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james debate

Wednesday 31 May 2017

So much noteworthy new music, so little time. Looking for a new jam? I hear you buddy. The summer is now upon us, and as such we will be doing the Spring Music Round-Up, a rough and ready summary of some of the most interesting new releases of the recent past.

Specifically we will be looking at the new albums from Amy Macdonald, The xx, and Father John Misty. Let's dive right in.

"Under Stars - Amy Macdonald" Album Review
Genre Pop-rock

amy macdonald under stars new album 2017Emerging onto the scene back in 2007, Amy Macdonald represented the most unusual of things, a young girl who wanted to become a pop-star by merit of her exceptional musical talent, rather than by sex-appeal and generic production. And a talent she was. That debut album, This is the Life, went on to receive critical acclaim.

Her subsequent albums have been a little more mixed, often veering closer to what might be described as a mainstream sound at the cost of her honest folk charm. Her latest, Under Stars returns some of the soul of her debut, without ever really fulfilling her promise as a songwriter.

Under Stars does something quite strange, and ultimately confusing. There are eleven tracks on this album, and then the album includes almost all of them a second time, in acoustic form. Having two versions of every song makes it a little tricky to appropriately appraise the album as a whole, especially when almost without fail the acoustic versions are superior to the originals. One gets the impression that Macdonald is torn between appeasing those who liked her more stripped-down debut, and those who want something a bit more commercial and poppy, so she releases a version of each song for both sets of fans.

There are two obvious stand out tracks on the album. First, particularly in its acoustic form, is Down by the Water, a gorgeously crafted tune which compares favourably with her bigger hits from past albums. But the most pleasant surprise of all has to be Macdonald's cover of the Bruce Springsteen classic I'm on Fire, a cover which achieves that rare feat of matching and possibly even surpassing the original. The rest of the album may be something of a mixed bag, but these two tracks alone make it worth the purchase.

"I See You - The xx" Album Review
Genre Dream-Pop

the xx i see you new album 2017 awardsThe xx are not a band that needs much introduction, the London-based group have gone from humble indie beginnings to achieve widespread recognition and awards.

Their sound is distinctively understated, insular, often nearly pure acoustic. It works well for them, but after two albums there had been some suggestion that the music starting to get a bit derivative of itself, not to mention all the imitations that have sprung up since their debut. So much so that several members of the band had opted to take a break and explore their own solo careers, most notably Jamie xx whose debut solo album In Colour was a huge success in its own right. If the intention was to take a hiatus and come back fully inspired, it worked.

This latest album, I See You, takes much from In Colour, and makes a notable evolution of The xx's sound into something a bit more complex in its composition. You'll still find your typical xx tracks here, populated by sparse piano keys and lingering vocal, but they are joined by far more detailed soundscapes, drum and bass backing, and even the odd hiphop riff. It's a bold evolution for the band, but it pays off. I See You might just be their best work yet.

Lead single On Hold is the best example of where The xx are at right now. It retains the simplicity that made The xx so affecting, while adding new musical complexities, backing vocals and an altogether more pop-influenced sound. Meanwhile longtime fans can check out Performance for classic xx minimalism, while other highlights include the crowd-pleasing I Dare You and the powerful tour-de-force of A Violent Noise.

This is an album worth listening to, with great tracks, great variety, and consistency throughout. Top notch work and another reminder of why this band is so highly regarded.

"Pure Comedy - Father John Misty" Album Review
Genre Art-Rock

father john misty review pure comedy new album 2017Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, has been riding the wave of fashion following his breakthrough success, 2015's I Love You, Honeybear. The years since have seen the former Fleet Foxes band member become one of music's trendiest icons, and a household name.

Tillman's newest album Pure Comedy sticks close to the formula; world-weary songs of angst and disdain masquerading under the sunny folk stylings made popular by artists like Fleet Foxes and Mumford and Sons.

The songwriting here is the strongest of Tillman's career, with more memorable melodies, stronger hooks and generally a great amount of sonic variety. Tillman plays with samples and multi-instrumental compositions, with songs that journey from quasi-acoustic rambles into full-on orchestral epics. Indeed there's plenty here to savour musically, from title track Pure Comedy to Total Entertainment Forever, but the clear highlight is the wistful 10 minute odyssey So I'm Growing Old on Magic Mountain, a possible early contender for song of the year.

But that's not to say he's softened his edge at all. Tillman brings the same lyrical venom and contemporary philosophising that he is known for, frequently playing with his musical reference points, splicing clips from old adverts and TV shows. The lyrics are awash with pop culture and literary references that draw parallels with the great depression and wars of the 20th Century. These are songs that mourn the perceived chaos of modern consumerism and political trends.

If Honeybear was Tillman's breakthrough, the brilliant Pure Comedy should propel him to the next level. This is very much an album for the world today.

Tuesday 30 May 2017

Developed by Bioware
Published by Electronic Arts
Genre Action RPG
Platform Xbox One, PS4, PC

mass effect andromeda xbox ps4 pc shepard ryder

Even before I begin, I know this is going to be a very difficult game to review. Partly that's because I am such a big fan of the original trilogy of games (Mass Effects 1 through 3) and its other associated media. So with the announcement that Mass Effect: Andromeda would see the series move to an entirely new setting, in a new galaxy and set hundreds of years later, I was immediately skeptical.

