ESC Song Reviews continues the songchecks of 2016 entries. This time we have reached the songs from Greece and the Czech Republic.
Greece: Argo – “Utopian Land”
After a string of entries chosen in national finals, some of which were produced in collaboration with the commercial broadcaster MAD TV, the Greek broadcaster ERT now goes for an internal selection. For very long it was unclear how the entry would be selected, and a lot of names had been rumoured. These included some rather alternative music artists, something that – at least for me personally – would have been a welcome break from the commercial mainstream pop that is dominating the contest otherwise. Then it was announced that the song would be dealing with the refugee crisis in Europe, and the musicians in the selected band Argo are – from what I understand – relatively unknown.
And here it is, the song they are going to perform, it is called “Utopian Land”. Whether or not it fits into the term ‘alternative’ is a matter of definition; to be alternative, you have to be an alternative to something else, and that makes almost everything alternative because it will always differ from something else, but that was a side step. In any case the song clearly stands out from most other songs this year, and they are quite alone on representing their genre. It may actually benefit from that in the voting, but let us now have a look into it.
The song contains a genre that traditionally has had difficult conditions in Eurovision, namely hip hop. The verses consist of rap, whereas the chorus is sung. In that respect it resembles the Greek 2011 entry “Watch My Dance”, but there the rap verse was in English whereas the sung chorus was in Greek; here it is the other way around. But both songs are mixing hip hop with local Greek sounds.
The form of the song is as follows: 1) a short unrhythmical intro, 2) a short instrumental break, 3) chorus 1, 4) verse 1, 5) chorus 2, 6) verse 2, 7) chorus 3, 8) middle eight with instrumental coda, 9) break, 10) chorus 4 (á capella), 11) chorus 5, 12) instrumental coda. It differs from most of the other songs this year in that the chorus is the first vocal part of the song rather than the verse, plus there is no pre-chorus. The most regular parts of the song are the verses, chorus 2 and 3 and the vocal part of the middle eight. They are all in the standard time signature 4/4 and built around the repeated chord progression Fm-Cm-G-Cm (VI-I-V-I). Combined with the fact that the verse is rap and the chorus is sung, these parts remind me a bit of Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise” from 1995 which used a slightly different but still related chord progression: VI-IV-V-I (the song itself was based on Stevie Wonder’s “Past-time Paradise” from 1976). The other parts, however, are in the more unusual 7/4 time signature which adds a welcome spice to the music and gives it some edge. Also the harmonies in the instrumental coda adds some variation to the music: Db major and C major. The main key of the song C minor, but here we get some mixing of major and minor which I (almost) always fall for. The Db major chord also adds a touch of the Phrygian mode (a minor scale with a lower II step – a half note above the tonic, and Db is just a half note above C).
Unfortunately, Argo are not particular interesting as vocalists. The chorus is sung in a very soft, somewhat cautious way that doesn’t really fit well with the energy otherwise kept in the song. However, there is more flow in the rap part where the rap is mixing very well with the beat. The lyrics are meant as a support of refugees going to Europe, and they told from the point of view of the refugees. That itself is of course sympathetic given the actual situation in Europe. I do however get a bit put off by the line “Dance with us and have some fun” which I find rather corny and out of place in this context. It sort of trivializes the whole situation.
“Utopian Land” is not a flawless entry: the singing is underwhelming, and the lyrics are disturbed by one particular line (see above). Still, it’s a charming effort, and it is very much standing alone in the contest this year. It is one of only a few songs to contain local musical elements, especially in the instrumentation (f.e. in the intro), and as such it contributes to the diversity in a contest where far too many songs tend to sound alike. Moreover, both the changes in time signature between 4/4 and 7/4 and the mix of major and minor add lot of identity to the song. It makes you listen actively rather than passively. 8/12
Czech Republic: Gabriela Gunčíková – “I Stand”
The Czech Republic made its Eurovision debut in 2007. After not having reached the final in its first three years, having received total of 10 points, including a nul point’er in 2009, the Czech broadcaster decided to pull out. They came back last year, still without reaching the final, so if they qualify this time, it will surely be a big thing in the country. The chosen song, “I Stand”, performed by Gabriela Gunčíková, is doing OK in the bettings and in the OGAE voting, so maybe there is a chance this time?
The song, which is in a 6/8 time signature, is based on a harmonic system that is already present in many other songs, namely modal harmony (church modes). In this case it is the Aeolian mode that is used (“clean minor”), and the key is G-Aeolian. The harmony is mostly based on variations of the progression VI-VII-I (here Eb-F-Gm, in the second part of the chorus we also meet the V chord, D minor). The middle eight after the second chorus does contain a Bb major chord too (the parallel chord in G minor), but it still fit into a G-Aeolian scale. It makes the harmony in the song rather monotonous, and it very much stays in the same gloomy mood throughout most of the song – only the end of the second chorus and the following middle eight flirts with the parallel key Bb major and gives the music a touch of something a bit lighter and warmer.
There is a general lack of tension and direction in the song, except for some dynamic difference between verse and chorus. The melody doesn’t really contain anything interesting. In the chorus it is held inside an interval of three notes, except in the last chorus where there is some vocal improvisation. The title phrase sounds particularly flat and lifeless as it is holding the word “I” for very long switching between two notes, G and A, and then concluding on the initial note G on “stand”. Had there been an unusual key change somewhere in the middle, f.e. before the middle eight, then the song could easily have had some more direction. Also a more acoustic production, f.e. with an acoustic guitar, could have added some warmth, but instead the sound is synthetic and electronic like in most of the other songs.
Gabriela Gunčíková’s singing sounds a bit cold and emotionless, especially in the chorus, maybe except for some “sighs” at the end of some of the lines. Technically there is nothing wrong, and she has a fine control over her voice, but that is not always enough. Especially not when the lyrics are about love (like 90% of all pop songs). With lines like “I’ve played my heart” or “Every part of me is a part of you” you’d expect the performance to be a little more heartfelt.
“I Stand” sounds all very professional. It is performed well technically, but it fails to really impress due to lack of edge and emotion. Gabriela Gunčíková doesn’t really sound like she cares about the words she is singing, and the interaction between composition and production is very much coldness-meets-coldness. Add to that a melody and a harmonic structure that doesn’t really move anywhere. I believe they have a good chance of actually reaching the final with this song since it sounds contemporary, but contemporary is not the same as good. And if half of the songs sound contemporary in the same way, it simply gets boring due to lack of variation. 5/12