Sunday, 29 December 2013
Everyone, it is time to raise your IKEA champagne flutes. The red carpet is set on Fulham Road, and the celebs are out in force from The Ephemeric's family to The Ephemeric's cat. The orchestra is warming up in the kitchen nook and the guests are filing in to take their seats on The Ephemeric's two-seater couch. Welcome to the year's most glamorous and esteemed of occasions, The Debbie Awards.
Initially conceived as a way to slag off people we don't like, these awards have since grown into a ceremony greater than the Grammies, Emmies and Latin Grammies combined. So without further ado, let the curtain fall upon 2013 as we begin our definitive review of the past 12 months:
2013 Debbie Awards
Cinema & TV
1. The Debbie for TV Show of the Year
Runners Up: House of Cards, Arrested Development
On the surface it may be risqué, vulgar and chauvinistic but after a few episodes spy-movie pastiche Archer reveals itself to be a much smarter affair than is first apparent. The show's razor sharp wit and spot on parodies owe much to the excellent work of its writers, but it's the brilliant metafictional call-backs and in-jokes, reminiscent of shows like Arrested Development or Monty Python, that will keep longtime fans returning. Without a doubt one of the funniest shows on TV and currently at the height of its powers.
Our two joint runners up both hail from the revolutionary new wave of Netflix original programming. First is House of Cards. Featuring the heavyweight talents of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey, this deliciously cynical drama is simply the best political TV show since the West Wing; clever, well acted and inherently watchable.
But Netflix's impressive debut lineup focuses not just on brand new IPs, resurrecting cult classic Arrested Development for a 4th season. While the show's tone and structure may have changed somewhat, focusing on individual characters with little opportunity for the impressive ensemble cast to play off each other as has been the case in previous seasons, the hallmark multi-layered writing of the series is back and even more fiendishly clever than ever. This season's episodes may feel largely isolated, but are so bafflingly and surprisingly intertwined that they simply get better and better with each one, and as with previous seasons, better by orders of magnitude with each repeated viewing.
2. The Debbie for New TV Show of the Year
Winner: House of Cards
Unsurprising that our runner up for best TV show of the year would also win best new show of the year. House of Cards is not only fantastic television, but a real statement of intent by Netflix exhibiting not only the capacity to produce work of quality, but to attract superstar names. Season 2 duly approaches in 2014, and you would do well to ensure it's top of your list.
3. The Debbie for Film of the Year
While we have yet to see many of the awards season films, The Ephemeric is still very happy to name Gravity as the best movie of 2013. A sublime piece of cinema, beautiful, streamlined, and flawlessly produced, Gravity shows exactly how a film should be made. This is a film that reminds us that intelligent human drama, even with niche subjects like space exploration, can be both worthy of artistic merit and commercially successful. Simultaneously it sets new standards for technical excellence in the production of film, featuring some of the greatest space photography ever used in a film, stunning special effects, and brilliant cinematography.
Music & Theatre
4. The Debbie for Best Theatrical Production of the Year
Winner: The Drowned Man
Runners Up: This House, American Psycho: the Musical
This year's theatre Debbie goes to something truly unique, the latest production from pioneering immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. The Drowned Man sees a fully realised world arranged over 5 storeys of abandoned warehouse, all fully explorable and every inch filled with an impossible attention to detail. The result is something like a haunted house for adults, and one of the most atmospheric settings in which you will ever set foot.
The close runner up is the National's witty political account of 1970s Government This House. Poignant and full of laughs with sharp as a tack satire, the story of gamesmanship and partisan tribalism is eye-opening for its total relevance in today's political landscape.
A late addition as joint runner-up is American Psycho: The Musical. A new West End adaption of the controversial book and film, the musical version emphasises the text's absurd and darkly comic elements to brilliant effect. As a very recent production there is no review yet, but stay tuned, maybe.
5. The Debbie for Worst Theatrical Production of the Year
Winner: In the Republic of Happiness
It may have won this award last year, but In the Republic of Happiness was so damn bad that it warrants the award for another year running. At the same time it raises a legitimate concern; ever since the new artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre took charge last year pretty much every show has been weak at best, abysmal at worst. The Ephemeric feels it is important to highlight this as a potential recurring theme going forward.
6. The Debbie for Album of the Year
Winner: Reflektor - Arcade Fire
Runner Up: The Next Day - David Bowie
Its announcement came as something of a surprise just a few weeks before release, but Arcade Fire's newest album was an absolute triumph, a work of artistic ambition and a daring reinvention of a band accused by many of veering too close to mainstream in recent years. Reflektor is bafflingly brilliant; profound and complex, sounding like nothing else you'll hear this year.
A very close second this year is an album that almost certainly would have taken the top prize but not for the surprise release of the fourth Arcade Fire album. After ten long years David Bowie has returned to the charts with a new album, but what is most surprising is just how fantastic The Next Day is. Far more than just a nostalgia trip for Bowie fans, this album shows that Bowie is still at the forefront of music, a work that is more than comparable to even his best from decades past. It is no coincidence that both our top two albums have had contributions from this man, but this time it's the new generation of artists that pip the old master to the prize.
7. The Debbie for Debut Album of the Year
Winner: Sing to the Moon - Laura Mvula
In a year where the music landscape has been much more focused on returning giants like David Bowie, Daft Punk and Arcade Fire, there has been much less in the way of impressive debuts. Of the fairly mediocre assortment one standout is the impressive first album from Laura Mvula, a showcase of an artist with exceptional musical talents. Sing to the Moon straddles genres, not quite jazz or modern electro pop but full of classic soul and a diverse range of musical influences, not to mention one of the most unique voices of a generation.
8. The Debbie for Song of the Year
Winner: Reflektor - Arcade Fire
Runners Up: Free Your Mind - Cut Copy, She - Laura Mvula
The winner of this year's coveted best song Debbie is the all-encompassing lead single from this year's best album. Reflektor is multi-layered and beguilingly inventive in its production, progressing in movements from its dark, winding opening to its euphoric midsection and a stunning symphonic finish. Reflektor is perhaps the single most impressive piece of work in Arcade Fire's already glittering career.
Our first runner up continues Cut Copy's streak of releasing albums with exactly one excellent song, and not a lot else. Free Your Mind is a trippy, euphoric dance anthem that keeps getting better and better as the song goes on, building into a rush of 1960s flavoured harmony and multi-instrumental bliss.
The joint runner up is lead single from Laura Mvula's impressive debut. She is a song of rare beauty, stripped down and low-key with rich vocals that are all the more powerful for the musics restraint until swelling to a great crescendo for the finale.
Videogames & Technology
9. The Debbie for Greatest Technological Innovation of the Year
Winner: Applied Graphene Materials
Graphene has been called, among other things, a miracle substance. This one atom thick configuration of carbon is not only super lightweight but stronger than diamond and bears unique conductive properties. The many potential uses have been proposed in fields including medicine, electronics, energy storage, solar cells, neural connections, drinking water purification and just about anything you can think of; frankly a substance with the potential to revolutionise the industrial world. The trouble is, graphene has typically been very difficult to create. This year various companies, most notably Applied Graphene Materials of Durham University, have started developing methods of large-scale industrial production. If these methods are as effective as forecast we could see some revolutionary advances over the next decade, all thanks to this tiny substance.
10. The Debbie for Videogame of the Year
Winner: Grand Theft Auto V
Runners Up: Bioshock Infinite, Fire Emblem: Awakening
2013 was a very interesting year for videogames. Many of the better ones have been from this new wave of pre-release indie game alphas, such as Kerbal Space Program and Starbound, games which are not technically out and so do not qualify for this award. Sometimes, however, the major AAA release titles do manage to justify their hype. Grand Theft Auto V is one such game. A landmark game, massive in scale and polished to perfection, playable to an almost indefinite extent. GTA V is not just incredible fun to play, but a staggering accomplishment in technical and design terms. Truly one of the great games of all time.
Our first runner up is another major AAA title that received much critical acclaim this year, Bioshock Infinite. While it may have been slightly overrated, and far from perfect, there's no ignoring the stylistic brilliance, the originality of world design that graced this game, not to mention one of the most empathetic characters ever created in a videogame, and one of the finer stories written for a game. Bioshock Infinite is a game of beautiful moments, twisted vistas and stunning musical work that ties into the deep and complex mythos of the game's world while touching on real-world nostalgia in each player. But most of all it is that most rare of things, a game that is truly thought provoking, weeks and months after you've finished playing.
