Best of British 2012: 8. Fields of Gold

The Best of British 2012 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live debut in 2012
b) A song that was featured on a 2012 album

For example, although all of the tracks featured on The AccidentalsEP made their debuts at the 2011 Voice Festival, because the album was released in 2012, all of the tracks on the album were considered. Also, several tracks were considered that were not released on albums, for example songs by The Oxford Belles or The Sons of Pitches from their 2012 repertoire.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown continues here:

10. The Other Guys – St Andrews Girls
9. The Sons of Pitches – Club Medley 2

8. The Oxford Gargoyles – Fields of Gold

Awards: ‘Outstanding Musicality’ – Voice Festival UK 2012, Oxford Regional Round

Breezing in at number eight is the first of two tracks from The Oxford Gargoyles, the only group to have two tracks in this year’s top ten. Their cover of Sting’s Fields of Gold made its debut at the Goyles’ annual kick-off gig at the Turf Tavern in Oxford, meaning it was also the first time some of the members of the grup had performed to an audience as Gargoyles! The song since made its way into their Voice Festival set and was one which stood out in their Fringe Festival setlist too.

So where did the idea for the arrangement come from? Some credit for inspiration is due to Musical Director Euan Campbell’s predecessor, Alex Kaiserman, who had taken a popular song and given it a jazz twist in the past. “Alex had arranged Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got You for the group in 2010, and was part of the VF-UK winning set that year. I decided to use that idea for Fields, arranging it together with an old school friend, Joe Mason, and actually had the song ready for when we auditioned in October. Thankfully, we found two perfect duetists for the number in Sasha Ockenden and Rebecca Sharp.”

Campbell was always aware of the momentous task he faced, though, in rearranging a very popular classic number, and tried to add as much originality as possible without losing the essence of the original: “To settle the listener’s ear, the first two bars have exactly the same chord sequence as the original, but then in the third and fourth bars, I changed the sequence to something a little more crunchy!” Despite this, Campbell was still cautious of the potential the song had to become a little repetitive, and took action against that: “I think arranging the song as a duet kept the arrangement on its toes, while nicely reflecting the lyrics of the song. I also added two key changes, varied rhythms and lyrics for the ensemble parts, and threw in a couple of bell tones for good measure! This helped the arrangement create its own feel, whilst still remaining true to the original.”

The song has remained a favourite of the group, despite its early beginnings way back in October. “It was the second piece we learnt as a new group, but we have never got tired of it! We fondly remember singing it for the first time in rehearsals with our eyes closed. It might sound lame, but it really helped us to connect and to listen to each other. Singing it for the last time at auditions for the new generation a couple of months ago was pretty emotional.” Campbell thinks this emotional connection to the song is noticed by their audience during performance, which is what has made it so highly regarded in the past year. “Over the course of the year, each member of the group has brought their own ideas to the table as to how the arrangement should be sung, resulting in a completely cohesive and united performance. A good arrangement is only half of it – often the way you connect with and perform the song is much more important, and we think the ease in which we can inject emotion into this song is what makes it such a crowd favourite.”

You can purchase Up The Scale, which contains this track and the rest of the Gargoyles’ 2011-2012 repertoire, right here.

The Other Guys Release Christmas Album

The Other Guys, from the University of St Andrews, have today released a Christmas studio album, entitled The Other Guys’ Christmas, and in doing so have become the first UK collegiate a cappella group to release such a festive record.

The CD contains seven tracks, including an original number entitled Christmas Gets Worse Every Year, alongside various other covers of Christmas classics. The album was released at ten o clock this morning and is already 5th on the BandCamp sales charts.

Rumours are that the boys will be releasing another YouTube video and single in conjunction with the album, with more news to follow in the next few days.

You can buy the album right here.

Best of British 2012: 9. Club Medley 2

The Best of British 2012 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live debut in 2012
b) A song that was featured on a 2012 album

For example, although all of the tracks featured on The AccidentalsEP made their debuts at the 2011 Voice Festival, because the album was released in 2012, all of the tracks on the album were considered. Also, several tracks were considered that were not released on albums, for example songs by The Oxford Belles or The Sons of Pitches from their 2012 repertoire.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown continues:

10. The Other Guys – St Andrews Girls

9. The Sons of Pitches – Club Medley 2

Awards:
‘Outstanding Stagecraft’ – Voice Festival 2012, Final
‘Outstanding Performance’, ‘Outstanding Choreography’ – Voice Festival 2012, Birmingham Regional

Dropping in at number nine is the second of the seemingly annual medleys of classic club anthems from Birmingham’s finest, The Sons of Pitches, aptly titled, Club Medley 2. With the track mashing up the likes of Taio Cruz’ Dynamite, Dead or Alive’s You Spin My Head Round and Tik Tok from Ke$ha to name but a few, it has become a staple in the Sons’ repertoire in the past year, and has sung and danced its way into the audience’s hearts and memories.

