Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Developed by Frontier Developments
Published by Frontier Developments
Genre Theme Park Simulation
The "theme park" genre is one of those strange niches in gaming that has proven surprisingly successful. Hardly the most obvious of subjects for the classic "tycoon" business simulation treatment, and yet from its debut with Bullfrog's classic Theme Park to arguably its apex with the Roller Coaster Tycoon ("RCT") franchise the genre has developed a broad and devoted fanbase.
After three RCT games in the first five years of this century, the genre has since fallen from the commercial limelight. Yet throughout this time the popularity of the games has remained strong, so it comes as no surprise to see them making a resurgence, with no fewer than three prominent theme park simulation games coming in the next year. These include the independently developed Parkitect, inspired by the older 2D Chris Sawyer games that started the Roller Coaster Tycoon franchise, as well as the newest entry in that franchise, Roller Coaster Tycoon World ("RCTW").
Those of you with keen memory might remember this blog doing a preview of RCTW at the start of this year in our 2016 Hot List. Well part of being a good observer is recognising when you have made a mistake, rare though it may be. So let's get this out of the way early and warn you that RCTW is a cynical cash-grab and a poor game, featuring none of the original production team, and packed to the rafters with bad ideas and worse design.
Fortunately in an uncanny repeat of the 2013 Sim City debacle, where a poorly conceived sequel to a well known franchise ended up losing out to a much better made underdog in Cities Skylines, there is a plucky young team of upstarts here to save the day with a completely new IP. Do not buy RCTW. Instead, buy Planet Coaster. Here's why.
Let's begin by saying that while Planet Coaster may not have the name-brand recognition of Roller Coaster Tycoon, it does have developers who previously worked both on RCT2 and RCT3, and therefore a much stronger link to the original games that built the genre. But this review isn't going to be a side-by-side comparison to show why Planet Coaster beats RCTW, instead it's going to celebrate the game on its own merits, of which there are plenty.
The gameplay will feel immediately familiar to anyone who has played the genre in the past, particularly RCT3, from which Planet Coaster borrows heavily in the look and feel of its 3D engine and camera. All the staples are here: hiring entertainers and staff, building rides and roller coasters, paths and queues, shops and restaurants. You can change ticket prices, customise the balance of ingredients in food and drink, research new products and constructions, and spend money on marketing campaigns to bring in additional business.
It might appear that not much has changed. In fact, while the number of roller coaster types shipping with vanilla is impressive, the number of non-roller coaster rides and shops is actually surprisingly limited compared to the original RCT games. But here's the first masterstroke of this game: modability and expansion.
Frontier have designed this game to last far into the future, and will continue to roll out additional content. There's already an update due this month featuring a bunch of new rides, along with the usual patch notes and tweaks. Perhaps even more intriguingly is the addition of Steam workshop, which allows players to make their own designs based on the templates provided and share them with others. Even now at this early stage there are thousands of downloadable designs for rides, shops and scenery that can be quickly and easily accessed at the click of a button. Going forward, it's additionally planned to release full modding tools for players to create entirely new types of content. And the best part is that all of this slips seamlessly and instantly into your game, you won't even have to start a new park to be able to build that ride you just downloaded.
Which brings us on to the true shining light of Planet Coaster, its creation tools. Old games in this genre have always had an extent of being able to raise and lower terrain, plant trees and place certain standard decorations, but there has never been a game which offers such powerful tools for player creativity as Planet Coaster.
The landscaping tools are remarkable and allow the sculpting of just about any shape or configuration of terrain you can possibly imagine, all seamlessly in real time. But even more revolutionary are the building tools, which consist of the base components of buildings and other structures that players can piece together like Lego to form, again, really any kind of building they can imagine. The potential output of these tools is near limitless, and already there are some astonishing creations by other players. None of these are from pre-built templates, these are completely bespoke, using the basic building blocks Frontier have provided. And the beauty is that even if you aren't creative, or if you can't be bothered, or simply don't have the time to get into all this detail, you can just download other players' creations from the workshop as above, providing a theoretically limitless supply of new high quality content.
The result of all this is that Planet Coaster is a theme park simulator which affords a simply unprecedented level of customisation, creativity, and potentially endless expansion. The things you can do with this game are impressive enough now, and it's still early days. This is a game we could feasibly be playing for many years to come without running out of content.
Visuals and Sound Design
This is a game which oozes charm. The artistic style is well balanced between realism and cartoon without being either too dry or too silly, the in-game brands and characters are well designed and will draw you into the world, and the entire interface is just clean and pleasant to play around with.
This quality extends to the sound design and in particular the musical score, written by Jim Guthrie who some of you might know from having performed in a variety of bands including Islands. It's rare that I even notice a musical score in a videogame, much less comment on it, but this is quite possibly one of the best videogame scores ever written. It's not something you necessarily notice right away, but play for a little while and all of a sudden it will hit you how much you're enjoying the music, and you won't be able to get it out of your head. Extremely high quality stuff.
Bugs and Flaws
Despite all these very positive things, there are clearly a number of areas where this game still needs work.
As mentioned, the amount of shops and non-roller coaster rides is a little underwhelming. At the same time, the management side of the game is even more thin, with only rudimentary business options which often provides even less depth than games which came out over a decade ago. Staff management is based around finnicky, clunky menus, and the staff themselves ridiculously temperamental and prone to quit for no reason. Perhaps most unfortunately of all is that the game just isn't that challenging. Once you have a decent stream of income coming in, that's it, there's little strategy and not much depth.
Then there are the bugs. The path building tool follows a free-flowing analogue design similar to the road tool in Cities Skylines, as opposed to a simple grid system. This allows for much more organic, better looking park design, but the tool itself is incredibly fussy, and often just plain refuses to connect.
Worse still is difficulty in building underground. The 3D engine and impressively craftable terrain allows the player to build some extremely detailed and gorgeous looking underground sections, which is simply a must for anyone trying to match the theme immersion of a Walt Disney (I mean how many Disney roller coasters can you think of that are simply out in the open? None, they're in mountains and other themed structures). The problem is that the camera is wholly inadequate for this function. Getting the camera down underground is a massive headache, and keeping it there nigh on impossible. The camera can and will randomly shoot back above ground or bug out in some other way, making the construction process a much longer and more tedious process of wrestling with the camera than it really ought to be.
But these problems are far from game breaking. If, like me, you mostly spend these games designing the park rather than actually playing, then you won't even mind the lack of business simulation, while there is every indication that the current bugs and annoyances will inevitably be fixed, fleshed out, and streamlined further in the weeks and months to come.
So at the moment Planet Coaster is very much on the creative/design focused side of the genre. The design tools are inarguably the best ever made, but undermined by tycoon elements that are disappointingly shallow, as well as a few extremely irritating bugs.
The good news is that despite these flaws, I can honestly say that Planet Coaster is some of the most fun I've had in gaming for a long time. The genuine love and care that has gone into every single detail of Planet Coaster is plainly evident from the first moment, and the effortless charm is impossible to resist, even for a bitter old sod like me.
Add to that the innovations and potential for expansion and it's clear that this is a game by true fans of the genre, for true fans of the genre. They've made a highly impressive start, but I foresee even greater things in its future.
Monday, 7 November 2016
The final curtain is approaching for what has surely been one of the cleanest and most civil Presidential elections in US history. America is torn between two beloved and upstanding individuals, really either one of whom would be a fine and capable President. But enough about the series finale of The West Wing, we're fucked.
On Tuesday night, the final ballots will be cast, and we will hopefully know who the next President of the United States is going to be. The stakes are high: President Obama has stated in no uncertain terms that the fate of the world is in the balance, while Republicans have continued the doomsaying that they've been peddling basically since the 1990s. So going into this final day, who has the upper hand?