Mass Effect as a series has always been built on the core gameplay pillars of third person shooting, and character roleplaying. And sure, if Andromeda can successfully replicate these elements, the game will certainly still feel like Mass Effect. But the main draw to many fans has always been the incredibly deep world-building, the sharp writing, and the attention to detail that goes towards making a logically consistent setting that despite its fantastical nature is believable, and all the more immersive for it. It would require a very good reason to throw all of that away and start afresh, not to mention keep it consistent with the backstory of the original.

We will discuss all of this and more during the review, and don't worry, while there may be spoilers in this review I will very clearly point them out before we come to them.

So the first big question mark for me, why Andromeda and why 600 years later?

From a gameplay perspective this makes sense. They wanted to create a "frontier" setting, with an exciting new world full of discovery, in contrast to the more developed and settled Milky Way.

It's a sound concept, the problem is it makes very little sense from a story perspective. Without digging too much into the weeds, the original trilogy establishes the Milky Way galaxy as a largely unexplored place, with finite resources and largely conventional FTL technology. There was little reason to make the impractical journey to a new galaxy. So to begin this game with dialogue describing the Milky Way in such contradictory terms did little to convince me that the writers of Andromeda were suitably familiar with the world over which they are taking creative control. These may seem like small things to quibble about, but unfortunately inconsistency in the writing and backstory was to become a recurring theme during my playthrough of Andromeda.

The bigger problem from a game design perspective is that it takes the risk of abandoning the settings and characters that fans have grown to love, and for what appears to have been very little gain. It doesn't help that the writers have gone to great lengths to change very little. Everyone still lives on a giant spacestation, much like the one in the Milky Way, Krogans live on a desert world much like their one in the Milky Way, outlaws have their own base of operations, much like the Milky Way... you get the picture. On the surface it's hard to see exactly what the point was in this change, if they're just going to give us basically the exact same setting but with names changed.

Unfortunately the real reason for this change is obvious. The Ending to Mass Effect 3 was universally reviled, so nonsensical, so impossible to write their way out of... It's pretty clear that the writers have switched galaxy just to avoid having to deal with the original trilogy's car-crash of an ending. It's lazy, craven, just plain shoddy, but it is what it is, and that means the game starts off on an unfortunately sour note.

Fortunately, once you get past the poorly conceived premise, it's really not such a bad set up for a game. That "frontier" aesthetic and "exploring strange new worlds" is a great concept for a sci-fi story, even if its justification into the larger Mass Effect world is somewhat half-assed. In fact Bioware have come up with a number of very clever ideas for how to make the most of this new setting, starting with the player's ship, Tempest, and its crew.

A player's ship and its crew have always been central to the Mass Effect experience. Andromeda takes this one step further. Players control the Tempest, a much smaller ship than we're used to, with a much smaller crew. The benefit of this is that every single crewmember is a fully fleshed out person, with their own detailed background, conversation tree and story arc. This turns out to be a brilliant move, making life aboard the Tempest far more immersive than ever before, and character interaction far more rewarding.

A good idea, ruined by Mass Effect Andromeda's fundamental flaw: the writing is just not very good, sadly confirming any initial misgivings I had. The Mass Effect series has always prided itself on sharp, high quality writing. Andromeda sees the reins handed over to a new team of writers, headed up (bafflingly) by the people responsible for Mass Effect 3's much maligned ending. Unfortunately this new team is nowhere near as talented as the old one.

It's not a complete disaster, but it's decidedly mixed. Certain scenes are so horrendously written that it is hard to believe a professional got paid to write them, whereas others are passable. One character in particular, Liam is so badly written that it's honestly hard to understand what's going on. Literally, I'll watch a cutscene and then think "what the hell just happened?". One scene features Liam and another crew member stripping naked and swearing at each other... for reasons that aren't really explained. Others involve Liam pulling characters and stories that have never been referenced before out of nowhere and taking actions that make absolutely zero sense. It's almost like the writers decided they wanted to have a particular scene, and then awkwardly forced the dialogue around it. It shows.

Thankfully, the writing generally gets better as the game progresses. Early on, the writers seem a bit desperate to win over the old fans, with characters that immediately fall into lazy cliche and try too hard to replicate the success of the older games. It feels very much like fanfiction in this regard, like these writers tried to imitate what they thought people liked about old Mass Effect, without really understanding what it is that made it special. Fortunately, once the awkward introductions are out of the way and the characters have a bit more freedom to breathe, things improve, and Andromeda finally begins to find its own voice. Things got off to a rocky start, but by the time I reached the end of the story I found myself surprisingly attached to these characters, and sufficiently won over that I found myself looking forward to their future adventures together.

First off, the actual third person action gameplay is excellent. It's a considerable improvement on previous games in the series, with the addition of the jump-pack a delightful twist. Shooting has never felt better, and the customisation of guns and armor is simply deeper than it ever has been. The only shame here is the cover system, which is particularly finicky at the moment.

But far more consequential to the Mass Effect series is the addition of open world exploration. Andromeda is essentially divided into a series of hub-world, each of them absolutely huge and chock full of various quests, characters, and settlements.