Strange to think, then, that three months before the Voice Festival, the arrangement wasn’t even in existence. “Mark Nathan arranged the number around Christmastime last year,” said recent Sons’ alumnus Tom Mackley. “The Sons at the stage only had a repertoire of about three songs, so we knew over the holiday we had to go away and build our VF-UK set, with Club Medley 2 being one and Settle Down being another.” The song actually debuted before the Voice Festival, at a live music venue hosted by Jools Holland called ‘Jam House’. “It went down really well, and we kept editing and improving throughout the first half of the year – the arrangement at the final was different to the one at the Birmingham Regional. I think that’s the beauty of the song – bits can be added and taken away quite easily, and members of the group can add their own individual parts as they go along. It’s really quite a collaborative effort, and that’s what makes it one of our favourite songs to sing.”

And the fans’ reaction to the song? “It’s certainly our most popular song,” continued Mackley. “Whenever we perform, it’s usually our finale. It’s current, beat box/bass heavy, different and fun, and it has songs that everyone recognises contained in it. OK, so it’s not a gloriously rich, full-bodied ballad, but it allows people to dance along and really lifts the energy in a room whenever it is performed.” The group also feel it’s one of their most important songs, and one that helped to define their style as a group. “Without Club Medley 2 I’m not sure the back end of the last academic year would have been so successful – it really was the catalyst that allowed us to find our identity as a group.”

When questioned about the comparisons to the first Club Medley, Mackley believes the second one trumps the first: “I think the reason Mark decided to create another one was because the first one had won the ‘Outstanding Arrangement’ award at the 2011 Regional. But this one has a slight edge, I think: the beat box battle, the sub woofer effects, the break dancing and the whole bus stop sequence just added an extra touch of originality and a stamp of individuality that the other one didn’t quite possess.” It’s clear the boys enjoy performing the song, too: “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we’re around to mess around and pretend we’re the best thing to come out of the University of Birmingham since Lizo Mzimba for three-and-a-bit minutes!”

We look forward to seeing if The Sons of Pitches have anymore award-winning Club Medleys in their back pockets in the coming year. For now, enjoy this one again as we continue our countdown at number nine.

You can watch the Club Medley 2 at the VF-UK Final right here

Best of British 2012: 10. St Andrews Girls

The Best of British 2012 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live debut in 2012
b) A song that was featured on a 2012 album

For example, although all of the tracks featured on The AccidentalsEP made their debuts at the 2011 Voice Festival, because the album was released in 2012, all of the tracks on the album were considered. Also, several tracks were considered that were not released on albums, for example songs by The Oxford Belles or The Sons of Pitches from their 2012 repertoire.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown starts here:

10. The Other Guys – St Andrews Girls

Awards: ‘Outstanding Performance’ – Voice Festival 2012, St Andrews Regional

Rolling in at tenth place is the second YouTube sensation to come out of St Andrews from Scotland’s only all-male group, The Other Guys. St Andrews Girls combines tracks by Belinda Carlisle, One Direction, the Chariots of Fire theme tune and, of course, Katy Perry, all mixed up together with some fitting lyric changes that delighted the St Andrews crowd on its debut performance at this year’s St Andrews Regional Round of the Voice Festival.

As you can imagine, the song was inspired by girls from St Andrews, according to the group’s Musical Director, Matthew Pattie: “Rather than look to a specific group or arrangement for inspiration, we took ours from the girls of St Andrews: spend an afternoon in Starbucks on Market Street and you’ll get all the inspiration you’ll ever need!” The process of writing the song itself was a collaborative one, with several members of the group chipping in with lyrics, some of which didn’t quite make the final cut. “The second we came up with the idea and the title of the song, the stereotypical lyrics started flowing freely. The music came afterwards.”

However, there’s no getting around the fact that the YouTube video hasn’t quite made the same impact as last year’s effort, Royal Romance. “We never expected it to be as popular as Royal Romance,” claimed Pattie, who added, “The video was more for personal and public enjoyment and to raise some money for charity, rather than to have the same international impact as Royal Romance did. We felt we ought to capitalise on the success of the first video by giving something back. St Andrews Girls was a much more niche market than Royal Romance, so to get over 100,000 hits and to raise over £1000 for charity is more than we could have even dreamed of.”

And is the song still a favourite of the group? “Absolutely! You’d have thought that singing the song countless times in the past year would cause it to stagnate slightly, but we don’t get bored of it. We keep it fresh by playing around with it, adding new ad-libs and chords, which keeps it interesting for us and for our fans.” The group even got to perform the song to royalty a few weeks ago, singing at a university fundraiser in the presence of Prince William and Kate Middleton. “They seemed to enjoy it!” said Matthew.

St Andrews Girls is a classic track from The Other Guys, who are well known for their parodies. The song may not have had the same impact at the London VF-UK Final as it did back in Scotland, but the parodical nature of the group really shines through on this number, and that’s why it is held in such high regard. With rumours that the group are set to release a Christmas album in the coming weeks, there looks to be plenty more to come from the St Andreans.

You can watch St Andrews Girls right here.

