Event Review: VF-UK 2013 Exeter Regional Round

On Saturday 2 March, groups from Exeter and Bath descended upon the University of Exeter’s The Forum for the second Regional Round of this year’s Voice Festival UK. Four groups from the two universities were competing, with a solitary place on offer at the London Final in a couple of weeks’ time.

Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the show:

The Competitors:
SEMI-TONED from the University of Exeter
THE SWEET NOTHINGS from the University of Exeter
AQUAPELLA from the University of Bath
ILLUMINATIONS from the University of Exeter

Interval Act:
THE ROTTEN APPLE ORCHESTRA

Master of Ceremonies:
SCOTT RISEBOROUGH, Voice Festival UK

First up were the sole all-male group in this Regional, Exeter boys Semi-Toned. Wearing black and all sorts of maroon-based accessories, they opened in a compact triangular formation into a mash-up of Bright Lights Bigger City by Cee Lo Green and Living For The Weekend, a Hard-Fi classic. After a lovely blocked chord start to Bright Lights, the beatbox kicked in to open the Hard-Fi track. The soloist, while good, wasn’t outstanding, but mixed in with some frantic backing and some simple pose choreography, this made for an engaging opener. The drop back into Bright Lights was well executed and unexpected, despite the forced rhythmic change, but the two worked well when blended together towards the end, and Eddie Henley looked as if he belonged at the front of the stage during his solo. There was impressive beatboxing from Jack Telfer St Claire throughout, which gained its own exhibition towards the end, along with some silky solo dance moves. A solid start from the boys without ever being outstanding musically, but definitely demonstrating their potential.

Their second number was a cover of Stevie Wonder’s Smile Please. The arrangement allowed them to play with a few humorous actions, despite this being the typical middle ‘slow-song’, which kept the mood light and cheesy, but a couple of the falsetto harmonies weren’t quite on point, particularly at the very start of the piece. I felt there was an abundance of bass and falsetto and not huge amounts in between, which made the chords throughout feel a little empty. The final chord was gorgeous, but all-in-all this lacked a certain completeness and didn’t engage me in quite the same way as I would have liked.

This dissatisfaction was immediately remedied by their final number, Muse’s Knights of Cydonia. Three words: Oh. My. Days. I would be surprised if this track doesn’t feature highly on our Best of British 2013. From the very moment the eerie whistling set the overarching tone for this Muse classic, I knew we were in for something special – and I was not wrong. Contrary to the previous song, the falsetto reached the necessary high standard required by this number, and the imitation of instruments was not only hilarious, but also accurate and energetic, which added hugely to the piece. The beatboxing too was difficult and relentless, and executed with aplomb. The first two minutes were taken up by complex instrument imitation, and gave the lead vocal a lot to live up to. Thankfully, the boys decided to go with a duet from the off, which added a further dimension to a piece that was already exceptional. The two boys singing the layered vocal complemented each other delightfully. The real highlight of the piece came when the group came back together to sing “No-one’s gonna take me aliiiiiiive!” etc., with the falsetto shining gloriously through at the top of the chord – the wall of sound produced by the boys was phenomenal. The ONLY disappointment was the final chord which, while good, didn’t quite do justice to the rest of the song, in my opinion.

Second up were all-girl group The Sweet Nothings, clad in black skirts and red ‘Sweet Nothing’ t-shirts. With only nine of them, I feared they might not be able to provide as much of powerful sound as the boys before them, but was ready to be proven wrong. They kicked off with a huge song, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which was a very, very brave call. I did enjoy how the girls split the solo to match specific voices – each soloist stepped up the the plate with confidence and delivered their solos powerfully and melodically. The alto parts were massively overpowered by the sopranos though, unfortunately, which made the song a little shrill at times. This was by no means a bad number, but when you cover such an iconic song, it’s hard to live up to the expectations, even with a great arrangement and a talented bunch of singers, such as the Sweet Nothings have. It just didn’t have the fullness and depth of sound that the original had and that this cover desperately needed.

Their second track, Coldplay’s Fix You, was another that suffered from the expectations built up by the original track. Once again, as each soloist stepped up to the plate, they delivered robust vocals that were perhaps not as tender as they could and should have been, and while the harmonies were delightful, I feel they were lost on occasion, perhaps due to the slightly faster tempo of this cover compared to the original. Emily Barrett’s solo in particular stood out above the rest, with her powerful and soulful alto reminiscent of a former Accidental favourite, Gemma O’Brien. Again, a solid number, without ever being outstanding.

Their third number, like with Semi-Toned, was the highlight of their set. Again, the girls split the solos evenly, but with songs from various artists such as David Guetta, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Phil Collins and more, this was probably necessary. The arrangement was the real triumph, with each song blending seamlessly into the next, and was a real indicator of what the girls could do if they allowed themselves to arrange their own music, rather than borrow from others. Not only this, but you could tell the girls enjoyed this performance more than the other two, simply because it was clearly music they all loved. Musically it was tight, fairly original and very poppy – just how I like it. My favourite of their set, but definitely not reaching the same standards set by the boys previously.