This is a wonderful direction for the series, particularly with the new conceptual emphasis on frontier exploration. Mass Effect hasn't felt this open since the first game, but while those open worlds were largely empty, soulless affairs, these ones are much more fully realised, with a more handcrafted feel and a heck of a lot more content. Best of all, the worlds change and react to an extent based on your actions and the quests you complete, which adds a certain sense of accomplishment. It's a great feeling walking around the first stable colony you manage to establish, seeing all the settlers getting on with their lives in peace, and knowing that your actions created this from a desolate wasteland. It's a considerably more dynamic setting than any we've seen in previous Mass Effects.

Unfortunately the novelty wears off, and once you get a bit further into the game it becomes clear how much of this is simply smoke and mirrors. The first colony you establish is very elaborately done. You get to choose what type of colony it will be, you meet the mayor, a fully fleshed out character in his own right, and the moment is honoured through a lengthy cutscene and follow up quests. The obvious effect is for players to finish this first quest and think that the same amount of detail and complexity will be put into every colony you found. That would be wrong, this only happens on the first colony. For all others you push a button and then abruptly you're in an already completely formed colony, most of which have few if any detailed NPCs or quests, none of which have any actual impact on the story or the world at large.

Another example is the very first mission of the game. The level is linear in design, however if you stray from the main path you come across a number of completely optional discoveries and side-quests. Much to my delight, all these little adventures were recorded and acknowledged in the game, through conversation after the mission, as well as in the game's codex system. All these little decisions and choices felt consequential, and the fact that I had witnessed these moments added to the story. This all had me very excited that Andromeda's world was going to be this hugely dynamic place, full of optional mysteries to discover, reacting in real time to your playstyle and decisions. Sadly this too turned out to be smoke and mirrors. This only happened with the first mission, and never again.

In fact the entire opening chapter of the game feels significantly more detailed and nuanced than anything that comes after it. It feels almost like a half finished game, like they implemented all these complexities and features, and then ran out of time or budget. It's a feeling you will come to know well, as this pretty much sums up most of the gameplay in Andromeda.

You see it again with the new crafting system, which again is very complex, and yet ultimately quite pointless. At no point during the game was the ability to custom design a weapon or piece of equipment anything more than a novelty. Then there's the multiplayer, which somehow feels like a stripped down version of the multiplayer in Mass Effect 3.

All these things will no doubt be expanded upon, but throughout it all one can't shake the feeling that this game was simply half finished at release. Which segues perfectly into the the next topic.

Bugs/Lack of Polish
Sloppy writing that clearly hasn't been reviewed carefully, half finished game modes. What comes next? Bugs. And when I say bugs, I don't mean a stuttery framerate, a graphical glitch, or even a nice simple crash. No I mean real bugs.

Mass Effect Andromeda is without any doubt the most bug-ridden AAA game I have ever played. It's hard to overstate this, but it is a catastrophic buggy mess that would make a Bethesda game look polished. I mean this game has it all.

The inventory menu is so appallingly designed, it's barely functional when it works, and it doesn't work very often. You have "new item" notifications that don't go away, quests that get stuck in the log after completion, frequent freezes, and perhaps most embarrassingly, non-existent menus. Apparently there was supposed to be a menu for items related to the player's land vehicle, the Nomad, which was cut before launch. But that won't stop the game constantly trying to take you to that non-existent menu, and won't stop the annoying notifications from alerting you to new items that can never be cleared because the menu DOESN'T EXIST.

But that's just a drop in the bucket, I've seen quest objectives fail to trigger, cutscenes getting stuck, cutscene animation outpacing the dialogue, cutting itself off mid-speech, characters talking over themselves somehow. I've seen AI bug out and run into the corner, enemies die and float in midair, characters duplicating in cutscenes, invisible guns, people in two places at once... and I could go on.

The bugs are frequent and they range from mildly amusing to gamebreaking, at the very least requiring a reload. It's astonishingly bad, especially for a console game which runs on homogenous hardware. Some of these bugs are so frequent and so obvious that they can't possibly have done any serious bug-testing on this before launch.

My personal favourite bug was how when the player character listens to recordings of himself, the character on screen inexplicably speaks the lines.

On a whim I decided to jot down a list of funny bugs that I encountered over the course of a few hours, which you can see here. This is just a few hours! Astonishing.

But it's not just the incredible bugs, it's a general lack of polish across all areas of the game. Animations are generally terrible, often even worse than the animations in older Mass Effect games, which lest we forget were running on generation old hardware.

Seriously just look at this scene, the perfect storm of awful writing and animation. You might look at this and think, well this just looks like a typical silly videogame, but that's the point. Mass Effect was always well above this standard, and yet everything here is just so amateur looking.

What's truly bizarre is that some scenes are actually very well animated, and well written. It's the jarring difference in quality from one moment to the next that is hard to understand. Again, it keeps coming back to the fact that this game clearly was not finished at release.

So Mass Effect Andromeda is a buggy, unfinished product. And yet, for several weeks I simply could not stop playing it. For all its flaws, once the game's story starts to hit is rhythm, all that classic Mass Effect magic kicks in, and you'll be excited to explore that new planet, or plan a movie night with your crewmates.

Ultimately what this game shows us is that the Mass Effect universe is still as utterly compelling as always. While it would be hard for me to recommend a game this shoddy to newcomers, there's still more than enough here to keep old fans happy, and enough promise to suggest that the next adventure will be worth sticking around for.

