Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Notes from National Finals: EMA, Slovenia - 25.02.2017

I've looked in on EMA over the past couple of years with mixed success - I enjoyed the 2015 final but it was virtually impossible to follow last year's final due to my poor internet connection.  (I guess that national finals season 2016 was one of the main factors in my decision to finally get fibre broadband over last summer).

There were big changes in EMA this year - the contest was staged in a much larger venue than the usual TV studio, and with a huge leap in the production values and visual impact.  This clearly shows a lot of ambition on RTVSLO's part, and it became one of my favourite national finals of 2017. The visuals were clearly influenced by Melodifestivalen though: from the 2014 'painting postcards' to the same font for song titles and the announcement of the songs and artists, Melfest-style.

This year's two semi-finals/heats took place over two nights, Friday 17.02.2017 and Saturday 18.02.2017, where 8 songs competed each night for 4 places in the final.  What impressed me straight off about this year's EMA was the variety and diverse musical style of the songs on offer: everything from rock to ska to experimental opera to Latin-pop to EDM to ethno-pop to traditional ballads.

Swedish-based Maja Keuc, under her new artist-name of Amaya, was in the original line-up but pulled out of the contest beforehand, as this didn't fit in with her new career path.  Hmm, strange one - I wonder if there were other factors behind this decision?

I think the right songs made it to the final, although Tosca Beat's adventurous left-field opera number "Free World" which failed to qualify from heat 1, could have added an interesting dimension to the final.

The 2nd heat fought for my attention on one of the very busy "Super Saturdays" when I was watching one of the Eesti Laul heats at the same time.

I quickly concluded that ESC season was rapidly turning into a zoo, what with Francesco Gabbani's gorilla, Riga Beaver, Kerli's live chicken over in Eesti Laul, and EMA pandas.  Or United Pandaz, to be exact,  who accompanied Arsello and Alex Volasko on the "Don't You Worry Child"-influenced "Heart To Heart".   Or should that be Don't You Worry Panda!  It was a lively show but missed out on a place in the final.  Unlike the following songs....

1. "Ne Panike" - Sell Out.

I really liked this on first listen in its heat.  Very inspired by "4 Real" by Athena, Turkey's 2004 ESC entry which is one of my all-time favourite ESC songs.

Sell Out were dressed in matching black shirts and white patterned braces. The song, in Slovenian (extra points from me for native language!) was a feelgood catchy number with a brassy riff.  We even got a bit of the mannequin challenge when the song stops in the middle. (Is that still a thing?) This song didn't get a lot of love from ESC fandom so I was probably in a very small minority here - mainly because it was a very welcome change from a lot of the generic mush which polluted many of the national finals this year.

2. "Flower In The Snow" - Nuška Drašček.

There was also room in EMA for the more traditional ballads.  Nuška was dressed in one of these big fussy creations which you only ever seem to see in ESC, with massive bat-earrings to match.

This came across like a James Bond-style, dramatic ballad, and on first hearing in its heat I thought it was ok, however I didn't like it as much second time round.  Although she sang well, in terms of an ESC entry it did not really have any distinguishing musical characteristics.

Ad break time.  Just before the ads there was an on-screen ident of Lake Bled.  The desktop wallpaper on my laptop is a picture of Lake Bled by the way.  It's so beautiful and I'd love to go there some day.  Ljubljana is also one of my outstanding holiday ambitions.  But back to EMA....

3. "Open Fire" - Tim Kores. 

He seemed a bit of a character in his postcard. Oh, I remembered this one - it owed rather a lot to "Heroes" a bit in the staging.  I quite liked the song although he's not much of a singer and it all ended up a bit half baked. Love love peace peace - and a woman playing drums with burning fake cymbals. The song has an 80s uptempo pop-rock feel but that's ok with me.  It's nowhere near a 2017 ESC contender though.

4. "Fse" - Nika Zorjan. 

First of the evening's tributes to Dinah Nah's hair colour and the first of the final songs co-written by Maraaya.  "Fse" was like a Slovenian language companion-piece to "Here For You".  No sign of the air violinist though!

Nika came across as a likeable performer and she does well, although the chorus needed more oomph to live up to the song's promise.

Ad break time again.  Mercator, Hofer (which has the Aldi logo), Spar, and Mercator again! The Slovenians sure love their supermarkets.

After a Sanremo-style random interview with some Ukrainian woman (?) it was time for the next song.

5. "Wild Ride" - King Foo.  

I don't have much to say about this.  It was a rock-influenced song fronted by Slovenia's foremost Anastacia tribute act, and that's about it really.

6. "On My Way" - Omar Naber.

Yes, that Omar Naber, who represented Slovenia the last time Ukraine hosted ESC so there was a little deja-vu vibe going on here.  The song had quite an emotional pull for me (I was going through a bit of a low time during national finals season this year) and his vocals were strong but controlled, and the song has a big finish.  However, his edgy look did not match the rather middle-of-the-road song.

7. "Heart of Gold" - BQL.

One of the big pre-contest favourites and foregone-conclusion winner was "Heart of Gold", another Maraaya composition, sung by the young male duo BQL, pronounced 'be cool' (groan....!).  The best way I can describe this song is 'acoustic reggaeton' with a flavour of the current popular style of Chainsmokers-style 'minimalist dance' and unusually a more contemporary song than you would expect in the traditionally more conservative Slovenian national selection.  I can understand its appeal but for me the staging didn't work when the two singers were apart, and it only really made sense when they are together on stage.  The vocals could have been a bit better too.

8. "Zažarim" - Raiven.

Pink hair #2 from Raiven, competing in her second consecutive EMA.  She brought her harp too. This was all very mystical and 'potential ESC entry' and also quite Aminata-influenced.  The verses reminded me of "Bring Me To Life".  If this was selected for Slovenia it would probably get lost among the other female midtempo ballads already chosen, and the lights effect on her catsuit would just be yet another been there done that gimmick.

Last year's Slovenian representative ManuElla returned for the interval act, this time lip-synching her new song "Salvation", a decent enough country pop number with the added potential for a wardrobe malfunction.(!)

Another blast from a more distant past: Toni Cetinski with a piano-version of his 1994 Croatian entry "Nek Ti Bude Ljubav Sva" and a new uptempo pop-rock song "Laku Noc" .  What's really annoyed me about this year's EMA was the use of fake cheering/applause which is a very unwelcome trend! I find this kind of thing really offputting and unnecessary and it became more and more annoying as the night went on.

The third special guest was none other than ESC defending champ Jamala, singing what else but "1944" a song which still delivers massive chills, even if it's not to everyone's taste.

More ads for sausages and Mercator cars etc but I'm getting a bit bored with Bosch dishwashers now. But sausages again!  Enjoy - it's from Europe!

After the jury vote Omar was in the lead and then the televote results are announced Melfest-style. BQL topped the televote as expected, but not for the first time in this or in recent years, we were in a situation where the winning song was not a unanimous choice.  Despite the pre-contest momentum and expectation that BQL would win EMA, it was Omar Naber who would be going to Kyiv, representing Slovenia with "On My Way" which very quickly became one of the least popular songs among the fandom and written off as 'dated' and 'old-fashioned'.  For those of us who still saw some redeeming features in a well-sung dated and old-fashioned song, it was then revamped to its complete detriment.  The only way I can see this qualifying is a "Colo(u)r of Your Life"-style vote, although I think it's reasonable to attribute much of that song's success to diaspora voting, which Slovenia doesn't really have.  So I may be wrong, but it looks as if Omar will be on his way....back to Slovenia after the semi-final.

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