Album Review: We’re Not Kitten

We’re Not Kitten is the eighth studio album from The Alleycats, and represents the culmination of the previous two generations of Cats.

We’re Not Kitten is the first studio album to come out of St Andrews’ only auditioned mixed-voice a cappella group in two years, and is very much the culmination of the previous two years’ of Cats: scattered arrangements from 2010/11 MD Lizzy Weintz bless the album, as well as one marvellous solo, while songs from their award winning Voice Festival set back in March of 2011 combine with those from this year to form the backbone of this generally impressive effort from the Scotland-based group, which provides a much fuller offering of the group’s musical tastes than their previous 7-track effort, Cat Touch This.

Naturally infused with cat-related puns, We’re Not Kitten, like most albums, has its highs, lows and middle-of-the-roads. Three things stand out immediately from a superficial first listen: firstly, Cammy Dobbie will be sorely missed. His beatboxing throughout this album is nothing short of phenomenal. The fact that on several of the tracks I am overwhelmed by the ever-giving smorgasbord of vocal percussion that I forget to listen to the song itself is credit to the recent graduate who will be very difficult to replace. Secondly, The Alleycats are definitely not short of solo oomph. The standout quality of the soloists does occasionally impact on group blend, particularly on Kiss Me, in which Annie Faichney’s delightfully floated angelic solo has to navigate backing in which it is a little too easy to pick out individual voices. But all of the solos are delivered powerfully, pitch-perfectly and with real verve. And finally, the immense amounts of energy and enthusiasm bursting through the seams of this album make it almost feel as if you’re at one of their live shows. Unfortunately, almost is the operative word here, and I must say the group sound better in person, when their music and energy is combined with their signature choreography.

By the way, this album sounds way better through headphones. Or with any kind of bass booster. Do it.

The highlights of the album heavily outweigh the lowlights. We are treated to a beautiful, lustrous solo from Garrett Turner on Track 1, Ray LaMontagne’s You Are The Best Thing, which incorporates some lovely deep bass resonance, a couple of strong female harmonies throughout and some typical Alleycat backing ‘ba’ sounds. Garrett even treats us to some lovely falsetto at the end of the number – another gem of a find that the group will miss dearly. The slow arrangement of When You Were Young is one I have always championed, and Philip de Winter Shaw’s solo is again pitch-perfect and suits this arrangement down to the ground. That Don’t Impress Me Much is brightened up by some hilarious spoken interludes, including references to being able to name all 151 original Pokemon, living with your parents and studying Maths. (If that went straight over your head, listen to the song – you’ll get it). Titanium is one of the best recent songs the group has covered, with a massive solo delivered magnificently by the tragically underused Heather Robertson. But the real highlight is the mash-up of Usher’s DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love, Britney’s Till The World Ends and Enrique’s Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You), which is one of the most original and seamless mash-ups I have heard recently. It’s a shame the group don’t try their hand more often at mash-ups, because this one has everything – songs blended from start to finish, immaculate transitions between solos, and a real Alleycat stamp on the whole thing.

There are no bad tracks on this album; rather some which make choices that sometimes don’t make that much sense. Two stand out as songs which could have potentially been killer tracks, but instead remained above average: The Cave and Toxic. On the former, the unique voice of Thomas Ziolkowski comes to the fore, and while his voice is the most Mumford-esque in the group, I find it difficult to figure out whether or not it works on this track. The problem I have with it is that Ziolkowski jumps off the originally long high “I” notes in the chorus a little too quickly, which causes the track to lose some of the echoey atmosphere contained in the original. This isn’t helped by the fact the song never really reaches a climax and the group’s decision to fade the song out at the end – especially as the original doesn’t even do that. Fade-outs are a bit of a cop out, and so I would have preferred a sense of finality to the song. After all, you can’t fade out live. The latter track, Britney’s Toxic, starts off with a strong solo from Ollie Hayes, but again, the decision to place the song in a key that meant Hayes had to drop an octave during the chorus was a bizarre one and lead to the solo becoming a little lost within the blend, which in turn dented the impact a chorus should have, which is to be the most memorable, climactic and catchy part of the song.