Monday 29 May 2017

Welcome to another end of year retrospective on a great season of Premier League football. Here at The Ephemeric we like to use this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow a few carefully considered accolades. Except for last season, we don't talk about last season ever.

chelsea champions 2017
Regular service resumed as far as the Premier League is concerned. Chelsea can hardly have been many pundits' tips for the title given their performance last season, but certainly no one would consider the success of such a prominent football club to be a shock by any means. As it happens, after a rocky start to the season Chelsea ended up coasting to victory with relative ease, leading the pack for most of the year and clinching the title with games to spare. Much of the credit needs to go to new manager Antonio Conte, whose tactical overhaul inspired an astonishing turnaround, and paved the way to a title in his debut season. This marks Chelsea's sixth top flight title, and the second in three years as the blues look to cement their status as the Premier League's premier club.

As The Ephemeric predicted at the start of the season, Pep Guardiola ended up disappointing expectations at Manchester City, with a third place finish. Trophiless and only just squeaking into automatic Champions League qualification, even Pep himself has admitted that another big club would likely have sacked him after this season. Winning things is apparently not so easy when the side you've inherited is not already the best in the world. Elsewhere, Manchester United had an equally disappointing season, only managing to claw their way into the Champions League through Europa League success.

However, the biggest shock of all has to be Arsenal who will miss out on Champions League football for the first time in an impressive 19 years. Arsene Wenger has found himself under immense pressure over the past year, and this disastrous season will only increase calls for his sacking. There is little doubt, it's dark times to be an Arsenal fan. Leicester City, meanwhile, surprised absolutely no one by reverting to type as a midtable side, ensuring that last season's glory will remain cemented in footballing lore as one of the biggest outliers of sporting history.

But looking on the positive side, there were a number of remarkable success stories in this season's Premier League. AFC Bournemouth secured their highest ever finish in English football, while the appointment of Tony Pulis saw West Brom transformed into a vastly improved side, and a thorn of many of the league's top clubs. Probably the greatest credit of all needs to go to Tottenham who have continued their positive evolution under Mauricio Pochettino, and ended up being the closest challenger to the title behind Chelsea. Under his stewardship, Tottenham have transformed into genuine contenders, and must surely be considered among the favourites to win in the coming years.

At the other end of the table it's right back down to the Championship for the newly promoted duo Middlesbrough and Hull. They are joined by rock-bottom Sunderland, a side that has consistently threatened to make the drop in recent years and have at long last run out of luck.

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 2017:

Winners: Chelsea - A fairly comfortable victory at the end. Conte has rebuilt this Chelsea side, and the players have responded with a new lease on life. Now the real challenge begins, building a squad that can compete on multiple fronts.

Relegated: Hull, Middlesbrough, Sunderland - A disappointing season for these three, though none of their relegations would have shocked any pundits' pre-season predictions.

Player of the Year: N'Golo Kante (Chelsea) - In the eyes of many, Kante has been a title decider. The key part of Leicester's miraculous win last year, and now repeating the feat for Chelseas. He won't be selling shirts like Messi or Ronaldo any time soon, but football may have found its successor to Makelele at last. They'll have to start calling it "the Kante role".

U-21 Player of the Year: Dele Alli (Tottenham) - In a year full of positives for Tottenham, the brightest light has continued to be the development of Dele Alli, surely England's best prospect in a generation, and well on his way to becoming a world-renowned star. Europe's big guns will come calling soon enough.

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: Antonio Conte (Chelsea) - What more needs to be said? Conte saw something in his Chelsea side that no one else did, and pulled off one of the greatest tactical transformations of the past two decades.

Top Scorer: Harry Kane (Tottenham) (29) - Kane is quickly becoming a mainstay of the top scorer's list, having competed for this honour a number of years in a row now, despite his tender years. Real Madrid are supposedly calling for his services, the question is where does Kane see his future?

Most Assists: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) (18) - Another Chelsea youngster sold for a relatively small amount, only for his value to multiply exponentially in the years hence. De Bruyne may have been signed for an exorbitant fee from Wolfsburg, but has flown somewhat under the radar this season. His record speaks for itself as he led the assists table for much of the year.

Overachievers: West Brom - A genuine improvement under Tony Pulis. For whatever else anyone can say about the manager, he knows how to get the best out of a less than stellar side.

Underachievers: Manchester City - This award could easily have gone to Arsenal, but for the money City spend, for the hype that surrounded Pep's arrival, and the expectation that they would be right in the tick of the title hunt, it's really hard to give this to anyone else. A third place finish flatters their season, where really they never felt anywhere near where they were expected to be.

Best signing of the season: N'Golo Kante (Chelsea) - As above.

Worst signing of the season: Granit Xhaka (Arsenal) - Despite Arsenal's reputation for frugality, they are developing something of a track record for mega-money £40+ million signings, and Granit Xhaka is the latest such signing. Despite becoming one of the most expensive transfers in the league's history, few people are probably even aware that he had even played. An anonymous first season in English football.

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2017:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2017
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: Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) - Mr. Dependable, Azpilicueta joined an elite group of players to have played every minute of a season's Premier League. Naturally a fullback, this season he has more typically been used as the right side of the central back three in Conte's formation, occasionally filling out at Wingback. He has excelled in every role.

