This year’s semi-final of death has been condensed into a first-half of armageddon. There are around eight songs of qualification quality, yet since 2009 only a maximum of five songs have ever progressed from the first half. The strength of the second-half is still reasonable so we should still expect at least five to qualify; thus, a big name or two will be dumped from the first half.
In line with earlier years, I have used a traffic light system to illustrate my immediate thinking for certain songs. This will change when rehearsals start when staging concepts either enhance or reduce a country’s chances of qualification.
My early reaction to the Czech song was muted, but I was on board after Mikolas’ live performance at the Ukrainian national final. He also performed live in Riga, and even though the footage to emerge has been poor, reports from the event were glowing. The lack of LEDs shouldn’t be an issue even though it does limit the extent to which nations can develop strong, visual branding concepts.
Mikolas will be joined by professional dancing brothers, Kristián and Marek Mensa, so it appears they will push the hip-hop break-dance theme. Provided the dancing isn’t too hardcore and doesn’t detract from Mikolas’ natural and charming charisma, the Czechs should be checking into the Eurovision final.
Right at the top-end of the BPM register, Israel lead the market for the first time since… well, since anytime I can remember. Without going into what might happen in the final, Netta’s song is simply too good and too high up in the PR cycle to fail. Juries know about the song and she will be announced as the market-leader by all national commentators. Israel will top the OGAE poll and will likely do extremely well on the EuroJury poll too. The only way I can see Israel failing to qualify is if Netta is too aggressive or the staging is too crazy and disjointed. Even then, barring a unexpected disaster of epic proportions, Israel would still qualify, yet the outright will quickly factor in what would be a false-favourite. I will discuss Israel in greater detail in our pre-rehearsal preview.
I can understand the love for Estonia: it is distinctive and boasts a USP. However, the song lacks a melody and it pales in comparison to the likes of Il Volo, who are the only popera act to do well at Eurovision. Elina’s vocals are the key component here, yet the lack of song is disguised by a staging gimmick used twice before at Eurovision. The performance is cold and Elina tends to look away from the cameras, rather than straight down the lens. Even so, the fickle public will swoon over Elina’s vocals, while the juries should be expected to reward the more contemporary entries.
Greece return with the nice parts of Watch My Dance, albeit with Yianna Terzi rather than Loucas Yiorkas. Oneiro Mou is a real fan-favourite, but it is difficult to know if that goodwill extends to the Greek diaspora, which tends to favour upbeat songs. Greece have several allies to help them meet what is expected to be around a 100-130 point qualification threshold. They have quite an attractive song for non-Greek speakers, so it should transcend their regional bloc. Even in 2015 with fewer allies, the disappointing One Last Breath finished 3rd with the juries and 9th on the televote.
Armenia offers a similar dramatic, own-language concept, yet is presented with more aggression. Sevak has a fine voice but I find him less relatable – probably due to the frowning. Qami benefits from greater build and impact, but it just doesn’t have the emotional trigger past songs of this genre boasted. The Eurovision stage should lift Qami from the basic national final format. The main question is will Sevak find a way to connect with TV viewers? Armenia are green for now, but floating somewhere around 7th on my reckoning given the lack of allies.
When comparing Finland and Cyprus in the Fuego review, I wrote: “One [song] could turn up in Lisbon and surprise while the other massively disappoints”. I think Cyprus will be the one that surprises, and as we witnessed at the UMK final, Saara could underwhelm. If there’s one thing Cyprus is great at, it’s extracting every last drop of potential from its song with clever staging, whereas Brian Friedman’s staging for Saara is likely to be as desperate and overblown as at the national final. Chuck in the pimp slot and Eleni Foureira should be strolling into the final.
On the maybe list:
Opening the show will be better for Azerbaijan than perhaps 4th or 5th in the running order where X My Heart would struggle to standout. Since their semi win in 2013, Azerbaijan’s semi-final finishing positions have been 9th, 10th, 6th and 8th. It would appear that the more trashy the song, the higher the score! X MY Heart isn’t as punchy as Miracle, but it should be vocally stronger. Last year the dream team worked with Greece’s Demi who only qualified in 10th. This is Love was as bad as it could get for the dream team considering the vocals were off and only half of the staging concept was allowed. This year Kontopoulos has delivered a technically superior song and benefits from a more accomplished vocalist in Aisel. It is only a worry over Fokas’ staging that is keeping Azerbaijan on the maybe list – that and the obvious lack of allies.
