james debate
james debate

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Directed by Lyndsey Turner
Written by William Shakespeare
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds,
Theatre Barbican

hamlet cumberbatch barbican

If you are even passively tuned in to the London theatre scene you will no doubt have heard of the Barbican's newest production of Hamlet. It is the hottest show of the year, with tickets having sold out almost instantly. A production of Hamlet on a major London stage is always big news, but this time it is doubly so for the participation of Benedict Cumberbatch, a celebrated stage actor, Oscar nominee last year, and the latest in a line of British thespians to catch fire in Hollywood.

This is about as hyped a show as we've seen in London for some time now, and yet the early reaction has been mixed at best. Is this simply an inevitable backlash against the hype, or something else? The Ephemeric went undercover to bring you the lowdown.

The first thing that jumps out is that director Lyndsey Turner has not been shy about bringing the changes to what is usually a pretty conservative play. The order of opening scenes has been shifted about, dialogue has been altered, and there are some significant tonal shifts from what one might traditionally expect from Hamlet.

First there is the modern setting, which seems to have taken a late 19th Century Prussian style in set design and costume, with some contrasting modern flavour in the form of mid 20th Century music and even some 21st Century flair, most notably with Horatio's appearance as a tattooed East-London looking hipster.

At the same time a greater emphasis has been placed on the politics of Hamlet, an element of the script which usually remains largely in the background. Several scenes take place in the war room, with palace staff racing about getting ready for impending tensions between Denmark and Norway. It has more of the feel of a West Wing or House of Cards style political thriller, with a greater link between the ongoing personal drama and an apparent Cold War-era geopolitical context.

It's a strangely anachronistic cobbling together of eras, but for the most part it manages to work. Much of this is thanks to the superb production design; the set is impressive, and the small detail in costumes and props do well to bring out the themes of Turner's vision, to say nothing of the ambitious "special effects" used throughout. The only time things really don't work is with the various time-lapse and frozen time effects attempted, which just doesn't look right in live action.

It's an adventurous approach to what for most theatre-goers is a familiar play. It may not work 100%, but it is undoubtedly positive to see some fresh perspective on offer, giving proceedings the kind of modern flair that few directors have been bold enough to combine with Shakespeare's most austere tragedies on stage.

Noted thespians have often given Hamlet the persona of a deeply tortured man, with an emphasis on his madness. Cumberbatch puts his own mark on it with a superficially lighter interpretation. This is a younger, more irreverent Hamlet, who often has the countenance of a rebellious adolescent than a brooding monarch-in-waiting. His "madness" here is portrayed as more of a ruse to get the better of his rival Claudius than anything darker. It's a credit to Cumberbatch's versatility that he pulls this off without losing the substance of his character's internal struggles, his existential doubts, his familial honour, and maintaining this internal thread even during some of his sillier moments.

The rest of the cast is more mixed in its performance. Ciaran Hinds is a very fine stage actor, and probably the highlight of the cast aside from Cumberbatch with his appropriately machiavellian Claudius, while Sian Brooke is fairly impressive in her frenzied, delirious portrayal of Ophelia. But then elsewhere the hipster Horatio doesn't really make an impact, and duo of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem strangely underplayed.

So clearly there are flaws, and it's easy to see why the typically conservative Shakespeare aficionados in the press would take issue with the litany of bold changes. But if you look past that, you will find a uniquely engaging version of the classic play, and much faster paced than Hamlet's usual ponderous internalising. For all the emotional complexity of Shakespeare's dialogue, no one would describe Hamlet as entertaining, but this production is enjoyable and gripping in a way that the play rarely has been before. It's down to Cumberbatch's charm and humour, the fast-paced political machinations, the grand settings and snappy directing. This is a production that respects the text's intellectual depth without allowing the drama to lull too deep into self-indulgence, and that keeps the audience firmly in the moment.

It's a realisation that really hits at the interval, that unmistakable feeling that can only be likened to binge-watching your favourite series on Netflix, and the inevitable compulsion to click through to the next episode. Ultimately that's what this is. It is Hamlet for the modern audience; a slick and crowd-pleasing reimagining of one of literature's most classic texts. Whether or not that is a good thing is down to personal expectations, but it is hard to be too critical of this entertaining, if occasionally uneven production, and easy to recommend.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

It has been a long and football-less summer, but fear not men of England, your suffering is at an end. The Premier League season is about to commence, and 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 2015/16 preview

Premier League 2015/16 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester City
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal
Relegated: Watford, Sunderland, Norwich
Golden Boot winner: Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)
Golden Glove winner: Joe Hart (Manchester City)
Player to watch: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
New signing to watch: Petr Cech (Arsenal)
Young player to watch: John Stones (Everton)
First manager to get the sack: Shteve McClaren (Newcastle United)
Shock of the season: Chelsea go trophiless


Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 3rd
Manager: Arsene Wenger

It has been a long time since Arsenal have been genuine title contenders. Every season some dastardly pundit decides to tip them for glory, a few dewey-eyed Arsenal fans get caught up in the hype, and Arsenal-mania sweeps the news for a few days, but it never lasts, and is never justified. This season, however, things may be different. Arsenal may finally be ready for the big time, and all it took was a complete abandonment of everything they once stood for.

Long gone are the boo-boys who cried foul over rival clubs' spending, now that Arsenal have the cash to burn on £50 million signings like Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez. Indeed Sánchez was one of the league's outstanding performers last season, perhaps third only to Eden Hazard and John Terry, while Giroud showed signs of finally finding consistent form.

Still, the biggest boon for their title hopes will be the signing of goalkeeper Petr Cech, still one of the world's finest goalkeepers and arguably the best in the Premier League. His signing at long last addresses Arsenal's perennial weakspot at the back, providing both quality and leadership in a defence which sorely needs both.

Still doubts remain over the long term consistency of the club. Özil is still seen by many to be something of a big-money flop, while injuries continue to persist the likes of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey. There is no doubt that this is one of the stronger and more rounded Arsenal sides we've seen in years, but are they a match for their more illustrious rivals?

Key Signing: Petr Cech
Key Man: Alexis Sánchez

Verdict: Arsenal are well positioned to stage their first title challenge in over a decade, but will face a tough challenge from their strengthened rivals.


Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,593
Last season: 17th
Manager: Tim Sherwood

The drama continues with Aston Villa. Last season they reached an FA Cup final and were unlucky to lose, but at the same time they nearly got relegated from the Premier League. They've made some interesting signings in Jordan Ayew, Scott Sinclair, Micah Richards and others, but then they've lost Christian Benteke and Fabien Delph. Add the fact that the long proposed club takeover is dead, and this is very much a club of mixed blessings at the moment. The drama looks set to continue, and it could get worse before it gets better.

Paul Lambert, as predicted, is gone, and in comes Tim Sherwood, seemingly the least wanted manager in the league during his brief tenure with Tottenham. Sherwood seems adamant that the club's current squad is good enough to break the cycle of flirting with relegation every recent year, but the rest of us are not so sure.

With so many players incoming and outgoing, it's anybody's guess exactly what Villa's team is going to look like for the season, and Sherwood will have little time to gel this new squad with a tough start to the season's fixtures ahead. No doubt the team will look to the consistently steady hands of Brad Guzan in goal, one of the few mainstays in this shifting Villa defence in recent years, while Jordan Ayew has some big shoes to fill if he is to be expected to ease the pain of losing Benteke. And of course, all eyes will be on Jack Grealish, the youngster who had his breakthrough towards the end of last season and now looks to be essential for the club.

The club is asking a lot of it's new players and its youth, while even the more experienced hands on deck have question marks about them.

Key Signing: Jordan Ayew
Key Man: Jack Grealish

Verdict: A tough season with a real threat of relegation.


Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Capacity: 11,700
Last season: Promoted (1st)
Manager: Eddie Howe

A dream come true for Bournemouth, who have pulled of a remarkable two promotions in three years to rise from League One all the way to the Premier League for the first time in their history. In fact it's the first time they have ever been in the top flight, including the pre-Premier League days. It's new ground for the club and its fans. Surely such a lack of big-league experience makes them destined to be cannon-fodder for the coming season?