The second runner up is Fire Emblem: Awakening. The newest entry into the Fire Emblem series was the finest of a strong bunch of Nintendo 3DS games this year, and finally took the series into the mainstream in western markets. A deep and finely tuned game of tactics that is nevertheless completely accessible and a joy for anyone to play, but what impresses most is the level of polish and presentation. Possibly the most impressive and absorbing handheld game ever created, a new standard has been set for any which follows.
11. The Debbie for Videogame Console of the Year
Winner: Nintendo 3DS
2013 was certainly the year of the Nintendo 3DS, the best selling of all videogame systems and the top mover of software as the games finally came to a console that had hitherto been lacking in this regard. 2013 saw Super Mario Land 3D, Mario Kart 3D, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Fire Emblem: Awakening and a whole host of other games that achieved mass critical and commercial success, the likes of which no other one console can claim this year.
12. The Debbie for Software Development Firm of the Year
One of the premier firms from the budding Boston tech industry, Apperian has started making serious waves in the mobile app business, notably for recent developments in remote app technology that go beyond even what Apple themselves have produced. Plus they have this up and coming rockstar software engineer on the books, Jeremy something or other.
13. The Debbie for Footballer of the Year
Winner: Cristiano Ronaldo - Real Madrid
The question of Leo Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo has been a controversial one. Few would argue that for the past few years Leo Messi has generally been considered the better of the two. But this year we argue that the title has changed hands, and so The Ephemeric awards this most coveted of Debbies to Ronaldo. Blessed with the intelligence, speed and technique of Messi, but with twice the physicality, Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably the most complete footballer in the world, and along with Messi will surely be remembered as one of the all time greats.
14. The Debbie for Under-21 Footballer of the Year
Winner: Romelu Lukaku - Chelsea
Romelu Lukaku is arguably the most feared young footballer in the world. A lethal goalscorer for country and on his two loan moves to West Brom and Everton which have seen him threaten the top goalscoring tables in the English Premier League, Lukaku appears to have all the makings of a world class centre forward. Lukaku has pace, particularly on the turn to beat defenders, and the quality of touch typical of a much more technically oriented player. But what strikes particular fear into the league's defenders is his physicality. The man is almost twice the size of most competitors, described by teammates as being "like shaking hands with a refrigerator". The truly scary part? Lukaku is only just 20 years old.
15. The Debbie for Football Manager of the Year
Winner: Jupp Heynckes - Bayern Munich (former)
When it comes to the Debbie for Football Manager of the year there is only one name which comes to mind, former Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes. The man took Bayer Munich from European also-rans to what is generally considered the best club football team in the world. A lethal mix of power, pace and technique, Heynckes Bayern side is typified by eleven players all of whom are total footballers, capable of performing magic on the ball when in possession as well as fighting for the ball when out of it. Barcelona be damned, Bayern Munich have set the standard by which all modern football clubs will now be guided.
Social & Lifestyle
16. The Debbie for Party of the Year
Winner: 100th Anniversary Message in a Bottle Party at Suvretta House
Some parties go beyond simply being awesome, some parties are life changing. When the Suvretta invited a couple dozen lucky 20-somethings to a free party weekend in their resort this March I don't think many people realised quite what they were in for. Skiing, crepe bars and a beach party among the snowy mountains, this was truly the party to end all parties, and for The Ephemeric personally, a life changing event.
17. The Debbie for Restaurant of the Year
Runner Up: L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon (Paris, Saint Germain)
Light the torches, The Ephemeric has a new favourite restaurant! Arnolfo is the only two Michelin star restaurant in Tuscany outside of Florence, and it's easy to see what the Michelin judges find so exceptional about the place. Located in the supremely romantic setting of Colle di Val D'Elsa in the hills of Tuscany, with candle lit tables under a naturally growing canopy, Arnolfo is that rare mark of quality in a restaurant that can innovate with bold, unusual dishes and twists on classic staples and execute both perfectly. With a range of set menus to cater to any taste, a delightful à la carte and the ability to handle any dietary requirement, Arnolfo's menu includes dishes such as blue lobster ravioli, trilogy of scampi and risotto with quail breast and pecorino cheese. A must for any trip to Italy.
Our runner up this year is a restaurant commonly considered among the best in the world, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. This particular restaurant has three locations, all of them bearing two Michelin stars. The Ephemeric's particular locale of choice is the Paris, Saint Germain location. The menu is varied, and arguably overpriced, but every single dish tried was among the most delectable things ever eaten. The staff get extra marks for class, chipping in a beautiful free birthday cake.
18. The Debbie for New Restaurant of the Year
Sometimes a restaurant can try too hard too impress, while others are just effortlessly cool. Slabs is a great example of the latter. With its trendy Marylebone location and chic decor Slabs is more than just your average burger kitchen. Their menu runs the gamut from gourmet sliders to lobster, but the best dish is the spanish burger, a beef burger with chorizo, serrano ham, manchego cheese and garlic aioli. Simply finger licking good. Add to this friendly service and a top notch cocktail menu and it's easy to see this place as a fixture in London life for a long time to come.
19. The Debbie for Nightclub of the Year
Winner: Cirque le Soir
Sure, it won this award last year, but it's still the best night club in London. London is celebrated for its club scene, and the standout from this year's crop is Mayfair's Cirque le Soir. Cirque lives up to its name by turning the standard dance club fare into a circus/carnival extravaganza. Costumed dancers, face painters, games, giant popcorn vending machines and all sorts of other craziness create one of the most unique night spots in London.
20. The Debbie for Mixologist of the Year
Winner: Alessandro Palazzi
Another Debbie being taken by the same party for two consecutive years, but few would argue that it is deserved. The Duke's Bar owner Alessandro is famous across London for making Ian Fleming's drinks, and in particular his flair for unique martinis turn heads. Whether he's making his signature Fleming 89 or whipping up some original creation on the spot, there's no finer cocktail around. This year's special creations include the coffee flavoured Blue Mountain martini.
21. The Debbie for Destination of the Year
Winner: Barcelona, Spain
This year's destination of choice is Barcelona, Spain. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities on Earth, Barcelona has two main things going for it: its history of daring, progressive creativity which has spawned some of the most groundbreaking art and architecture anywhere in the world, a unique amalgamation of European and African style, and its mediterranean climate along the southern coast of Europe. Barcelona contains some of the most stunning sites of natural beauty in Europe and man-made beauty in the works of its various artists.
22. The Debbie for Wine of the Year
Winner: San Fabiano Calcinaia, Cerviolo 2001
The little-known vineyard of San Fabiano Calcinaia is one of the most under appreciated in Tuscany, and in particular their two main products, the 100% sangiovese Cellole and the heartier Cerviolo, which is 90% sangiovese, rank up there with the very best. This year's number 1 bottle is very hard to come by, the 2001 Cerviolo. 2001 is known as one of the better years for wine in the region, and that year's vintage from this small vineyard is very difficult to find. A delicious, fruity red, deeply warming.
23. The Debbie for Champagne of the Year
Winner: Franck Bonville, Cuvée les Belles Voysec
This year's coveted champagne Debbie goes to a relatively small up and coming house, Franck Bonville. Their winner comes in the form of the stunning blanc de blancs (100% chardonnay) Cuvée les Belles Voyes. Produced from the 2004 harvest, this cuvée is everything that a blanc de blancs should be, rich and complex with hints of pear and vanilla. One of the more delicious champagnes out there, absolute top of the line.
24. The Debbie for Best Dracula Impression
A truly deserved Debbie award for such a dead-on unintentional impression of the Count from Sesame Street. Living proof that people from central Europe do in fact laugh "Ah Ah". Now lets hope all the other vampire stuff was inaccurate.
Well there you have it, another great year, and here's to the next one being even better!