Some might be surprised at the inclusion of Belgium on the maybe list, but Sennek’s song fails the 1-minute test and doesn’t really deliver the sort of impact to justify its low odds. Hans Pannecoucke is in charge of the staging – is that still a thing to get excited about? Calm After The Storm was a triumph, but he has since failed with both Trijntje and Manel Navarro. He’s clearly a talented stage designer, but Netherlands 2014 was one of those once-in-a-career wonders. I’m certain Sennek’s staging will be dark and intimate; I just get the feeling that in May we’ll all be shouting: “why aren’t you looking at the camera!?”
Another problem for Belgium is following Iceland and Albania, and then being followed by the Czech Republic right at the point when viewers will be craving another lift in the tempo. Then, after Mikolas we get Lithuania’s haunting song from Ieva. Lithuania has more allies and diaspora than Belgium, but does drone on and on. Another problem for Lithuania is that When We’re Old fails to build: it loses energy half way through when it should be soaring. Enhanced lighting and camerawork should compensate for what was a static national final performance, so for now it stays amber.
Alekseev is working on his diction and delivery of Forever with vocal coach, Alex Panayi. Apparently he is much more comfortable with the new piano-led arrangement, even though I preferred the original version. For Belarus to qualify, Alekseev needs a to deliver a faultless vocal performance along with a more endearing stage show that doesn’t rely on silly gimmicks. I suspect there might be one or two brown envelopes traded before the first semi-final live show.
I can see how Bulgaria could be both good and extremely messy. I’m a fan of the song, but the assembled group performing it are the weak link. The presentation is bound to be dark, and mixed with the futuristic garb from the official photography, I’m seeing lots of red flags that could prevent viewers voting for it. If viewers do get behind La Forza, which is right before Bones, a gloomy presentation will feel extremely flat and demotivating. It also doesn’t help that a promising upbeat entry from FYRoM is following.
Austria, Switzerland and Ireland are all floating around lower positions with maybe Austria and Ireland being the surprises. Cesár has great vocals and his competent, middle-of-the-road, jury-friendly song could scrape through. The only downside for me is that I don’t rate him as a frontman – he lacks star quality. Austria are usually my blindspot, hence giving him the benefit of the doubt… for now.
Switzerland is extremely well performed and is another middle-of-the-road, jury-friendly entry. Corrine isn’t as relatable as other female singers in this semi-final, but has been helped in the running order. Coincidentally, that’s another country Björkman was involved with in some way.
The real joker in the pack is Ryan O’Shaughnessy for Ireland. Logic says Cyprus should burn his chances of qualifying, but being the last authentic song, there is a chance his Ed Sheeran schtick resonates with viewers and earns Ireland their first qualification since 2013. I think the 3/1 at UNIBET is extremely generous given the lack of big songs in the second half. In 2015 Molly Sterling finished 12th with an equally insipid song, yet she was second in the running order and was followed by six better ballads. This year, Ireland has the last word and Ryan is quite a voteable chap.
Iceland and Croatia just aren’t strong enough to compete. The former is possibly the worst Icelandic entry ever and the latter just falls between the cracks. Albania is deserving of a place in the final, yet despite boasting many allies, Mall will struggle to garner more points than its first half opponents.
If there is a shock qualifier, Macedonia’s Eye Cue might be it. Lost & Found is a kaleidoscope of genres, yet it strangely works. Unlike last year, vocals and stagecraft don’t seem to be an issue; however, their running-order slot is far from ideal. I would love to see FYRoM make the final, but my head says they finish 13th-15th. If the delegation conveys the summery feel of Lost & Found in the staging, there is a minuscule hope of it sneaking in, or at least deciding what qualifies from around it. FYRoM will feel very uplifting coming after gloomy Bulgaria.
And then we have Saara Aalto from Finland. In studio form Monsters is a passable radio-friendly track, but when performed live with all the Brian Friedman staging nonsense going on, it looks like low-grade cabaret fodder. It is jury-repellent in its purest form. And despite winning over the UK public on the X-Factor, I don’t think Saara is that voteable. She appears desperate, needy and there’s a distinct absence of warmth and humility. Her team says the staging will be totally different, but it will still probably feature a massive prop with homoerotic dancing.
Our semi-final 1 podcast will be published next week, so make sure you subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Share your thoughts and bets in the comments section below.