Well not so fast there Sparky. Bournemouth have strengthened very well with players who know how to play Premier League football. The experienced defensive skills of goalkeeper Artur Boruc and defender Sylvain Distin are very shrewd signings indeed, while the signing of hotly tipped left back Tyrone Mings from Ipswich may turn out to be quite the coup. Perhaps most exciting of all is the loan of hotly tipped Chelsea youngster Christian Atsu, many clubs will be watching his development with interest.

Of course let's not forget that this side did win the Championship last year as well, clearly they have a side already full of solid talent. Dan Gosling and Junior Stanislas have a wealth of top flight experience, despite only being in their mid-twenties, while top scorer Callum Wilson has the potential to make a big impact in the Premier League. Elsewhere right winger Matt Ritchie is also one to watch this season.

Key Signing: Artur Boruc
Key Man: Callum Wilson

Verdict: The Premier League will be a huge step up for the club, but they might just survive.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: Champions
Manager: José Mourinho

Widely tipped as one of the favourites for the title last season, Mourinho and co duly delivered, and in quite comfortable fashion as it turned out. Chelsea were by far and away the best club in the country last season and few will deny it. So it's no surprise to see all the pundits making Chelsea their favourite for the title. However the Ephemeric has a quite different view.

That Chelsea have a solid defence is a given. Courtois, Terry, Ivanovic, Azpilicueta, and Matic are among the best in the world in their positions. But it was their much improved attack last season which gave them the edge. Eden Hazard tore the league apart and established himself as one of the finest players in the world, Diego Costa had a magnificent, if injury prone start to life in England, and Cesc Fàbregas had arguably one of his finest creative seasons in the heart of the Chelsea team. Elsewhere the Chelsea youth were crowned champions of Europe and double winners, the future looked rosy. With these solid foundations everyone expected them to kick on and start building a side truly capable of challenging the very best in Europe, which makes their lack of direction this summer all the more confusing.

Chelsea have been inexplicably inactive this transfer window, refusing to strengthen or patch up weak spots. Of grave concern will be the worsening fitness of Diego Costa, the inconsistent form since January of Fàbregas, and the consistent "just-ok"-ness of Willian and Oscar. Increasingly this Chelsea team is looking dependent on Hazard, and opposition teams are starting to see that if he gets injured or marked out of a game then Chelsea look completely helpless as of late.

Chelsea's squad looks far too thin and far too weak to challenge for the title, but of equal concern at the moment is the bizarre new team selection policy that sees Mourinho picking out of form big names like Falcao and Cuadrado as opposed to the seemingly more in-form Remy and Moses. The moment your manager stops picking his team on merit you know you're in trouble. To say nothing of the complete lack of faith in any of Chelsea's youth products, even as they sweep the youth competitions and wrack up transfer values in the 10s of millions playing for their rivals.

For all these reasons this Chelsea side look likely to settle for a top four position this season, their best hope is that the coming nine months of failure snap the club management out of its current complacency.

Edit: since writing this Chelsea have signed Barcelona's Pedro. Without wanting to do a complete rewrite this is obviously hugely beneficial, but not enough to compensate should Costa and Cesc fail to recover their form.

Key Signing: Asmir Begovic (he doesn't have much competition)
Key Man: Eden Hazard

Verdict: Chelsea will pay for a baffling summer of transfer inactivity by missing out on silverware.


Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 26,309
Last season: 10th
Manager: Alan Pardew

What a bizarre few seasons it has been for Crystal Palace. Tony Pulis seemed to be pulling off some great work turning them into a solid Premier League club against all odds. Then he quit. Neil Warnock came in and promptly the club sank into relegation territory. He got sacked. Then in comes Alan Pardew of controversial Newcastle tenure-fame. Pardew turns out to be the reincarnated ghost of Brian Clough, gets Palace to their highest ever league position. It's a great time to be a Crystal Palace fan, but then again maybe Pardew will quit tomorrow and they'll be back down in relegation again. Wouldn't surprise us based on all the recent turbulence.

Adding to the optimism is some rather impressive business over the summer, including the signings of Yohan Cabaye and Connor Wickham, as well as the loan of Chelsea youngster and last season's Championship player of the year Patrick Bamford. Suddenly Palace's squad is looking pretty darn solid, already stocked with players like Wilfried Zaha, Brede Hangeland and Yannick Bolasie.

For the first time, Palace will be starting the year optimistic that they should be looking beyond mere survival, and even push for a top half finish.

Key Signing: Yohan Cabaye
Key Man: Yannick Bolasie

Verdict: A positive year beckons for Palace.


Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 11th
Manager: Roberto Martínez

Well then, file this one under "we spoke too soon". Martínez had a great first season with Everton, leading some to speculate that the club was finally in a position to really push on for European qualification, but last year was a disappointment by any metric, culminating in a midtable finish.

If his predecessor David Moyes was the master at playing down his club's stature and exceeding expectations, Martínez now finds himself in the unenviable position of being under pressure to deliver. Especially in the wake of huge money signings like last season's £30 million Lukaku transfer.

Given the club's long term aspiration for Champions League football, it must be a concern to see the squad being only modestly improved this summer. The permanent signing of Gerard Deulofeu is a good move, and Tom Cleverly has his uses too, but key to Everton's aspirations will be keeping hold of the team's core of John Stones, Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku. Stones in particular has been linked with a move away recently, his loss could prove a bitter blow to an Everton side that arguably needs more defensive reinforcement already.

Everton have a fine squad and a fine manager, but that doesn't cut it anymore in a league so awash with money that every side, right down to the bottom, can look good on paper. The standard of competition is rising rapidly, and questions have to be asked whether Everton is progressing enough to keep up.

Key Signing: Gerard Deulofeu
Key Man: Ross Barkley

Verdict: Improvement will be expected, but top six might be too tough to crack this season.


Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,262
Last season: 14th
Manager: Claudio Ranieri

Much has been said about Leicester City's rollercoaster of a first season back in the Premier League. Mired in a relegation battle all year, with an abysmal record throughout, and then suddenly, a miraculous turnaround. Leicester City came to life right when it mattered, winning a series of matches in style, claiming some big scalps in the process. Bizarrely, they ended the season as one of the form teams in the league.

Then the downright bizarre happened. Hero manager Nigel Pearson got sacked, ostensibly for non-footballing reasons (his son made a racist sex tape). His replacement is Claudio Ranieri of Chelsea fame, and no one is quite sure what to make of him. Many have criticised his record in recent years, asserting that perhaps the best years of his career are behind. The fact is that Ranieri has time and again proven himself a capable manager, and is frankly an excellent appointment for a club of Leicester City's meagre stature (no offence).

But manager aside, the big question is which Leicester City are we going to see, the early season no-hopers or the imperious end-of-season heroes? Key to their efforts will be maintaining the consistency of those who emerged during the side's uplift in form, players like Marc Albrighton and Riyad Mahrez, particularly following Esteban Cambiasso's departure. Meanwhile the side's problem position is arguably up front, where Leonardo Ulloa struggled for form after a solid start to the season. James Vardy has shown himself to be a useful front-man, but the team badly needs a goalscorer. Japan's Shinji Okazaki has been signed in the hopes that he is that man.

Ultimately it's hard to argue that this side looks any stronger than they did last year, their fortunes will hinge on which of last season's two diametrically opposed performances shows up.

Key Signing: Shinji Okazaki
Key Man: Marc Albrighton

Verdict: Will be safe so long as their strong end of season form continues.


Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 45,362
Last season: 6th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

The Liverpool revolution looks to have ended before it began. After coming wretchedly close to winning that long sought after title two seasons ago, the sheen has worn off, and Liverpool are back to the top seven side they have been for much of the past decade.

Maybe Luis Suárez was just too difficult to replace, and certainly Daniel Sturridge's injury woes made the job harder, but still the sense is now of a Liverpool side that have taken a step backwards. Their return to Champions League football was short-lived indeed. Brendan Rodgers has gone from golden boy to man under pressure. He knows he's fighting for his job this season.