Centrebacks: David Luiz (Chelsea) & Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham) - The consensus choice for this role. Luiz is a player reborn since he return to the Premier League, and has formed the heart of the Champions' impressive new-look backline. Toby Alderweireld was indispensable for a Tottenham side that ultimately conceded fewer goals than any other this season.

Left Back: Danny Rose (Tottenham) - The second inclusion from Tottenham's excellent defence this season. Rose has been a massive boost to his side, both on the offence and tracking back to cover.

Right Mid: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) – As above, the man has flown quietly under the radar for a lot of people, but has been central to how his team play. Leading the assists table, De Bruyne has become the creative heart of a very talented and expensive Manchester City side.

Centre Mids: N'Golo Kante (Chelsea) & Dele Alli (Tottenham) - An easy decision to make. Kante has been most pundits' choice for player of the year and rightly so, while Alli has the look of football's next big football star in the making about him. This duo in the centre of midfield would scare any opposition.

Left Mid: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) – A close contender behind Kante for player of the year, and in any other season would surely have won it. Hazard has truly been back at his best, at times carrying this team to victory, and dazzling fans with technical brilliance that would make any player proud. Surely the Premier League's most talented footballer, and on current form, right up there with the best in the world.

Forwards:  Diego Costa (Chelsea) & Harry Kane (Tottenham) – Kane is a no-brainer as the league's top scorer this season. Costa might be a bit more controversial just owing to the public perception of the player, but the truth is there are few players in the league in any position who contribute so much to the team. He scores and creates goals, he drops deep and defends, links up the midfield, and quite frankly he plays some surprisingly brilliant football. Over the first half of the season he was arguably the league's best player, and even though his form dipped in the new year, it had very much recovered in time for the title run-in.

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

Friday 12 May 2017

It's time to take this seriously. I can say with little doubt and no shred of hyperbole that what is going on in Washington DC right now is among the most important political events that will happen in our lifetimes. A scandal the likes of which we have not seen since Watergate, a crisis of democracy and American sovereignty we have never seen. It's rare that you can say this, but last week we witnessed an event of truly historic magnitude.

donald trump james comey criminal watergate tuesday saturday massacre coverup cover up conspiracy republican
The Trump administration has been coming under fire in recent weeks in relation to a number of scandals, from domestic emoluments, to Betsy Devos' pay-to-play, a crackdown on the freedom of press, and of course the headline act, possible collusion with Russia to violate federal law. His first 100 days in office have been wracked by allegations of corruption and criticisms over a lack of transparency. But last Tuesday night we saw something entirely new, something unprecedented in modern democracy.

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump fired the FBI Director James Comey, the very man who was currently leading an investigation against Trump's administration regarding possible illegal ties to the Russian Government. Now Trump will handpick Comey's replacement. The man currently under investigation... will choose the person who leads the investigation against him.

It's a difficult story to blog about, as things are moving at a ridiculously fast pace, with new revelations appearing by the hour. Since I began this post, Comey's deputy, now acting Director of the FBI, has announced that future investigation progress will no longer be shared with the White House. Mere hours later, Trump tweeted threatening messages at Comey, hinting that he has been taping his meetings in the White House, and that these would be made public if Comey doesn't stay silent.

Things are fast spiralling out of control, and it's arguable that this is already a bigger crisis than Watergate. But let's rewind a little bit, what's all this Russia stuff about?

Russia hacks the 2016 Election
Russian hackers are known to have made a concerted effort to influence the 2016 US election, a process which involved a campaign of online misinformation and propaganda, hacking of voter rolls and electoral systems, and most crucially, the hacking of Democratic Party officials and theft of information from those systems.

The US intelligence community, including the FBI and CIA, have very clearly and publicly confirmed these facts to be true, and further have stated in no uncertain terms that the election interference appears to have been conducted with the intention of helping the campaign of Donald Trump. Trump, for his part, appeared on numerous occasions to have been encouraging the Russians to hack his opponent during the election, but that's only the beginning of his campaign's worrying Russian connections.

Very briefly, Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort was forced to resign and is now the subject of criminal investigation for his connections to Russian and Ukrainian politicians. Mike Flynn was appointed as National Security Advisor by Trump, but forced to resign after it transpired that he had held multiple meetings with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak, commonly referred to as the "Russian Spymaster" for his connections to espionage. Flynn received payments and made frequent trips to Russia, and then lied about all of it. He is currently under criminal investigation. Jeff Sessions, Trump's Attorney General, also held multiple meetings with the Russian Spymaster. His connections were deemed serious enough that he was forced to recuse himself from getting involved in the Russia investigation as head of the Department of Justice.

From Carter Page, to Roger Stone, Jared Kushner, and even Trump's son Eric, the list of Trump connections to Russia seems endless, and every day it seems more and more come to light. And that's even before we get to the dossier revealed by high ranking British intelligence officials, which indicates that Russia has incriminating personal and financial information on Trump, and was deemed by intelligence agencies to be "credible".

So why did Trump fire Comey?
Considering the scale of Trump's apparent Russia connections, it clearly looks bad for the President to have fired the man leading those investigations. The fact that the recommendation was apparently made by Jeff Sessions, the man who was supposed to have recused himself from getting involved with Russia, makes it all the more shocking.