The media, as it predictably always does, has been working hard to play up the horse race, making this election look as close and exciting as possible in order to drum up viewers. The truth is that Hillary Clinton is the most likely winner. She has consistently and comfortably led in the polls throughout the entire election, and her state polls have almost always shown enough safe electoral votes to guarantee victory.
Now let's be clear, Donald Trump definitely has a chance, but there have been so few polls at any point in this election showing him in the lead that at this point it would certainly require a polling error of historic proportions. And not just one polling error, polling error across the many dozens of pollsters than have been producing numbers this election. The fact is that polls in American elections are generally very accurate. A lot has been made of polls missing the Brexit vote, but it's simply not true. The poll of polls showed Leave winning for most of the run up to the vote, with Remain only just eking ahead in the final days. The bettors got Brexit wrong, not the polls. If anything Brexit serves as a golden example of why not to argue against polls just because they seem unlikely. In order to predict a Trump victory, you once again must argue against the polls, and that's rarely a winning argument.
But let's get to it then, read on below for our forecast, including a full electoral vote state map, and further analysis.
Presidential Election Verdict: Hillary Clinton Elected President
"Safe" Democratic Party electoral votes: 278
"Safe" Republican Party electoral votes: 185
Key States to watch: CO, PA
The map is pretty self explanatory. The data all comes from poll aggregator Pollster, with blue states being those where Hillary Clinton has a significant and consistent lead, red states where Trump has a significant and consistent lead, and the grey states are the current battlegrounds, where polls are closest. The diagonal lines denote states where individual electoral votes are awarded by Congressional district, two of which are considered toss ups. Each state has a certain number of electoral votes, as determined mainly by population. It takes 270 electoral votes to win.
As you will see from the current polls, the "safe" blue states already put Hillary Clinton over 270. This is a very strong position with which to be heading into the election. This essentially means that she can afford to lose every single grey state there, all the toss ups and battlegrounds, and she'd still win the election. Donald Trump has to win every single one of them, and even then he has to take one or two blue states.
So while certain polls may be suggesting this to be a close race, it is very much an uphill battle for Trump, with only very few real possible routes to victory. Even assuming he wins all the battleground states, which is in itself unlikely, Trump can really only win if one of the following happens:
- Trump wins Pennsylvania
- Trump wins Colorado
- Trump wins both of Nevada and New Hampshire
The key states to watch on Tuesday are going to be Colorado and Pennsylvania, and I'll get into why that is in a moment. For now though I think it's important to highlight the state of Nevada.
Nevada has been polling quite close this election, and for a long while even appeared to be favouring Donald Trump. Winning this state would open up a very plausible route to victory for Trump by taking New Hampshire, which has also been close, but does not in itself have enough electoral votes to swing the election unless combined with another blue state.
Nevada is a strange state though, in that most of the population actually votes before election day. Some 60-70% of Nevada has already voted, and the numbers from that early vote are so strong for Clinton that many pundits are starting to suggest that the state might already be beyond Trump. Nevada is a notoriously difficult state to poll, but the key discrepancy here appears to have been an underestimation of the Latino vote. This potentially has a wide ranging impact on the election, because if polls are underestimating Latinos in Nevada, it suggests that we may see a similar effect in other states with large Latino populations like Florida, Colorado and Arizona, which would doom Trump.
So based on this information we're going to put this state in the blue column, but err on the side of caution and assume that this is a phenomenon isolated to Nevada.
With Nevada out of reach, that really only leaves two plausible routes to victory for Trump: win Pennsylvania or win Colorado. If we're very generous towards Trump and say he wins all the grey on that map, that leaves him with 260 votes to Clinton's 278. Now Trump actually only needs 269 to win, because in the event of a 269-269 tie, the election gets decided by the House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Republicans. In other words either of Colorado's 9 electoral votes or Pennsylvania's 20 would be enough to give Trump the win in this scenario.
There has also been discussion about whether Trump could also take Wisconsin or Michigan, but we're going to stick with these two on the basis that a) those states have been polling pretty consistently for Hillary and have a long track record of voting Democrat, and b) that if Trump really wins those states then probably he's also winning Pennsylvania or Colorado anyway.
At the same time, one could of course say that the battleground states are all key, seeing as if Hillary wins even one of them she will almost certainly win the election. Polls show her leading in Florida and North Carolina and competitive in Ohio. If any of those get called early in her favour then the race is essentially done. The distinction though is that Clinton can afford to lose all these states, so if Clinton wins them yes the election is over, but if Trump wins them the race is still on. On the other hand, Colorado and Pennsylvania are likely to be determinative in either event. So while the winner of Florida may not tell you the winner of the election, the winner of Colorado and Pennsylvania probably will. Whoever wins those states will almost certainly win the Presidency.
So yes, the key states to watch are Colorado and Pennsylvania, once they have been called we will probably have a good idea of who will be President. But how likely is Trump to prevail there? Difficult to say. The polls have generally been close, but consistently in Hillary's favour. Pennsylvania's large population of white working class without college education makes Trump a strong contender, but Democrats have typically been able to rely on the much more diverse voters of Philadelphia to carry the state. Colorado, it is worth noting, also polled at a tie in 2012, but Obama ended up winning comfortably. The problem there, just like in Nevada, was underestimation of the Latino vote. So while the polls are close there, there is every reason to believe that Hillary is a comfortable favourite.
So in summary, Trump's most plausible route to victory lies through Colorado or Pennsylvania, but he's behind in the polls in both states. As we said before, this election will require a significant polling error for him to win.
Saturday, 5 November 2016
As the 2016 Presidential election comes to a close, it's time to start looking back at what we have learned over the past several months, about our politics, our government, and indeed ourselves as a nation. The Ephemeric will publish a more in depth final forecast before election night, but for now I'd like to get the ball rolling on this.
Does this false equivalency make me sound cool?
If there is one thing I am sick of hearing, it's people who say things like "what a terrible election, both candidates are horrible!" or asking "they really couldn't find anyone better than Clinton and Trump?", and accordingly deciding that they won't vote this year, or will vote third party.
One of the strangest themes of this election has been how fashionable it has become to speak of Hillary Clinton with the same tones of revulsion as one discusses Donald Trump. This is a woman who had previously been one of the most popular politicians in America with sky high approval ratings. Wife of a very popular former President, a distinguished career in the Senate and as Secretary of State. On paper one of the most qualified candidates of all time, and someone who has dedicated a career to social progress. What has changed?
Clinton is more truthful than most politicians, but voters refuse to believe it
The numbers are pretty clear: Hillary Clinton has a trust problem, with polls consistently showing that voters trust her even less than Donald Trump. Yet it's hard to see how this image has been cultivated. After all, the fact-checkers show Clinton to consistently be one of the most honest politicians in America, with 73% of statements rated true, while her opponent has by far the worst record, with an astonishing 70% rated at least mostly false. Of course, simply being better than Trump doesn't make her good, but for comparison, Clinton's record is more honest than both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, and better than every single Republican who ran for office this year.
So even setting aside her opponent's horrendous record for a second, Hillary Clinton is objectively more honest than just about any politician in America, and yet people don't believe it for some reason. This reputation hardly seems to be supported by the facts, and yet it's proven to be one of those deeply held beliefs that are hard to shake, to the point where I've seen people make some absurd excuses in order to dismiss information that appears to contradict that belief. When news broke this week of actors within the FBI leaking information on ongoing investigations to the Trump campaign, I actually heard someone defend them with "wow, Hillary must have done something really terrible to justify that".
To understand what in the world is happening, I decided to look deeper into why people dislike Hillary Clinton. I've spoken now with people of various backgrounds whose views range from "she's a murderer" or "sex pervert" (somehow) to "she's hiding something" or "she's a liar".
Let's get one thing straight from the off. Hillary Clinton is not a murderer. This website doesn't peddle in baseless conspiracy theories. She hasn't committed anything that could come close to being actions of sexual abuse or perversion. When pressed further on the vague "she's a liar" type statements, invariably the response comes back "something something emails".
