On Saturday 11 February 2012, the Voice Festival 2012 University Competition kicked off in fine style at The Greenwood Theatre in London before a willing and sizeable audience.
Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the show:
ALL THE KING’S MEN from King’s College, London
THE KING’S CHIX from King’s College, London
THE TECHTONICS from Imperial College, London
THE IMPERIELLES from Imperial College, London
FITZ BARBERSHOP from the University of Cambridge
FAT KITTEN IMPROV
I was really looking forward to the newcomers and the first all-female group The Imperielles. They were wearing black and white but there was otherwise no real conformity to their outfits. They opened the evening with Bruno Mars’ Grenade, which, considering the group are newly formed, was very impressive. They did suffer from a classic a cappella problem, that of hopping aboard the rhythm rollercoaster and speeding up significantly throughout the song, but otherwise it was a solid effort, with solid vocals and solid backing, although their decision to incorporate Rollin’ In The Deep into the song was an odd one, and the transition into it was rather awkward, but otherwise it was a strong finish and a strong first impression from the newbies.
Their next song was by the late Amy Winehouse, Back To Black. The backing was a little repetitive in the first verse and chorus, but when the solo turned into a duet, the song livened up considerably, despite the backing not changing all that much. Some great harmonies on the duet. After the breakdown, which involved some nice blocked chords, there was a key change (gotta love a key change), but unfortunately this was marred by a few pitching issues. All in all a good middle song, but the lack of variety to the backing made it a little stagnant towards the end.
The group finished with Florence and The Machine’s Dog Days Are Over, which began with a choral feel which translated through the entire song, but there was a moment before the first chorus that had a twang of jazziness to it which I thought was rather cool. The soloist was on the whole superb, despite a little shoutiness towards the top end, and their was a lovely break for one of the natural sopranos to take over towards the middle, which was very pleasant. Overall a good first outing for the girls, who will improve in the future and will definitely be ones to watch in the future.
Fitz Barbershop were up next, and wore their typically quirky attire of straw hats, varying coloured waistcoats and, like the other all-male groups, dark trousers, a combination which instantly made them more interesting to look at than any of the other groups in this round. They introduced themselves, both in song as a group and then in the spoken word individually, which was different, before launching into a love-based set, kicking off with a upbeat version of Leona Lewis’ Bleeding Love, which contained more ‘Doo-Wop”s than a Hansen song. While the soloist wasn’t as strong as in the previous groups, the choreography was quirky and amusing, and I admired their efforts to quicken-up a slow song, which they managed generally very well.
They merged effortlessly into Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, in which the group mimicked the lyrics by turning around with varied and amusing facial expressions each time the lyrics were sung. The piece was far from perfect musically, with the falsetto solo efforts probably the weakest, but again the choreography was thoroughly entertaining and really showed off the reason why the group made the final in 2010 through winning the Ward Swingle Award for Originality, as they are like no other group in this competition.
Again, without pausing, they moved into the barbershop classic Heart of My Heart, at which point they moved off the stage and began to serenade one lucky audience member. Again, they weren’t musically perfect, but they were the closest they had been since the set began, with chords blending nicely together and allowing the group to really revel in their roots. This song was quickly replaced by Jose Gonzalez’ Heartbeats, which again demonstrated the group were able to sing in close harmony without the quirky choreography. While both songs were good, neither really required an outstanding soloist, and this is probably the weakest area of this group. However, I admired their boldness to merge their entire set together, really playing to their strength, and they deserved the gratuitous applause at the end of the set.
The Techtonics, in their simple but effective red-shirt and black-trouser combination, prepared us for an ‘evening of ground-breaking a cappella’ during their opening Overture, despite it being halfway through the evening, before kicking straight into Orson’s No Tomorrow. The problem with a group covering a song which is a personal favourite is that you tend to know the song almost back to front: where it swells, fades and climaxes. On the whole, the song was covered well, with an excellent soloist, but the group took a while to fully get into the song – whether that be through nerves or just due to the arrangement – and there was little dance routine to speak of, although the poses that the boys struck during the second verse were amusing, if a little unoriginal. However, the song became most effective when the group broke it down to two soloists and a beatboxer, before launching once again into the impressive chorus after a sweet money note from the soloist. All in all, an energetic and generally impressive start.
The group then went into their third song, which was U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, which started off slowly with a beautiful lead bass vocal and some nice locked chords, which was then followed by a tenor soloist taking over on the slightly more upbeat part. Unfortunately the top of his range occasionally sounded a little crass and, for me, ruined the lulled effect that the opening had created. I appreciate that the song did become more upbeat, as the backing vocals indicated, but I feel a little more of a softer approach was necessary on this solo. Nevertheless, the two soloists combined towards the end of the piece for the best moment of the song, despite the tenor harmony drowning out the bass melody somewhat.