Nitpicking aside, on the whole this album delivers an accurate representation of the last two years of Alleycat history, crammed full of energetic songs which demonstrate the considerable arranging abilities of the current and past MDs, Brendan Macdonald and Lizzy Weintz, and the phenomenal vocal talent that the group had at its disposal. With over half of the group having left at the end of the last academic session, we’d better hope the group have recruited new members willing and able to fill the enormous boots left behind.

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The Oxford Gargoyles Conquer the Mancunian Way

by John Lau

The BBC Choir of the Year Competition 2012 Final on Sunday 28 October will have some collegiate a cappella presence after The Oxford Gargoyles won the Open Category at the sumptuous Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, seeing off their friends from St Andrews, The Alleycats as well as the Ysgol Glanaethwy Senior Choir from North Wales and The Voice Squad from Bury St Edmunds.

16 groups were spread across 4 categories (Children’s, Youth, Adult and the Open categories) but the spotlight as far as we were concerned was in the Open Category, where two stalwart groups from the UK collegiate a cappella scene, as well as the Senior Choir of Ysgol Glanaethwy in North Wales were going head to head in a real ‘Battle of Britain’ scenario for a solitary guaranteed place in the Grand Final on the last Sunday of October 2012.

The Oxford Gargoyles qualified from the Basingstoke heat and The Alleycats of St Andrews qualified from a regional heat in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, both in February 2012, in order to reacquaint themselves in this stage. While the Alleycats have experienced a BBC appearance in the “Last Choir Standing” programme in the recent past, this was a brand new ball game for the Oxford Gargoyles and with the other two groups from North Wales and Bury St Edmunds having experienced similar televisual coverage in the UK, the Gargoyles had their work cut out to deliver a category-winning performance in front of the assembled public in the Bridgewater Hall.

The judges were introduced to the public prior to the start of the Children’s competition and the panel was formed of Mr Stuart Barr, a conductor and singing coach based in London’s West End, Mrs Shirley Court and Mr Paul Mealor, who has gained notoriety through both his arrangement of Ubi Caritas, first played at the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011, and Wherever You Are, the Christmas Number 1 in 2011, sung by the Military Wives Choir. After the judges were introduced, the audience led by our host Mr Greg Beardsell, were taken through some physical exercises designed to optimise our own singing capabilities.

Led by their MD, Mr Cefin Roberts, the Ysgol Glanaethwy Senior Choir took to the stage first with their three-piece set, with classical items such as Chorus Number 26 from Child of our Time, Biodeuwedd arranged by Mr Roberts himself and Adiemus by Karl Jenkins. Some of the features that stood out were the tribal-warrior-like chant that featured in their rendition of Adiemus, which could have transported me to New Zealand, such was the similarity to the All Blacks’ Haka that they perform. The judges lauded the performance with the keyword fittingly being ‘energy’. Paul Mealor, who is a Professor at Aberdeen University commented that this was an ‘energetic set which drew in the audience present.’ So all in all, this was a positive start to the Open Category.

Second on the stage and with another Scottish Connection was the solitary group from Scotland, The Alleycats of St Andrews, providing us with one last performance from the litter of the 2011-12 Academic Session, whose two-piece set featured their renditions of Ray Lamontagne’s You Are The Best Thing and David Guetta’s Titanium, both rearranged for their dulcet tones by their MD Brendan MacDonald.

Although I am well familiarised with the vocal magic that this group of Alleycats have provided us with over the last 18 months, culminating in their current album We’re Not Kitten being put on repeat play on the iPod of late, I did feel that on this occasion the sound generated by this piece did not quite fill the hall in terms of volume as this rendition has in previous performances such as at Younger Hall or the Casa A Cappella in Edinburgh. Maybe this is because the Bridgewater Hall would have been the largest space in which the Alleycats have performed recently. Apart from this observation, though, this was a typically mesmerising vocal performance from the group and this was picked up on by the one of the judges who commended the soloist Garrett Turner at the end of their set.

Their second piece was my personalfavourite on the album, the rendition of David Guetta’s Titanium featuring Sia. Knowing that this was the last time I would get to see this particular group of Alleycats providing their vocal exploits, it did feel in my own conscience that this was ‘the end of an era’ and this observation may have preyed on the minds of the departing Alleycats, I don’t know, but listening through this rendition of Titanium, the soloist Heather Robertson’s vocal performance did sound positively different from the previous occasions; there was definitely an extra dimension to this particular rendition which was hitherto absent. Heather was deservedly commended by Paul Mealor at the end of the set.