Something something emails
Very few people actually seem to know what Hillary has apparently done wrong with regards to emails. They just know she's done something bad... with emails.
So, a little background: Hillary Clinton was accused of using a private email server to store classified information, something which is in itself not a crime if not done with intent to leak information, but would clearly show poor judgement if true. The FBI decided to look into this, and requested access to her emails. The FBI then ruled that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing, but her accusers have alleged that Clinton deleted a large number of the requested emails, with the implication being that she was trying to 'burn the evidence' as it were. This story has received a huge amount of media scrutiny this election, and indeed it seems to be the genesis of much of Clinton's trust problems.
There's just one problem, it's all nonsense. A complete non-scandal that has been fudged by her political opponents and blown way out of proportion.
Hillary Clinton did have a private email server, but did not store any information on that server which was deemed classified at the time of storage, although some of it was later classified after the fact. Clinton did not delete a whole bunch of emails requested by the police, and no official source has ever alleged as much, rather these were emails that were deleted over the course of her tenure, well before any investigation was ever started. I've deleted several emails today, not to hide anything, but just because that's what any sane person does with an email they don't need.
This most recent revelation that broke the news this week is even less substantive, a notification of new emails that weren't even sent by Clinton, were not stored on her private server, and may not even contain any relevant information.
Ultimately the FBI ruled that there was no evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever, and that "no reasonable prosecutor could possibly move forward with a case". No fact-checker or watchdog has ever endorsed these conspiracy theories, and even when these missing emails did leak (from the FBI's servers, ironically), there was ultimately nothing illegal in them. There remains absolutely zero evidence of any wrongdoing, and barely even the suggestion of any particular carelessness. The apparent contradiction of Clinton's accusers suggesting that she risked leaking information from her insecure server, while simultaneously complaining that these emails are hidden and unobtainable as a result of her tight security measures, seems to be lost on these people.
The political party who cried wolf
You might ask, why did the FBI even investigate something which isn't a crime, especially with such scant evidence? The investigation started, unsurprisingly, in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Hillary Clinton's political opponents, the Republicans. They, who have every incentive to accuse Hillary of wrongdoing, accused her of wrongdoing, and voted to open a full Congressional investigation.
Anyone who has been following politics these past eight years won't have been at all surprised by this. After all, this is the same Republican party that has conjured up frivolous scandal after frivolous scandal, seemingly every other week, to throw at their opponents, most prominently Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Acorn, Solyndra, birth certificates, death panels, Benghazi... The Republicans have spent years, and millions in taxpayer money, pursuing a seemingly endless series of baseless "scandals" against their opponents, and unsurprisingly every single one has proven untrue, and gone nowhere. It's important to remember these things, because the Republicans are counting on you to forget. This is the boy crying wolf for the thousandth time, and yet somehow Americans keep paying attention.
Lesson #1: Voters are apathetic and dependent on the media
This cuts to the real issue in this election. Most people simply aren't switched onto politics. Voter apathy is high, and being interested in politics is not "cool". People only tune in for the Presidential election years. Millions of voters are paying attention for the first time in years to find headlines about Hillary's emails all over the news, but without having the essential context that this is simply the latest in a long series of empty "scandals". For them, this is the first time hearing the boy cry wolf, so they don't appreciate that it's just noise.
Lesson #2: The media is obsessed with false equivalency
The media deserves a fair amount of criticism here. Clinton's emails have received the largest amount of media coverage this election cycle. More coverage than Trump violating federal law to break the Cuba embargo, more coverage than the dozen or so accusations of sexual assault against Trump, which Trump has been recorded on audio admitting that he did, more coverage than Russia's concerted effort to install Trump as a puppet leader, more coverage than Trump embezzling funds out of his charitable foundation, more coverage than Trump calling for his opponent to be jailed, or calling for his opponent to be assassinated. Each one of these are many orders of magnitude more serious than anything Clinton's been accused of.
Perhaps most damning of all, amid all this hyperbole over a Clinton case which doesn't even have enough evidence to go to court, the media has somehow completely ignored the fact that Trump has already been charged with fraud and racketeering, and will be in court defending himself a mere three weeks after the election. You would think the fact that a Presidential candidate is currently awaiting trial for fraud would be newsworthy... but then again something something HILLARY HAS EMAILS??!
It's a problem of false equivalency. If a news network reports a disproportionate number of negative stories about one candidate, they'll be accused of bias, and lose viewers, even if it's completely justified. News networks are therefore incentivised to create this false equivalency where they have a roughly equal amount of positive and negative coverage for each candidate, regardless of the reality.
So you really can't blame apathetic voters for tuning in, seeing both candidates portrayed in an equally negative light, and coming away with a somewhat warped view of the election, ie that both candidates are terrible. In particular, when they only have one negative Hillary scandal to run, but dozens for Trump, it stands to reason that Hillary's one story will get a lot more coverage than any single Trump scandal, so no wonder it's been a bigger issue for more people than Trump's much worse charges.
Of course comparison to Donald Trump does not vindicate Hillary Clinton, the weakness of the case against Clinton, as we have already outlined, does that already. But still, it needs to be pointed out repeatedly that Trump's scandals and alleged illegality are unprecedented in American politics, and yet the largest share of media coverage has been for a story which only exists due to rank partisanship and abuse of power by the Republicans, where Clinton has already been cleared of all wrongdoing. That is shameful.
The truth is, Hillary Clinton is about as clean a candidate as one will find. The strong fact-check ratings and the fact that this weak email nonsense is the best and only attack line her opponents can come up with after decades of vetting are proof of that. It's frankly a fairly unremarkable "scandal". What she did is nothing even vaguely unusual. President Bush did the same thing, Governor Bush did the same thing, Barack Obama did the same thing, and no doubt many other politicians did the same thing. Donald Trump, ironically, did the very thing of which he has wrongly accused Clinton. Frankly, in any other election this wouldn't even be a newsworthy story. Make no mistake, if this was Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders as the nominee, they'd just have cooked up a different scandal. They'd be harping on about Sanders having had pro-Soviet views in the past, or Biden doing something untoward while Vice President, or god knows what. You're fooling yourself if you pretend otherwise.
If this election teaches us one thing, it's the danger of voter apathy and a media that is incentivised towards sensationalism and false equivalency. When people don't pay attention to politics, they're more dependent on what they see in the news, and the news is increasingly incentivised to present a more "marketable" view of reality, rather than an accurate one. This inherently leads to the high level of misinformed voters that we are seeing this year. A lot of young people seem to think that rejecting both major candidates somehow makes you smart or informed, it doesn't.
Monday, 31 October 2016
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Written by Damien Chazelle
Produced by Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, J K Simmons
Studio Summit Entertainment
Running time 128 minutes
Recently I had the good fortune of attending a headline gala at the London BFI film festival, at the entirely social hour of 10am on a Saturday. Unsurprisingly, this was a considerably dressed-down affair, few tuxes on show at the early hours of the weekend. That didn't make the occasion any less memorable as we were treated to a preview screening of La La Land, followed by a Q&A with writer/director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling.
Film fans will know Damien Chazelle from his 2014 breakthrough with Whiplash, the unassuming film which came seemingly from nowhere to win critical plaudits and went on to garner five Academy Award nominations, including three wins. Sadly it missed the cut off for the Debbie Awards that year, otherwise it may well have won our coveted Best Film award.
Now with a huge hit to his name and worldwide recognition, Chazelle has found himself at last with the cachet to pursue his passion projects on a much grander and more elaborate scale. La La Land is nothing if not grand, a musical in the classical Broadway fashion, with intricate song and dance numbers, a star studded cast featuring Gosling, Emma Stone, and in a small role J K Simmons, who won an Oscar for Chazelle's last film.