The move has drawn immediate comparisons with the Saturday Night Massacre, the day when Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor in order to cover up his criminal actions. Needless to say, it didn't end well for Nixon.

But is there any actual indication that Trump has done anything wrong?

Sure enough, the President has the power to fire the Director of the FBI, but typically only in the event of serious wrongdoing. FBI Directors are given 10 year terms specifically for this reason, to insulate them from politics and the whim of the President. It has historically taken actual illegality or major ethics breaches to justify such a dismissal. In 1993 when Bill Clinton dismissed Director William Sessions (no relation to the current Attorney General), Sessions had been the subject of a major investigation, the conclusion of which stated that he had committed significant wrongdoing. No such conclusions have been reached for Comey.

So what is Trump's justification for this extraordinary expansion of executive power? If you can believe it, Trump's justification is that Comey was too harsh on Hillary Clinton during her sham of an email investigation during the election. That's right, Trump fired Comey for taking the (admittedly unwise) actions that in all likelihood gave Donald Trump the Presidency.

Now let's be clear, I have major reservations about the way Comey handled that investigation. His actions were inappropriate and unusual. However they are clearly not sufficient to justify the second ever FBI Director dismissal, he committed no illegal act, or breach of ethics. This has even drawn criticism from Trump's own party, with Republican Senator John McCain expressing his belief that the sacking was not justified.

But more to the point, only a complete idiot would believe this pretext for a second. First of all, Trump and Jeff Sessions were wildly effusive in their praise over Comey's handling of the investigation during the election, for obvious reasons. Secondly these actions took place a year ago, so why are they only firing him now, six months into Trump's Presidency?

Comey was fired on the very day the Russia investigation issued its first batch of grand jury subpoenas against current and former associates of the Trump administration, one day after the investigation requested access to financial records of business dealings between Trump and Russia, and less than a week after Comey requested additional funds and personnel for his investigation from the Department of Justice.

Donald Trump wants us to believe that he fired James Comey for taking actions that helped Trump win the election, actions that both he and Sessions had supported previously, actions that took place a year ago, but rather than fire him at the time, they coincidentally waited until the very week that Comey's investigation against Trump was beginning to pick up steam. As a pretext it is almost laughable for how non-sensical and brazenly untrue it is. Only an astoundingly naive or wilfully ignorant individual could possibly be fooled by it.

And then there was the dismissal itself. Carried out while Comey was on the opposite side of the country so that he couldn't protect evidence, conveyed to the FBI by Trump's personal bodyguard, like some mafioso, so as to not tip off anyone with the Bureau. The dismissal letter itself. The letter is written with the pretext that this dismissal has absolutely nothing to do with Russia, and then Trump inexplicably adds the absolutely incredible paragraph "While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau".

Why is this paragraph in the letter? If the dismissal has nothing to do with Russia, why bring it up? Why say this at all? Presumably Comey knows what he and Trump have discussed previously, so why does Trump need to remind him? There is literally no reason for Trump to include this paragraph in the letter, unless the intention is that other people read it and conclude that Trump is not under investigation over Russia. It is an utterly insane paragraph that reads less like a boss firing an employee and more like a five year old forging a letter to the headmaster from his parents. It makes absolutely no sense regardless of whether or not you believe Trump's ridiculous pretext. Again drawing criticism from his own party, Republican Congressman Justin Amash even went so far as to call it just plain "bizarre".

It is now undeniable: The President is trying to seize control of the police
The timing of this dismissal, along with the embarrassingly flimsy pretext, would seem to suggest a cover up.

Leaks from within the Trump administration appear to support this, reporting that Trump had become enraged over the continuing investigation into Russian connections, that he wanted Comey fired, and that about a week ago he had explicitly ordered the Department of Justice to come up with an excuse to fire him. Further leaks from the FBI state explicitly that they believe Comey was fired because he refused to give Trump his personal loyalty and because he refused to preview his testimony for Trump behind closed doors.

If it wasn't obvious enough that this firing was motivated by Comey's Russia investigation, consider that this appears to follow a concerted trend. This is the third person that Trump has fired who was involved in investigations into Russia, the others being Sally Yates and Preet Bharara. Correlation does not equal causation, but whatever the reason if you were investigating Trump's Russia connections, chances are you got fired by him, and that demands explanation.

Consider also the pattern of behaviour which includes sending threatening messages to those testifying on the Russia investigation, including Comey and Sally Yates on the day she was set to testify. Many have described these actions as textbook witness intimidation.

It's not a matter of ideology or affiliation, there is no one in Washington who seriously believes any of the rationale coming out of the White House. These are lies, so evident in their dishonesty that it's simply laughable. In the days that follow Comey's dismissal, Trump's people don't even seem to be pretending that it's true. Both Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Trump appear to have confirmed that the sacking was related to Russia, which would mean that at the very least Jeff Sessions violated his recusal, and Trump has committed obstruction of justice.

And yet, the official line coming out of the White House is that it is "time to move on" from the Russia investigation, in spite of what appears to be an obvious cover up. Most dangerous of all, the bulk of the Republican Party appears willing to acquiesce.