Tuesday, 17 December 2013
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Written by Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Produced by Alfonso Cuarón, David Heyman
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Studio Heyday Films
Running time 90 minutes
Alfonso Cuarón is one of Hollywood's best kept secrets. His career has thus far dabbled in foreign films, art-house projects and, bizarrely, Harry Potter, but first attained recognition in mainstream cinema with his most recent previous directorial effort, 2006 masterpiece Children of Men. Chances are even the most out of touch movie-goer will have heard the hype surround his newest film Gravity. Set entirely in the zero gravity of space, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts stranded in orbit as the result of a catastrophic accident.
Anyone who has been following this movie's development will no doubt have become frustrated by its prolonged gestation period and recurring production delays. Oftentimes such stutters auger poorly for the end quality of a film, but thankfully that is not the case here. Instead all that time has been used in perfecting a sublimely detailed film that is truly remarkable for many reasons.
Gravity is remarkable firstly for its simplicity. Following in the footsteps of other realistic depictions of space, notably Kubrick's 2001, Gravity is a film that uses audio only selectively, with very minimal diegetic sounds. It is a film with only two main cast members, particularly Sandra Bullock who is on screen alone for at least a good half of the movie and carries it impressively. Meanwhile the plot itself is refreshingly simple, there is no historical context, no background mythology, you just turn up to the cinema completely blind, and enjoy the film.
And enjoy it you will, for Gravity is at its core a masterfully paced human drama. Its themes of isolation, human spirit and the will to survive in the face of overwhelming odds are very reminiscent of the film 127 Hours, and a preponderance of religious imagery both visual and metaphorical ultimately culminates in a rebirth of Bullock's character.
Gravity is more remarkable still for its technical accomplishments, including arguably the most stunning space photography ever seen in a film, and shunning a big-screen friendly depiction of space for one that is extremely detailed and more realistic. Gravity recreates zero-gravity effects and physics that are (for the most part) very convincing, owing to detail that extends as far as floating teardrops, zero-gravity flame balls, and the difficulties involved in manoeuvring with such conditions. But it is particularly the use of 3D that brings the visuals of this film to the next level, and that is something that The Ephemeric never thought we would say about a film, even after seeing Avatar. Zero-gravity space is by its disorienting, multi-directional nature the greatest justification for the use of 3D in a film beyond mere spectacle that we have seen yet.
Cuarón makes several bold choices in his direction, attempting things that few if any other filmmakers have done before right from the beginning. Gravity opens with an incredible single camera tracking shot that lasts a good fifteen minutes, all the while ducking and weaving freely in zero gravity as events unfold. It's filmmaking at its audacious best, completely untethered from the restraints of earthbound scenes, disorienting yet immaculate. Best of all, Gravity's pitch perfect pacing and restrained running time ensure that it never overstays its welcome or gets taken for granted.
Yet what is most remarkable about Gravity is the fact that a film like this; a niche sci-fi subject, minimalist, no franchise, no overdrawn mythology, not a blockbuster by any means; can still capture the mainstream cinema audience's imagination in this day and age. Few studios will take the chance on investing such a high budget on something so abstract, something that isn't already established in popular culture or with years of hype. Gravity is a bold and unique film that proves that taking chances on work of real artistic value can be financially viable.
Yes it's three 5-star reviews in a row. Get over it, it's deserved.
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Genre Indie Rock
Producers James Murphy, Markus Dravs, Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire emerged in the middle of the last decade, around the same time that bands like The Killers, Metric, and other ilk of the stadium-sized indie rock persuasion started to take the genre mainstream.
Of this new wave, Arcade Fire would have been considered one of the least likely for commercial success. Their debut album, Funeral, received high critical acclaim but only modest sales. After all their form broke more artistic ground than their more mainstream competition; albums structured into something more akin to classical movements, songs named with numbers as variants on the same theme, that usually exceeded the 3-4 minute pop song standard. Their equally acclaimed follow up Neon Bible continued in the same fashion. There was clearly something of ambition about the band, releasing singles that were more daring than their contemporaries, often featuring elaborate multi-instrumental compositions and dense thematics. The band was famously championed by music legend David Bowie, and It's easy to see why with such similar artistic sensibilities and musical complexities.
The turning point in terms of wider awareness was album number 3: The Suburbs. This was the album that propelled Arcade Fire from underdogs to one of the world's biggest bands, sweeping end of year awards, including that of The Ephemeric. A tremendously poignant album in its own right, but what really impressed critics most was the band's stylistic progress. Many flavours of the month have made the mistake of following up a successful first album simply by copying its style in the hopes that lightning will strike twice. What separates them from the artists with true longevity is evolution, not being afraid to change or innovate their sound. The truly great names in music, like Bowie, McCartney, Radiohead, have all shown that they can do this without losing the quality that made them so successful. With The Suburbs Arcade Fire showed that they can do this as well.
If The Suburbs was the album that brought the band mainstream success, then Reflektor attempts the delicate balancing act of venturing into more experimental territory without alienating their new larger fanbase. To accomplish this, frontman Win Butler has drafted the unlikely collaborator of James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame as producer. While it is too early to judge whether they can successfully straddle these two worlds, what is quite clear is that Arcade Fire are not just back to their creatively adventurous best, but dead set on creating a piece of work unlike anything you've heard before. What follows is a full account of The Ephemeric's interpretation and reaction to the album, and it's a long read so buckle up.
Reflektor is more than just ambitious; it takes inspiration from Greek mythology (Orpheus and Eurydice), 19th century philosophy (Kirkegaard) and more musical influences than I could possibly list here, positing big existential questions of love, death and idolatry from antiquity through to multimedia gods of the modern era. With a piece of work so layered it's impressive then that Arcade Fire manage to not make this a sprawling self-indulgent mess. Rather the above themes are linked through the common aspect of human relationships: the relationship between lovers, the relationship between artist and audience, the relationship between authority and society, and the superficial relationships of the social media age.
Arcade Fire, like few bands of the current generation, still believe in producing an album as a full length statement, rather than a pick-n-mix of potential hit singles. The album is divided into two Volumes, the first wild and full of life, the second more introspective and ambiguous. This dichotomy takes inspiration from Kirkegaard's idea of the "reflective age" (hence the name of this album) which posits that society alternates between two distinct eras, one of passion and revolution, the other of reflection and understanding.
Certainly the thematic centrepiece of the first Volume and the album as a whole is the stunning opening track and lead single Reflektor, a 7 minute anthem of the digital age covered with Murphy's unique musical fingerprints. A refreshingly dark, brassy disco groove that builds slowly to an explosive coda, Butler talks of obsession and dependency particularly dissecting the relationship between artist and audience.
"Reflektor" as a term is applied in various contexts throughout the album, and while many are foreshadowed in this song's lyrics, here it primarily describes the role of an artist as a quasi-religious idol whose songs are merely a reflection of the listeners themselves. There are strong allusions as well to social media as putting up further barriers between people, and the venomous affect it has on detaching us still further from the reality into our own narcissistic little bubbles. The slow-building composition finally comes to a head after a good 5 minutes, its seething paranoia and desperation eventually climaxing in a magnificent cacophony of piano and strings as Butler's vocals (backed by none other than David Bowie who reportedly loved the song so much he demanded to be included) slowly fade into insignificance against the greater noise.
This serves as a thematic introduction to the album's high concept before bringing us back down to the more grounded details of Volume I. Each track casts a scathing spotlight upon failed authority and questions the hypocrisy of societal expectations. These songs are bold and direct, songs of revolution and upheaval, songs of change and idealism. This is the passionate age.
Questions are asked of each of us, beginning with We Exist's 1980s-tinged critique of society's hypocrisy before the interesting, yet fairly forgettable Flashbulb Eyes and its clear comments on the invasive and public nature that life has taken with social media. Things spice up again with Here Comes the Night Time, opening with a frenetic carnival-infused riff before lulling into a deceptively calm reggae jam. The next 7 minutes brings Arcade Fire's call for revolution to crisis-strewn Haiti and levels a scathing attack upon the failure of responsible authority in general. A venomous bass-line evokes foreboding storm clouds through the otherwise calm melody before climaxing in what can only be described as a carnival crossed with a monsoon. The album detours from its more eclectic musical stylings with the much more poppy, Suburbs-eque tracks Normal Person, and You Already Know, focusing back on society and dead-end romantic relationships respectively.