Gosling is the starving jazz musician in an era that no longer appreciates his art-form, while Stone is an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop. It's a romantic film of course, and one steeped in Californian nostalgia, but at its core is about our life choices and the extent to which our ambitions clash with the things that truly make us happy. You read that and think to yourself "so what, another Hollywood love story?", after all the movie industry loves to kiss its own ass and does so in film form just about every year.
But this is not just some by-the-numbers self-congratulatory vanity piece. Strong performances far exceed whatever you might expect from such familiar archetypes, while whip-smart writing creates scenes that are genuinely funny, and tender when appropriate. The production itself is dazzling and the songs memorable. Sure, the story may tread well-worn ground, but it never succumbs to the obvious cliché that one might have feared, and its message is all the more powerful for it. This is a work of such high quality that it will win over all but the most hardened of cynics. I for one had a smile on my face the entire way through.
La La Land is that rare Hollwood tribute that manages to create the same kind of magic that it sets out to celebrate. Chazelle is a true talent in the making, and if Whiplash was the film that announced his arrival, then La La Land is the moment he takes centre stage. Without any doubt, the film to watch going into the awards season.
Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Created by The Duffer Brothers
Starring Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown
Genre Science Fiction, Horror
Running Time 8 episodes, 45-55 mins each
Those who know me best will know that I am partial to a good TV binge, after all I do go to the effort of drafting The Ephemeric's annual TV Hot List as an advance guide to a year's worth of television. At the same time, regular readers of this blog will know that in spite of this, I rarely actually post articles on the subject outside of this once a year preview. Today will be the rare exception. Stranger Things is the show that everyone is talking about right now; a series that has come out of nowhere, endured no fewer than fifteen network rejections before being picked up by Netflix, and has gone on to overtake House of Cards and Making a Murderer as the all time most watched original content on Netflix.
The basic premise of Stranger Things is simple: a young child goes missing in small town America, his young school chums go off on a grand adventure to rescue him, while simultaneously he is searched for by his mother and older brother, and, separately, the local chief of police. As the search proceeds it soon becomes clear that something strange, and decidedly supernatural, is afoot.
If this all sounds familiar, it's by design. Stranger Things is very much an homage to 1980s pop culture, with particular reference to the Steven Spielberg brand of kids' adventure movies like The Goonies and ET, and the small town Americana horror of Stephen King. Throw in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a dash of a John Carpenter "creature feature", and a pinch of John Hughes, and you have some idea of where this is coming from tonally. This is a show that is clearly very happy to wear its influences on its sleeve, from the setting and references, to the beautiful synth score, and the eye-searingly gorgeous artwork (see above). This is a show that oozes with nostalgia and fuzzy memories of millennial childhood.
But to summarise the show as merely a nostalgia piece would do it a disservice. Stranger Things contains some of the tightest writing of TV's golden age; a potent and immersive world and characters that are surprisingly complex and addictively easy to which to grow an attachment. Across Season 1's roughly eight hour running time the show never overstays its welcome, never feels like it's dragging things out, or that it's meandering aimlessly. Pitch perfect in tone and pacing, the show is self-aware and light where appropriate, but treats its surreal subject matter with the necessary respect. This is an exceptionally well made piece of television.
I have previously made a point on this website about the fine line of tastefulness that exists between nostalgia and cliché (see as a contrast the new M83 album Junk, which falls on the wrong side of that line). Stranger Things is very much an example of nostalgia done right, evoking the atmosphere and essence of a thing, without ever seeming pandering or forced. Rather than an endless parade of "hey remember this movie?" to drive the plot forward, Stranger Things manages to evolve organically within its own mythology and with a refreshing sincerity. Whether it's the asshole cop who rises to the occasion to become a hero, or the douchebag boyfriend who turns out to be a decent guy, the show celebrates well worn tropes while putting enough of its own spin to avoid feeling obvious or derivative. It's a show which celebrates the simple conceit of its source material while maintaining the modern sensibilities that help the characters and setting ring true in a way that even its greatest sources often failed to do.
Then there is the cast. Winona Ryder takes the top billing as one might expect, but arguably it's the fabulous David Harbour who takes the main plaudits. The child actors themselves are a surprising delight. Child actors can be an annoyance when used poorly, but this astoundingly talented array of young actors never put a foot wrong. Pay particular attention to the name Millie Bobby Brown, who is surely destined for great stardom after this breakthrough performance. These few that I have mentioned are no exception, the casting is spot on right down to the smallest role.
Stranger Things then is a deftly written, brilliantly acted, and impeccably produced few hours of television. But the show's success lies in how all these qualities sum together to form something that's even better than it should be. It's show of which every fiber, every character, every moment is so full of love and care that it will win over even the most skeptical viewer with its high quality, and its sheer sense of fun. Will the Duffer Brothers ever produce something of this magnitude again? It's too early to say, but what they have created here is truly hard to fault, and if you haven't watched it yet, you simply must.
Monday, 22 August 2016
The Rio Olympic games have been enthralling so far. Despite pre-tournament worries of Zika, crime, or terrorism, events have gone ahead mostly as planned, which thankfully allows us to focus on the sport side of things.
Indeed it has been a tournament for breaking records and setting historic milestones, but the subject that I'm hearing people discuss most at the moment is the sensational story of Team GB. How has such a tiny country, one with a generally undistinguished history at the Olympic games until recent years, come out all of a sudden to become such a global sporting powerhouse?
As one can see from the official Team GB website, there has been a clear improvement in the country's performance at the summer games, beginning with 2008 in Beijing, a run of success that has seen Team GB finish fourth, third and so far second in the three summer tournaments since then. In the twenty years preceding those games, 1988-2008, Team GB won an average of 23.4 medals per game. From 2008 onwards, that average increases by 130% to 54 total medals, a number that will certainly increase even further as the Rio games continue to unfold.
Now a note of caution: the summer Olympics only take place every four years; with such a small data set you're bound to get some funky data. But any accusation that 2008 was a fluke, or that 2012 was just down to home advantage must surely have evaporated now given Team GB's showing in 2016, away from home in a hostile climate, and at the time of writing having won more medals than even massive China.
It's perhaps most starkly illustrated when you analyse the data of medals won per capita. On first glance, Great Britain ranking at thirteenth may not seem all that overwhelming, but look closer. All the other major players at the Olympics, USA, China, Russia, all way down the list. Most of the top ranked nations on this list are tiny micronations with a population of a million or fewer that have by some chance won a medal. If you look for larger countries, with population of 25 million or more, Team GB is ranked top. More pertinently if you look at the countries that have won more than just a handful, ten medals or more, GB is top.
So how did they pull it off? Well if you look again at the data, there's another strong correlation, GDP per capita.
Sunday, 21 August 2016
Welcome back football fans. With such a busy summer of sport behind us you may not even have noticed the absence of Premier League football, but the Ephemeric has felt it deeply. The season ahead promises plenty of drama, convoluted narratives that would make Game of Thrones blush, and hopefully some decent football. As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few inevitably accurate predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.
Premier League 2016/17 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester United
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham
Relegated: Hull, Watford, Burnley
Golden Boot winner: Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)
Golden Glove winner: David de Gea (Manchester United)
Player to watch: Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
New signing to watch: Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Young player to watch: Reece Oxford (West Ham United)
First manager to get the sack: Walter Mazzarri (Watford)
Shock of the season: Paul Pogba is just ok...
Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Position last season: 2nd
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Poor Arsenal, it just never happens for them. Even in a season where all their main rivals fall by the wayside, someone comes out of the blue, just for the purpose of stopping them from winning a first league title in 15 years. On the bright side they finished 2nd, a high point in recent years that breaks the 4th place curse that has become so regular as to have taken on "meme" status, but as a new season dawns they still look a side that is incapable of delivering the big prize.
