Best of British 2013: 10. Knights of Cydonia

The Best of British 2013 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 OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other GuysChristmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

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 begins here:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia

Awards: ‘Outstanding Vocal Percussion’ and ‘Outstanding Choreography’ – Voice Festival UK 2013, Exeter Regional

Starting our countdown is the bold, big and boisterous version of Muse’s Knights of Cydonia, as performed by Semi-Toned. Those of you who were at the Voice Festival Final in London back in March will remember the bizarre twist of fate which saw Semi-Toned and The Oxford Alternotives perform this song back-to-back – while both versions were of the highest quality, we felt the dexterity, versatility and sheer brashness of this version made it just that little bit more impressive. Indeed, the story of the song pre-Voice Festival is an interesting and impressive one.

The song’s origins came about almost by chance, according to departing Musical Director and founding member Eddie Henley. “Joe Lane, Ed Jillings and I came together one evening ended up singing ‘No-one’s gonna take me alive’ in super falsetto!” After that, it was a no-brainer that the song would become a part of the group’s repertoire – indeed, debuting the song in front of 1,000 people and the Military Wives Choir back in September 2012 was a baptism of fire, but one which kick-started a monumental year for the group. “It was an epic performance to a huge audience, and it went down very well with the crowd and gave us a lot of confidence at the start of a new year with new members.”

Commenting on the coincidence of the song being performed back-to-back in a competitive sphere, Henley was complimentary of both arrangements, and inferred that the very nature of the song makes it perfect for an a cappella group to perform: “There are a few different arrangements of Knights circulating on the Internet, and it has a sort of inherent, prescribed structure, which all arrangements have to follow in order to hit the mark, and therefore many arrangements of the song are likely to follow that structure.” However, Henley was confident that their version stood out above the rest: “When it came to the meat on the bones, the performance, musicality and general wow moments, I think our arrangement really hit the spot.”

Although the arrangement followed a prescribed structure, and Eddie claims this version as his own arrangements, he gave a lot of credit to the rest of the group for fleshing the number out in their own unique way. “It’s something all of the group had a part in creating: from the addition of instrument mimicking through choreography to the 6 beat break we put in before the last refrain. It’s a piece that is really representative of the hard work the Semi-Toned class of 2012-13 put in during the immensely successful year we had.”

The song received immense praise wherever it was performed: from the Military Wives concert in September, to the Exeter Regional of the Voice Festival in February through to the group’s début year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – Ed expressed his excitement at reading Tobias Hug’s comment on their VF-UK feedback form – “YOU NEED TO RECORD THIS!” He continues: “It’s my personal favourite, mainly because of the fantastic memories and emotions I associate with performing the song. We got a standing ovation from the 400-strong crowd at the Exeter Regional. However, for me, the first time we performed the song on the Royal Mile was so amazing – literally seconds before we were shaking with nerves and full of worries about our upcoming run and how we all felt like we were out of our depth, being these twelve singers from Exeter taking a show up to Edinburgh. But we opened our mouths, drew a great crowd in and had an amazing time, and ended up having an amazing début run up there.”

Why was it so successful? “It really showcases the best of the group. Semi-Toned are blessed with an immense range, with their highest note being well in the whistle register, and this range is something that is seen in Knights; every part has a hugely important role to play and every single member has their own moment to shine in the song. But most importantly, it’s a fun song to perform. It is exhausting but exhilarating. The audience can see that we love performing it and we really feed off that. For me that’s absolute fundamental first rule of a cappella arranging – do something that you know you’re going to enjoy performing and something that the audience is going to know you enjoy performing.”

As for the legacy of the song, Henley believes it epitomises what the group is all about. “The guys, generally speaking, steer clear of chart toppers and tend to go for alternative and indie classics; that’s their niche and it’s something that’s been really successful at home and in Edinburgh. Knights has been our flagship song in that respect and is our ‘hand down’ arrangement that we expect will be passed down through the years, as is the case with many other groups in the UK.”