So can he turn it around? Well he's going to try. The club has spent big this summer, and more importantly they look to have spent well. Nathaniel Clyne has had a superstar season at Southampton, while the mega-money move for Belgian Christian Benteke could finally fill that gap left behind by Suárez. Workhorses Danny Ings and James Milner round out a very solid summer's shopping. Add to that a hopefully fit-again Daniel Sturridge and the newfound form of Brazilian magician Philippe Coutinho and this is a Liverpool side that looks as strong as any in the league.

The key will be shoring up that fragile defence from last season. To that end Clyne is a perfect investment, but they will still need big improvements from goalkeeper Mignolet and Dejan Lovren. If it all comes together then they can push for Champions League qualification, otherwise another top seven finish beckons.

Key Signing: Christian Benteke
Key Man: Philippe Coutinho

Verdict: A real threat for top four, but against tough competition look likely to miss out.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 48,000
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini

Amazing how quickly things can change. The season began with talk of Pellegrini's City side making history and finally thriving in Europe, and ended with Pellegrini being hotly tipped for the sack. Last year was far from what this squad are capable.

Still Pellegrini has been given another year with which to redeem himself. There's little doubt; no Premier League title and no decent run in Europe and he will surely be out of a job by next summer. Manchester City still have the strongest and deepest squad in the Premier League, and in Sergio Agüero one of the league's very best players. There is no excuse not to win.

This is a squad which already oozes quality in every position, from Hart in goal to Kompany and Sagna in defence, Silva, Touré and now Sterling in midfield, and Agüero and Bony up front. And they've strengthened well over the summer too, with big money transfers for Raheem Sterling and Fabien Delph, also stopping to snap up hotly tipped Fulham youngster Patrick Roberts at the same time. All young, all English, and all very good.

Compared to even their highly regarded Premier League rivals this squad looks strong. Chelsea have a fine starting lineup but no bench, United have a solid squad but few world class performers, and Arsenal have a few world class performers but a mediocre lineup and no depth. City really are the best side in the league, and they should win. The fact that they appear to be getting short shrift among many pundit circles just goes to show why you should always come to The Ephemeric for your football tips and predictions instead!

Key Signing: Raheem Sterling
Key Man: Sergio Agüero

Verdict: Without doubt a title favourite.


Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 76,000
Last season: 4th
Manager: Louis Van Gaal

Another make or break season. Van Gaal has had his year to settle in and performed admirably, returning Manchester United to the Champions League and creating an air of progress about the club. Now the club will be expecting results.

Last season's squad was already among the deepest in the league, albeit ridiculously skewed towards attacking players. This appears to have been remedied somewhat over the summer, with the likes of Van Persie, Nani and Di Maria moving on, whilst the club has invested wisely in defensive minded players like Matteo Darmian and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Memphis Depay may be the club's big money signing of the summer, and he will bolster the attack nicely, but the real key signing could turn out to be Morgan Schneiderlin, who provides a real engine in the midfield, something that this side was lacking previously.

They will line up alongside the survivors of the transfer window cull, with the squad firmly focused on a spine of Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Michael Carrick down the middle.

It must be said though, for all the quality in this side, and for how strong the depth is in this squad, how many of these players would truly command an instant place in the best sides of Europe? Wayne Rooney is the key here, but he's getting old now and has struggled for consistency in recent seasons, Juan Mata was pushed out at Chelsea, and their defence is still dependent on the likes of Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling, neither of which have so far been able to live up to the hype.

The biggest concern will be over goalkeeper David de Gea, probably the team's star performer last year, who now appears destined for the exit. Such is the doubt over his remaining a Manchester United player that he's been dropped from the squad for the time-being, with the untested Sergio Romero stepping into his place. If de Gea goes, that could be a real vulnerability for this team.

Key Signing: Morgan Schneiderlin
Key Man: Wayne Rooney

Verdict: With David de Gea, a title contender, without, top four.


Nickname: Magpies
Ground: St. James' Park
Capacity: 52,387
Last season: 15th
Manager: Steve McClaren

So that great Dutch manager Steve McClaren is back in the Premier League, and hoping he will be an improvement on John Carver, tough shoes to fill. When God opens a window he closes a door or something to that effect. Is McClaren the right man for the job? Well that remains to be seen, he did a solid enough job at Twente, and not a whole lot else besides. But he brings experience and new ideas.

Most probably, talks of returning to contention for European qualification are far too premature. This season the club will do well to stay out of the tussle for relegation, into which they nearly got dragged last year. To help accomplish that, a reasonably sizable amount has been injected by owner Mike Ashley for investment. So far that has delivered the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic, and Chancel Mbemba, all very promising signings.

The problem right now is that the existing squad is looking increasingly threadbare. Papiss Cissé is still dependable, Moussa Sissoko and Remy Cabella offer something in attack, and Tim Krul is solid in goal. Otherwise the squad just isn't very strong. The new signings will have to bed in right away for the team to develop the kind of chemistry that they had under Pardew and push on for a good solid mid table position.

It doesn't help that concerns still remain over Ashley's ownership of the club, is he going to sell? What hair-brained scheme will he come up with for monetization next? The club tries to project that air of stability, but it's proving too easy too often to poke holes in that illusion.

Key Signing: Georginio Wijnaldum
Key Man: Papiss Cissé
Verdict: Need to gel quickly to push into mid table.


Nickname: The Canaries
Ground: Carrow Road
Capacity: 27,244
Last season: Promoted (playoff)
Manager: Alex Neil

God bless Delia Smith, she's always good fun to have in the Premier League. Sadly it doesn't look like she'll be around for long. This is a Norwich side with some real problems about them.

The manager has stressed the importance of sticking with the same group of players, not necessarily a winning strategy for any promoted team, much less when it's still the same group that got you relegated the year before. Out of this bunch it's only really Nathan Redmond who looks full of top flight promise, and one has to wonder if this might be the youngster's last season with the club should things not pan out.

So much will depend on the club's new transfers. Andre Wisdom on loan from Liverpool and Youssouf Mulumbu look like good solid defensive additions, while Robbie Brady has something to offer in midfield. Yet little seems to have been done to address the problem position up front. Cameron Jerome isn't up to it, Ricky van Wolfswinkel is still a flop with a funny name, so the main man looks to be one Lewis Grabban at the moment. Reinforcement here is surely needed before the end of the month if they want to stay up.

Key Signing: Robbie Brady
Key Man: Nathan Redmond
Verdict: Early favourites for relegation.


Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 7th
Manager: Ronald Koeman

One of the Premier League's great success stories in recent years, Southampton's rise to the top has been hugely impressive. To think that only a year ago people were writing them off as a club in crisis. Only The Ephemeric had the foresight to predict a strong season amid the doomsayers, and sure enough we were proved right once again.

This season will be hoping for more of the same to consolidate their presence in the top half of the Premier League. Some more big money outgoing transfers have been made, and an assortment of very promising looking signings have come in their place. Cedric Soares and Steve Caulker on loan will be welcome reinforcements at the back, while midfielders Jordy Clasie and Oriol Romeu are very exciting indeed. Southampton appear to be masters of the art of bringing in two very fine players for every one that goes out, all while turning a profit. We'll see if they can maintain consistent performance on the pitch in the coming years, but at the moment they look to be a model for how to run a football club.

It all goes to strengthening what is an already impressive squad. Fraser Forster in goal, Chelsea youth product Ryan Bertrand one of the best left backs in the league last season, while Graziano Pelle had a very solid start to life in England.

But at the same time they will faced much stronger opposition from their improved rivals, while certainly missing the presence of Morgan Schneiderlin in midfield. This is a strong squad, but matching last season's finish will prove a tough ask, any top half finish will likely be considered a decent result.

Key Signing: Cedric Soares
Key Man: Graziano Pelle

Verdict: Looking to consolidate their top half presence but will do well to break into the top eight again.


Nickname: Potters
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Capacity: 28,384
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.

But they don't look done just yet, so far being the most active Premier League side in the transfer market this summer. They have brought in experience and quality in the likes of Glen Johnson, Shay Given (albeit to replace the outgoing Asmir Begovic), Ibrahim Afellay, record signing Xherdan Shaqiri, and Marco van Ginkel on loan from Chelsea. These are the kinds of players that Stoke fans would never have dreamed they'd see at the club. It appears Bojan was not an outlier, but the start of a new trend of exotic European imports at the club.