The complicity of the Republican Party
There has been a lockstep propaganda surge from all across the Trump administration and Republican Party. First there was the hard-to-believe claim from the White House that they had no idea that this action would cause an outcry. This was followed by a bizarre press conference from Sean Spicer, carried out while hiding in the bushes and demanding journalists turn off all lights and cameras. But perhaps most bizarre has been the performance of Huckabee Sanders, a petulantly hostile and wholly unprofessional press conference in which she unleashed vitriolic and petty insults on Comey, a career lawman.

The Republican information minister Kellyanne Conway went on TV trying to convince everyone that the fact that Trump wrote in his own letter than he was not under investigation was definitive proof that he was innocent, and that the fact that Trump didn't mention Russia in his letter (even though he did!) was definitive proof that the firing had nothing to do with Russia. Simply childish in its absurdity and obvious deceit. Then barely a few hours later Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell repeated Conway's lines almost word for word. Word for word. It points to an obvious co-ordinated effort by all party members.

This response has been palpably absurd, and I'll say again, childish in how obviously deceitful the whole thing looks.

Through all of this, the Republican Party is refusing to authorise an independent special investigation, incredibly claiming that one isn't needed, since there is already an ongoing investigation in the Republican controlled House, the Republican controlled Senate, and the soon-to-be Trump controlled FBI. The Republicans seriously want us to believe that they are going to investigate themselves thoroughly and impartially with no oversight, and then when they inevitably conclude there to be no evidence of wrongdoing among their own ranks, they expect everyone to accept this as a perfectly valid and objective assessment.

This is the big difference between how the Trump scandal unfolds and Watergate. Nixon tried all the same tricks as Trump, but in that instance Nixon's fellow Republicans broke ranks and took a stand against their own party for the sake of country. So far this has not happened with the Republican Party of 2017. Several Republicans have expressed concerns, but as of yet none have displayed a willingness to put country before party. This is clearly hugely concerning from an administration of justice point of view, but more to the point if actual crimes are being committed, then it indicates the legal complicity of much of the Republican Party. This could get messy.

What does all this mean?
This is arguably an even greater scandal than Watergate. Watergate was a crime of petty political theft, abuse of power, and associated cover up. It was a test of American democracy, but no more than that. Trump's Russia scandal and its associated crises are no less than an existential threat.

A hostile foreign power has already managed to directly influence our elections. They appear to have compromised our very Government with the current administration absolutely lousy with apparent agents and security risks. The administration has spent the last 6 months attacking the free media and the independent judiciary, and now appears to be attempting to seize control of the police force. All the while, the Republican Party appears perfectly content to let these events continue.

This is no longer a functioning democracy. When a President wields absolute power and subverts the very rule of law, that's not what happens in America. That's what happens in a tinpot dictatorship or banana republic. If the President is seriously allowed to just fire the police when they pry into his personal business, it eliminates any sense of legitimacy or confidence in the authorities and the rules which protect the citizenry from abuses of power.

If Trump manages to get away with this obvious cover up, if the police ceases to remain independent, if media freedoms continue to be eroded, then America can no longer claim to be a free democracy, it becomes a sham like Putin's Russia or Erdogan's Turkey.

So what now?
Now we wait. As I said, things have progressed at a lightning pace in the days since this political bombshell.

On Friday, the FBI raided the Annapolis offices of a Republican Party consulting firm. Later that day, the new acting Director of the FBI indicated that the White House is no longer to be trusted, and won't be given progress updates on the investigation. Leaks from FBI sources are coming to light at an alarming rate. And there you have Huckabee Sanders, acting like a bad SNL parody, feigning disbelief that anyone is still even talking about Russia. Anyone remember Comical Ali?

Even more concerning have been Trump's actions since Tuesday, tweeting threats at private citizens, indicating that he employs a Nixonian policy of recording all White House meetings, and shifting wildly in his explanation behind Comey's sacking. It just gets more and more absurd.

But perhaps the most shocking event took place on Wednesday, mere hours after firing James Comey. Trump met with Russian foreign dignitaries in the White House, behind closed doors providing exclusive access to Russian controlled state media, and absolutely no access to American media. We've reached a point where the Russian Government has moved into the White House and shut out the free press. This whole sorry ordeal was perfectly summed up by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who when questioned about the Comey sacking, disdainfully and mockingly replied "Really? You're kidding! You're kidding!". The Russian Government is literally laughing at us from within the White House.

But there is still hope. As it stands, the FBI is still under the stewardship of Comey's deputy Andrew McCabe, by all accounts an independent and unimpeachable lawman. If he can step up the Russia investigation before Trump manages to install his own puppet, we may yet see justice. Then there are all the other good men and women within the FBI who will no doubt make every effort to resist political influence over the investigation. The FBI has always been a beacon of integrity for America, so don't count them out yet.

Elsewhere we should be watching Rod Rosenstein, the deputy Attorney General and by all accounts a thoroughly honest and independent public servant. With Sessions recused from all things Russia, Rosenstein is in charge of managing that process, and if necessary appointing an independent prosecutor. Rosenstein allegedly threatened to quit in the aftermath of the Comey firing, it's possible the only reason he has not is to ensure the neutrality of the investigation. He may yet blow this whole thing wide open.

