Road to Eurovision 2018: Week 1 – Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium

(artwork courtesy Eurovision,tv)

 

What is the Eurovision Song Contest?
Started way back in 1956 as a way of drawing a fractured Europe back together with the healing power of music, the Eurovision Song Contest, or Concours Eurovision de la Chanson – the contest is telecast in both English and French – is open to all active members of the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the competition.

Each country is permitted to submit one song to the contest – a song which is selected by a variety of means, usually a winner-takes-all competition such as Sweden’s renowned Melodifestivalen – which they perform in one of two semi-finals in the hopes of making it to the glittering grand final.

Only six countries have direct entry into the grand final:
* The Big Four who fund most of the contest – UK, Germany, France and Spain
* The host country (which is the winner of the previous year’s contest)
* Italy, who didn’t take part for many years and was re-admitted in 2011 after a 14 year absence (it was one of seven countries that competed in the first event), making the Big Four the Big Five.

The winner is chosen by a 50/50 mix of viewer votes (you cannot vote for your own country) and a jury of music industry professionals in each country, a method which was chosen to counter the alleged skewing of votes based on political and/or cultural lines when voting was purely the preserve of viewers at home.

Past winners include, of course, ABBA in 1974 with “Waterloo” and Celine Dion who won for Switzerland in 1988 with “Ne partez pas sans moi”.

Above all though, the Eurovision Song Contest is bright, over the top and deliciously camp, a celebration of music, inclusiveness and togetherness that draws annual viewing figures in the hundreds of millions.

This year’s contest will be held in Lisbon, Portugal.

 

ALBANIA: “Mall” by Eugent Bushpepa

 

 

THE ARTIST
Do not ask Eugent Bushpepa, holder thus far of my favourite Eurovision artist name for 2018 – although Israels’ Netta Barzilai is hot on his heels – to pay homage to your god or worship at the feet of your golden calf.

For music is the religion of Albania’s entrant to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, a particular form of devotion he has been practising since the tender age of six when he first began to sing. (And yes, this is the perfect time to make a dad joke about the fact that if he started singing so young, he must be exhausted by now.)

A highly-creative individual whose artistic proclivities range far and wide, the now early-thirties artist got his big break in 2006 when, working as a resident singer on TV program Top Show, he won Top Fest, a music competition staged by, yes indeed, Top Channel.

The awards have kept on coming since as have the supporting tour slots for the likes of Deep Purple (2007) and Overkill (2014) and now the honour of all honours, representing his country at Eurovision, a particularly sweet accolade given it was bestowed on him by a jury of his inevitably far more boringly-named fellow professional singers.

 

Eugent Bushpepa (image courtesy official Eugent Bushpepa Facebook page (c) Armejsa)

 

THE SONG
At first glance the song is so much earnest indie rock, complete with tight leather pants, grandmother-acceptable attitude and MOR vibe.

But somewhere around the growl around the bridge, you find yourself humming along; not quite cigarett lighters or mobile phones in the air but getting close.

All of which means, or could mean (let’s not get ahead of ourselves), that the song, written and composed by the artist himself – so bonus points there – could result in a lovely crowd moment early in semi-final 1.

But I suspect that might be as far it goes – lovely song but hardly bone-crushingly, must-rush-to-vote memorable and might lose out to the songs after it in the running order, a number of which score higher on the catchiness scale.

 

 


ARMENIA: “Qami” by Sevak Khanagyan

 

 

THE ARTIST
They don’t like to waste time in Armenia.

Well, the family of Sevak Khanagyan don’t anyway – at the grand old age of 7, when most kids are still deciding which flavour of guy is their favourite, Armenia’s entrant to this year’s event was not only writing music but enrolled at a music school.

Quite the Mozart-ian prodigy then?  Fast-forward to 2017 and now 30-ish Khanagyan has not only participated in reality TV singing competitions Glavnaya Stsena and The Voice of Armenia but won Ukrainian X Factor, putting him front and centre among a phalanx or three million of fans, his success partly down to his own composition “Don’t Be Quiet” (clearly it was a self-instructional piece of songwriting which he heeded).

The hits like “When We Are Together” and “My Oxygen”, and “Don’t Be Quiet” – you wonder if the song is a mantra his therapist set for him to cure him of stage fright or something since he can’t seem to let it go – have kept coming, he’s a coach on the Armenian iteration of The Voice (go the swivel chairs and big red buttons!) and now, his country’s great hope for Eurovision.

But is his song “Qami” got what it takes to win over the voting public of greater Europe? (We’re assuming the regional vote is pretty much locked in, what with all that TV exposure.)