Third on the stage was The Voice Squad from Bury St Edmunds, a mixed group and easily the largest group competing in this category with approximately 60 youngsters, led by their Musical Director Birgitta Kenyon, with a very varied three-piece set list featuring Ov’e lass’, Il bel viso? a classical piece composed by Morten Lauridsen, a rendition of Billy Joel’s Lullaby and the theme tune to the BBC comedy series ‘Blackadder’. For the first time that I had heard them, I could not help but to be impressed by this group on so many levels, to the extent that I thought I was looking at potential finalists. Their first piece, Ov’e Lass’, Il Bel Viso? I thought was very well pronounced in terms of the Latin lyrics. Their second piece stood out in my head for the relatively soft quiet start to the song compared to the original, which enhanced my first impressions of this rendition, and also the soloists were something else to behold, even if they did not quite get individual commendations in the same manner that Heather and Garrett did for The Alleycats set and there was also a chamber choir-like sound eminent in this piece, which made the piece more appealing in my eyes.

They went almost from the sublime to the ridiculous with their closing number, a rendition of the Theme Tune to the Blackadder comedy series from back in the day, a piece which was made memorable for me through the females taking the lead and even the invisible swords that they fabricated as part of the choreography for this piece, all of which added to the comedic value of this piece. The judges made largely positive comments, such as the set indicating the versatility of what this group can do, the range of vocal tones, particularly prominent in the Billy Joel rendition, and the excellent standard of choreography in the first piece in particular.

And so the last choir remaining was The Oxford Gargoyles, and in a change to the published programme, the Musical Director Euan Campbell decided to change the second part of the two-piece set from Dancing in the Moonlight to their cover of Sting’s Fields of Gold. The jazz group dived right in with their rendition of the Duke Ellington standard It Don’t Mean A Thing. On this occasion I was impressed even more so than usual by the way that the group successfully changed tempo at the appropriate parts of this piece.

Then came the late replacement of the second part of the set, which in hindsight could be seen as the masterstroke which propelled the group to the London Final, as it provided us with memorable solo performances from Rebecca Sharp, who graced the audience with a strong and confident performance, and also Sasha Ockenden, whose vocals complemented those of Miss Sharp to the utmost degree. Although this was a mellower piece from their album Up The Scale, they somehow managed to fill the hall with a magnified chamber-choir-like sound, which was a positive factor picked up on by Paul Mealor the judge. In closing the judges remarks, Stuart commented that the Gargoyles exuded a high level of sophistication, which is something they have done for the last 14 years.

It was later confirmed that The Oxford Gargoyles were the winners of the “Open” Category, which made my day. As the Gargoyles President John Linnett commented, “We do not get to retire from the group yet.” The last day for this group of ground-breaking Oxford Gargoyles will be Sunday 28th October at London’s South Bank Centre, which will be a reunion of sorts with a Gargoyle Alumni in the form of Mr Edward Randell, who is now part of the “Swingle Singers” who will also be singing at the Final. The full line-up of the Finalists is listed below:

Children’s Choir of the Year:
Lindley Junior School Choir from Huddersfield
Youth Choir of the Year:
Methodist College Girls’ Choir from Belfast
Adult Choir of the Year:
Surrey Hills Chamber Choir
Open Choir of the Year:
The Oxford Gargoyles
Wildcards:
Les Sirenes from Glasgow
Ysgol Glanaethwy Senior Choir, Bangor

The Final will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 on the afternoon of Sunday 28 October commencing at 15:00 and the first ever UK Television appearance of The Oxford Gargoyles will be on BBC Four on Tuesday 13 November.

All the King’s Men Hit 3rd Anniversary at Greenwood Theatre

by Folarin Akinmade

To celebrate their 3rd Birthday, All The King’s Men are holding a concert at the Greenwood Theatre in London Bridge, this Friday (October 26th). It will see a few alumni returning, but, more importantly will be the grand unveiling of a whole new generation. We sat down with Jonathan Stewart for a quick word.

UACUK: ATKM are celebrating their 3rd Birthday. How does that feel?!