You can watch the award-winning performance of Knights of Cydonia right here, or alternatively, listen to it on the group’s Soundcloud.

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Exclusive Interview: The Voice Festival UK 2013 Kicks Off

Guess what? The time has almost come for the biggest collegiate event of the year. Forget University Challenge, forget the publication of the league tables, this is all about pure, unadulterated awesome in the form of university a cappella.

As always, we here at University A Cappella UK will be following every group, every round and every song as the events unfold, including previews and reviews of each round and the prediction polls, which we hope will evoke much discussion like last year. Before all of that though, we spoke to Cherith Graham, member of the Voice Festival team, about the structure of this year’s competition, the upcoming ‘Big Weekend’ and personal favourites from the past season.

UACUK: Hi Cherith, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Before we start, let’s clarify your role in the team. What exactly is your area?

CG: Hi Mark! Each of the team has specific responsibilities. I’m Brand and Marketing Manager for the Voice Festival (VF-UK) as well as being one of the team’s Event Managers.

My focus for the last year has been on revamping the Voice Festival’s look and feel so that we can better communicate who we are and what we do. The Voice Festival has come a long way in five years – our offering has flexed and multiplied and we now have three fully fledged programmes (youth, universities, and communities) for supporting and developing singers of different ages and experiences. So in response to this growth, and taking on board feedback from our singers, volunteers, audiences and patrons we’ve made some significant changes.

As part of this rebrand journey, I’ve been responsible for designing our new website. It’s a privilege to work with so many vibrant and inventive singers and we wanted our website to be a stage for showcasing this talent, and energising new communities of a cappella singers and enthusiasts. The site makes it easier for existing singers and a cappella fanatics to share opportunities and knowledge, stay up to date with VF-UK opportunities and events, and keep talking to us and telling us what is needed from our programmes.

With my Event Manager hat on, I work on various events in the Voice Festival calendar. Like the rest of the team, this means anything and everything from sourcing venues for hosting workshops and events, setting up the box office, advertising the events, liaising with the performers, and making sure our workshops go to plan.

UACUK: And now the applications have closed, how has the response been in general compared to last year?

CG: The response has been great – we’ve had a lot of interest, and have ended up with more groups from more universities competing than ever before. We’ve had new groups coming forward, or at least expressing interest and making enquiries, and we’re really excited for the year ahead.

UACUK: Are you still running the three competitions (i.e. Community, Youth and University) side-by-side this year?

CG: That’s the plan. Applications have now closed for University and Community groups, and Youth applications will close shortly. Obviously a big part of what we at the Voice Festival aim to do is to encourage and enable a cappella singers of all ages and life experiences to meet and interact with each other, and this is once again a vital ingredient of the 2013 season.

UACUK: Have you ever thought about combining the three competitions?

CG: We have considered it in the past, especially when considering whether or not the competition would remain in its current format, but we felt that in order to keep the competition fair and healthy, it makes sense to grow them individually.

UACUK: Members of groups involved may know, although outsiders may not, that you were considering changing the competition from Regionals to one large ‘Big Weekend’ style competition in March in London. You then asked for feedback on these suggestions and have since reverted to the previous format. What exactly has changed since last year, and was this partly due to the feedback given by previously competing groups?

CG: Yes, having taken on board feedback from previous competing groups, and the feedback from our Big Weekend consultation, we’ve decided to maintain our UK wide competition format, as well as introduce the Big Weekend to this year’s programme.

This structure was prompted by feedback, yes, because we received some very strong opinions from several groups who said they would prefer the University competition format to stay as it was. But we also felt in order to further the goals of the Voice Festival, we wanted to keep our plans for the ‘Big Weekend’. as we felt it would be a great opportunity for groups to come and meet each other, learn from each other and from professionals, and to perform with each other in a less tense and competitive atmosphere. It will take place 15-17 March 2013 in London, and all groups from the regional rounds are invited to attend, with the idea being that transport will be paid for by the profits from each Regional Round.