Typically the problem with Arsenal has been money, not that they don't have it, but that they refuse to spend it. Whether by some misplaced morality, or the simple greed of the club's board, the club has become typified by a lack of ambition. Now with massive recent outlays on transfer spending, including the £50 million deals for Ozil and Sanchez, and this summer nearly £40 million on Granit Xhaka, the club seems finally to have accepted this new reality. Now the question is whether they waited too long and are simply too far off the pace to seriously challenge the big clubs.
But more positive is the return to form of certain key players, most notably Mesut Ozil who in his first few seasons with the club had appeared to be written off as one of the Premier League's big-money flops. Last year he finally showed glimpses of the potential that had made him such a prospect all those years ago, and if he can keep that going this season he'll be one of the league's stars. Meanwhile Xhaka looks to be another smart signing, albeit one for whom Arsenal might have overpaid, but notably the club seems uninterested in strengthening the areas that most need attention, ie a striker, an experienced defender.
Key Signing: Granit Xhaka
Key Man: Mesut Ozil
Verdict: Should be another solid season for Arsenal, but if they couldn't mount a title challenge last season, they never will.
Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Last season: 16th
Manager: Eddie Howe
An impressive Premier League debut for Bournemouth, who comfortably stayed up, and pulled off some strong results in the process including victories against Chelsea and Manchester United. For them the question is whether they can kick on from here, or suffer the dreaded second-season syndrome.
Their challenge is not helped by the departure of key player Matt Ritchie to Newcastle, but they have not been shy about strengthening the playing staff, with the record signing of Jordon Ibe from Liverpool, and quite intriguingly Nathan Ake on loan from Chelsea. There has been little in the way of defensive reinforcements, which is surprising for the second leakiest defence in the league last season.
Thin depth at the back of the pitch aside, they are well stocked in the midfield and up front, especially with striker Callum Wilson back from injury. There is no doubting the difficulty of what lies ahead, but Eddie Howe is a good manager and on paper they don't look worse off than last year.
Key Signing: Jordon Ibe
Key Man: Callum Wilson
Verdict: A tough season in store, with a real threat of relegation, but Bournemouth can survive if their new signings gel.
Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Last season: Promoted (1st)
Manager: Sean Dyche
Sean Dyche has been with the club a long time now by modern standards. He has seen the club relegated and he has seen them promoted, most recently as Championship winners. But the Premier League is a different beast, and even winning the lower division is no guarantee of Premier League success.
There are red flags already. After promotion, you have to strengthen, and yet a lack of transfer activity over the summer has left Burnley's squad looking even weaker than it did last season. Joey Barton and Michael Duff have gone, and their biggest transfer moves have so far been rebuffed by the selling club, it's starting to look bad.
Dyche is a fine manager and has a proven record at working well with meagre options, but that won't be enough on its own, given how competitive this league has become. Even other lower half of the table teams are spending tens of millions on new players, it's no longer the case that such an outlay is a luxury, it is the bare minimum needed to survive.
The one bright side appears to be the imminent signing of Belgian midfielder Steven Defour, which promises to be something of a coup for the club and go a long way towards steadying the ship.
Key Signing: Steven Defour
Key Man: Andre Gray
Verdict: One of the favourites for the drop, but the signing of Defour might yet save them.
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Last season: 10th
Manager: Antonio Conte
Chelsea never do things simple do they? This time last year they had just been crowned Champions by a comfortable margin, but even then there were red flags. In the Ephemeric's preview, I lambasted the club's transfer policy and warned that combined with a blisteringly tough start to the fixtures, a poor season could be in store, even while all other pundits were tipping them for the title. Sometimes I hate being right, but even I would never have predicted the complete and utter devastation that occurred.
Mourinho promptly got the blame and the sack, whether deservedly or not. The new manager Antonio Conte looks more than capable, but then so was Jose. The issue the club faces is that they appear not to have learned their lesson even after the disaster they just witnessed. N'Golo Kante from Champions Leicester is a very astute signing, and Michy Batshuayi looks like potent support for Costa, but Chelsea's problem last year was not a lack of firepower or midfield strength, it was a complete dearth of defensive quality.
A right back playing at left back, three centre backs, two of which are in their mid thirties, the other is crocked, and a right back who can't run any more. Chelsea's disjointed defence was their undoing last year, and it will be again this year. At the time of writing not a single defensive signing has been made, and the club starts the season without a left back in the squad, not one. Chelsea's board seem to be in denial, and it will cost them again this year.
Key Signing: N'Golo Kante
Key Man: Eden Hazard
Verdict: Yet another season of disappointment awaits the most mismanaged club in the league. Top four surely beyond reach.
Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Last season: 15th
Manager: Alan Pardew
Big things were expected of Crystal Palace last season on the back of some very positive signs of progress in previous seasons, and they duly... did not deliver. Alan Pardew has kept his job, and probably rightly so, but he needs to address the problems that still face the club and start taking them forward again.
His approach over the summer to taking on this challenge appears to have been an increase in transfer market activity, and the club has spent big. Andros Townsend, James Tomkins, and Steve Mandanda are all very good signings, but that only scratches the surface. Even bigger money bids were made for Batshuayi, who ended up moving to London rivals Chelsea, and Berahino, who so far has opted to stay at West Brom. They finally got their target position sorted with a huge £27 million signing of Christian Benteke, an addition that could turn out to be a major boon for the club.
But even without further signings they have a solid squad on paper. Wayne Hennessey has always been very dependable in goal, Yohann Cabaye remains a giant in the midfield, and up front they have the attacking talent of Connor Wickham and Wilfried Zaha. This is a squad that succeed in the Premier League, and a manager with plenty of experience in doing so. It's worth noting the role that injuries to key personnel played in last season's disappointment. If Pardew can keep these lads fit they should do well.
Key Signing: Christian Benteke
Key Man: Yohann Cabaye
Verdict: Minimum expectation is to finish higher than last season, and a push into the top half is not beyond them.
Ground: Goodison Park
Last season: 11th
Manager: Ronald Koeman
Everton... it all looked to be going so well under new manager Roberto Martinez, but two disappointing seasons in a row was apparently the limit, and he was shown the door last year. Ronald Koeman is the replacement. The former Barcelona star had a very solid tenure as Southampton's chief, stepping into the hard to fill shoes of Mauricio Pochettino, but Everton will be a different sort of challenge.
The squad is strong, but lacking balance. New investment from billionaire Moshiri will need to be put to good use. The selling of defender John Stones was not a good start, but the astonishing £50 million fee was understandably difficult to turn down, and they have replaced him well with Swansea's Ashley Williams. Stekelenburg and Gueye are fine signings too, but they will need more, especially if Lukaku leaves.
But the key addition is Yannick Bolasie formerly of Crystal Palace, for a huge £25 million fee. A fine player, but is it the statement of intent that Everton needed? Good things may yet be to come in the ensuing years, but this season looks to be more of a settling period, for the new manager and owners alike.
Key Signing: Ashley Williams
Key Man: Romelu Lukaku
Verdict: Too soon for a major improvement, but expect another solid upper mid table finish.
Nickname: The Tigers
Ground: KC Stadium
Last season: Promoted (Play-off)
Manager: Mike Phelan
Club owner Assem Allam has never been popular with the Hull fans. Since taking over the club he has been determined to implement all sorts of controversial and out of touch ideas such as changing the name to "Hull Tigers". These haven't panned out, and now due to illness he has become less involved in the club. This has only led to more drama, with manager Steve Bruce first falling out with Allam's son, and then resigning just days before the start of the season due to frustration at the lack of transfer activity.
So here is the club, starting the year with an astonishingly small squad with only 13 full squad members, a caretaker manager, and complete uncertainty at what the future holds. But they are in the Premier League, and as long as they're here they have a chance.
This is a squad with some solid and experienced players, Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone, and Curtis Davies among them, but it's shockingly thin in depth, and with seemingly nothing on the horizon, one has to make them a favourite for the drop, but then again, sometimes adversity can spur a team on to great things.