The fourth and final song from the boys was Labrinth’s Earthquake, not only living up to their name but their promise towards the start of their set. The song began with the boys singing in choir-stall fashion to another bass soloist, and for a moment I thought: “Haven’t we already seen this?” However, my fears were quickly quelled as the boys bounced (literally) into the quick-paced chorus, led by yet another impressive tenor, which became a fun-filled a cappella romp, with the boys clearly enjoying themselves. It really was a superb performance which unsurprisingly got the audience going, and while not perfect musically, the song received deservedly the biggest applause of their set.
The King’s Chix looked rather stunning in their all black dresses, and they opened with a rather fun adaptation of Everybody Wants To Be A Cat, or in their case, a chick. The only really interesting thing about the song was the changed lyrics however, as the actual arrangement was pretty plain, but they received a good reaction from the audience and it was nice to have another more personalised number to open the set.
The girls then spread out across the stage for Adele’s Someone Like You, which was suitably toned down and slowed down and the soloist was note perfect. The song did drag a little bit, but the soloist’s voice was extremely pleasant and one which I could have listened to for hours on end. Indeed, the whole song was very easy to listen to. Whether or not it was competition standard is a matter of opinion, but it was certainly very easy on the ears. It did, however, really pick up in the final couple of minutes, with some superb descants and harmonies, and all in all was a very impressive second song from the girls.
Their final song was a mash-up of Lady Marmelade and I Love Rock and Roll, which had a couple of pacing problems, but was certainly more of a mash-up than All The King’s Men’s final song. Despite tuning issues towards the end, and a couple of moments of deadness during the song, it was received well on the whole and was a relatively good ending to a solid set, and one which probably highlighted their strength as being slow, tuneful ballads rather than upbeat numbers.
Last year’s finalists All The King’s Men closed the show, wearing their classic blue/purple shirts and dark trousers, and opened with a mash-up of two Lady GaGa songs, Born This Way and Edge of Glory. I have criticised the group for their over-reliance on mash-ups before, but in this case, it was a masterstroke. Right from the start, you could tell the group had just a little more musicality to the chords than in The Techtonics’ opener, and although the soloist wasn’t as strong, the arrangement (not to mention the choreography) was better. The boys were strongest while harmonising in unison, but the whole song was fun, bouncy and well arranged, particularly the transition into Edge of Glory and the glorious ritardando and blocked chords of the finish, ending the song in a very classy way. Impressive start.
Their second song was Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a song which has been covered to death and is also rather repetitive, and as such I was slightly worried that they would be unable to offer anything new or interesting to the song, while quietly hoping they would prove me wrong. The first couple of verses did drag a little bit, but by the time they reached the second chorus, and were adding dainty little descants, the song became less of a cover and more their own arrangement. However, despite their efforts in the final verse and chorus, they were unable to really bring the song to a real climax, and while the soloist was good throughout, the song was never anything sensational – well sung, well arranged and well performed, but decidedly normal, and I definitely think they could have chosen something more unique.
The group closed with a cover of The Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men and Robbie Williams’ Let Me Entertain You, which was slightly stylised to coincide with their ‘punny’ nature as It’s Reigning Men. The outstanding feature of this song was the choreography, which, when in unison was almost always synchronised, and when not in unison provided each and every member the opportunity to unleash their creativity in a way other than singing, which was extremely refreshing and meant you could never take your eyes off the stage. I was almost disappointed when they merged into Let Me Entertain You, as I felt the original song still had a lot more to offer. Indeed the second half of the mash-up was weaker, as I felt the chords on the chorus could have been more interesting and varied, and towards the end of the piece they began ‘step-clapping’, which I am not a fan of. An amusing finish didn’t quite make up for it, and I sometimes just feel the boys should have more confidence in their ability to arrange one song, rather than mash a second one into it. A mash-up should involve both songs being sung at once, and this one only provided one after the other. A solid effort nevertheless and a great finish to a top evening of a cappella.
For me, it was a two-horse race – I feel The Techtonics had the better arrangements and slightly better soloists than All The King’s Men, whereas the latter were better choreographed, had an extra sense of musicality to them, and their overall set was probably just a little bit tidier than the former. Fitz Barbershop were my outside choice, as their quirkiness and boldness to maintain a flow-through set may have earned them credit with the judges. The King’s Chix did well, but weren’t quite as consistent as the all-male groups, and The Imperielles were very good in their first outing but I think it would be unfair to expect them to qualify. So for me, I saw All The King’s Men reaching their second final, despite the stiffer competition this year.
Outstanding Performance: The Techtonics for ‘Earthquake’
Outstanding Soloist: David Verhoeven of the Techtonics for ‘No Tomorrow’
Outstanding Choreography: Henry Southern and All The King’s Men
ALL THE KING’S MEN
So our readers were correct in predicting that All The King’s Men would reach the final. Who else will join them? Find out next weekend at the Birmingham (25th Feb) and Oxford (26th Feb) Regionals!