trap, because the person would have to start all over again with a half-alien. In the song, distance exists not only in space, but in the mind, and in both cases, there is no way to go away; the faraway place exists in the imagination only. The chorus goes (I took slight liberties with the translation, to convey the cadences),

Én már csak képzeletben viszlek innen el.
Csak akkor figyellek, ha senki nem figyel.
Messziről nézni úgyis sokkal biztosabb,
mindig távolról voltam boldogabb.
I whisk you away from here only in my mind.
I watch you only when the world pays you no mind.
Gazing from far away is trustier by far,
I have always been happier from afar.

This album deserves attention to every song. But let’s go on to their 2018 album, Lehet, hogy rólad álmodtam (I might have dreamt about you), and in particular to the second song, “Láthatatlan lovak” (Invisible Horses), which I am pretty sure Szabó played in his solo concert in 2021. This song is important to the Galaxisok repertoire, not only because of the role that a dream plays in it (dreams and half-dreams figure largely in their songs overall) but because of the musical details. Here’s a wonderful video of Szabó commenting on the song and playing parts of it on piano.

This time, for the sake of space (this is already the second-to-last song that I will bring up in this post), I will just give a prose translation of the lyrics. You can listen to the song and read the original lyrics at the link below.

Prose translation, without the verse breaks that exist in the original:

In my dream it was summer again. In the mid-nineties, beside our old house, we wandered in the woods, you and I. Invisible horses were neighing in the garden, in the sky thousands of planes moved in a special pattern. We were waiting for piano class, but it’s also possible it was over. One of my friends’ brother found an old video. It was made on a residential block — lush trees and a playground, it’s evening, but still light. I know you lived there long ago. And you’re really in the picture, your semi-long hair is blurred. We don’t know each other yet, but you look happy from here. I was standing in the water in a suit, throwing frogs ashore. I got lost around our house when we headed back. In my dream it was summer again. We went up to the castle, but it was higher than I thought. For hours we were walking down.

And now I have to do the unthinkable and choose just one song from their most recent two albums, both released in 2020, Cím nélküli ötödik lemez (Untitled Fifth Album) and Történetek mások életéből (Stories from the Lives of Others). I have brought up a couple of songs from the latter on this blog, so I am going to cheat and choose a song on neither of the albums: their most recent single, “Ez a nyár” (This Summer). It has a punk feel, a mood of anger and anxiety, a rich sound, a terrific video (filmed in their practice space), and a particular chord that I love (at “egyhamar”). “Ohh, ez a nyár más mint a többi, ohh, ez a nyár nem múlik el egyhamar….” (Ohh, this summer is different from the others, ohh, this summer isn’t ending any time soon….). You can read more about it in Hungarian on the KERET blog.


Before wrapping up, I should mention Szabó and Sallai’s tradition of releasing a two-song Christmas EP together, with a song by each. There are three of these (from 2018, 2019, and 2020), as far as I know. There are also demos, live recordings, and other rarities. This is just a brief introduction to Galaxisok, but I hope someone will come upon this piece, listen to a few of the songs, and then go listen to more. I am lucky that the music is so close by, not just here in my room, but at concerts that I can attend. May this be the case for years and years.

The next Listen Up piece will be devoted to Sonny Smith / Sonny & the Sunsets, whose music I have listened to for over two decades. I hear some kind of affinity between them and Galaxisok. I keep dreaming that one day they will play a show together, in San Francisco, Budapest, or both. Who knows; it might happen. But whether or not it does, they will be neighbors in this series.

Photo credit: A still from the official video of Galaxisok at Fishing on Orfű, 2019. See also this wonderful video of them on the water stage at Fishing on Orfű in 2021.

I made a few small edits to this piece after posting it.

For more pieces in the Listen Up series, go here.

Update: The Müpa concert was so good that I forgot to pick up my backpack at the coat check afterwards! Playing and speaking about their own favorites, they gave us a thrilling long concert that included a few songs mentioned here and many others too—some of them already beloved in my ears, others still on my periphery. I can’t wait to go back to the albums this weekend (and will also go back to the Müpa for my bag).

Like Sea-Threads Catching Up Stars

Platon Karataev’s record release show rolled into magnificence. They didn’t push it; they let it do its own work (and it did, like sea-threads catching up stars). People around me were singing along to every song (from all three albums), not missing a word or a beat. The evening built and built. For me, some of the highlights were “Tágul,” “Partért kiáltó,” “Most magamba,” and “Rajokban száll” from their new album, Partért kiáltó; “Atoms” and “Valaki jár a fák hegyén” from Atoms; “Elevator” and “The Season of Singing” from For Her; Gergely Balla’s solo “Égboltba zárt madár,” and the cover of VHK’s “Halló Mindenség” that they played in the encore. I loved the textures and moods from moment to moment.