Volume I then reaches its conclusion with Joan of Arc in suitably robust fashion, opening with a punk rock flourish that quickly gives way to an infectiously catchy rock song that harkens back to the questions of art raised in the album's opening track and appropriately evokes the imagery of Joan of Arc, one of the most famous anti-establishment icons in all of history. Joan of Arc is certainly one of the more "fun" songs on the album, with a bouncy beat, playful "doo-wop" vocals in the chorus and one of the best bass-lines ever written, yet as the final track to the album's opening movement it's lyrically dark enough to foreshadow the coming change in tone.
So at the end of Volume I there is certainly plenty to digest, and plenty to be impressed by. That said, at this point we'd been given the impression of an album that's certainly very good, but not yet great. The second volume is where the album really hits its mark.
And so begins the reflective age on a very different note in Here Comes the Night Time II. A low-key reprise of the earlier song, its lonely, sedate tone serves as an ironic reflection of the earlier's upbeat carnival sounds and introduces us to the more introspective side of Reflektor. Where Volume I told of revolution and the here-and-now, Volume II takes a more thoughtful view, analysing the tropes of love, loss and the end of life.
The next two songs Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus) are best considered as a two-parter, ostensibly in reference to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The first a song of unrequited love from the point of view of the Eurydice-obsessed Aristaeus, the second a duet chronicling the failed escape from Hades of Orpheus and Eurydice. But as with most of this album these songs are more than mere narrative apocrypha, the core themes applied broadly to modern society. The first as a song of unrequited love is instantly relatable, while It's Never Over's message bears a more general statement. Arguably It's Never Over encompasses the full tilt in mood from Volume I to Volume II, extolling the virtue of patience and perspective, thinking long term about life as a whole as opposed to the instant gratification of Volume I's day-to-day passions. It helps that these songs both sound fantastic, the former starting off as a dark lullaby that slowly transforms into a Beatles-esque crowd-rouser, and the latter dawning with sparkling synth overtures before breaking down into a bizarre hybrid between dirty electro-funk and soft acoustic yearning.
This all comes to a head in the album's climax, Afterlife. Much like Sprawl II in The Suburbs, No Cars Go in Neon Bible or Rebellion in Funeral, Afterlife is the focal point of the album. All the album's themes, angst, and other emotions lead up to this song's cathartic release. Explicitly this song can be said to allude to both death and the end of relationships, but Afterlife is more broadly a song about letting go and moving on. Moving on from the end of a relationship, moving on from loss, moving on from any of the hardships of the world. It's exactly the song the album needed at this point, and it hits the note perfectly. Sure the song is followed by the more mellow Supersymmetry, and preceded by Porno, a song which doesn't really fit in anywhere, but this is essentially the conclusion of Reflektor.
And thus brings to a close Arcade Fire's artistic vision, a dichotomy between the passionate day-to-day focus of modern life and a reflective overview of life, death and the beyond. One can take away what they please from the album's messaging, but there's no doubt about the vast ambition on show, both from a narrative and musical perspective. This is an album that sounds unlike anything you've ever heard before and successfully provokes questions and self reflection in the listener. As an artistic feat it is a work of huge accomplishment and sublime mastery of the form. Certainly the best album of this year, and arguably one of the best of many years.
Must Listen (Note - we strongly recommend against listening to songs out of context with this album, but if you insist) :
Here Comes the Night Time II
Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)
It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)
Monday, 21 October 2013
Developed by Rockstar North
Published by Rockstar Games
Platform Xbox 360, PS3
It's no secret that The Ephemeric and Grand Theft Auto V did not get off to the best of starts. But now that the dust has settled it's time to finally get down to business. Grand Theft Auto V is easily the most highly publicised videogame release of the year and arguably for many years, it demands a full review. The gloves are off, the gaming goggles are on. Let's do this.
First it's necessary to detail the events which led to our 0-star mini-review a few short weeks ago. Upon receipt of the game, a process which already took longer than expected thanks to Amazon's penchant for unnecessary red-tape, the disk could not be read by the Xbox 360. Upon further investigation it transpired that the disk drive of the Xbox itself was busted (that would be broken Xbox 360 number three for The Ephemeric) and so a replacement was hastily acquired. Then, just as we were about to retract our previous criticism and issue an apology: the game disk still could not be read. Yes, it seems that The Ephemeric was just lucky enough to be in possession of a busted games console as well as a busted game disk. It is however worth noting that although much has been made of the Xbox 360's difficulties in running GTA V off the internal hard disk, we did not notice any such issues, and so will not be taken into account by this review. Following yet another short delay and the delivery of a new game disk, we were finally ready to rock.
We need to step back and remind ourselves of the evolution of the Grand Theft Auto series. Grand Theft Auto had always conducted itself with an air of satirical absurdity, reaching its peak with GTA: San Andreas some nine years ago, a game which featured the most ridiculous action set pieces in the franchise's history, complete with airborne battles, riding bikes out of jumbo jets, and even jetpacks stolen from Area 51's secret alien project. The game's business and property investing aspect also meant that by the end you could pretty much run the entire game-world.
But then with GTA IV Rockstar Games decided to head in a more serious direction. Gone were the absurd action set pieces, along with the ability to become the big shot in town. The story was much grittier and complex, certainly the most substantive and mature fiction in the series. Players ended GTA IV, almost nihilistically, alone and isolated, with a tiny apartment and only the disturbing yet thought provoking ending to ponder. Even the physics was dialled down to be less cartoony and more realistic. It was a drastic change for a game series which previous allowed you to parachute shirtless out of a harrier jet and take down a group of Chinese gangsters with kung fu.
But the more narrative-focused approach also saw the loss of much of the open-world toys that fans had gotten used to. No more purchasable properties or business, no car customisation, limited ability to affect character appearance (and certainly no weight or muscle gain as with San Andreas), a much more straight-jacketed affair that polarised the fans to an extent.
With Grand Theft Auto V Rockstar have struck a middle ground between the two styles. The realistic aesthetic and more fleshed out characters remain, but players are once again given the freedom to customise cars, own businesses, and complete missions with as much gratuitous extravagance as you wish. GTA V even includes a number of crazy supernatural elements that I won't spoil here, but google "the Chiliad Mystery" if you're interested. Cleverly most missions offer players two distinct paths to completion, one subtle and realistic, the other ridiculous and awesome.
It's this kind of philosophy that pervades Grand Theft Auto V, it tries to be all things to all people. In fact it's this philosophy that's behind the game's biggest new innovation, multiple protagonists. For the first time in the 3D era, Grand Theft Auto allows you to play as multiple characters, and for the first time in the entire series, each playable character has a unique personality, style and story. For those of you who played GTA IV and its add-ons, which introduced new characters to the same world, imagine if all those add-ons had been integrated into the main game and you have some idea of what they were going for.
But that's only scratching the surface of this mechanic. Each character is designed to represent the common styles of play for a Grand Theft Auto game. Franklin, the young former gang member serves as the more relatable everyman, starting small and working his way to the top through missions, his focus being on cars and driving skills very much in the vein of San Andreas' protagonist CJ.
Michael on the other hand is a married ex-criminal turned FBI informant who has been given a fake name and all the money he needs to live in Los Santos with his estranged family. He focuses more on the "being a big shot" property owning, wealth amassing style, using exploits in the system to get ahead akin to Tommy Vercetti of Vice City (or glitching multiplayer enthusiasts perhaps). He is also the embodiment of some of the new gameplay features that we will come on to later.
Trevor completes the trifecta, a former associate of Michael who believes him to be dead. This batshit insane wildman is the character for players who like to rampage across the game-world causing as much indiscriminate carnage as possible. Let's face it, most GTA players have done that at some point. There's a character for every style of play.
The writing and depth of character is clearly a step up from the older games, but at the same time clearly a step below the more mature work of GTA IV. It's on a par with a piece of good old fashioned crime fiction along the lines of Tony Soprano or Butch Cassidy, definitely more Analyse This than The Godfather. But the characters are not really the star of the show here, it's all about the world of San Andreas.
In this regard Rockstar have outdone themselves once again. GTA V's world includes the Los Angeles inspired city of Los Santos, as well as the surrounding countryside of Blaine County, which features lakes, mountains, forests and even the bottom of the ocean.