Key Signing: Will Mannion is so far the only signing...
Key Man: Michael Dawson
Verdict: Favourites for relegation, will have to rise in the face of serious adversity.
Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Last season: Champions
Manager: Claudio Ranieri
Last year's title win will go down as one of the greatest stories in the history of sports, an astonishing upset, a huge triumph above all expectation, not just for the players but for the manager. Now the question will be, was it just a fluke?
Leicester City have a lot of money at their disposal, a capable manager, and as last season showed, a pretty good team. But even with last season's heroics, you'd have to say that on paper they still aren't at the same level as the other big clubs in England. It would be crass to dismiss what they accomplished as a fluke, but sometimes clubs do simply perform above their level, and that can be enough to achieve incredible things.
At the same time, they have lost a key player in N'Golo Kante. His replacement Nampalys Mendy will be under great pressure to fill his role. But they have kept Mahrez, they have kept Vardy, and they have added six players to the squad. This is not a club under any illusion of invincibility and one incredible season at the top will not distract from what has been a succession of very positive years of development leading up to that triumph. This is a club with a long term plan and solid foundation, the key thing is not to win the title again this season but to keep the long term development going.
Key Signing: Nampalys Mendy
Key Man: Riyad Mahrez
Verdict: Will struggle to meet last season's lofty achievements, but top 10 finish should be doable.
Last season: 8th
Manager: Jurgen Klopp
That one year Liverpool nearly won the title under Brendan Rodgers now seems a bit of a fluke. Yet with Jurgen Klopp, one of the hottest managers in the world today, the feeling is finally one of genuine optimism and direction. Can he take this club back to the top?
Now it might seem like such statements are made every season, and there is something to that, especially with the dominance of ex Liverpool players in the pundit class, but the things Klopp accomplished at Dortmund are not to be sniffed at, when faced with the total monopoly of German football and sponsorship that is Bayern Munich. That they won the title and damn near won the Champions League should not be understated. Add to that the return to fitness of key players like Daniel Sturridge, and this should be a very different looking Liverpool side to the one that we watched for most of last season.
Some big signings have been made in the form of Mané and Wijnaldum, but then Liverpool are no stranger to the big money transfer that doesn't pan out. Will this be different? The key to Liverpool's success will be the fitness and consistency of key players like Philippe Coutinho, a man who has shown glimpses of brilliance throughout his Liverpool career.
Key Signing: Sadio Mané
Key Man: Philippe Coutinho
Verdict: A return to the top 6 looks likely.
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Last season: 4th
Manager: Pep Guardiola
Manchester City finished a disappointing 4th place last season, but really it should come as no surprise when you announce half way through the year, in the midst of a tight title race, that the manager is to be replaced at the end of the season. Unsurprisingly, after that announcement the club's title challenge fizzled out.
Now the board has got it's man Pep Guardiola, one of football's great charlatans who has made a career of taking over the best club in the world and then making them no longer the best club in the world. How will he fare at a club that's not the best in the world? Not well we reckon. If his mediocre tenure at Bayern damaged his reputation, City could be the venue where it finally gets buried.
His saving grace is that the Manchester City team he inherits is probably still the strongest in the league on paper, and most likely would have won the title last season if not for the board's astonishing self-sabotage. From Joe Hart to Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany, Raheem Sterling, and Kolarov, this is a club that is overstocked with talent in every position, in a way that no other British club can match.
Pep hasn't been shy about adding to that squad either, with a huge £150 million spent so far on the likes of John Stones, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus. It's a bold gesture of faith from the board, especially considering none of his signings for Bayern or Barcelona ever exactly became key players. With all the money he spent, it was always the players he inherited that carried his teams.
On the balance of things, you'd have to say City have a good shot at the title, with such a great squad. But for me they're not the favourites.
Key Signing: John Stones
Key Man: Sergio Agüero
Verdict: Without doubt a title challenger, but likely to fall short in my view.
Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Last season: 5th
Manager: Jose Mourinho
Manchester United are, quite simply, the team to watch this season. They have one of the best managers in the world in Jose Mourinho, a year after his latest flameout with Chelsea. He's a man with something to prove, and with his arch rival Pep managing Manchester United's arch rivals City, there's some extra venom to this story.
Then there's the new faces. Obviously we have the world record signing Paul Pogba. If Chelsea were red-faced at letting Nemanja Matic to go Benfica for cheap, only to re-sign him at 5 times the cost 2 years later, this one really takes the cake. Pogba was sold to Juventus for free, now to be re-signed just years later for near £90 million. It boggles the mind. How can anyone live up to that fee? We shall see.
But he's not the only signing. Eric Bailly is solid at the back, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic has always performed and brings some great experience and mental edge to the team. He joins a healthy mix of hotly tipped youngsters like Rashford and Martial, and some well seasoned veterans such as Davide De Gea and Juan Mata. But still the key man remains the legendary striker Wayne Rooney. Whether he plays up front or in a deeper midfield role, everything good that the team creates flows through him.
The squad is strong, but perhaps less so than City. Still, the combination of momentum, talent and managerial brilliance make United our favourites for the title.
Key Signing: Paul Pogba
Key Man: Wayne Rooney
Nickname: The Boro
Ground: Riverside Stadium
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Aitor Karanka
A tasty new addition to the Premier League. It's been a number of years since I last had the pleasure of previewing Middlesbrough, and they make for an interesting prospect in this new season. Promoted as the runner up in the Championship after a number of seasons threatening to make the cut, they now look well prepared for a strong return to the top flight.
Perhaps most interesting is the manager, Aitor Karanka, the former Mourinho assistant manager from Real Madrid days. Karanka has been hotly tipped for a while now, and despite some rocky waters last spring, seems to be doing a fine job with Boro. Now for the first time he faces his mentor in competitive football.
Their squad is not bad for a newly promoted side, featuring the experienced hands of Stewart Downing and David Nugent. Crucially they have made a concerted effort to strengthen over the summer, something which usually determines how well a newly promoted side is likely to fare. And they have made some interesting moves with Victor Valdes, Brad Guzan and Fabio among 8 new acquisitions so far. They have also loaned Alvaro Negredo for the year in a move that could be the most significant.
Their defence last season was remarkable, if they can transition well to top flight football then they will be well prepared for the rigours of the stronger competition. Negredo in the meantime will provide a much needed boost to what has been a lacklustre attacking force.
Key Signing: Alvaro Negredo
Key Man: Ben Gibson
Verdict: Well placed for survival.
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Last season: 6th
Manager: Claude Puel
One of the Premier League's great success stories in recent years, Southampton's rise to the top has been hugely impressive. But a series of managerial changes and player departures has started to leave them looking a bit disjointed. A club that wishes to remain at the top needs to at some point consolidate what they have, and yet Southampton continue to turnover at a rate more befitting a club of less promise.
Few will have heard of new manager Claude Puel, and this summer has seen the untimely departure of the likes of Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama. On the flip side, they have signed the very impressive Nathan Redmond, and a line up featuring James Ward-Prowse, Fraser Forster, Oriol Romeu and Shane Long is more than impressive. This is a side that can compete at a high level.
Still the season starts with rather more of a dour mood than in recent years. Particularly after an impressive 6th place last year finish fans might have hoped for a real statement of intent going into this season. That has not happened, and a tricky season lies ahead.
Key Signing: Nathan Redmond
Key Man: Fraser Forster
Verdict: A slight step backwards and a mid table finish likely.
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Last season: 9th
Manager: Mark Hughes
Last year we predicted a strong season from Hughes and the boys, and they duly delivered. Mark Hughes has done a very impressive job with this team in shaking off the utilitarian ways of Tony Pulis and building a side that can play real football and play it well.
Having been extremely active in the transfer market in recent seasons, this year looks to be something of a consolidation. They have made one marquee signing in the very talented Joe Allen, but otherwise they look to line up with mostly the same eleven, barring further moves.