 

Sevak Khanagyan Image courtesy official Sevak Khanagyan Facebook page)

 

THE SONG
As earnest ballads go, full of poignant emotion and heartfelt lyrical intent, “Qami” is right up there, helped along in small part by Khanaghyan’s muscularly-imposing voice.

Lordy but can the man sing, nailing each and every escalating note and proving he has what it takes to nail the almost-obligatory Eurovision key change.

Dressed rather fetchingly like a human extra from War For the Planet of the Apes, and aided and abetted by virtual back-up singers, Khanaghyan nails the song he co-wrote with Anna Danielyan and Viktorya Maloyan, making this one of the songs to watch.

Again, it’s not anything out of the box, a glitter-covered box this being Eurovision, but it’s deeply emotionally-resonant, beautifully delivered, with the artist taking the song well beyond its rather been-there-done-that trappings.

 

 

AUSTRIA: “Nobody But You” by Cesár Sampson

 

 

THE ARTIST
You have to imagine that Cesár Sampson has a pretty healthy, fly-thirty-times-around-the-world-for-free (with champagne) frequent flyer balance.

After all, with the good-looking and talented singer barely out of high school at the age of 17, he was off touring the world with some of Austria’s most internationally acclaimed alternative music acts such as Kruder & Dorfmeister, Sofa Surfers and Louie Austen (no relation to Jane but who knows? Perhaps she had a hidden musical talent she exercised in between novels).

Listen you think the Linz-born Sampson youthful lifestyle of jetsetting and performing ruined him and left him living like a dilettante to the manor born, he worked as a social worker for a number of years, worked in the domestic music scene as a member of groups Symphonix International and Electric Church, and even sang back-up vocals for Bulgaria’s Eurovision acts in 2016 and 2017.

See grounded … ish.

 

Cesár Sampson Image courtesy official Cesár Sampson Facebook page)

 

THE SONG
As a songwriter, lyricist and vocal producer, with some fairly impressive worldwide performance, you would have to assume that Sampson knows his way around an insanely catchy track.

And you would be right, with “Nobody But You”, recorded with members of Symphonix International (see, he won’t forget you guys!) , channeling some serious radio cred, soulful R&B Blues vibes and a choir back-up that sends chills up your spine.

The song, written by Cesár Sampson, and lots of other people including the renowned Sebastian Arman, builds and builds and builds, all emotional punchiness, heartfelt intensity and a melody that comes alive with Sampson’s golden-coated vocals coasting along atop it.

Unless you are made of concrete, and frankly that would make clapping along to this beautifully-singable song problematic at best, “Nobody But You” is one of those songs that (pleasingly) crawls under your skin, into your heart, make residence in your earworm, and will, unless there’s something with the hearts of Europe, propel the song into a deserved grand final placing and likely top 10 finish overall.

 

 

AZERBAIJAN: “X My Heart” by Aisel

 

 

THE ARTIST
An artist of the Madonna school of professional single-names, Aisel or AISEL (which means, your poetry-loving heart will be well-pleased to learn means “the path that leads you to the moon”), depending on whether she’s feeling shouty or not, is a member of a musical family.

Whether or not this means she had to become musician – vet? philatelist? explorer? Were any of those even options we wonder? – she did, first studying at Special Secondary Musical School before attending the Azerbaijan State Conservatory in Baku where she grew into a talented pianist, composer and and singer (so under-achiever yes?).

An habitué of international jazz festivals who has had a string of hits which have given her great success across Azerbaijan, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine, Israel, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Italy, Aisel is an artist with a stunningly emotive voice who has clearly taken her creative birthright and run with it.

But is running all the way to Lisbon the next step in her masterplan to dominate the airwaves of Europe? It could well be …

 

Aisel (image courtesy Eurovision.tv)

 

THE SONG
“X My Heart” is one those rare songs-by-committee that actually works and has some life of its own, beyond a good idea in some songwriter’s mind.

A pan-European effort by Greek producer and songwriter Dimitris Kontopoulos and Swedish songwriter Sandra Bjurman, and producer/mixer Ash Howes who’s worked with the likes of Ellie Goulding and the Corrs, the song manages to sound like the catchiest chartopper you’ve ever head and yet not so generic that it fades into the ether the second after its final note has played.

Granted, it doesn’t push the creative envelope but not every song has to – it’s bright, vivacious and innately, infectiously danceable, and it will have everyone in Altice Arena in Lisbon not just on their feet but dancing their pop-loving souls out.

“X My Heart”, propelled by Aisel’s airily-energetic, emotionally-on-point vocals and a driving beat that will not be denied – go on I dare you to try; see can’t do it can you? – is going to be one of semi final 1’s highlights, and likely one of the standout numbers of the grand final too, keeping Azerbaijan’s track record of reaching the pinnacle night gloriously intact (they’ve never missed a grand final since the new format was introduced in 2008).