Rockstar and the various games journalists have been quick to make much of how this is the biggest GTA world yet, but this is a very misleading thing to say. The city of Los Santos itself is considerably bigger than any city in GTA: San Andreas, and only marginally smaller than GTA IV's Liberty City, but even with the surrounding countryside there's just no way the total explorable area exceeds the combined three cities and countryside of GTA: San Andreas, especially when you consider that most of GTA V's world is taken up by the three giant mountains. It's a game-world that actually feels slightly small by comparison, and wouldn't take long to traverse if not for the crazy winding roads in the countryside. Where this game-world perhaps gets its edge is with the addition of under the sea exploration. A large amount of the ocean surrounding San Andreas is explorable.
However even if this game-world does fail to exceed previous games in terms of total land area, it more than makes up for it in density. GTA V's San Andreas is packed so chock full of activity and unique locations that it's hard to find any wasted space. The world itself is so fully detailed and fleshed out that it creates arguably the most convincing world ever conceived in a videogame.
In addition to all the various missions in the game, GTA V takes a page from Rockstar's previous epic Red Dead Redemption by introducing procedural "ambient" events, ensuring that the world truly feels alive. San Andreas is also chock full of activities like tennis or golf, going to the cinema, racing, parachuting, and many more.
But that's not all. That's not even mentioning the deep sea diving underwater exploration, which is full of sunken ships to harvest for loot, nuclear waste to remove for cash.
But that's not all. In addition both the land and sea are full of wildlife for the first time in GTA history, and hunting is indeed a performable activity.
But that's STILL not all. GTA V also implements a fully functional stock market which allows the player to invest and make money, and more importantly can be manipulated through the player's actions in the game-world in order to make vasts sums of cash. That's in addition to all the businesses one can own.
Finally players can also now buy boats and aircraft for the first time, in addition to land vehicles, all of which can be heavily customised.
Suffice it to say there's enough in this game-world to keep you busy for a long time, even after the main missions are completed. As always the world is also stuffed with collectibles and secrets. In fact there's even more than usual, and most collectibles have missions tied into them each with special rewards. The amount there is to do in this game is simply staggering, and I'm sure I haven't even mentioned everything.
The gameplay itself is standard GTA stuff, satisfying driving with reasonably adept combat. If there is one criticism to make it's that the combat is starting to feel a bit old fashioned on this 6 year old engine, and the cover system is a bit hit and miss, but then the combat itself was never a big focal point of the series.
Welcomely GTA V sees the return of GTA: San Andreas' RPG style player skills, albeit in a much more simplified form. Whereas GTA: San Andreas featured dozens of player-skills that improved as you played the game, GTA V has five or six. It's a nice system to have brought back nonetheless, but loses something without its former complexity. More intriguing is the addition of special unique "powers" for each character that cater to that particular character's skill; for example slow-mo driving for Franklin, and an adrenalin fuelled rampage for Trevor.
However the big new gameplay addition is the "heist" mission mechanic. Certain missions allow you to plan out big heists, including choosing strategy, selecting the best crew for the job, and engaging in various preparatory work to collect the required equipment and resources. It's a very rewarding and enjoyable addition to the series.
It's honestly difficult to find flaws in the game aside from a few niggling gameplay imperfections. It's a shame that San Fierro and Las Venturas were cut out from San Andreas, particularly Las Venturas, whose gambling and casinos are sorely missing in this game. In particular with the new heist mechanic the lack of classic casino heists seems like a massive missed opportunity. Still it seems a stretch to criticise a game for what it isn't rather than focusing on what it is.
The truth is that Grand Theft Auto V is worthy of all the praise it has received. It's a true landmark, beguilingly massive, polished to an absurdly high degree, and just a joy to play for all fifty hours or so it will take to finish. It takes a lot for a game to get past initial technical woes to earn such a high score from us, but that's indicative of just how great this game is.
As a side note, we haven't even mentioned the multiplayer mode in this review, as it is so massive and ambitious as to be considered a separate game. That review will be coming up soon.
Wednesday, 16 October 2013
Genre Psychedelic Rock
Producers Dave Fridmann, MGMT
The story of MGMT is one that has been told over and over. Their debut album Oracular Spectacular was far bigger than anyone could have dreamed, spawning classic singles Kids and Time to Pretend that are still heavily played six years later. The irony was that MGMT never set out for that kind of mainstream success.
The ensuing identity crisis resulted in a followup album Congratulations which was, to put mildly, met with mixed reception. Anyone who approached the album expecting more radio-friendly Electric Feel style songs was instead met with what one might describe as "artistically adventurous" music, and what others might describe as self-indulgent or worse, pretentious. The most radio-friendly song on this album was a drug-infused 1960s trance, and the least was a tie between the 12 minute epic with 7 different movements, or a song which was just a woman shrieking.
At the time it was reported that MGMT, disappointed by the reaction to their second album, were working on returning to more radio-friendly fare for their third album. Well I'm here to tell you that that is emphatically not the case. With MGMT's eponymous third album the band has doubled down on "weird".
Let's say it right off the bat, there are no instant-love songs on this album. Anything worth listening to takes several attempts before you start to see the cleverness in the music. That said, there is plenty of cleverness here to be found.
Let's start with the album's best song by far Alien Days, a dreamy trance of 1960s psychedelia. This is an example of MGMT weirdness done right; what first appears to be nothing more a bizarre mish mash of discordant combinations and unexpected divergences upon repeated listens reveals itself to be anything but. Neuroscientists will tell you that enjoyment of music typically comes from pattern recognition, but Alien Days' intricate composition is one of those rare songs that constantly surprises you, and yet still manages to work.
Still, MGMT somehow manage to go further in the album's second track Cool Song No. 2, a rumbling tribal dirge that on first listen sounded almost painful to listen to, but on (many) repeated listens begins to strangely grow on you, a guilty pleasure of a song.
Still these half positive reviews of songs are about the best things on the album. The vast majority are either complete atonal perversions of music (Your Life is a Lie might just be the most annoying song I've ever heard), or overproduced into oblivion. For the latter see Introspection, a perfectly lovely cover of an obscure song from the 1960s which is almost ruined by the excessive and unnecessary filters and special effects. The chorus itself is almost inaudible thanks to the ridiculous post-processing.
Unfortunately it is hard to recommend this album to anyone. Beyond one or two worthwhile songs the rest seems a shadow of what this band is capable. Weird for the sake of weird doesn't make an album clever or fresh.
Cool Song No. 2
Tuesday, 15 October 2013
Genre Indie Rock
Producers James Ford, Ross Orton
While the Arctic Monkeys were quick to achieve mainstream success following their record setting 2006 debut, it's a stretch to say that they've advanced much beyond those early heights.
The band have stuck closely, too close in fact, to the smoky, indie post-punk sound that earned them such critical and commercial success, with the result that while many of those early singles have become ingrained in the pop culture landscape, it's hard to point to anything from recent albums that will live as long in the memory. It's all the more surprising considering the song-writing depth and often the brilliance that frontman Alex Turner has shown himself to possess over the years, particularly with his solo work and side projects like the Last Shadow Puppets.
But with their superb fifth studio album AM, Arctic Monkeys have inarguably reached a new level in the music world. AM takes full advantage of Turner's range, and influences from all over the music landscape. The band moves away from its sophomoric origins and in a much more serious direction, indulging the audience in everything from classically inspired heavy rock and roll to silky late-night lounge anthems.
An album highlight Fireside shows how the band have matured. A rich, 1960s infused melody very reminiscent of Turner's Last Shadow Puppets project dances around more accomplished songwriting. Elsewhere No 1 Party Anthem showcases Turner at his contemplative best, with heartbreaking lyrics that are about as far removed from early Arctic Monkeys work as Michael Buble. Tracks like these show a new softer side of the Arctic Monkeys but still ring with Turner's unmistakably subversive venom to let you know that it's an Arctic Monkeys song.
That's not to say that there aren't a few proper rock songs. Arabella is classic Arctic Monkeys that the fans know and love, but even the most devoted of longterm fans will appreciate the broadening of horizons with Arctic Monkeys' best album yet, and an album that cements their position as one of the premier rock bands of the moment.
