For a group making their Fringe début after just three years of being in existence, you would have forgiven the boys from the University of Exeter for not quite being up to the same standard as the rest of the groups at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. However, there was no need for forgiveness: indeed, Semi-Toned shone through a mass of a cappella at the summer Festival, emerging glorious and triumphant at the end of it all, five-star reviews and all.
The potential of the group was perhaps properly noticed when they pipped the other Exeter-based groups to make the Final of this year’s Voice Festival UK. Although their Final performance felt tired and a touch lacklustre, any momentum they lost back in March was completely ignored, as they powered onwards with their Fringe preparation and delivered a hilarious, varied and musically tight showcase of some frankly phenomenal a cappella.
The beauty of the Edinburgh Festival is that it allows groups to show a diversity within their group that the short 12-minute VF-UK sets don’t quite allow, and Semi-Toned made the utmost of this opportunity to show off what they could do, dazzling the audience with some ‘Semi-Toned classics’, as well as a host of surprises pulled out of thin air, in a set that was reminiscent of All the King’s Men’s stellar effort this time last year.
So we had the two big bombastic numbers from the Voice Festival topping and tailing the set, somehow cranked up to be even more energetic and musically far stronger and meatier than they had been back in March. Living For The Big City opened the 50-minute masterpiece, and my personal favourite Knights of Cydonia wrapping it up in riotous style, imaginary horse riding and all. But what was the most impressive was the unexpected flashes of brilliance that the group just kept on providing.
The first glimpses of something truly special came during Panic! At The Disco’s I Write Sins Not Tragedies, whose introduction, despite being very similar to a version featured on BOCA 2008 by University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers, still required a great deal of rhythmic discipline and skill to get right. Lady GaGa’s Americano involved singing in Spanish, hilarious imaginary moustaches and lip-trills, as well as some mock-flamenco dancing which was truly a sight to behold. Then, to top it all, they did Pokemon. BUT IN JAZZ FORM. The only criticism I could ever have of Pokemon in jazz form would be that it didn’t last for long enough – alas, that was the case here.
Many groups have a tendency to excel in either upbeat, dance-heavy numbers or slower, close harmony numbers. After a slightly uninteresting middle song at the Voice Festival, I wasn’t expecting a great deal from the Exemen’s slower numbers, but once again I was happily surprised. Their VF-UK filler was nowhere to be seen: instead, they gave us a gorgeous Arctic Monkeys number, Only Ones Who Know, led delicately by Michael Luye, whose tender tones suited the song perfectly.
The remainder of the set maintained the hugely high standard throughout: the nod to Naturally 7 with two adaptations of their work in the middle was tackled with aplomb and verve; the simple choreography was at times laugh-out-loud hilarious without detracting too much from the musical side of things; and Justin Timberlake was arranged intricately and the tough falsetto solo was solid; and I haven’t even mentioned the incredible beatboxing from Jack Telfer St Claire. The rest of the set was so good that it almost went by unnoticed.
Occasionally, the boys (especially the baritones) would get a little carried away and drown out the soloist, but this did little to detract from the masterful performance that the boys delivered. Fringe débutantes, maybe, but definitely giving a demonstration on how it should be done.
UK groups, watch out – Semi-Toned are the new rising stars of collegiate a cappella.