Third up were the sole representatives from the University of Bath, the aptly named Aquapella. With seven girls and eight boys, they almost doubled the number assembled in the Sweet Nothings, and were clad in black with blue accessories. They began with a cover of The XX’s VCR. Some impressive beatboxing and an unusual starting formation were the things that struck me from the word go, but the perfectly tuned ‘Ding’ sounds from the high sopranos, despite being difficult to maintain, were spot on almost every time. This tune felt very summery, and this was emphasised by the cheery nature of the backing, especially from the male section, and the song bobbed along nicely in the ears of the audience, without ever threatening to get out of first gear.

Their second track was title ‘Titanium Bulletproof Grenade’. Have a guess as to the original artists. Some really gorgeous female voices displayed at the very start. I really liked the simple yet effective choreography, and the decision to have some of the males singing the hook for Bulletproof worked really well, although the solo section during Grenade felt a little half-hearted. Another short arrangement, indicating the group were intending to do four songs.

Their third number was Just The Two Of Us, originally by Bill Withers. Again, this was an inoffensive track, with some solid solos, tight musicality, effective vocal percussion, not really much to say against it, to be honest. It just lacked the real Wow! Factor that seems to be so important in VF-UK competitions these days. It was pleasant, but not enthralling or captivating. Also, where was the tenor? I half wanted a massive tenor solo to come and take this song by the scruff of the neck, but it never happened.

Their final song was Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy. I loved the fact the group took this song down a little bit, not only tempo-wise but also dropping the solo down an octave, which also suited the soloist’s voice deliciously. Ben Oddy sang with a gorgeous dulcet baritone, and the slowed tempo allowed him to really show off his soulful tone. A lovely interchange into Beyonce’s version of a song with the same name. This again was the highlight of their set, with some tender backing harmonies and a real appreciation for the songs they were covering. Not enough to set the world on fire, though.

The final group on stage were debutants, Illuminations, wearing black tops and an array of multi-coloured trousers. At first, I thought they had come on stage with their sheet music, which seemed a bizarre decision, and began to sing your typical choir song in a straight line, but then they opened up their ‘scores’ to spell the phrase “This Is Africa”, before one-by-one, each member of the group discarded their music and joined in the mini-party this was kicking off on stage. I half wanted to join them. The group really captured the ethinic feel to the Shakira original, and for the first time in what seemed like an age, I heard some strong male tenor voices piercing through the blend, which was a welcome addition to the evening. The whole song was bursting with energy that I felt lacked in the set from Aquapella, and the group were clearly enjoying themselves. The music wasn’t half bad either.

The group continued their African theme with Paul Simon’s Under African Skies, again portraying the African theme effectively with the ‘dum-dum’ drum sounds, with a gorgeous layered lead vocal with a mezzo-baritone combination that worked really effectively. The group definitely produced a fuller sound than a lot of the groups this evening, but I did feel they were hampered slightly by the similarity between the two songs, meaning they weren’t necessarily able to show off a different aspect to the group’s abilities. Nevertheless, this was another engaging performance, solid musically and led expertly by two lead vocalists.

The group donned masks for their final song, a Lion King mash-up of King of Pride Rock and a personal favourite, Circle of Life. For the first time in their set, the very high harmonies from the girls were a little squeaky, and from the boys a little shouty. I must admit, though, the group did well to keep the engagement levels up during Pride Rock, given that the majority of the sung words are not in English. The transition to Circle of Life was smooth, but I do feel they would have benefitted from taking the key down a tone or two to make things a little more comfortable for those at the very top. Again, the lack of variety in this set may well have hampered their chances of making the final.

A final note – several of the groups couldn’t pitch their notes from a single starting note, with the Musical Director having to sing the chord or even, at times, the entire first bar of music for certain parts. While it is obviously vitally important to make sure you’re all singing the right part, it does look unprofessional to be humming notes before you start singing the actual song – something to bear in mind for future competitions.

Verdict:

Unlike a lot of the Regionals, I felt this one was a fairly easy call. While all four groups demonstrated the capacity to arrange well, perform well and sing well, there was one group that stood out above the rest, and it would have been a surprise had they not made the final. The Sweet Nothings were good, but I feel suffered from their song choices slightly, especially the first two, and I feel if they focused on their own arrangements, as they did with their final number, they might be more successful. Aquapella were one of the best groups in terms of slick, tight musicality, but there were no peaks or crests to their set – they simply drifted along in a sea of easy-listening music which, while pleasant, is not award-winning stuff. Illuminations were perhaps closest to qualifying outside of the boys, as they bursted with energy, flair and a real grasp of where their music had come from. But they suffered from a lack of variety. In the end, that just left the boys from Semi-Toned, who probably won because their setlist was the best thought-out, but the bonus of a cracking final number will have definitely helped them along the way. They still have some way to improve to reach the likes of current champions All the King’s Men in next weekend’s Final, but this was definite progress since last year.

Awards:
Outstanding Musicality: Aquapella for Crazy
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Jack Telfer St Claire of Semi-Toned for Knights of Cydonia
Outstanding Choreography: Semi-Toned

WINNER:

SEMI-TONED

So, while I wouldn’t have given them the award for Choreography (surely they merited Outstanding Performance over Choroegraphy?), Semi-Toned became the second group to reach this year’s final, and I do hope to see a closer such as Knights of Cydonia on a studio album at some point in the near future. It’s one of those that would never fail to be epic. See you at the final!

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