No 1 Party Anthem
Friday, 27 September 2013
Directed by Felix Barrett, Maxine Doyle
Written by N/A
Theatre Punchdrunk for the National Theatre
The newest production from the Punchdrunk theatre company is the talk of London at the moment. Either you want to go, or you've already been, or both. The company's uniquely immersive style of theatre production has long earned a cult-like following from devotees, and word-of-mouth is fast spreading to the uninitiated.
From the entrance of Temple Studios one immediately feels transported someplace else. All participants are handed masks and funnelled down a dark passage while ambient sounds play in the background. An uneasily grinning hostess greets you with a vague warning. The town is smoky and dilapidated. Walking into the world of The Drowned Man feels like a disturbing dream crossed with a drug trip. Over the course of the evening The Ephemeric went on to witness a murder in a sandy wilderness, an adulterous tryst in a smoky bar, a high school musical audition, and a funeral attended only by an audience stuffed with straw.
The idea behind a Punchdrunk production is that the story should be an interactive experience, rather than simply a passive observation of events. To this end the company has rented out a massive former sorting office, consisting of five floors, a good 40,000 square feet, and crafted a fully realised and immaculately detailed world in which the audience can immerse themselves. For example one floor has been converted into a dusty American village, with every building, every shop fully able to be explored, overflowing with detailed props, diaries, notebooks, photographs for the audience to explore and glean detail of the world around them. One floor, my particular highlight, has a fully functioning speakeasy-style bar complete with performers and a live band. In this world the story unfolds piece by piece, actors mingling with the audience and performing their roles at the appropriate time and place.
The concept alone, a story being told through personal experience and exploration rather than funnelled into the audience's attention, is worthy of credit. It's one thing to create a myopic picture of a fictional world on stage, where every member of the audience sees exactly the same thing and exactly what the director wants them to see. In that case the designers only have to worry about that tiny cross-section of the fiction. But to create the entire world around it, fully explorable and designed to accommodate every possible action of an unrestricted and therefore unpredictable audience is a simply staggering undertaking. The designers have to consider every detail not only of the action unfolding on stage, but of the entire world around them, whole towns and buildings full of it.
In that regard one might say this production has as much in common with an explorable medium like a videogame or a large-scale art installation than traditional theatre. Here every participant will have a unique experience, and no two people who see the Drowned Man, even on the same night, will have seen the same thing.
This has its drawbacks as well. Even after attending the show one will feel as though they have only experienced a small fraction of the story. One has to be in the right place at the right time to witness the action, and this inevitably creates tension between the desire to see everything and the desire to fully explore and lose oneself in the open environment. Worse still the sense of immersion is often broken by the large crowds of audience members loitering in a circle around the actors. The aim may be to fully integrate into the action, but at the end of the day most audience members are here to see a show, not become part of it. The trouble is that most of the environments, shops, offices, dressing rooms, are not places where it is natural for so many people to be, and so inevitably they will just end up standing in a large block. Arguably the only place where this immersion is not broken is in the bar, where audience members are free to grab a drink, find a table and much more naturally become a part of the scenery.
This also leads to the unusual dilemma: is the actual show any good? Or is it just the novelty and depth of content that makes The Drowned Man worthwhile? The story itself is fairly unremarkable, the acting unmemorable, and many of the individual performed set-pieces come close to pretentious, "interpretive" styles of acting, the surreal nature of which is both wholly unnecessary and highly immersion breaking.
The amazing thing is how little any of that bothers me. Ultimately this production is a primarily subjective experience. The immense enjoyment comes not so much from the content of the script as the subtext that we observe through our individual journeys. Trying to piece together the world in front of us, filling in the blanks with our own imagination, turns out to be a very rewarding form of narrative.
It is hard not to give The Drowned Man the highest of recommendations. It is both unique and bewildering, and attendees will go home feeling as though they have experienced something in a way that really no other theatre can match.
Thursday, 19 September 2013
Developed by Rockstar North
Published by Rockstar Games
Platform Xbox 360, PS3
Grand Theft Auto V earns a 0-star review on the basis that the Xbox 360 version of the game simply does not work. The disks are unreadable, exchanging them didn't help. A quick Google search reveals that this is a very common issue among Xbox 360 versions of the game, and until Rockstar release a patch the only fix is to exchange it and hope you get a slightly better copy.
There is no excuse for a company like Rockstar to release a shoddy product. Seriously I can understand a PC game not working where the developer has to try and accommodate a whole range of technical specifications, but one of the main selling points of consoles is that they are supposed to just work out of the box. The moral of the story is that if Rockstar are going to insist on shunning the PC at least make sure their god damn game works. I may consider re-reviewing at a later date but until then the game earns 0 stars.
Thursday, 12 September 2013
"The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared" by Jonas Jonasson and the explosion of Scandinavian culture
Author Jonas Jonasson
Publisher Hesperus Press
England prides itself as a nation that is notoriously hard to invade. Since the era of William the Conqueror no one has managed it, despite England's history of extensive warfare. Yet there are foreign forces in our midst right now, surreptitiously inflitrating our culture and assimilating our populace. The Scandinavians are here.
In recent years Scandinavian culture has been everywhere. Even before Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy conquered the world, we had the uniquely non-anglicised musical stylings of Sigur Rós topping the charts. Now it seems a month doesn't go by without some tv crime drama from our neighbours to the north becoming the next big thing on the air (or re-made into a stylistically consistent western equivalent for that matter). What all these all share is a singularly "high art" aesthetic, largely bleak and gritty, that has become the signature look of Scandinavian crime literature and film making in recent years.
In many ways then the success of Jonasson's novel runs against the cultural currents of the time; The Hundred Year Old Man has more in common with the serendipitous stylings of western comedy than one might expect. In particular the story and the main character's unlikely path of events seem highly reminiscent of Forrest Gump, a resemblance that can't be coincidental.
This fast-paced and light-hearted tale ties together the sprightly centenarian Alan Karlsson's adventure with a character history that sees Karlsson present at a variety of defining 20th century events and even influencing them directly. But far from the genre's typical dark tinge, events transpire in a wholly affable manner. Jonasson strikes the fine balance between quirky surrealism and relatable reality. One finds that the urge to keep reading is driven not by desire to reach the ending but by the enjoyment of the experience itself.
But this is more than merely a pastiche of western comedy. There pervades a distinctly European colour to everything from the culture and mannerisms of characters to the sensibilities of the dialogue. It's at once a surprise to anyone who knows Scandinavian literature primarily through the likes of Larsson and Mankell, and yet unquestionably true to its roots.
What this novel represents is a broadening of what we can come to expect of the regional literature and a maturation of the "scandi-crime" genre. It's easy to recommend as both an enjoying read and an intellectual curiosity.
Saturday, 24 August 2013
The barren, football-less summers of odd-numbered years come all too frequently; but men of England rejoice, the new season is almost upon us! As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few solid predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.
Premier League 2013/14 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions League qualifiers: Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham
Relegated: Hull City, Sunderland, Crystal Palace
Golden Boot winner: Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)
Golden Glove winner: Petr Cech (Chelsea)
Player to watch: Luis Suarez (Liverpool)
New signing to watch: Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Young player to watch: Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: Paulo Di Canio (Sunderland)
Shock of the season: Arsene Wenger to leave Arsenal at the end of the season
Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Position last season: 4th
Manager: Arsene Wenger
The summer began with cautious optimism for the Gunners, spurred on by the transition and potential frailty of their rivals in Manchester and the now mandatory trumpet blowing regarding the club's impressive financial assets that never get used. Once again very little has materialised ahead of the season's curtain raiser, so the main issue remains squad depth, particularly with the Arsenal players' spotty fitness records exacerbating the situation. Of the probable starting lineup only Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and potentially Laurent Koscielny stand out as elite players; the fact that the rest of the team relies on frontmen like Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott perfectly sums up the issues the club currently faces.
In the old days Arsenal at least had their impressive array of young talent to fall back on, but such priorities have since become the norm at top tier clubs making it far harder for Arsenal to compete with more prestigious clubs. The potential youth stars of Jenkinson, Gnabry and Bellerin don't exactly compare to Ashley Cole, Nicolas Anelka and Cesc Fabregas.