For this reason Stoke will be one of the more interesting sides to watch this season. No one expects them to push for Europe, and they probably are safe from a relegation tussle, but to watch this club's continued evolution from the rugged jalopy of football into something representing more of, if not a ferrari then an alpha romeo, is fascinating.
Key Signing: Joe Allen
Key Man: Marko Arnautovic
Verdict: Could be a special season for Mark Hughes and his team.
Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Last season: 17th
Manager: David Moyes
Another year, another managerial change, and this time they have turned to the once highly regarded David Moyes. That's manager number seven in five years.
Sunderland were one of the favourites for the drop last season, and only escaped through a last minute miracle of former manager, now England manager Sam Allardyce. A lack of meaningful transfer activity means they are likely to face a similar challenge this year. So far the only major signing has been Papy Djilobodji, the much mocked last minute Chelsea signing of last year, who failed to play a single game for the club. At £8million it's hardly a cheap move either, but we'll see how it plays out. A loan move for Manchester United's once hyped midfielder Adnan Januzaj is more hopeful.
Elsewhere there's many familiar faces, Lee Cattermole, Jermain Defoe, Jack Rodwell, Fabio Borini, and the excellent Patrick Van Aanholt. It's really not a bad team on paper, which makes their continual struggles all the more surprising. For whatever reason, these players haven't gelled, and off the pitch travails haven't helped. There's no more room for error now though.
Key Signing: Adnan Januzaj
Key Man: Lee Cattermole
Verdict: A tough season to avoid relegation, but they have the talent on paper to survive.
Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Last season: 12th
Manager: Francesco Guidolin
It's a genuine shame to say that after a few very promising seasons in charge, Garry Monk was dismissed last season. Despite this, Swansea had a fairly decent season with a creditable mid-table finish. New manager Francesco Guidolin will have to ensure that disruptions off the pitch don't start to derail progress on it.
They're not off to a good start, with huge upheaval in the dressing room following the mass exodus of players that has seen no fewer than twelve players leave, including some key personnel such as Ashley Williams, André Ayew, and Eder. At the same time they have brought in a good seven new signings, most notably the extra firepower of Fernando Llorente, and Borja Baston.
There's a lot of new faces, and one would have to assume there will be a gelling process before we see this Swansea team come together. Expect a transition year.
Key Signing: Borja Baston
Key Man: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Verdict: Probably safe from relegation, but mid table is realistically the best they can do.
Ground: White Hart Lane
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino
Last season was a stunning success for Tottenham, one that has cemented Pochettino's status as one of the hottest managers in football. Champions League qualification is already a great step for the club, but more than they they have emerged as genuine title challengers, and weren't too far off winning it all last season until a late season slip.
So a very exciting time to be a Tottenham fan. The management have clearly decided that few changes are needed, and that more valuable will be to allow the impressive squad more time to develop as a cohesive unit. As such there have been just two signings so far, Vincent Janssen providing more options up front, and Southampton's very talented Victor Wanyama in the midfield.
The squad undoubtedly ranks among the strongest in the league, with Lloris, Kyle Walker, Dier, and Eriksen all top performers, but the real star is of course Harry Kane, who has been in phenomenal goalscoring form these past two years. If he keeps that up this year, anything is possible.
Key Signing: Victor Wanyama
Key Man: Harry Kane
Verdict: A good shout for top four.
Ground: Vicarage Road
Last season: 13th
Manager: Walter Mazzarri
The rollercoaster continues, another managerial change, and another summer of mass squad upheaval. Last summer following promotion Watford signed fifteen players, this summer they sold or released twelve of them and another seven have come in.
Despite this madness, the team actually performed fairly decently last season, coming comfortably in the mid table and never really looking at danger of relegation. A similar result for this year is surely looking unlikely. New team, new tactics, stories of unrest, and a poor pre-season does not paint an optimistic view of the season ahead.
It's hard to put a firm prediction on the league's least predictable team, but all signs suggest a tough season ahead. Past form suggests they won't go down without a fight, but Watford are one of a few teams with a real risk of relegation.
Key Signing: Younes Kaboul
Key Man: Troy Deeney
Verdict: Premier League enigmas, but will do well to escape relegation.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Ground: The Hawthorns
Last season: 14th
Manager: Tony Pulis
An up-and-down season for the Baggies saw them headed, as predicted, for relegation. But ultimately the well tested skills of Tony Pulis kept them stable, kept them focused, and saved the day.
Tony Pulis is one of the very best when it comes to winning Premier League points with only meager resources at your disposal. He did it with Stoke, and he did it with Crystal Palace. With Pulis at the helm, West Brom will be safe from relegation. The question now is can they push on and make a case for the top half of the table.
To do that they will have to address the lack of goalscoring prowess they showed last season. They are well stocked in defence and midfield, having failed to score in nearly half their league games last season it's quite clear where the weakness lies. It's surprising, then, that West Brom haven't been more active in the transfer market, with only the one, fairly unremarkable signing so far.
The extra spice to the tale is the club's recent acquisition and new owner. Pulis' job appears to be safe for now, but questions remain on how this will affect the club's ambition going forward.
Key Signing: Matt Phillips
Key Man: Darren Fletcher
Verdict: Should be safe, but on the lower end of mid table.
WEST HAM UNITED
Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: The Boleyn Ground
Last season: 7th
Manager: Slaven Bilić
By all accounts last season was a phenomenal success for the Hammers. Promising things were expected under hot new manager Slaven Bilić, but few would have expected the very credible push for European qualification that the club ultimately put forward.
Now with a new stadium, highly regarded manager, and a team that's performed above expectations, West Ham starts this season in one of the most optimistic positions the club has found itself in for many years, with the new expectation being a top half finish for sure, and hopefully another push into the top seven.
But there's a lot of work on to achieve this goal. The squad is strong, sure, with Dimitri Payet, Mark Noble, and Adrian particularly impressive last season, but this is a team that needs depth, particularly with the additional challenge of European football on the table. So far the major transfer has been Andre Ayew of Swansea, but a good eight other players have joined him as new signings.
This is a team with big changes, and they likely are not done yet. While hopes remain high, the challenges are many and fans would do well to temper expectations for the next nine months.
Key Signing: Andre Ayew
Key Man: Dimitri Payet
Verdict: Will push for top 7, but comfortable mid table position likely.
1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
7. Leicester City
9. West Ham
12. Crystal Palace
13. West Brom
14. Swansea City
Tuesday, 9 August 2016
Summer Music Round-Up Part 2: "Red Hot Chili Peppers", "Christine and the Queens", "Michael Kiwanuka"
Hello everyone and welcome back to the Ephemeric's Summer Music Round-Up on this beautiful Saturday afternoon (note: if by the time this post is complete it is no longer a Saturday please disregard that last sentiment).
In Part 2 of our guide to the best music of the summer 2016 we will review three of the hottest albums out right now, with the new LP releases of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Christine and the Queens, and Michael Kiwanuka.
"The Getaway - Red Hot Chili Peppers" Album Review
At this stage, Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of those venerable rock bands that seem to have been around for ever, and one for which most people have a soft spot tucked away somewhere.
Still there is no denying that they have been on the wane in the recent years of their career, perhaps most punctuated by the departure of former lead guitarist John Frusciante. Even prior to that, however, their's is definitely a sound in a rut, short on new ideas, increasingly frequently recycling riffs and melodies and sticking to the tried and tested radio-friendly sound that they settled upon around the time of By the Way.
Still with producer Danger Mouse at the helm of newest album The Getaway, I am pleased to say that they have produced their finest effort in some years.
Still heavy on the blended soft-punk and pop-rock, the melodies sound fresher than they have in a while, with more delicate guitar work and fully realised soundscapes smoothed out by excellent production. It's an all together more mature sounding work, a product of finesse, airy enough to let the music flow comfortably without losing its edge. Title track The Getaway is a great song, while Dark Necessities, Sick Love, and Goodbye Angels are also standouts.