This will be made possible by one of the other differences this year. Instead of the Voice Festival team organising each Regional Round, volunteers from the groups competing will be forming what we’re calling ‘Event Co-Ordinator Teams’, which will work in partnership with a Voice Festival representative as the ‘Event Manager’. This gives each region more of a say in the format of their round and will hopefully lead to more regional character. It also encourages local groups to work together and become a central hub for growing a cappella in their region. Obviously, the adjudication side of the events will still be taken care of by us to ensure fair competition.

UACUK: Are you happy with the progress that the Voice Festival has made, both in the past four years and with the introduction of the Big Weekend? Are you happy that the majority of the groups appear to be on board with the developments?

CG: Absolutely. It’s a new, exciting journey for us as a team and for UK a cappella. In the feedback, people always tell us that one of the most rewarding aspects of VF-UK is the opportunity to sing to new audiences and in new environments, and so promoting those opportunities is central to what we are doing – adding to opportunities that groups make for themselves throughout the year. But also, we feel a bit of competition is healthy, because it leads to groups pushing themselves and pushing the boundaries of what they are capable of as a vocal group. So I think it’s definitely lining up to be a fantastic season.

UACUK: You’ve confirmed the date of the Big Weekend as 15-17 March. With regard to the Regional competitions, will you be suggesting dates to the team organising each event, or will it be up to them when they take place?

CG: A balance of both. We’d like it to be a collaboration between the Event Co-Ordinator Team and Event Manager so that a stretch of weekends are found that work best for everyone. Obviously they have the guidance of when the events have occurred in previous years to help them, and are encouraged to hold them at times that would be good, depending on term times and exams etc., but at the same time we’d like them to be roughly at similar times as in previous years, simply because those dates have worked well in the past. I think we’ll probably end up with Regionals sitting in the same time period as before.

UACUK: However positive it is that you’ve got a record number of groups competing in this year’s university competition, why do you think groups such as Cadenza, Out of the Blue, The Fitz Sirens and The Oxford Gargoyles have decided to pull out of the competition in the past two years, and is this a concern?

CG: I think it’s partly due to the nature of university groups. Because they change membership year on year, they also change their priorities. It depends on the group make-up. Obviously, we provide a service for the groups, giving them new opportunities and experiences, so it’s completely up to the groups whether or not they want to take that opportunity. While Out Of the Blue have decided they don’t want the competition to be a feature of their year, they are still keen to support the Oxford event and join the activities for the Big Weekend, as well as being involved in future years. And even though The Fitz Sirens didn’t compete last year, they still came and performed at our showcase up in Edinburgh in August. So it’s not a case of ‘if you don’t compete, you don’t get anything’; rather, groups are free to take part in our events as they see fit. It’s not a concern for us – the competition is still growing and we are still achieving our aims, and we are positive the groups not involved will still have thoroughly successful seasons.

UACUK: Are there any kind of plans to extend the competition to involve Quarter-Finals and Semi-Finals as the competition element grows in the future?

CG: We can see the rationale for doing it that way, definitely, but what we’d like to focus on more is this idea of the Big Weekend. We don’t want to put up metaphorical ‘fences’ around different regions and only ever have groups meeting and competing with each other from certain regions. We want to encourage, for example, groups from St Andrews to really listen to and take interest in, say, the groups from Exeter, and vice versa. And the Big Weekend is, for this year, our way of doing that. Obviously there will be a post-Festival evaluation, as ever, analysing whether or not it worked. However, at least for 2013, the idea is to hang the Festival around our Big Weekend in London.

UACUK: One final question: as you may or may not have seen, we’ve been running a ‘Best of British’ countdown of our favourite tracks from 2012. Do you have a personal favourite from the past year?

CG: That’s a tricky one- I have too many favourites! There’s just too much great UK talent to choose from….hence.. the Voice Collection 2013! Now there’s another exciting Voice Festival project to look forward to for 2013.