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: Xherdan Shaqiri
Key Man: Ryan Shawcross

Verdict: Could be a special season for Mark Hughes and his team.


Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Capacity: 48,300
Last season: 16th
Manager: Dick Advocaat

The sacking of former up-and-comer Gustavo Poyet came as something of a surprise, but by the end his position had clearly become untenable. In Dick Advocaat, however, they have appointed well. Advocaat has long enjoyed high regard in his own right, he's a good choice to steady the ship and build for the future.

But Dick has a hard time ahead of him if he wants to avoid the drop again this season. He's started well, recruiting Kaboul and Coates in order to shore up that creaky defence, while the loan of Yann M'Vila will give them energy in the midfield. And there is undoubted quality in this team, the likes of Chelsea youth product Patrick Van Aanholt who was one of the signings of last season, midfield engine Lee Cattermole, Jack Rodwell, Steven Fletcher, and even Jermain Defoe is still worth a few goals.

The loss of Connor Wickham will be a big blow, however, and that far too many of the club's recent signings have proved disappointing bodes ill. This squad still lacks a top flight quality striker, and the team depth is paper thin. Advocaat is the right man for the job, but is that enough?

Key Signing: Younès Kaboul
Key Man: Lee Cattermole

Verdict: A tough season and likely relegation contender.


Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Capacity: 20,532
Last season: 8th
Manager: Garry Monk

Ex-captain Garry Monk's appointment as full time manager was greeted with some skepticism initially, but last season he proved himself to be one of the sensations of the year. Swansea last year reached their highest ever Premier League finish, and did so while maintaining their commitment to swift attacking football. Monk seems to have them firing consistently on all cylinders, and the groundwork is there now to consolidate their position.

On paper Swansea are still a very impressive team. Gylfi Sigurðsson has been on top form since his return to the club, while Gomis has proved himself to be an able replacement for Bony. Jefferson Montero and Jonjo Shelvey are dangerous attacking players, and new signing Andre Ayew could prove to be an inspired bit of business. Crucially, the club has not lost a single first team player this summer, which can only foster the kind of consistency that teams need to develop in this league.

Expectations are probably set at another top ten finish, while semi-realistic hopes can be pinned on pushing for a top seven spot and a potential European place, or alternatively a strong cup run with a day out in Wembley. Hitting these hopes will rely on the board staying strong for the rest of the transfer window, and the club's new signings bedding into the team quickly.

Key Signing: Andre Ayew
Key Man: Gylfi Sigurðsson

Verdict: Swansea have strong foundations and will push for another top half finish.


Nickname: Spurs
Ground: White Hart Lane
Capacity: 36,236
Last season: 5th
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

Mauricio Pochettino has had a strong start to life at Tottenham. Finishing in the top five was not a result beyond the realm of possibility last season, but certainly at the higher end. Ultimately Spurs were able to maintain greater consistency than a host of close rivals including Liverpool and Southampton.

Now they need to kick on. They've brought in a lineup of solid, if hardly headline making, signings, and offloaded a few of their big money flops like Paulinho and Soldado. They've kept ahold of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen, and in Eric Dier they have a rock solid defensive prospect.

They have a solid squad and a new stadium on the way now, but still one gets the impression that they haven't improved over the summer to keep pace with their rivals. The holy grail of Champions League qualification looks just as far away now as ever, and instead it looks as though they'll be fighting a familiar battle to be top of the Europa League qualifying sides.

There also has to be some worry over Harry Kane, about whether he was just a flash in the pan or if he can keep his form going from last season. Time will tell, but ultimately Pochettino is unlikely to have any higher ambition than repeating last year's finish.

Key Signing: Toby Alderweireld
Key Man: Harry Kane

Verdict: Top seven probably, top six, possibly.


Nickname: Hornets
Ground: Vicarage Road
Capacity: 21,577
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Quique Flores

It's hard to make heads or tails of this Watford side. Four managerial changes in one season, a summer of transfer free-for-all that has seen no fewer than eleven new signings come in. It's been a hectic year for the club, and no one is quite sure what to think.

For starters, there's not much use in appraising their performances last season as a guide of future success when so much of the team has changed. Sure, these are some solid signings, Premier League talent in Valon Behrami and Etienne Capoue, some old La Liga charges of Flores, most notably Jurado with whom Flores combined to great effect at Atletico. But few of these players have ever played together, and it's anyone's guess how well they will gel.

If Flores can get them to play as a unit and do it quickly, then they have a solid chance at survival, otherwise it could be a bad year for the club. In the meantime, what does this say to the fans and players that the squad which so admirably achieved promotion is cast aside so unceremoniously, deemed not enough to cement their place in the top flight?

Despite all the spending and new faces, this is still a squad with serious holes in it. Watford could badly use another wide player, and probably another striker to partner captain Troy Deeney. Ultimately this all adds up to a season of uncertainty ahead.

Key Signing: Jose Jurado
Key Man: Troy Deeney

Verdict: Premier League enigmas, but will do well to escape relegation.


Nickname: Baggies
Ground: The Hawthorns
Capacity: 26,500
Last season: 13th
Manager: Tony Pulis

An up-and-down season for the Baggies saw them headed, as predicted, for relegation. But before that could happen the board swooped in and replaced the outgoing Alan Irvine with one Tony Pulis, and thus the day was saved.

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.

Instead the club find themselves in a much different position. Sound financial footing, squad stability (assuming Saido Berahino stays), and a solid foundation to build on. Indeed keeping Berahino has been the most important news of the summer, but equally the signing of Rickie Lambert will serve them well, and while the big money move for Hull defender James Chester may have raised some eyebrows, he was one of the few shining lights of Hull's doomed season, and should proved a good addition.

Still there is no denying that this is a small squad by Premier League standards. A few key injuries could land the team in hot water, and a great deal will depend on whether they can get a few more faces in before the transfer deadline.

Key Signing: Rickie Lambert
Key Man: Said Berahino

Verdict: Should be safe, but on the lower end of mid table.


Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: The Boleyn Ground
Capacity: 35,016
Last season: 12th
Manager: Slaven Bilić

As we predicted last year, Big Sam got the boot from West Ham, despite doing a pretty solid job of consolidation in a season that saw the club finish one place higher than the previous, and make a long awaited return to European football via the Fair Play rules.

Decisions like this usually do not have pleasant consequences, which would make West Ham a serious contender for disaster this year, especially with the added burden of Europa League football taking its toll on the players. Fortunately for Hammers fans, the club have done well in recruiting Slaven Bilić as the new man on the bench. You may remember Bilić from when he was the next big thing in management while at the helm of Croatia a number of years back. While he never really hit those heights, his buzz was still well earned, and he will do a good job of juggling the club's various priorities this year.

We're expecting a rather strong season from the club which should see them finish in much the same part of the table as last year. They've brought in an impressive few players, most notably Dimitri Payet and Angelo Ogbonna, while keeping ahold of key players like Diafra Sakho and Cheikhou Kouyate.

Make no mistake, the club will be relieved to have dropped out of the Europa League so early in qualification. After all the last several years are full of stories of recently promoted clubs doing well, only to collapse the following year under the weight of all those fixtures. Their elimination means the club has freedom to concentrate on the league, and with these players and manager they should be in for a fruitful nine months.

Key Signing: Dimitri Payet
Key Man: Diafra Sakho

Verdict: A nice solid mid table finish.

Predicted table:
1. Manchester City
2. Manchester United
3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Liverpool
6. Tottenham
7. Stoke
8. Everton
9. Swansea
10. Crystal Palace
11. Southampton
12. West Ham
13. Newcastle United
14. Leicester
15. West Brom
16. Aston Villa
17. Bournemouth
18. Watford
19. Sunderland
20. Norwich

Monday, 10 August 2015

On August 6th, 2015, we witnessed the figurative end of an era as Jon Stewart retired from the Daily Show after sixteen years. He retires as one of the world's most respected names in nightly news, and the pioneer of a new genre of satirical journalism. His legacy is assured, but in his wake we are losing one of television's last great voices of integrity, one of the few remnants of sanity left in the political discourse.

jon stewart retirement last sane man leaving daily show trevor noah fox news

Looking back at the Daily Show's innocuous beginning as a piece of light entertainment on a mediocre basic-cable comedy station, it seems hard to believe what it has become. Jon Stewart's blend of satire and poignant journalism has far exceeded Comedy Central's meager audience, to the point where Time Magazine has twice named him America's most trusted newsman. But what exactly was so special about Jon Stewart?