A good return to form, and well worth listening to.
"Chaleur Humaine - Christine and the Queens" Album Review
Another of The Ephemeric's successful predictions, Christine and the Queens began the year with high expectations. I had tipped them to make a big splash in 2016 back in this year's Hot List in January, and indeed they are now well on their way to becoming a household name in the European music scene.
Debut album Chaleur Humaine, unusually, was actually originally released in 2014, but only in France. 2016 has seen the wider release in other regions, and the re-recording of several songs in English, and it hasn't taken long for them to catch on.
It's hard to describe just what makes Christine's music work. There's something intricate and meticulously composed about these tracks, which lends them a minimalist sound not entirely dissimilar to other celebrated bands like The xx. But there's also a fascinating combination of sounds, for example in No Harm is Done which blends rap with a light piano backing, or the ethereal Jonathan which comes across as both forceful and vulnerable at the same time. It's expert songwriting.
A critical and commercial success, and a promising start to a career that we will watch with interest.
"Love & Hate - Michael Kiwanuka" Album Review
When Michael Kiwanuka's debut album Home Again released in 2012 it was something of a revelation. A collection of tracks seemingly out of nowhere that varied from light and playful to darker and more profound. In my view one of the best acoustic albums in many years.
So no pressure to follow up album Love & Hate, which additionally sees the appearance of uber-producer Danger Mouse for the second time on this list.
Fans need not have fretted, Kiwanuka has not lost any of the soul that made his simple arrangements so powerful. Far from it, Love & Hate is full of much deeper and richer compositions, with a greater variety in instrumentalisation from understated acoustic style to fuller and more complex crescendos of jazz and funk.
The sombre title track Love & Hate is the best embodiment of this album, and Kiwanuka's talent as a whole, beautiful soul music that builds into a full soaring cry for help. Really gorgeous. Many songs on the album are worthy of note, from the somewhat peppier One More Night which sounds more reminiscent of Kiwanuka's debut album, to the wonderful construction of I'll Never Love. In my view though the real pinnacle is the heavily introspective Father's Child with it's frantic strings and powerful yearning guitar in the finale.
These are excellent songs, every bit the equal in quality of his first album, and certainly of a more refined production. If there is one criticism of the album it's that it strikes such a continually morose and heavy sound that it can get a bit exhausting by the end, meaning the last few songs might simply pass a listener by on the first hearing, a true shame as the best songs are those at the end. Compare to Home Again which more effectively mixed things up tonally.
This is lush, textured music with a quality of production that lends it a truly timeless quality. It might take a few listens but it is wonderful.
Wednesday, 20 July 2016
Welcome back to The Ephemeric. I can only apologise for not posting more frequently as of late. Plenty to say, but no time in which to say it. Rather I've been very busy with work, writing, and various other endeavors of greater life importance. Don't let the radio silence and the constant political gloom fool you, there's plenty of awesomeness going around right now, and so this week I am going to give you a rough and tumble summary, the Summer Music Round-Up, which will be split into two parts.
In today's Part 1, we're going with a bit of a theme, reviewing three long awaited albums that have attained near mythical status for their decade-spanning gestation periods and their celebrated predecessors. We will be looking at the new albums from The Avalanches, The Last Shadow Puppets, and Radiohead.
"Wildflower - The Avalanches" Album Review
Incredibly it has been sixteen years since The Avalanches released their debut, Since I Left You. A huge success at the time, but it was only in the subsequent years that it attained the truly cult following that it enjoys today, owing as much to the mysterious elusiveness of the band as the album's undeniably high quality music.
The long-discussed follow up album became something of a running joke of the music industry, sort of a "Duke Nukem Forever" of music; perennially teased as being just around the corner, and yet never actually materializing. Indeed here on The Ephemeric I have often gone out on a limb as predicting their return in my yearly previews. Just my luck that the one year I don't mention them is the year they actually do come back.
Well at long last that album, Wildflower, is here in a move that ranks alongside the 2013 returns of Daft Punk and David Bowie as one of the great unexpected musical comebacks. And great it is. While clearly a considerable refinement of the sound of their first album, featuring for the first time collaborators like Father John Misty, Ariel Pink, and Danny Brown, the results will be largely familiar for longtime fans.
As with their debut, there are one or two novelty tracks like lead single Frankie Sinatra and the awful The Noisy Eater which do get pretty annoying, but they are few and far between. For the most part Wildflower simply sounds like a dream, warm and welcoming, straddling genres and combining disparate sources from across the decades in a piece of work so perfectly formed that it is hard to believe it has been pieced together largely from samples. It's an album that in many ways exceeds even the lofty standards set by their debut, and indeed it's a testament to the band's incredible vision than an album that was largely produced so long ago sounds so fresh, not at all dated.
Stunning second single Colours is an instant classic, blending offbeat melodies that sound like a psychedelic record on reverse, but illuminated by a sense of optimism and awe at the world. Harmony follows a similar suit with an unashamedly positive, urban twist on 1960s pop, while Stepkids takes a detour into the grit and soul of country music and elevates it with the strings of a soaring Western soundtrack. Really though, Because I'm Me, If I Was a Folkstar, Saturday Night Inside Out, Kaleidoscopic Lovers, and so many others really deserve a listen. This is one to sit back and listen to from start to finish.
Do yourself a favour and add Wildflower to your music collection. This sun-kissed array of tracks is the perfect summer album, and a triumphant return for the most enigmatic band of the new millennium.
"Everything You've Come to Expect - The Last Shadow Puppets" Album Review
A blast from the past in more ways than one. The Last Shadow Puppets is the side-project of The Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner and Miles Kane, former lead of The Rascals. Their debut album The Age of Understatement was something of a cult classic, an sublime cocktail of the retro baroque-pop stylings the two men have grown up and the seductive trappings of modern indie rock. After eight long years, follow up album Everything You've Come to Expect is here.
Disappointing lead single Bad Habits feels like a bit of a misstep, giving fans cause to worry that the band was heading off in new stylistic direction more driven by Kane's punk roots than Turner's soul. Fortunately we need not have been concerned, the rest of the album is very much more in line with the sensibilities that made TLSP great.
The quality of the music is actually generally more consistent than on their debut album, Miracle Aligner, The Dream Synopsis, and The Bourne Identity all merit listening to, among others, it's a very solid album throughout. Unfortunately what this album lacks is a real stand-out hit. Their first album had a David Bowie cover in In the Heat of the Morning, and two ready-made hits in Standing Next to Me and My Mistakes Were Made for You.
Everything You've Come to Expect is a lovely album with numerous songs worthy of your playlist, but fails to make a knock-out blow with any track that hits as hard as some of their debut LP's singles. Still easy to recommend to all music lovers.
"A Moon Shaped Pool - Radiohead" Album Review
And our last of the day. Radiohead's new album A Moon Shaped Pool has not endured quite as legendarily protracted a production as the other two in this feature, but five years is a long time, and a new album from Radiohead inevitably comes with great hype.
Fortunately all the things one expects from Radiohead are present, artistic experimentation, inventive meshing of genres and tones, and complex and challenging content. A Moon Shaped Pool hits these notes as well as any album Thom Yorke and his boys have yet produced, and merits listening to for the bold and impressive artistic work that it is.
At the same time, this is a considerably more "poppy" effort than we have seen from Radiohead in many years, starting with the utterly ingenious lead single Burn the Witch with its wonderfully unsettling driving rhythm and psychotic strings. The album additionally consists of some very lovely folk pop tracks with the likes of True Love Waits, The Numbers and Daydreaming. It's high quality stuff.
A Moon Shaped Pool probably won't convert any Radiohead doubters, but longtime fans and music lovers in general will probably find much to admire with their latest effort.