Key Signing: Yaya Sanogo
Key Man: Laurent Koscielny
Verdict: Wenger has made a habit out of overachieving with the squad he has, but with the increasing challenge of Tottenham and Liverpool, 4th place may be just beyond their reach this season.
Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Last season: 15th
Manager: Paul Lambert
Aston Villa managed to avoid the drop last season and Paul Lambert will be looking to repeat the feat again. The club has the solid foundations to do just that, with Brad Guzan's imperious shot stopping earning plaudits last season along with Christian Benteke starring as one of the standout strikers in the entire league.
Add to this the fact that Lambert has brought in some decent young talent, chief among them Danish defender Jores Okore who so impressed in last season's Champions League, and survival should be a pretty reasonable expectation.
Key Signing: Jores Okore
Key Man: Christian Benteke
Verdict: A push into mid-table is likely, but any higher may be beyond Lambert's boys.
Nickname: The Bluebirds
Ground: Cardiff City Stadium
Capacity: 26, 828
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Malky Mackay
The tastiest prospect out of the league's newcomers, Cardiff have been all over the news in recent years for the investment of Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan, and the bizarre off the pitch disputes involving club branding and colours. Despite inevitable fan outcry the new changes do seem to have improved the team's fortunes on the pitch and Cardiff were duly promoted last season as champions.
However the Premier League is an entirely different prospect, and as QPR showed us money does not automatically guarantee success. Reinforcements are sorely needed, and at the time of writing the club has spent almost £30 million in bringing in new talent. Most notable among these new players is Danish youngster Andreas Cornelius who averaged more than a goal every other game in the Danish league last season.
Key Signing: Andreas Cornelius
Key Man: Bo-Kyung Kim
Verdict: Survival is not guaranteed, but heavy investment and solid talent pool afford Cardiff the highest prospect of any newly promoted club.
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Last season: 3rd
Manager: José Mourinho
Another new season, another new manager, but this time the new manager is in fact the old manager José Mourinho. José's first spell at the club saw him promoted to "club legend" status with his contribution toward Chelsea becoming one of Europe's most successful clubs of the past decade, and his return to the hotseat with the additional experience and sated ambition of his successes in Italy and Spain has Chelsea fans elated.
José also has a solid squad to work with, and the opportunity to build a successful new dynasty around the core of young talent that fills the Chelsea ranks these days. A fairly quiet summer in the transfer market indicates that he intends to use the talent he already has. This is a squad bristling with attacking quality; the likes of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Fernando Torres, Frank Lampard and Ramires, not to mention the young talents of Romelu Lukaku, Andre Schurrle and Kevin de Bruyne.
Key Signing: Andre Schurrle
Key Man: Juan Mata
Verdict: One of the clear favourites for the title along with Man City.
Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Last season: Promoted (Playoff)
Manager: Ian Holloway
Palace return to the top flight after eight years in exile, but staying there will be a challenge. Ian Holloway for all the jokes and charm does not exactly have a glowing Premier League record, and as it turns out that counts for a lot. His job is not made easier by the departure of key player Wilfried Zaha to Manchester United.
On the bright side, Palace have been busy strengthening this summer with no fewer than 9 signings, including ex-Arsenal poacher Marouane Chamakh, veteran striker Kevin Phillips, and bizarrely the Spain U20's captain José Campaña.
Key Signing: José Campaña
Key Man: Mile Jedinak
Verdict: Enjoy Holloway while you can, because Palace are unlikely to stay up.
Ground: Goodison Park
Last season: 6th
Manager: Roberto Martínez
Hard to believe that David Moyes has finally moved on from Everton, the question on everyone's mind will be what becomes now of one of the Premier League's most consistent clubs. Roberto Martínez has done much to be proud of at Wigan, notably keeping them alive all these years and winning an FA Cup in his final (albeit relegation bound) season, but at a club with a history like Everton's he will find a great deal more expectation.
A lot will rest on the retention of prize assets like Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines, both of whom are relentlessly linked with moves away from the club, although nothing has yet materialised. A few signings have already been made, including the bright spark of Gerard Deulofeu on loan from Barcelona's famed academy. More will be required if the old guard should leave. One thing is for sure that Roberto Martínez will be well suited to Everton's spendthrift transfer policies.
Key Signing: Gerard Deulofeu
Key Man: Leighton Baines
Verdict: A real transition year that could see the club drop down the table somewhat, a top half finish is probably the highest achievable result.
Ground: Craven Cottage
Last season: 12th
Manager: Martin Jol
Now under new ownership, fans will be watching with interest for any major shifts in policy, not least of all what becomes of Al Fayed's infamous Michael Jackson statue. In footballing terms though for the moment it appears to be business as usual.
Martin Jol begins his third season with the club and so far looks set to continue his preference for more experienced players in the transfer market. Notable signings so far include Darren Bent, Derek Boateng and highly rated goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Elsewhere Fulham have completed a loan move for Adel Taarabt, a player of which much has been promised in the past, and so far very little has been seen.
Key Signing: Maarten Stekelenburg
Key Man: Dimitar Berbatov
Verdict: Little change of note this season could result in lost ground on other mid-table rivals, but unlikely to face the threat of relegation.
HULL CITY TIGERS
Nickname: The Tigers
Ground: KC Stadium
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Steve Bruce
An unexpected addition to the Premier League, yet Hull will surprise many with a vibrant, if inconsistent system of play that saw many wins and losses last season, but few draws. In Steve Bruce they have a wily and experienced manager who has been in this same position many times, and often come out with a positive result.
Despite this there's no getting around the fact that Hull have arguably the most paper thin squad in the league, and have inexplicably not strengthened a great deal over the summer. In particular Hull don't have anything even vaguely approaching a goal threat and will struggle to get points off of Premiership level opposition.
Key Signing: Ahmed Elmohamady
Key Man: Robbie Brady
Verdict: No goalscorers and a defence that lacks depth means Hull are a likely relegation candidate.
Last season: 7th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Liverpool's slow but steady improvement continues under Brendan Rodgers as they edge their way back towards the big boys. Rodgers has adapted the trademark possession football he engendered at Swansea albeit now with the quality and budget of a big club like Liverpool. For all his much vilified negative qualities, Luis Suarez is one of the best players in the league, and now he is partnered by Daniel Sturridge, who also ranks undoubtedly among the league's best goalscorers. The emergence of Brazilian magician Coutinho rounds out one of the most fearsome attacking lineups in England.
What will once again be Liverpool's undoing is the leaky defence in the absence of Jamie Carragher, and the worrying dearth of quality on the squad's fringes. Add to this the doubt over whether star man Suarez will remain a Liverpool player and there is plenty for Liverpool to be concerned over as the curtain raises on the new season.
Key Signing: Simon Mignolet
Key Man: Luis Suárez
Verdict: Still a few key signings away from a top four contender, top 6 is a good possibility.
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
While it may seem very harsh to sack Roberto Mancini after winning the league and FA Cup in his first two full seasons, it goes to show how disappointing Man City were in the way they slumped out of the title race so early. This year will see them revitalised with the guidance of a highly underrated new manager and with their illustrious neighbours in a seemingly vulnerable state. Optimism is high.
No fewer than four big money signings strengthen the squad, including Jesús Navas, Fernandinho, Álvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic. Man City remain the only club other than Barcelona who will spend £25 million on a bench player. Fernandinho in particular will be one to watch, his scintillating performances for Shakhtar earned his side a place in the knockout stages of last season's Champions League. These new signings strengthen an already intimidating side, but the key man will undoubtedly be Sergio Agüero; if he can shake off last year's second season blues he stands a good shout at winning the Golden Boot.
Key Signing: Fernandinho
Key Man: Sergio Agüero
Verdict: A good shout for the title, pretty much tied with Chelsea in the odds as the season commences.
Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Last season: Champions
Sir Alex Ferguson David Moyes
The football world is still in shock over the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson after a legendary 40 year career and a decade of will-he-won't-he rumours. Without doubt one of the men with the toughest jobs in football right now is David Moyes who undertakes the impossible task of replacing him, a job that has been made even harder by a very weak pre-season.