Soma Bradák’s drumming was all-out beautiful. Sometimes I stood on tiptoe to see what he was doing. Every band member was bringing so much to the music, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, sometimes perfectly, sometimes with imperfections that brilliantly wrapped into the rest. But Bradák’s percussion is at least physically in the backround by necessity, because he’s located behind the others. When I realize what he’s doing in “Partért kiáltó” (the song), for instance, or “Tágul,” I hear new depths in the songs.

In the morning, on the train back to Szolnok, I started reading the Partért kiáltó lyrics book and fell into awe of Emőke Dobos’s art. Her illustrations and text layout make music. I have never seen a lyric book like this. I don’t think a person would need to know Hungarian to understand it. In the quiet and rumble, as I read, the evening came back again.

I had headed out to Budapest on Friday shortly after the end of my school day. I went to the Huszár Gál bookstore to pick up some Kaláka CDs, met with Csenger and Kata and had a leisurely conversation with them, then went to Akvárium in time for the opening band, Törzs, whose music brought up memories of Slint, Sonic Youth, Dirty Three, and others but had its own rhythm and character. Then came Platon Karataev, then a thick sleep and breakfast at a nearby hotel (a worthwhile treat for this occasion), then a slightly delayed train ride back to Szolnok in the morning.

In the late morning, back at home, I led a Szim Salom synagogue service over Zoom and felt all of this coming together. These were not two separate lives; they were strands of one. I sang and chanted with joy, and listened to the rabbi’s wonderful dróse (teaching) about the words “naase venishma” as spoken by the people of Israel in Exodus 24:7. This literally means roughly, “[All that the Lord has spoken] we will do and hear/listen.” Why does the verse mention the doing first, then the listening? Hundreds of interpretations have been offered; Rabbi Katalin Kelemen, after introducing a number of them, focused on one in particular: the idea that they will listen for future commands, or future understandings of the same ones, and then do those as well, so that there is an ongoing cycle of doing and listening.

One could also interpret the doing and listening as simultaneous and in some ways identical. In speech, you have to name one first; by counterintuitively naming the “doing” first, this verse may even suggest something other than a sequence in time. Listening is a kind of doing, because when you listen to something, it becomes part of you in some way, no matter how you react to it.

If anything can top the past day, it’s the prospect of remembering it, absorbing it, even forgetting it a little bit, and taking it into my life.

I added to this piece after posting it.

A Few Brief Thoughts After the Concert

I don’t want to describe every concert I go to, because sometimes the thoughts I have aren’t verbal or structured. Sometimes I have lots to say, sometimes little or nothing. This piece is somewhere in between; I will just mention a few things that come to mind.

First, I love these boat concerts at the A38 Hajó and the TRIP Hajó. It’s great to get there early, enjoy the setting, and wait for the music to start. And to be quiet without talking, and to talk with people, both of which I got to do. And then listen to the music.

Cz.K. Sebő and his band played a rather short set. It was the first time I heard them play together in concert. I admire Soma Bradák, the drummer (also the drummer of Platon Karataev and Galaxisok) for his way of creating any kind of texture, and changing textures in the middle of a song. I loved the sound of the mallets. Some songs that stood out for me were “First Snow,” “Papermache Dreams” (which has become a favorite), “Chamomile,” “Someday,” and a very new song whose name I don’t know.

Felső Tízezer was just plain fun. The songs are punchy, wry, and tuneful; the crowd was dancing and singing, roaring out their favorite lyrics as they came along. This music is not what Sebő’s is for me, and will never be; it has a different spirit and imagination, a different view of the world. But it brings so much cheer, and there’s a lot to the lyrics, which I am starting to get to know. They remind me that many of life’s woes can be approached with humor and spunk. And they take many different directions, without inhibition. There’s a bounding (leaping) boundlessness to them.

I saw Zsuzsanna and Atti, and met their three children, who seemed to be having a great time. I saw Mesi too. Soon after Felső Tízezer finished, I took off so that I could catch the 10:50 train back to Szolnok.

Afterwards I was thinking about how versatile life is, and music too, how many different directions they can take, even in one room, even in the same person. The musicians last night all play more than one kind of music; their members overlap with Platon Karataev, Galaxisok, and Somersault Boy, and they have other projects too. I came home late, stayed up even later, got up in the morning, and worked on the new translation project, the first draft of which is now done. No one has to be limited: that is, we all have limitations of time, energy, ability, thought, but we don’t have to say, “Because I do X, I can’t do Y,” or “Because I listen to A, I can’t listen to B.” The world has more wiggle room than that, as does the soul.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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