Of course, Stewart's contribution to comedy itself can't be overstated. The Daily Show has ultimately sparked a whole new genre in news satire, spawning a series of copycats in the process. Nowadays every network has its own comedy news show, and for many years Comedy Central was running two back to back.

Indeed the Daily Show has turned into one of the industry's greatest producers of comedy talent, serving as the debut theatre for some of today's biggest names in comedy, from Steve Carrell and Josh Gad, to Ed Helms and Lewis Black. Rob Corddry, Aasif Mandvi, Kristen Schaal, Olivia Munn, John Hodgman, the list simply keeps going, full of people who have gone on to have renowned careers in acting and comedy. Then there's John Oliver, who's become a superstar in his own right on HBO, and Stephen Colbert, the man selected to replace legendary talkshow host David Letterman. Few people have ever had the eye for talent that Jon Stewart has.

Stewart and his astounding supporting cast have undoubtedly produced some of television's funniest moments of the past two decades, but it's the insightful commentary and ability to use humour as a spotlight for important issues that made the show truly essential. Nothing on the show was made up, everything came from truth, and the comedy merely served to highlight the absurdity and hypocrisy of the real events around us.

One of the earliest memories The Ephemeric has of watching the Daily Show is with Stewart's "Bush vs Bush" segments, where he would play a clip of the then President saying something, and contrast it to an earlier statement, which would of course be completely contradictory. Then you would switch on CNN and see Wolf Blitzer making some lazy "well that was a pretty convincing speech from the President" comment, with seemingly no regard paid to what should be a fundamental part of journalism; was it right? Was it accurate?

That Jon Stewart's "comedy" show was the only news show in America that deemed it relevant to refer to the facts and call the President a liar when deserved revealed a sad truth about news media to the American people. The liberal and conservative propagandists on the MSNBC and FOX "news" networks may be happy to embrace that the "truth" on Friday may not be the same as the truth on Monday and present obfuscating jargon as "news" in the hopes that nobody notices, but Jon Stewart time and time again would bring them to task, relentlessly and with intellectual honesty. It's this which was his greatest contribution.

So as much as for the jokes, Jon Stewart will be remembered as the man whose common sense deconstruction shut down CNN's Crossfire overnight, the man who singlehandedly pushed the issue of aid for 9/11 emergency workers when partisanship brought Washington to a standstill, the man whose record-setting political rally attracted 250,000 people in a clarion call for sanity. Jon Stewart wasn't just a funnyman, he took on big issues, and in real depth. Perhaps it should say more about the abject, agenda-driven state of today's news coverage that a basic cable comedian could be considered a more reliable source and a more poignant commentator. Ultimately this burden of responsibility is what has worn Stewart down over the years.

It has been clear ever since the infamous Crossfire incident just how big a threat Jon Stewart is to the industry of political theatre. Pundits on both the left and right have stepped up their attacks on Stewart, none more laughably than FOX News, whose standing policy for deflecting criticism of its own horrendous track record for fact-checking and even-handedness seems to be to simply dismiss its critics as biased. That's not even the pot calling the kettle black, that's the pot calling snow black.

Yet even though any sensible person who watches more than just redacted FOX News clips would know to dismiss such plainly self-serving allegations as a mockery, there always remain that section of the populace who will blindly accept as they are told. This is the undeniable and sad conclusion of the work that Jon Stewart has been doing; the reason this hypocrisy and absurdity exists at all is because there is the market for it.

The partisan political theatre is so deeply ingrained into the national discussion that many people, tragically those who are most engaged in politics, simply don't care what is right, what is accurate. It's sport, self-affirming nonsense for people who somehow manage to detach the political process from the real-life consequences it has for the most vulnerable among us. We have disengaged from critical thinking in favour of shortsighted self-gratification. Jon Stewart's entire message is falling on deaf ears.

There's only so many times one can stomach MSNBC's insipid stories and idiotic framing of the news, or FOX and its overt dishonesty and willful perpetuity of ignorance. There's only so many times one can listen to every cable news network's blatant propagandizing and lowest common denominator condescension. Quite frankly there's only so many times one can watch veterans and the poor continually pay the economic and social consequences for policy decisions that have little or nothing to do with the substance of their needs. All the while getting a free-pass from the news media which is more concerned with harnessing the fabricated drama for ratings than presenting the relevant information to the public.

It's tiring enough for a regular person to see all the nonsense that goes on out there, one can only imagine how draining it must be for one's entire career to be focused on obsessively watching and listening to every drop of the crazy. The absurdity and innate silliness of it all isn't changing any time soon, but for Jon Stewart it's just not funny any more.

So where will Jon Stewart go from here? Despite the fact that fans have long called for an entry into politics, he has made it pretty clear that he has no interest in becoming part of the theatre himself. Nor is it obvious how someone who has committed so much of his career to fighting the concept of partisanship would fit into either political party. But that is not to say that Stewart will disappear from the scene completely.

Jon Stewart liked to say (paraphrasing Oscar Wilde) that his show was simply a "conversation" with the public. The conversation will continue, possibly in the form of more film making, following on from the critical success of his debut, Rosewater. As Jon Stewart departs his show he leaves a huge gap of much needed counterpoint to the deteriorating function of our society, but it's clear that wherever he goes next he still has plenty to say.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Directed by Howard Davies
Written by Steve Waters
Starring Sir Simon Russell Beale, Anna Calder-Marshall, Paul Higgins
Theatre Donmar Warehouse

donmar theatre london temple occupy protest st paul

The Donmar Warehouse seems to be on real political kick as of late, with the NSA/Snowden piece Privacy last year, the election day telecast The Vote, and now Temple.

This time the attention is turned towards the Occupy protests of 2011 and 2012, anti-capitalist protests directed broadly at the financial industry and London Stock Exchange, before being kettled by the police onto the non-jurisdictional property of St. Paul's Cathedral. Temple follows the Dean of St. Pauls as he attempts to navigate the tricky legal and moral waters of how to handle these protesters on the Church's door.

There is no doubt that Temple was solidly enjoyable play. It's classic London theatre, an intellectual drama laced generously with helpings of humour. For the most part the writing is sharp and on point, with plenty of wit to cut the treacle and some fine performances.

Chief among the performers of course is Sir Simon Russell Beale, one of the finest stage actors alive today. He is typically on excellent form with a masterclass in how to take an initially unlikable character and crumble him into something more tragic and sympathetic. The other performances are impressive in their own right; Malcolm Sinclair briefly steals the scene as the Bishop of London, while Paul Higgins' Canon chancellor provides an able modern foil to Beale's old fashioned Dean.

But the main scrutiny on a play such as this which focuses on such recent history will always be on its portrayal of historical events. No real people are named here, but it's easy for anyone familiar with current events to tell who the real life counterparts are supposed to be. It is therefore somewhat grating at the few moments of script weakness where the author's obvious ideological biases show through. There are a few too many speeches on the merits and righteousness of the Occupy ideology (if they can even be said to have had a single clear one) and the author's clear belief that the Church should have been siding with the protesters from the get go.

Indeed there is a reasonable argument that can be (and is repeatedly) made that the Church's teachings are more in line with opening up to the protesters than siding with the authorities, but it is nevertheless far too easy to recoil in the face of someone who obviously wants to try and propagandise the narrative of current events as he wishes, regardless of accuracy or merit.