United fans are now divided into two groups, those who think this season is going to be an absolute write-off and Moyes will be sacked, and those who think he will do just fine. One way or another, as long as last season's golden boot and player of the year winner Robin Van Persie remains fit and up front, United can never be counted out.
Key Signing: Guillermo Varela
Key Man: Robin Van Persie
Verdict: Faces a tough challenge to retain the title, Moyes' lack of elite experience could prove too much to overcome.
Ground: St. James' Park
Last season: 16th
Manager: Alan Pardew
Only Newcastle could rebound so quickly from the lowest depths in the club's history, and then dive right back down even more quickly. After coming within a whisker of Champions League football two years ago, last season they came just as close to relegation. After finally mending the behind the scenes schism and tossing out the drama, owner Mike Ashley has once again undermined his manager by appointing Joe Kinnear as Director of Football. All of a sudden it's looking very bleak for Newcastle once more.
Yet despite the similarities to the Newcastle side that was relegated 5 years ago, this one contains a far more talented array of players. Yohan Cabaye, Fabricio Coloccini and Hatem Ben Arfa would be welcome at many of the league's top clubs, while Papiss Cissé has great potential if he can recapture his early form.
Key Signing: Olivier Kemen
Key Man: Yohan Cabaye
Verdict: Worrying signs for the Toon, but surely have enough talent to stay up.
Nickname: The Canaries
Ground: Carrow Road
Last season: 11th
Manager: Chris Hughton
Chris Hughton has done well to steady the ship at Norwich, as he did at Newcastle before, and the club managed not only to avoid relegation last season but even finished in a respectable mid-table position. Much of the team's success can be attributed to their proficiency at set pieces, both on the attack and back in defence. Elsewhere John Ruddy has been a hero in goal, earning himself a regular place in the England squad.
Goals have been hard to come by, but Norwich have strengthened well over the summer with the hotly tipped Ricky van Wolfswinkel up front and one of last season's Championship leading lights Nathan Redmond.
Key Signing: Ricky van Wolfswinkel
Key Man: John Ruddy
Verdict: Have enough about them to survive the drop again, but unlikely to threaten the upper mid-table, likely to be involved in any relegation battles.
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Last season: 14th
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino
Southampton managed to survive last season, and in doing so earned a reputation for collecting big-name scalps despite their generally inconsistent form. A big part of their success has been the goalscoring feats of recent England debutant Rickie Lambert and Saints player of the year Morgan Schneiderlin, but serious questions must be asked of their defence.
Signs are good for the future with a decent amount of summer spending on promising players, an up and coming manager, and the youth system that produced Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott. However that leaky defence so far looks not to have been addressed, and as history shows "second season syndrome" tends to strike those who fail to tighten up the team's core.
Key Signing: Victor Wanyama
Key Man: Rickie Lambert
Verdict: If Southampton can meet the potential they showed last season then they will stay safe in the Premier League.
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Last season: 13th
Manager: Mark Hughes
Another member of the new manager club, and with the departure of Tony Pulis an era is ending. Pulis is the man who took Stoke to the Premier League and turned them into Premier League regulars on a shoestring budget. His replacement Mark Hughes comes off the back of a number of failed appointments and with great skepticism from the fans. Winning them over will be job number one for the new man.
As for the squad many of the old boys have departed this summer, leaving a thin squad that needs a good deal of investment. So far things have gotten off to a good start with the signings of Erik Pieters from PSV and Marc Muniesa from within the Barcelona youth camp. Despite this the squad remains threadbare, and key positions rest with unproven players like Jack Butland and Michael Kightly.
Key Signing: Erik Pieters
Key Man: Steven N'Zonzi
Verdict: A difficult season lies ahead for Stoke, with a real chance of relegation
Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Last season: 17th
Manager: Paolo Di Canio
A bizarre decision to sack Martin O'Neill was followed up by an even more bizarre decision to hire the volatire Paolo Di Canio, who's only previous managerial position ended in spectacular fashion and involved accusations of theft and breaking and entering. The story of Paolo Di Canio is weird enough, without even mentioning past assaults and fascist salutes, one can only wonder what a first full season of management in the Premier League will bring.
But this is only one of the problems the club will face in the coming months. The squad lacks both depth and quality, the star man Steven Fletcher is perennially crocked, and with a large outlay on players this summer the marquee signing is Jozy Altidore, a striker notable mostly for being American and therefore very marketable to 315 million people. It is also worth noting that the transfer strategy currently is being directed by a man who did the same job for Inter Milan during an era where they were known for spending hundreds of millions of pounds and winning nothing.
Key Signing: Modibo Diakité
Key Man: Steven Fletcher
Verdict: The Di Canio experiment could blow up sooner rather than later. Relegation candidates.
Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Last season: 9th
Manager: Michael Laudrup
Swansea keep going from strength to strength, impressing greatly in their first ever season in the top flight, and then improving upon that last season with their first ever trophy. Even more impressive is the entertaining brand of football for which they are becoming known. Remarkably for such a short amount of time Swansea have reached the point where mid table is no longer the high aspiration of the club, and a push for Europe is the expectation.
This time last season I was tipping Michu to be one of the signings of the season and he duly delivered. However despite his excellent goalscoring form it was still all too obviously a midfielder being played out of position, borne out of necessity. This summer Swansea have rectified their lack of an out and out striker with the signing of Wilfried Bony.
Key Signing: Wilfried Bony
Key Man: Michu
Verdict: Swansea have strong foundations and a good potential for improvement further up the table.
Ground: White Hart Lane
Last season: 5th
Manager: André Villas-Boas
It's beginning to feel like it's never going to happen for Spurs. So many seasons ending up so close to the Champions League, and never quite making the cut. All this despite the fact that they are consistently among the top spenders in the league and in Gareth Bale boast a player who is currently considered one of the hottest in world football.
This season has seen an even greater outlay in the summer, with Tottenham breaking their transfer record twice so far, on Paulinho and Soldado and being linked with yet another record move for Willian. It's arguable that their squad now is at least as good if not better than Arsenal's, meaning a push for the top 4 might finally be in play. Much will depend on the future of star man Gareth Bale and whether he does in fact finalise a move to Real Madrid.
Key Signing: Paulinho
Key Man: Gareth Bale
Verdict: Probably Tottenham's best shot yet at a top four finish.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
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Ground: The Hawthorns
Last season: 8th
Manager: Steve Clarke
Last season marked a very impressive managerial debut for Steve Clarke. West Brom not only clinched an unlikely top half finish, but spent much of the season floating around the top 6 with the league's elite teams.
However this season poses a much bigger challenge. For starters Romelu Lukaku, who led the club's scoring and ranked among the top scorers in the entire league, has returned to Chelsea following his loan spell. Without his goals West Brom would have finished much lower down the table and replacing him will be a big ask. More dangerous is the sense that the club may already be playing beyond their means. The club's owner has intimated the opinion that with the current level of financial and fan support, West Brom is more akin to a Championship mid-table team than a Premier League one.
Key Signing: Nicolas Anelka
Key Man: Youssuf Mulumbu
Verdict: Unlikely to impress as they did last season, but the general lack of ambition from their mid-table rivals should permit a safe finish in the top 12.
WEST HAM UNITED
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Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: The Boleyn Ground
Last season: 10th
Manager: Sam Allardyce
If anyone knows how to take a team and punch above their weight it's Sam Allardyce, who has been doing precisely that for many years. His latest job has seen him take West Ham to promotion and help them achieve an impressive 10th place position on just their first season back in the Premier League.
Now the club sees themselves in a very promising position, building on these successful foundations, as well as enjoying the benefits of the Premier League's new TV deal and their status as heirs to the Olympic Stadium. A few years of stability could see some great steps forward for West Ham. The improved financial position of the club has permitted investment in new talent, including Andy Carroll, who if fit could be absolutely massive for the club, and Stewart Downing. They join an already experienced squad that features Joe Cole, Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble and an array of surprisingly impressive players.
Key Signing: Andy Carroll
Key Man: Kevin Nolan
Verdict: Mid-table is a sure bet, and if their key players stay fit a push for Europa League is not out of the question.
2. Manchester City
3. Manchester United
8. West Ham
10. West Brom
11. Aston Villa
18. Crystal Palace
20. Hull City