Eurovision Song Contest 2016: Semi-Final One Review

Last night the annual musical circus that is Eurovision rolled up to Stockholm, Sweden, for the first semi-final of this year’s contest. Eighteen countries performed for the public and jury votes but only ten could go through to Saturday’s final. Here’s what happened:

The show started off with a rendition of last year’s winner, “Heroes” by Måns Zelmerlöw. It was a sweet opening that showed this year’s motto of ‘Come Together’ well, but at the same time felt too similar to the 2013 opening, which was also held in Sweden.

The contest’s motto was then explored further through migrating dandelion seeds, which again is very similar to the 2013 Malmö contest, which featured butterflies. A lack of imagination there?

As for the hosts, well Eurovision fans will be familiar of how brilliant Petra Mede is from 2013 but the real surprise was Zelmerlöw and his chemistry with his co-host. The cameo from the band Europe and the subsequent reactions from the hosts have already put the quality of presenting well above the dull and sometimes awkward 2015 edition.

Finally we were on to the songs, and here’s what I thought about them:

01) Finland – Sandjha – “Sing It Away”
A promising start in the verses is quickly diminished by the loud yet pointless chorus, which was also where the bum notes kicked in. The staging is very unimaginative as well and far too many wide shots swallowed the act up on stage. It’s nice to have an up-tempo song to kick off Eurovision but this is uninspiring.

02) Greece – Argo – “Utopian Land”
Greece have never missed a final since the introduction of the semis but this was a complete car crash. The female led chorus is, to put it bluntly, annoying, while the Greek rap features several strange dance movements and trousers that resemble potato sacks. If this was anyone but Greece, this would be bottom, but you never know.

03) Moldova – Lidia Isac – “Falling Stars”
This is one that will feature in Euro clubs for months to go, it’s your bog standard dance song but admirably Lidia’s vocals are, for the most part, really good. A dancer then appears as an astronaut but it’s Eurovision so why not. This deserves to go to the final but the early position could ruin their chances. She needs to burn that dress though.

04) Hungary – Freddie – “Pioneer”
There’s always one song that features upright drums and this is it. Freddie’s gravelly voice adds to the sincerity of the song but occasionally I had trouble understanding what he was saying. Apart from the drummer wearing Tibetan robes and the key change at the end, this is pretty unremarkable. This could go either way.

05) Croatia – Nina Kraljic – “Lighthouse”
This is the winner of the Barbara Dex Award for ugliest dress, no question. A costume change at the first chorus features fabric armour giving way to a reflective feather outfit with mirror panels going from the arms to the floor. This distracts from what is a very pretty song sung well by Nina. Surefire qualifier.

06) The Netherlands – Douwe Bob – “Slow Down”
On the surface this is an unremarkable slow tempo country song but what sets this song above the others is the stage presence of Douwe Bob. Featuring the best vocals so far in the semi and a false ending where he goes to the audience, this stands out for being so simple yet so toe-tapping.

07) Armenia – Iveta Mukuchyan – “LoveWave”
Now this is how you do staging!! One of the most experimental songs Eurovision has ever had is transformed through sensational camera angles and all of the pyro effects the delegation can afford. The drama is raised to epic proportions and vocally Iveta is sound. Could this be a surprise contender for the Eurovision title?

08) San Marino – Serhat – “I Didn’t Know”
From the spectacular to the bizarre. San Marino hired Turkish singer Serhat to perform for them and I think they should ask for their money back. The vocal is less singing and more creepy talk (see the line “I want to pee inside your mind”). But the fun 80s throwback turns this into a romp. Probably more cruise ship than Eurovision though.

09) Russia – Sergey Lazarev – “You Are the Only One”
This is a classic case of style over substance. The bookies favourite pulls out all the stops with their staging, featuring dancers and an LED climbing wall. But no matter how amazing the show is, the song itself leaves me cold and feels a bit dated. In my view it is too mechanical to win but still a treat for the eyes.

10) Czech Republic – Gabriela Guncikova – “I Stand”
This country has never qualified for the final but this is their best chance to do so. A typical Eurovision ballad that, like the Netherlands, chooses the simple approach to staging to put all of the attention on the song. Pretty unremarkable until the final chorus, at which point it explodes. Vocally this is stunning. Welcome to the final.

11) Cyprus – Minus One – “Alter Ego”
To describe this as a rock song would be a bit of an insult as it feels more edgy pop. There is nothing that remarkable about the staging, which features all of the band members in cages, or the song, which feels too quick for the lead singer to keep his breath. This stands out being only one of two rocky song of this semi, so has a good chance of going through.

12) Austria – Zoë – “Loin d’ici”
Last year’s hosts are singing in French for the first time in their history, and this is as cute and sickly sweet as you are going to get. The staging features the singer on a road going past fields of bright colours and she looks like a princess. The song may be very simple and almost child-like, but this is quintessential Eurovision. Big crowd reaction at the end too.

13) Estonia – Juri Pootsmann – “Play”
Juri has a good voice but his deep vocals do not translate well on the big stage. The intensity in this song is quite immense, which is quickly ruined by a pointless card trick. The problem with this is that it takes way too long to get going and then its over. Though this is liked by Euro fans, Estonia could be in trouble tonight.

14) Azerbaijan – Samra – “Miracle”
Another country with a 100% qualification record that could be in trouble tonight. It was reported that Samra has been ill during rehearsal week and although the vocals are better here, they are nothing to write home about. The whole song peaks too fast and so feels a bit flat, even with backing dancers. This could just squeeze through into the final.

15) Montenegro – Highway – “The Real Thing”
Probably the most alternative song in this semi but that definitely does not translate into a good result. The mix of rock and dubstep is overwhelming and the lyrics are quite creepy. Not even music video camera angles and a scantily clad female waving her arms can save this. Too many elements turns this into a mess.

16) Iceland – Greta Salóme – “Hear Them Calling”
A fan favourite with the singer previously taking part in the 2012 contest and this folk-pop entry makes the most of the LED screens, adding to the almost sinister nature of this entry. Greta’s vocals are on point and, though she misses a few camera angles and LED prompts, this should qualify with ease.

17) Bosnia and Herzegovina – Dalal & Deen feat. Ana Rucner and Jala – “Ljubav je”
Despite this being one of only two songs in this semi that don’t sing in English, less is more in this case. The mish-mash of historical outfits, barbed wire and gold tin foil capes undermines the power of the meaning. Then the rap comes in and annihilates any hope Bosnia have of maintaining their 100% qualification record in the contest.

18) Malta – Ira Losco – “Walk on Water”
The 2002 runner-up is back with a bang to close this semi-final. What starts with an awkward appearance of Ira’s face on the LED floor escalates into a standard pop song that features some experimental moves from the dancer. The voice is good but this overall performance feels flat, like something is missing.

That was all 18 performances and then we were treated to the highlights, which for BBC viewers was tainted slightly by the constant talking over the entries. I know we can’t vote in this semi-final but it would be nice to hear the songs if we missed one.

After the voting lines had closed, the results were in. The countries moving forward to the Grand Final were (in no particular order):
The Netherlands
Czech Republic

These are the ten songs going through to the final. Personally I’m saddened that Moldova and Iceland won’t be performing on Saturday night, thought their overall packages were better than the likes of Azerbaijan and Hungary but that’s Eurovision for you.

So what do you think? Did your favourite go through or were you shocked by a couple of qualifications? Comment your thoughts down below and I’ll be back to report on Thursday for semi-final two.

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