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.

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