Then there is the other main problem with this production. The story really isn't a particularly important or noteworthy one. The script tries to frame the events of this day as holding the balance of the fate of the Church, or as some confrontation between brutal autocracy evicting peaceful protesters who simply wish to exercise their human rights. The trouble is this was far less dramatic in real life, the Church is doing just fine now and they never even had to evict the protesters, they just left. What drama there is is certainly effectively conveyed, but a lot of people will likely spend the first half of the play just trying to figure out what is the big dilemma.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Welcome to another end of year retrospective on a great season of Premier League football. Here at The Ephemeric we like to take this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow our carefully considered accolades. "But Mr. Ephemeric", I hear you ask, "How can you just talk about the football season at a time like this after everything that's going on with FIFA?". First of all that's 'The Reverend Dr. Mr. Ephemeric Sir', secondly yeah we'll probably write something about that soon, just wait for the dust to settle a bit.

chelsea champions 2015
Unlike last year there was really only ever one team in this competition. Chelsea led from the very beginning, setting a new record for the longest uninterrupted stretch at the top of the table, and were duly crowned champions. Jose Mourinho doesn't seem to have lost his touch from his first spell at the club, still a relentless winner. Key to the club's success has been two new signings; Diego Costa banished the spectre of Fernando Torres to become one of the league's top scorers, and the player with the best goals/games ratio, while Cesc Fabregas was a creative powerhouse in his return to English football, with a stunning 18 assists, just two away from an all time record. Meanwhile Eden Hazard is beginning to stake his claim as one of the world's very best, and contributed more goals (either scoring or assisting) than any other player in the country.

Pre-season favourites Manchester City ended up disappointing fans with a very poor run towards the end of the season saw them drop out of contention and very nearly even out of second place. Manuel Pellegrini may have won the title just a year ago, but now he finds himself walking a tightrope. Many expected City to show him the door this summer, but with that not happening one can only assume he has little room for error next year.

Elsewhere Arsenal's incredible 4th-place-champions streak came to an end, but in a good way, clinching a top 3 place and automatic Champions League qualification for the first time in years. Right behind them Manchester United have had something of a minor renaissance under Louis Van Gaal, so much so that many now tip them for a genuine title challenge next season. With the shadow of Alex Ferguson still looming over Old Trafford Van Gaal will have precious little time to deliver.

Fair mention must also go to the impressive feats of Swansea, particularly with new manager Garry Monk having something of a breakout season. Ronald Koeman has done an impressive job stepping into Pochettino's shoes and continuing Southampton's fine form even after selling off half their squad last season. Then there's Alan Pardew who bounced back from Newcastle ignominy to take Crystal Palace to their highest ever league position. A very positive season for new hires.

At the bottom it was a familiar story for perennial catastrophe-ridden QPR, who were joined in the drop by Hull and Burnley.

Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.

The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2014:

Winners: Chelsea - A near flawless season from a domestic standpoint, dominant in the league, and a cup to boot. A strong year for a still young squad, it will be interesting to see how they develop from here, especially with the new financially responsible, youth-driven approach the club is moving towards.

Relegated: Hull, Burnley, QPR - Burnley never looked like staying up, while QPR are always a disaster, but one has to feel for Hull who at times showed real Premier League quality this season, just not consistently enough.

Player of the Year: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) - Hard to argue against. Bags of assists and goals, but the real joy of watching Hazard play is in his unpredictability, that creative spark that all the game's most legendary entertainers have. Hazard has it.

U-21 Player of the Year: Harry Kane (Tottenham) - The new big thing in the British press, and massively overhyped, but one can't deny he's had a damn fine season with the goals he's scored, both for club and country, and the way in which he has coped with the spotlight.

Best Goalkeeper: David de Gea (Manchester United) - The best part of the Man U team this season has been de Gea, and it will be interesting to see how they cope if indeed he does head to Madrid in the summer.

Manager of the Year: Alan Pardew (Crystal Palace) - At the start of the season no one would have predicted this award, with Pardew unpopular and much maligned at Newcastle. But the fact is the man too the Toon from relegation fodder to the upper reaches of the Premier League, and after he parted company with them, he did the same for Crystal Palace, a team which looked rudderless and relegation-bound after Pulis left, but ended the season in their highest ever league position.

Top Scorer: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City) (26) - Another top season, all the more impressive when you consider his injury issues and inconsistent playing time.

Most Assists: Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea) (18) - A revelation on his return to the Premier League, damn near beat the record.

Overachievers: Crystal Palace - From looking relegation bound in the opening months of the season to their highest ever position. Truly a remarkable story.

Underachievers: Newcastle United - On the other hand you have Newcastle, who ditched a successful manager and drove themselves back to the foot of the table, back in a serious shout of relegation. When will things go right for them?

Best signing of the season: Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea) - As above.

Worst signing of the season: Radamel Falcao (Manchester United) - A world renowned star before his mysterious (and most likely dodgy) move to Monaco. Injury problems have also taken their toll. Either way, the money involved in this loan move was absurd, even more so when he was so completely anonymous all year long.

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2015:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2015
Goalkeeper: David de Gea (Manchester United) - A top season, David de Gea was largely responsible for the Manchester United resurgence, beating off some tough opposition for this place. Now linked with a move to Real Madrid.

Right Back: Branislav Invanovic (Chelsea) - Possibly Ivanovic's best season for Chelsea, and that's saying something. Always under-appreciated, but this season's goals and shrewd mix of attacking play and strong defence was on another level. One of the Champions' star performers.

Centrebacks: John Terry (Chelsea) & Phil Jagielka (Everton) - John Terry was arguably the best player in the league this season, just losing out narrowly on our big prize to Eden Hazard. It's easy to see why. Unbeatable at the back, a leader on the pitch, scored goals and kept vital clean sheets. Most impressively of all, he became only the second player ever to play every minute of football this season. Laughable to believe that just two years ago a younger Terry was being told he couldn't play more than once week. For his partner, we went with Phil Jagielka, another one of these players who so often avoids the spotlight, but is essential for his team. The PFA chose Cahill over Jagielka, a move that is mystifying to the Ephemeric.

Left Back: Ryan Bertrand (Southampton) - The second Chelsea youth product on this team, and really the club must be wondering why they let him go. He has been on fine form for Southampton, and considered by many to be the top performing left back in the league this season, laying on assists and good attacking play down the left, easily stepping into the much hyped shoes of Luke Shaw.

Right Mid: Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – Another contender for player of the season. Sanchez's drew comparisons to Mesut Ozil for his huge transfer fee, but his first year in England could not have been more different, a stunning success. Goals, steel and assists, Sanchez has been so central to Arsenal's fortunes this season that it's very easy to believe they may not have finished in the top 4 without him.

Centre Mids: Nemanja Matic (Chelsea) & Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea) - A Chelsea duo in the centre of midfield. Matic is the hard working defender and a real revelation since returning to Chelsea, while Cesc, as we have mentioned, has had a stonking great first season in blue.

Left Mid: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) – Has to be on the team, best player in the league and arguably one of the top five players in the world right now.

Forwards:  Diego Costa (Chelsea) & Sergio Aguero (Manchester City) – Diego Costa concludes our incredible 6 Chelsea players in the best 11, and deservedly so with his goalscoring successes this season. Sergio Aguero, the league Golden Boot winner, joins him up front.

So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!

Monday, 1 June 2015

Genre Alternative Pop
Label Island
Producers Ariel Rechtshaid, Brandon Flowers

brandon flowers new album desired effect flamingo killers hot fuss brightside human

Brandon Flowers is a peculiar creature as far as rock stars go. An innocent Mormon boy, former bellhop from Sin City itself in Nevada, Flowers somehow found himself launched into super-stardom as the posterchild of the new-wave electro-rock movement of the mid 2000s, unusually by way of the European record labels.

Best known as the leading man of The Killers, Brandon has written some of the most recognizable hits of the past decade. Songs like Mr. Brightside which ten years later still has the unique ability to send an entire room full of people into a frenzy in a way that few songs in a generation do. Such is the musician's prolificacy that when his band goes into hiatus he just has to keep working on solo material. The Desired Effect is now the second such solo album to be released.

There has always been a curious dynamic between Flowers and his Killers bandmates, reigning in Flowers' sprawling, freewheeling ideas with their more grounded, rock and roll style. Still there is no doubting that Brandon Flowers is the core of the band; he is the song-writer, the creative force. There have long been rumours of Flowers wanting to break free, to branch out and become a bona-fide solo superstar in the mold of a Lady Gaga or David Bowie. Yet for all his talent and recognition with The Killers, that breakthrough as a solo artist, the boost needed to make him one of the biggest household names in the world, has always seemed one step too far.