JS: When you consider what the group has accomplished since its inception – touring the East and West Coasts of the U.S.A., becoming the first UK collegiate group to visit Singapore and Hong Kong, a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe, and of course winning the Voice Festival University competition this year – it’s barely believable that All the King’s Men is only three years old! A very mature child for its age. On a serious note, it’s going to be a wonderful occasion celebrating the group’s existence with almost everyone who’s ever sung with AtKM. Our regular Greenwood Theatre concert on Friday 26th will mark the last ever official performance from the first generation of the group, who have been highly inspirational to us newer Men, and we’re very much looking forward to the ‘birthday dinner’ the next day!

UACUK: As you say ATKM is a very young group, so how has it felt for you, having only joined the group last year, and having accomplished so much? I’d imagine it’s been a bit of a whirlwind.

JS: It certainly has been a lot to take in. I was keen to audition for AtKM when I arrived at King’s because of the strong reputation that it already had, both at King’s and in the wider a cappella community. The seven new Men last year learnt an awful lot just by watching the previous generation of AtKM perform at the Greenwood gig last year! We were blessed with some truly outstanding singers – I can’t think of any other group in the country possessing choral singers of the calibre of James Way and Angus McPhee – and were able to add some of the showmanship and style of the old group to our stage shows. Having accomplished all our goals for last year, the aim now for AtKM is to sustain the level of achievement for years to come.

UACUK: Which leads nicely on to the next question: Next year will see the last of the original group leaving, so how do you feel about continuing the ATKM legacy and what can we expect from you all in the near future?

JS: Whilst I’m looking forward to the challenge of taking the group forward, we owe so much to those leaving the group. Henry Southern, the departing MD and founding father, has been nothing short of inspirational to all of us. He was responsible not only for the arrangements, but also for the administration of the group and for establishing the now-characteristic AtKM performance style with his award-winning choreography. The group would quite literally not exist without Henry’s drive and desire to set up an all-male a cappella group at King’s. Now that the group has had a complete turnover of members, we are looking to establish a formal alumni network; more on that in the near future! In terms of the group’s development, the new group sounds very different to the old, if only because finding like-for-like replacements was nigh on impossible! Based on the ground we have already covered, however, I think we can be equally strong this year. Our recent residential weekend at general manager Cameron Carr’s house was highly successful, aided and abetted both by sumptuous cooking from Cameron’s mother Laura and the on-site hot tub, and the boys have already formed a strong bond. This year we are looking to return to the East Coast and Asia, and another run at the Fringe; there have been proposals mooted over a tour to Germany, courtesy of composer Graham Lack, but nothing concrete has been formed yet.

UACUK: That all sounds very exciting! Thanks so much for talking to us.

Gargoyles Reach BBC Choir of the Year Grand Final

Last weekend, The BBC’s Choir of the Year Category Finals rolled into Manchester in the stunning Bridgewater Hall, and while there were four categories of competing choirs, there was one in particular we were keeping an eye on – the Open Category, which consisted of both The Oxford Gargoyles and St Andrews’ The Alleycats.

The two choirs, while competing against each other, were also up against The Voice Squad and Ysgol Glanaethwy Senior Choir in their category, and it was The Oxford Gargoyles who won the category and will compete in the Grand Final in the Royal Festival Hall in London against all the choirs in each of the other categories. There were also two Wildcard winners: while we hoped that The Alleycats would take one of these spots, it instead fell to the choir from Ysgol Glanaethwy and a choir from the Adult Category.

A full report of the Open Category will be available later in the week.

Congratulations to The Oxford Gargoyles! More information about the final can be found here.

Audition Alert! (6)

Audition fever has been rife over the past few weeks: here a short round-up:

The University of Cambridge’s The Fitz Sirens are calling for new members to message them through their Facebook page to book a slot; The Oxford Belles are auditioning this weekend on both Saturday and Sunday from 10am-5.30pmm, with more information available here; The Techtonics from Imperial College, London held their first auditions yesterday, and are also auditioning Sunday and Tuesday of the coming week – more information is available on their page also.

Potential auditionees for Oxford’s In The Pink are being encouraged to email itp@hotmail.co.uk; The Imperielles are holding auditions this Saturday and Sunday (find out more here; Cadenza from Cambridge have auditions continuing from this Monday 8th, which you can sign up for here); and finally, Blue Shakti are looking for vocalists and beatboxers to email them at blueshakti.acappella@gmail.com

If you’re at university – make sure you get involved in all the action!