 

 

BELARUS: “Forever” by ALEKSEEV

 

 

THE ARTIST
For reasons known only to the good people of Eurovision, ALEKSEEV – another artist in love with shouty caps; the better to get noticed perhaps? – is highlighted in his bio as being fatherless but not motherless.

It’s not clear how this has affected his art, but one thing is for certain, it has made him the kind of singer that wants to “share his own feelings and emotions with the world.”

Not such a bad goal at all, with ALEKSEEV, presumably not shouting at that point as teachers tend to hate that kind of thing, forming his own band at the age of 10, a prodigious act that he followed up with a student musical group at university called Mova who had a thing for the music of Californication specialists, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

Did his goal of teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony end in the halls of learning? Not at all, with a 2014 appearance on The Voice earning the undying love of Belorussians, and the musical stewardship of stellar producer Oleg Bodnarchuk who helped ALEKSEEV become a viral success with the song “Drung Sun (Пьяное солнце)”, a ticket to performing all across Europe.

Making it big on YouTube, 35 million view big is one thing, but conquering Eurovision? Altogether another thing but is his song “Forever”, which tends to lyrically pre-suppose some long-lasting success, up to the task?

 

ALEKSEEV (image courtesy official ALEKSEEV Facebook page)

 

THE SONG
Well yes, quite possibly, actually.

Looking disquietingly like Justin Bieber with a bad hairstylist, poorly-tucked in shirts and some pyromaniac leanings, ALEKSEEV – yes his name is shouting ever-so-enthusiastically at you – delivers the goods with “Forever”, a song penned by Kyrylo Pavlov and Evhen Matyushenko which is all soaring minor key passion, heartfelt delivery and CW network earnestness.

If you’ve ever wondered what an emotionally-turbulent teen would want to listen to at a Eurovision Song Contest, muse no more because “Forever” is it with “likes” and bells on.

It’s catchy in its own epically demonstrative way, the kind of song crying out for a big, bombastic performance, which I think ALEKSEEV – don’t you want to add an exclamation point on there? Go on, you know you do – who has the vocal chops for it, should have no problem serving up to a no doubt adoring crowd.

Quite whether it gets Belarus into the grand final is another matter entirely but it should, at the very least make for one heck of a punctuation point in semi final 1.

 

 

BELGIUM: “A Matter of Time” by Sennek

 

 

THE ARTIST
Sennek, or Laura Groeseneken to her no doubt proud and doting parents, hails from Leuven, a city known for its breweries, a 15th century town hall with tall spires and Het Depot, a concert hall which hosts an eclectic array of artists.

Why single out a concert hall among the wealth of attractions unique to Leuven? Because it is where Belgium’s entrant to Eurovision works as a vocal coach when she’s not performing with Belgian musician Ozark Henry at some of the country’s biggest music festivals, and working towards furthering her solo career.

But a girl’s gotta eat too and so by day Sennek works as a visual merchandiser at IKEA, which explains her love of Scandinavian design (although in this chicken or egg scenario, who knows which came first?).

No disrespect to IKEA of course, home of Benno and Billy, but it looks like this talented artist, has her eyes set on a career far beyond the store’s twisting corridors of furniture with her appearance at Eurovision set to shake up her life, come what may.

 

Sennek (image courtesy official Sennek Facebook page)

 

THE SONG
Sennek is the creator of her own moody mid-tempo dreams it seems if “A Matter of Time” is any indication.

Written with collaborators Belgian artist Alex Callier and French producer Maxime Tribeche (who produced the song, surprise surprise, not), “A Matter of Time” sounds like the sort of theme music that the Bond franchise would leap at in suitably epic fashion.

The fact that the song recalls good old 007’s typically laidback, emotionally-resonant musicality is no accident, I suspect, given that the singer worked on 50th anniversary celebrations of the James Bond franchise, 007 In Concert.

Captivating though the song is, and beautifully sung into the bargain – someone let her score the next Bond instalment pronto! – the perfect accompaniment to 3am fireplace chats with Cognac and intense existential discussions, I wonder if it won’t waft off into the rafters of the Altice Arena never to be seen again, particularly not in the grand final where memorable is good and mood, no matter how well executed, not so much.

 

 


EUROVISION EXTRA EXTRA!

 

Israel’s entry for this years’s event, “Toy” by Netta (who I absolutely and unequivocally adore) – of which more will be written in coming weeks – is creating an incredibly viral reaction throughout the Arab world and as far afield as Uganda.

Preceding it though was the artist’s performance on season five of reality singing compettion, HaKokhav HaBa, which has won, in part, with mash-ups like this utterly captivating “Sing Hallelujah” number …

 

 

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