The first album, Flamingo, was met with a lukewarm reception. The conventional wisdom had it that Flowers, without the moderation of his bandmates, was just too far from the mainstream. But there was brilliance in that album, intelligent songwriting with Flowers' trademark flair. The real problem was one of production. Over the top effects, unnecessary vocal layering, music levels all out of whack; Flamingo was a frustrating experiences precisely because there are songs with great ideas and sublime moments in them ruined by messy production and baffling creative choices.

And so The Desired Effect sees a new production team in place. Multi-Grammy Award winning producer Ariel Rechtshaid takes the helm, bringing with him experience of working with some of the biggest stars in the world from Madonna to Beyoncé, to Vampire Weekend and Haim, and the difference is like night and day.

One of the first things that strikes you upon listening to The Desired Effect is how finely honed every track is. There is barely a note put wrong, not a single layer that sounds out of place or jarring, each of the album's 10 slick tracks are radio-ready hits. The quality of the production is such that even the lesser songs, which are inferior to some of those on Flamingo, sound better.

The key tracks are without doubt the four singles released ahead of the album. Can't Deny My Love is a track that sounds very reminiscent of the darker tone of Flamingo, and as a result serves as one of the best examples of the progress that's been made. This is Flowers at his most off-the-wall as far as The Desired Effect goes, big vocal effects, heavy percussion, layered backing vocals, and epic scale. It's exactly the sort of song that on Flamingo would have come out sounding like a mess, but here it's just slick stadium pop, a throwback to David Bowie or Pet Shop Boys in their 1980s pomp.

Still Want You takes things to another level with one of the finer tracks of the year so far. Again Flowers wears his influences on his sleeve, sounding like such a dead ringer for Young American's era David Bowie he could well have been listed a contributor. It's one of those impossibly catchy songs, with a great hook that lends itself well to live concert sing-along sessions with the audience. Top notch.

Which brings us to Lonely Town, which is pretty much a perfect pop song. Pure 1980s glam with the catchiest chorus we've heard in years, belying the darker meaning of the lyrics which are intended as a sort of spiritual successor to Sting's anthem to stalkers, Every Breath You Take.

The final of the first four singles I Can Change returns to the 1980s New Romantic period with quite a breathtaking anthem of desperation. The driving beat besot with piano and Flowers' falsetto make for quite an addictive concoction.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The album has plenty of quality throughout, from the brassy opener Dreams Come True to the delicate Between Me and You, the rockabilly Diggin up the Heart, or the wonderful semi-acoustic number The Way It's Always Been. These are all very fine songs, and even the less inspired tracks sound like superlative pop down to the slick production and undoubted talent of Mr. Flowers.

Ultimately this places The Desired Effect undoubtedly right up there with the best albums of the year, and possibly a major breakthrough moment for Brandon Flowers' solo career. The rest of The Killers must surely hear this and fear for their jobs, Brandon is on superb form without them, and has created an album which by merit of it's expert studio work is worth far more than the sum of its parts.

Must Listen :
Lonely Town
Still Want You
Can't Deny My Love
I Can Change

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Developed by Squad
Published by Squad
Genre Space flight simulator
Platform OS X, PC, Linux

kerbal space program videogame review 1.0 steam early access

We can cut to the chase here, as Kerbal Space Program is a game that we have discussed at length previously on this blog. Making our Hot List for two years running, KSP has become the poster boy for the new wave of indie, crowdfunded games. Originating as the passion project for one lone coder, it has ballooned into one of the most talked about projects in gaming, attracting news coverage and publicity from the likes of NASA and Elon Musk. It's been a long time coming, but now 1.0, the final release, is ready.

In our view, KSP has been best described by the developers themselves in a recent Reddit IAMA as "Lego rockets with realistic physics crewed by fearless, hyperenthusiastic green people. Explosions everywhere and we'll sneakily teach you orbital mechanics to boot."

This one-liner really gets to the core of the game. You build spaceships, everything from classic golden age Apollo style rockets to sleek Space Shuttles and massive interplanetary craft. You build it using ingenious and intuitive modular design tools out of a huge variety of smaller components, which allows for massive customization and unique designs. Then you fly these spacecraft, first on Earth, then into orbit, then to the moon and distant planets and beyond. Once you're out there you will find a huge range of activities, spacewalks, landing on planets, building rovers, taking samples and scientific readings, even mining asteroids.

Beyond this you can simply be creative, landing and docking multiple spaceships on planets to form colonies, space stations. As cheesy as it is to say, the tools are so versatile and detailed that the gameplay really is only limited by the player's own imagination.

The main aim in career mode is simple, you conduct missions to accumulate science, which you spend to unlock more parts and build better rockets. To do all this you need money, which you can earn through contract missions.

But really this career mode is just window dressing, something to make this game into an actual game rather than what it really is, one of the best physics sandboxes ever developed. You quickly learn that flying to another planet is not as simple as point in the direction and fire rockets, in order to navigate in this game you will have to learn some basic orbital mechanics. It seems daunting at first, but the game does a surprisingly able job of making it seem fairly intuitive, displaying your trajectory and giving you simple guidelines for how to manipulate it in order to transfer to the orbit of your target object.

It's remarkable just how fun mastering these techniques can be, and it's especially amazing considering how much variety and freedom the player has in designing his spacecraft that the physics works so well. For those who played the early alpha and beta iterations it's remarkable to see how tight the gameplay has become.

The difficulty curve has also been impressively fine tuned. It's still complex enough that every milestone feels like a real accomplishment, but not so much that it ever becomes frustrating or overwhelming.

And then there is the style of the game. It would be easy for a spaceship building game with realistic physics to be a bit dry, a bit technical, and a bit niche. The developer has quite impressively combined these elements with a decidedly cartoonish, lighter tone.

Your astronauts are adorably enthusiastic Kerbals, and they come with two attributes: bravery and stupidity. There's something very endearing about the way your Kerbals can smash a rocket into a mountain, then jump out and gleefully plant a flag looking pleased as punch with himself. The humor is light enough to prevent the game becoming too cold and calculating, without going too far.

Kerbal Space Program is a fantastic achievement, a wonderful physics sandbox wrapped up in a competent business management shell. It's a triumph for such a small development team to produce such a tight and enjoyable product, and the greatest vindication we have yet seen that the crowdfunding early-access model can really work.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Ephemeric is having a highly political week as it turns out. Fresh from our very early preview of the 2016 US Presidential elections, now we turn our attentions to a eleventh hour final preview of next week's UK General election. In one week we will have a new Government. 650 seats, 326 to hold a majority, who will it be?

uk general election 2015 preview predictions

The current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition swept into power 5 years ago on the back of a hugely anti-incumbent political climate in post-recession Britain. Far from a common occurrence, this was the first coalition Government since the second World War, and yet here are, going into another election where a coalition seems certainty. What is going on?

The Parties

Once upon a time, the UK had a political system that looked a lot like America's. Basically a two-party system, the left-wing Labour and right wing Conservative parties dominating the vote between them, as much as 90% shared between the two. As we have seen in America, this is not always a good thing.

Massive political parties voting in unison, the opposition often with no recourse but to simply obstruct everything. Politics like this becomes less about personal representation and almost entirely about competition. Pick the party you're closest to and then hope they come up with some laws you like. When one party tries to appeal to everyone, it often ends up appealing to no one.

Thus the UK gradually became a multi-party system. Parties to cater all along the left-right spectrum, parties to cater to specific policy focuses, or specific regions. It's a system that has its good side and its bad side, allowing more personal representation and forcing parties to work together, but arguably undermining the stability of a good strong majority. 

However you feel about it, the multi-party system also makes the results of an election far less certain in the days and weeks leading up to it. The make up of the next Government, and even the Prime Minister, is much harder to predict than in an American election.

Here are the main contenders:

Conservative PartyLeader: David Cameron

The Conservatives are, surprisingly enough, the main conservative ideology party in the UK. But don't make the mistake of equating UK conservatives to those in America, these Conservatives have a lot more in common with Barack Obama's left-wing Democrats than with the Republican party. You'll see nary a mention of evolution or religion in the party manifesto, and green energy/global warming has become one of the party's main campaign pillars. The focus is strongly on economic issues; spending cuts, tax policy, and libertarian policy. Think Mitt Romney, not Rick Santorum.