The Voice Festival Regional Round dates are now confirmed as follows:

London: Sat 9th March
St Andrews: Sat 23rd February
Exeter: Sat 2nd March
Oxford: Sun 3rd March
Birmingham: Sat 9th March

The ‘Big Weekend’ and University Final will take place on the weekend of the 15-17 March. Don’t worry! We’ll keep you in the loop as we learn more.

Best of British 2012: 1. Hide and Seek

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 concludes here:

10. The Other Guys – St Andrews Girls
9. The Sons of Pitches – Club Medley 2
8. The Oxford Gargoyles – Fields of Gold
7. The Accidentals – Rolling in The Deep
6. The Oxford Gargoyles – Dancing in the Moonlight
5. The Oxford Belles – Jar of Hearts
4. Out of the Blue – Got To Get You Into My Life
3. The Techtonics – Earthquake
2. The Alleycats – Titanium

1. All the King’s Men – Hide and Seek

Sneaking into the number one spot is the only track on our list that failed to win an award of some sort in 2012, partly due to its omission from the group’s Voice Festival set, it’s the magnificent Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap, covered superbly and precisely by our current UK Champions of A Cappella, All the King’s Men. It is testament to the strength in depth the boys had over the past year that they managed to win the Voice Festival despite this track, in our opinion their finest, not featuring on their set. Upon hearing that the group had claimed the number one spot, former MD Henry Southern was delighted. “That’s great news! The song definitely became the one we were most proud of in our repertoire last year.”

The song is, admits Southern, the first number the group have performed that was not arranged by a member of the group. “I’d wanted to do the song as I thought that it would work well with the voices we had for the ’11-’12 group. Our blend, musicality and ensemble singing was quickly coming together, particularly on the slower songs, and I thought it would fit the group perfectly.” However, just as Southern was about to start arranging the song, fellow group member Josh Cooter chimed in with a suggestion. “Josh said that he had done Tom [Recknell]’s arrangement with him at school and that Tom kindly granted us permission to use it.” Southern was delighted with the arrangement, and having heard it himself, Recknell was also pleased with the results. Henry adds that “it was great to have Josh’s guidance when we were rehearsing the arrangement, as he was already so familiar with it.” The group were also honoured to be able to work on the song with their patron, Paul Phoenix from The King’s Singers, who had recorded the track back in 2010. “His input was invaluable,” says Southern.

The debut performance of the song was recorded at Hollywood High School and was a warm up to a larger performance at Claremont later that evening, during the group’s early 2012 West Coast US Tour. “The reception was always very positive and it is probably one of the songs that people remember the most – partly because we almost always had it at the end of the set. “The tight musical control that is evident throughout the song was something that was worked on from the very beginning of the performance process. “Because we were so diligent about the musical points from the very beginning, the performance of it didn’t change that much over the months we performed it. Usually an arrangement gradually develops and improves through time, but we only performed this when we felt we were 100% ready – it took a lot of work!”

The story of why the song didn’t make their Voice Festival set, not to mention their ICCA Final set, is a long one with many factors for and against the song. “We already had a strong ‘slow song’ lined up with Hallelujah which we had been singing all year and so we were very comfortable with it.” Despite the perhaps overdone nature of the song, Southern still claims this was a good decision. “We felt that Noah Mosley’s arrangement was very unique, it fitted with the style we were developing, and above all Tom Aldren nailed the baritone solo every time! It ticked all the boxes for a competition piece.” Added to that, Southern didn’t feel Hide and Seek was ready for the Voice Festival. “As mentioned before, we only started learning it in January, and the very nature of the piece meant it had to be perfect otherwise it could have fallen a bit flat.” Timing was also an issue. “If we were to have replaced Hallelujah in our set with Hide and Seek, it would have been too long to fit within the assigned 12 minutes and if we’d taken out another number in its place it would have been detrimental to the overall set – it wouldn’t have been balanced or demonstrated everything the group could do.” The group did toy with the idea of performing the number as a part of their ICCA Final set after speaking with Dominic Peckham post-Voice Festival final, but the group decided to stick with their winning combination, finishing 3rd in the final in New York in the process.