Album Review: Up The Scale

Up The Scale features eight studio tracks and four live tracks recorded at Queen’s College, Oxford.

Apparently Euan Campbell is an arranging maestro. In his term as Musical Director of the jazzed-up Oxford Gargoyles, he has overseen possibly one of the most successful eras of the group, having reached the Grand Final of BBC’s Choir of the Year and performing to rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This album is testament to the amazing strength in depth that last year’s group possessed, and with eight of the twelve tracked having been arranged by Campbell himself, a lot of the credit must go to him.

The best thing about this album is its refreshing honesty: there appears to be little to no production value at all. While a lot of American a cappella albums shove money into mixes and edits and masterings that often pull the sound unrecognisably away from the human voice, this album keeps things pure and simple, and the live tracks at the back end of the album emphasise this to great effect. While there was undoubtedly some efforts made to take the recordings up to a high quality standard, the raw talent of this group seeps through every single track and it demonstrates how much the group deserved all the accolades thrown their way this year.

That said, I prefer the studio recordings over the live numbers. That may just be down to personal taste, but you have to admit that some of the nuances within the arrangements are occasionally lost in the final four tracks on the album. That the tuning and blend is as good as it is on the studio tracks is testament to the professionalism and unerring accuracy of the group’s harmonies.

Let’s get down to the specifics: there are no bad tracks on this album. However, the over-reliance on Campbell as an arranger and on Henry de Berker as ‘Riff-King’ can cause the slightest amount of stagnation on the less original tracks. Over The Rainbow, which I remember sounded amazing when I saw them in Edinburgh, is, despite its rich texture and a superb silky solo, overshadowed by tracks which show a touch of genius: the multiple key changes in Fields of Gold, for example, coupled with the marvellous duet from Rebecca Sharp and Sasha Ockenden; the haunting introduction to It Don’t Mean A Thing, which shows the group at its close harmony best; and the majestic Dancing in the Moonlight, which incorporates Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Cheryl’s Fight For This Love and even a sample of The Darkness’ I Believe In A Thing Called Love, all of which combine to form the undoubted peak of Campbell’s arranging masterclass. Even Mr. Bojangles, which is my all time favourite jazz number, is not a highlight, because it errs only very slightly from the original, despite the ease and precision with which it is performed.

In fact, the group actually excels when they’re performing jazzed-up versions of non-Jazz tracks. Numbers such as Orange Coloured Sky and Sh-Boom are excellent, but don’t offer as much creativity and imagination as Dancing and Fields. This isn’t a call for the group to abandon their jazz roots – far from it, because nobody does jazz better than the Gargoyles. Rather, I’d love to see even more ingenuity and novelty from future generations of the group, because all the best a cappella tracks are highly original and innovative. If they can keep the soaring sopranos on top form, as they are throughout this album, and maintain the solid core they possess here, then the Gargoyles will definitely be a force to be reckoned with in the coming year.

You can buy Up The Scale right here.

Voice Festival UK Competition Applications NOW OPEN!

In some exciting news today, it was revealed that applications for the Voice Festival UK 2013 competitions are now open! After last year was the most successful year since its inception in 2009, with a record number of groups participating UK-wide, that number is set to increase this year with more new groups emerging around the country.

One such group is London-based The Scopes, who have been steadily establishing themselves around Imperial College in the past year and are being encouraged to make the step up to competition level. Other potential debutants might include Blue Shakti from the University of Cambridge, Chordiac Arrest from Aberdeen and with rumours of a new group forming at the University of Edinburgh, this could well be one of the most hotly contested university competitions in recent years. We here are also hoping that former champions Cadenza will be back to battle it out for the crown, having made three consecutive finals from 2009 to 2011.

Excitingly, as a celebration of the fifth birthday of the festival, the organisation plans to have a Big Weekend down in London on the same weekend at the competition final, where groups can all join together in one place for a weekend of workshops, collaborations and, most importantly of all, singing. More will surely be revealed in due course.

Whatever happens and whoever is competing, we’re sure it’s going to be one hell of a ride. Brace yourselves for the best collegiate a cappella the UK has to offer – only four months to wait!

Groups can apply for the competition here, with the deadline being two weeks yesterday, 28 November. Get your applications in!

The Accidentals to Sing at UK Pitch Perfect Launch

The most successful all-female group at the University of St Andrews, and the last all-female group to reach the final of the Voice Festival UK back in 2011, The Accidentals, have been invited to sing at the launch of what could potentially be the biggest influence on UK a cappella in recent years: the first ever a cappella movie, Pitch Perfect.

The movie, which has already been released to generally positive reviews in America, is coming to screens on 21 December, and the girls will be heading down to London in a couple of weeks’ time to help Universal with the promotion of the film, in the hope that viewers will be attracted to the film due to the similarities between The Accidentals and the fictional girl group portrayed in the film, The Bellas.

It comes as no real surprise that the girls, who are technically the UK’s best all-female collegiate group, have been invited to this event, and we wish them all the best as they head down for what could potentially significantly boost the popularity of a cappella in the UK permanently.