Lastly there is the Republican Party. There are plenty of honest, good public servants in that party, and the pressure is now on for them to decide if they want to do what is right, or just follow the party line. If Trump's approval continues to decline following this outcry, expect to start seeing them jump ship. And if not, there's always the possibility for a Democratic wave in 2018.

This is probably the single greatest test to our national identity that we have ever faced. A great deal depends on whether the Republicans in power ultimately decide to put party first, or country, and even more so on whether Americans finally decide to start caring about politics and vote in 2018. What unfolds over the coming months and years will determine whether the most powerful nation on Earth remains free and democratic, or lurches into autocracy and corruption. This matters, and it's something to which we should all be paying close attention

Friday 5 May 2017

Created by Archie Comics
Network The CW, Netflix
Starring KJ Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Luke Perry
Genre Mystery, Teen drama
Running Time 42 mins each

riverdale archie comics cw netflix veronica jughead molly ringwald luke perry

What an utterly bizarre idea for a TV show. Riverdale, as some of you may be able to guess, is based on the iconic Archie Comics series, that classic slice of Americana which is set in the fictional town of Riverdale.

Some 76 years old now, the Archie series is notable for having stayed surprisingly true to the wholesome "aw shucks" sensibilities of its era. Through its many iterations and spin-offs, Archie has always followed the innocent lives of the high school students of small-town Riverdale, in particular Archie Andrews, his best friend Jughead, and his two romantic interests Betty and Veronica. Together they drink malts, play baseball, go to the drive-in, and various other American cliches of a time gone-by. The tone is almost universally kept as light as possible, with rarely a more serious dilemma on hand than awkward dates, or try-outs for the football team. Despite the focus on teen romance, sex and sexuality of any kind is very rarely if ever referenced.

Notable spin-offs include Josie and the Pussycats, a series about a girl band who dress up like cats, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, about a teenager, who also happens to be a witch. It's all really about as light and fluffy as anything can get. So when The CW announced a TV show based on the characters of this comic book series, the last thing I expected to see was Riverdale.

Riverdale is a dark, gritty reimagining of the Archie world. In this Riverdale, people get murdered, students have affairs with teachers, homes are broken by divorce, poverty, alcoholism and gang violence. Crime, jail, promiscuity and overt hyper-sexualisation set the backdrop for shenanigans here. The tone is about as far from its source material as it's possible to get. It's kind of like doing a dark reboot of Snoopy. It's a very weird idea.

As a longtime fan of the comicbook series, I was conflicted between excitement at the promise of a TV adaptation, and skepticism towards its darker interpretation. Ultimately, Riverdale didn't make this year's Hot List, but it came within a whisker of the final cut. My worry was no so much the change in tone, but the fact that these teenage melodramas are about a dime a dozen, and from the implausibly attractive no-name leads to the hyper-sexualised content, this felt like nothing more than jumping on the bandwagon. The OC or One Tree Hill, but with Archie characters. Fortunately I was wrong.

Now don't get me wrong. This is a very silly show. The melodrama here is indeed dialled up to a 10, with characters who seem to love nothing more than handling a situation in the most dramatic and over-the-top way as possible. The dialogue is often similarly hackneyed and predictable, while the plot twists and relationship rollercoasters are so ridiculous as to elicit groans. But despite, or possibly because of this, it is all so much fun to watch.

The trick is that Riverdale is extremely self-aware of its own campness. The writers have managed to strike that very difficult balance between cheesy good fun and trash, buoyed by surprisingly capable performances that know how to straddle the line between comedy and drama just the right amount. They never take themselves too seriously and neither should you.

The cast really deserves great credit. They play their roles so earnestly, and with such wry humour. There really isn't a weak member among them, but in particular Camila Mendes and Cole Sprouse are revelations, while the host of familiar faces who play the various parents are a delight. As a longtime fan it is extremely good fun just to see the various ways in which characters have been re-imagined for the show, from Betty's repressed demons to Jughead's new edginess, Veronica's considerably more complex personality, and Cheryl Blossom's wickedly sinister new persona.

It also helps that the quality of production is so impressive. Visually Riverdale can be stunning to look at, with a heavily stylised design reminiscent of Twin Peaks or Pushing Daisies. The music is very well chosen, and the direction that brings everything together is pretty excellent. This is an extremely slick show.

The longer you watch, the more you begin to see just how clever the show really is. The writing is fully of witty references which often riff on the cast-members and source material in surprisingly fourth-wall-breaking ways. In one example, the actress who plays Barb on Stranger Things appears as Ethel Muggs, and someone eventually comments "#justiceforethel", in reference to the Barb hashtag that went viral. In another, characters played by former teen stars Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald attend a school dance and comment "Remember when this used to be our lives" in obvious reference to their own careers. Sometimes it can all be a little too smart for its own good (if I hear them reference another Netflix show I will cringe). Silly it may be, but its knowing brand of camp is also exceptionally addictive, and the constant twists make this great television for the age of binge-watching.

Despite fears that this would simply be the latest in a long line of trashy teen dramas, Riverdale consistently exceeds expectations. In fact, it gets considerably better as it goes on, as it becomes increasingly confident in its narrative style and unique voice.  Once you let yourself get caught up in the silliness, there's a lot to like about Riverdale, and that goes both for fans of the source material and newcomers alike.

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