To close, Henry gave us some words of wisdom that can translate to any performance of a song. “I really think that if you enjoy singing something, it comes across to the audience. We knew the effect that this arrangement could have on an audience and we milked it for all its worth! Something which Paul worked on with us is not being afraid to express the meaning of the words. If you want to make the audience cry, you have to feel like you are going to cry. That sounds very pretentious, but it is all too easy to switch off when singing an arrangement you’ve sung countless of times – when we all locked in it was magic!”

Hide and Seek has been specially uploaded onto Soundcloud for your pleasure and enjoyment. We recommend closing your eyes and taking in the breathtaking blend.

Our countdown is now over! We hope you enjoyed reliving 2012 with us. Here’s to an even better 2013!

Best of British 2012: 2. Titanium

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
7. The Accidentals – Rolling in The Deep
6. The Oxford Gargoyles – Dancing in the Moonlight
5. The Oxford Belles – Jar of Hearts
4. Out of the Blue – Got To Get You Into My Life
3. The Techtonics – Earthquake

2. The Alleycats – Titanium

Awards: ‘Outstanding Vocal Percussion’, Voice Festival UK 2012, St Andrews Regional

Prowling in at number two is a hard-hitting ballad from St Andrews’ mixed group, The Alleycats, from their latest album, We’re Not Kitten. The track, a cover of David Guetta ft. Sia’s Titanium, debuted at the St Andrews Regional Round of the Voice Festival UK but, according to Musical Director Brendan Macdonald, the group weren’t quite up to the standard they had hoped for that night. “We were a bit nervous and weren’t as satisfied with that performance of ‘Titanium’ as we have been with others, but nevertheless, we were still told by friends and family that they absolutely loved it.” The song was such a hit that it featured prominently on their Edinburgh Fringe setlist, and was an instant crowd-pleaser during their BBC Choir of the Year Section Final set.

The arrangement itself was a little rushed, but had very original intentions behind it. According to Macdonald, the group were looking for “a track which would not only highlight Cammy [Dobbie]’s incredible vocal percussion skills, but change the idea of what a slow a cappella ballad sounded like. We only actually decided on Titanium in January.” Having mentioned the premise of their ballad to fellow group member Annie Faichney, Brendan received a response almost immediately. “A few days later she messaged me with the idea of Titanium. It was the perfect track. I started coming up with different parts for the song, and quickly wrote out an arrangement that could work for the group.” As for where Brendan got his inspiration from, a specific Alleycat alumnus is to thank for that: “Lizzy Weintz’s arrangement of Violet Hill for our ’08-’09 litter really influenced how I came at arranging Titanium. Violet Hill is a complete departure from its original, and does what I think any great cover should do: gives the listener a completely new understanding of the song. We wanted to do the same thing with Titanium.”

Since its debut, the song really became one of the favourites of the group as the a cappella season progressed, but Macdonald claims the complexity of the song also helped the group improve as an entity. “The arrangement forced us to adopt better singing habits, and as such, really strengthened us as a group.” Macdonald went on to reveal why the song was so enjoyable for the group to perform. “The dynamics of the song, with the ever-growing crescendo until the very final chorus, are so enjoyable to execute. And of course, any chance to get to hear Heather [Robertson, the soloist on the track]’s unbelievable alto voice completely commit to that solo is worth taking.”

Having been asked about how they would tackle the song now the soloist, Heather Robertson, has left the group, Macdonald made a poignant point. “There are, in my eyes, two soloists in Titanium – Heather (obviously), and Cammy as well, because the beat-boxing is relentless, and drives the entire emotional arc that we intended to create.” Having said that, “Heather’s haunting rendition of Sia’s part is so powerful.” With regards the future of the song, Brendan suggested the emotional ties to the original soloists would not be released so readily. “To me, I still think of the song as Heather’s and Cammy’s, and so at the moment we’ve decided to put it on the shelf for a while.”

