Gargoyles Stagnate With Play-It-Safe Set

The Oxford Gargoyles: Jazz A Cappella

The Oxford Gargoyles: Jazz A Cappella

Rating: 7.5/10

Previous years’ incarnations of the Gargoyles have been quite something to behold – musicality awards galore from the Voice Festival; five-stars and critical acclaim dished out year upon year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; and Up The Scale was one of the a cappella albums of the year, with two of the tracks featured on our top 10 tracks of 2012.

So it was with a whole heap of expectation that I went into see the usually flawless Gargoyles at this year’s Festival, and whether it was my heightened expectations or a slight dip in standards of the group since last year, something didn’t quite click in the same way as it had done in previous years.

For me, this was more an exhibition of talent than top quality entertainment. Let me elaborate:

Musically, the Gargoyles were, as ever, unmatchable from start to finish. A couple of the sopranos have been accused of being a little shrill this year. I didn’t find that; on the contrary, the challenging soprano lines prevalent throughout the set were just right, occasionally dropping on top of the rich chords with the utmost delicacy. The blend, too, was magnificent, especially in the slower numbers – their rehash of And So It Goes from a previous generation was quite astonishing, although it did lack some of the emotion required. Even the beatboxing, which was shared between two or three of the male group members, was impressive, with Henry de Berker in particular showing off more than just his vocal talents with some unique and original VP sounds.

However, while the musical intricacies and wealth of vocal talent was plain to see, I just wasn’t gripped, fixated, enthralled by their performance as I was in previous years. Classical jazz numbers such as Mas Que Nada and Dream A Little Dream formed part of the at times soporific opening few minutes. I enjoy it when the group put jazzy twists on existing numbers, but efforts such as The Turtles’ Happy Together and the Beatles’ Got To Get You Into My Life just didn’t quite work as jazz adaptations, mainly due to a lack of meaty crescendo that each song cries out for.

That said, some of these adaptations did work, and were funny to boot. Jamie Cullum’s Twentysomething was perfect for the group, referencing an ‘expensive education’ and proving they’re not afraid to poke fun at themselves. That solo, as well as the one on Tainted Love/Maneater was tackled by Jacob Swindells, a tall, lanky male with a dyed blonde fringe who was rather conspicuous throughout the set, but his unorthodox appearance and technique seemed to work well for the more humorous numbers. Their encore, Cruella de Vil, was on the same lines as the previous two, and was a pleasant reminder that the group don’t take themselves too seriously.

However, the fact that two of the final tracks, the aforementioned And So It Goes and one of the highlights of last year’s set, It Don’t Mean A Thing, were also the highlights of this year’s set, gave rise to some food for thought: there is no doubt the group still possess musical proficiency in spades, but this year’s group have ducked significantly under the high bar set by previous generations. There was no stunning arrangement a la Euan Campbell’s Dancing In The Moonlight; no breathtaking slow number like last year’s Fields of Gold; and even It Don’t Mean A Thing didn’t quite seem to make the same impact as it had done on first listen last year.

I am not saying this was a bad performance; far from it. I would recommend anyone to go and see the group and marvel at their musical magnificence. But the set felt a little safe, a little stagnant, and a little bit below the high standards that I know the group hold themselves to.

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