For the past 5 years the Conservatives have been the major party of the current coalition Government, having been in the wilderness before that since the early 1990s. During that time the economy has recovered, with unemployment low. The Prime Minister also gets high marks for his leadership on foreign issues, and in pushing climate change negotiations. On the whole there is much for the current Government to be proud of, so an easy re-election surely? Absolutely not. While many of the causes of 2010's political angst have been remedied, there still remains a strong anti-incumbent sentiment.

The Conservatives have something of an image problem. They are painted as the cold, unfeeling, wealthy elites, who are more concerned with bolstering their balance sheets than getting children off the streets. This is (somewhat unfairly) made worse by the presence of many public school "old boys" within the ranks of party leadership. Opponents like to use this to paint a picture of de facto hereditary rule of the elites, when really it is only logical that those with the best education are more likely to rise to positions of power. Never mind the fact that left-wing parties are also stocked full of wealthy public school boys.

The main problem is that while the economy is strong, real wages are only just starting to pick up. This has been exacerbated by the Government's deep cuts, which have really hit some of the most vulnerable people in the country. So the recession may be over, but an awful lot of people have yet to feel it. The problem with too much trickle-down policy is that there is a lot more down than up, and while those at the top have been drenched in recent years the masses haven't felt so much as a drop.

So what is the prognosis? The Conservatives will feel the brunt of voters' frustrations, and lose a lot of seats. It seems almost certain that they will win more seats than any other party, but not enough to form a majority Government. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats show no interesting in continuing their partnership, leaving the question open: who could the Conservatives partner with to form a Government?

The bad news for Conservatives is that it is hard to think of anyone; the biggest parties this year look to be left-leaning. The other right-wing parties UKIP and DUP won't have anywhere near enough seats to form a coalition. This could be the end of the line for Cameron.

Labour PartyLeader: Ed Miliband

The UK's left-wing party. But again, don't try to compare them to their American counterparts the Democrats, who arguably have more in common with the Conservatives than Labour. Shut your ears American conservatives, because the Labour party is an actual socialist party.

The word "socialist" is tricky because it has practically no meaning in common use anymore. Fox News and the like have managed to turn it into such a dirty word that it really signifies nothing other than a pejorative. Meanwhile in the real world it's a fairly common political ideology, which in very basic terms stands for the spreading of ownership from the wealthy to the community as a whole. In practical terms this means a reassignment of assets from those who have much to those who have little. As you can imagine, their power base lies with the working class, and the unions.

As gentrification of the UK continues apace, personal wealth on average increases, and public opinion turns increasingly negative against the unions. This has led to the Labour party moving increasingly to the centre over the past 15 years, but still this image has stuck. Given the main themes of this election that we have discussed, it is hardly surprising to see voters flocking back to such a party.

But this image is a burden as much as anything, with plenty of otherwise left-wing voters put off by the socialist aspects of the party. In 2010 a large reason behind the Labour defeat was voters jumping to the more moderate Liberal Democrats.

Another big issue for Labour is leader Ed Miliband, who is generally unpopular and seen as a very poor leader. A lot of this is due to his demeanour and lack of charisma, but honestly he brings it on himself when he does things like this. He's a bit of an idiot. Many will tell you that the scariest part of a Labour Government is Ed as Prime Minister.

Ultimately the question is, can they bring back the liberal voters into the fold? Certainly not enough for a majority, probably not enough for a plurality, but possibly enough to form a coalition. The Liberal Democrats probably wouldn't mind staying in power, while the Scottish National Party seem like obvious partners.

Liberal DemocratsLeader: Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are like a Hollywood cautionary tale, they had it all and then they lost it all. 2010 was the perfect storm of anti-incumbent fervor, particularly among left-wing voters, and emergence of charismatic leader Nick Clegg. Their ideological centrism played well, surging to an impressive 20% of the vote, which promptly earned them a place in the Government, and Clegg a spot as Deputy Prime Minister.

Forming a Government with the Conservatives has turned out to be a very very bad move for the party. The Liberal Democrats may have found themselves in power temporarily, but with a relatively small number of seats were unable to press much of their own will on policy, whilst remaining saddled with the burden of negative opinion held against the Government. In particular, partnering with the Conservative party will have driven many left-wing voters away.

Now from these highs, the Lib Dems are looking at a big wipe out, and could lose as many as half of their seats. Leader Nick Clegg, once the darling of British politics and now one of the most disliked politicians in the country, may even lose his seat.

The one silver lining for the Lib Dems is that they may still play a big role in who forms the eventual Government. Down, but not out.

UK Independence PartyLeader: Nigel Farage

Meanwhile on the other side of the Conservative party we have UKIP, and their leader Nigel Farage. This is the far right party. To call them Euro-skeptic doesn't begin to cover it, they want out of the EU, and they want a total end to immigration. More pertinent is the party's association with racism, homophobia and other highly socially conservative stances. UKIP are one of the most hated of the mainstream parties.

And yet, UKIP won the 2014 EU Parliament elections. It seems incredible to think that this party who look set to win no more than a couple of seats could have actually won an election just a year ago. The first nationwide election in 100 years not to be won by other Labour or Conservative parties. 

So what's happening this year? Well it's mostly the whole racism thing. UKIP opinion has eroded massively in 12 months thanks to a stream of very bad publicity. Probably an irrelevance in this election.

Green PartyLeader: Natalie Bennett

The Green party is always interesting to watch. Surprisingly popular among young people, the Greens often look set to break out, but then never do. It's true, young people don't vote, but more than that is that the Green policy is really quite extreme.

People think Green and they inevitably think about environment, which is fairly popular. What people don't think about is a party that is obsessively anti-business, that wants to ban animal testing and bring medical research to a halt, that takes anti-sexism into bizarre, reverse-sexism places.

Their manifesto is ill thought-out, un-nuanced rhetoric intended simply to appeal to naive left-wing kids.

Scottish National PartyLeader: Nicola Sturgeon

It is fast becoming clear that no matter who wins or loses in this election, SNP will win. Following last year's independence referendum, Scottish Nationalism is at an all time high (or since the days of William Wallace anyway), and SNP look set to capitalise on that big time. 

Some strong performances in the debates, a electorate pleasing liberal platform, and of course Scottish nationalism. SNP look set to sweep the entirety of Scotland and replace the Lib Dems as the third biggest party in the UK.

So what does this mean in practice? Clearly SNP will never win a majority. For one thing they don't run for elections outside of Scotland. What they can do is grab the third largest number of seats, which makes them the key bargaining chip in the formation of a new Government. Whatever coalition forms, there's a good chance that SNP will be in it.

Plaid CymruLeader: Leanne Wood

A bit like SNP, except where it says "Scotland", read "Wales". And when it says "will win", read "won't win".

Plaid Cymru are the Welsh party, they're popular in Wales. They do Welsh stuff. They'll win seats there, but nowhere else. Probably end up with 3 or 4 seats.

Sinn FeinLeader: Gerry Adams

One side of the Irish political coin. Sinn Fein are a Republican party, that is they support Irish independence. Famously associated with the IRA terrorist organisation, they are nevertheless fairly popular in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Yet they never hold many seats, and fewer than their unionist Irish opposition.

Democratic Unionist PartyLeader: Peter Robinson

The other side. DUP are Unionist, and they don't much like Sinn Fein. They're less popular than Sinn Fein, although they do hold more seats than them. 

Interesting with the DUP is that they look set to become the fifth biggest party in the UK by seats, which makes them a potential participant in a coalition party, and one of the few potential partners for the Conservative party. This would be a somewhat controversial move with  DUP known for being an intensely conservative party, thought of as a homophobic, anti-minority, anti-women party, but a desperate enough Conservative party may have little choice.

So who will be our next Prime Minister? Well that's a tough question. At the moment the odds seem to favour Ed Miliband, who might well end up with fewer seats, but has an easier path to a coalition than Cameron. It's one of the hardest to call elections in a long time. One thing we do know for certain, whatever happens it will be a strange one.

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