So, Titanium charts at Number 2 on our list, a track which can be found on their album, We’re Not Kitten. But who will chart at Number 1? Stay tuned…

Best of British 2012: 3. Earthquake

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
7. The Accidentals – Rolling in The Deep
6. The Oxford Gargoyles – Dancing in the Moonlight
5. The Oxford Belles – Jar of Hearts
4. Out of the Blue – Got To Get You Into My Life

3. The Techtonics – Earthquake

Awards:
‘Outstanding Performance’, Voice Festival UK 2012, London Regional
Featured on Sing 9 compilation album.

Shaking the foundations of our list at number three is the frankly phenomenal final track from the debut album by Imperial College’s The Techtonics, their cover of Labrinth’s Earthquake. The song, which made its debut at the London Regional, has since become only the second track from a British collegiate group to feature on CASA’a Sing compilation, featuring on the ninth edition, Supernovem. But the track started out in less esteemed surroundings. James Hayward, arranger of the track and last year’s MD, came up with the idea in the lead up to Christmas 2011. “I remember hearing the original tens if not hundreds of times in the lead up to Christmas that year, as it had just been released. After a while I began to realise I wasn’t getting sick of it. Obviously, at that time we were in need of tracks for our Voice Festival set, and the more I thought about it, the more the track seemed to fit so perfectly into the repertoire of the group: we had been experimenting with dubstep and more commercial sounds; such was the talent of the group at the time that we were able to use an obscene range; and the symmetry of a group called ‘The Techtonics’ covering a song called ‘Earthquake’ was too good to miss.”

The arrangement itself was one which in the first case was one which the group wanted to make as original as possible, but was partially based on a Radio 1 Live Lounge version of the song. “Actually, that version of the song involved the Swingle Singers doing the Ah-vocal at the start, which brings it nicely full circle to a cappella music!”

It was a quick turnover from idea to arrangement and from rehearsal to performance, though, but Hayward claims it was worth it. “Despite only learning it a month before VF-UK rolled into town, upon talking to the judges after the show, the song definitely made the right sort of impression.” He remains, however, reserved about that premiere performance. “Being a massive critic, I hate looking back at the video of it, because it improved so much from that point in time.” Despite its many forms and transformations, the song remained a favourite of the group throughout the rest of the year for that very reason. “With regards to the live performance, it has come a long way since the slightly rushed (both in preparation and tempo!) version we threw together at VF-UK. Adding microphones adds an extra element to it, while there is a lot of scope for improvisation within the track,” said Hayward, adding: “We’ll put that down as a deliberate creative tool rather than a lazy arrangement!” When asked about the album version of the track, Hayward continued: “It took many forms during recording too, before we eventually settled on the track that can be found on the album.”

When asked about the track’s selection for Sing 9, ‘surprised’ and ‘delighted’ were two words that were abundant as James spoke. “Even from when we sent the initial bare bones track to the States for mixing, the idea was to win things. But to be selected for something as prestigious as the ‘Sing’ compilation was a real honour and a privilege.” Hayward proceeded to thank several of his team, both singers and producers, for the hard work they put in: “To say all the hard work was worth it is a massive understatement.” Thanks go to Matt Chinery, Alex Koutzoukis, James Cannon and Dave Sperandio.

As for why the song has become such a hit outside of just the group, the young man came up with several suggestions. “It’s a real crowd favourite,” poses Hayward, while adding: “The energy of it builds perfectly. Thanks to Labrinth himself for that! It’s also perfect for closing sets, or indeed an album, as it’s kind of become our token song.” Hayward goes on: “The edits on the album track were nothing short of remarkable. As one of the only people who heard it from start to finish, I an honestly say I never imagined such a drastic change. And when I heard they were jamming along to it at SoJam, I was blown away – I think it’s partly down to the commercial nature of the song: the big hits, big bass and synth FX on the high vocals make it something a little more accessible to those outside of the a cappella community.”

Suitable for any occasion, especially parties an on loud speakers with a sub-woofer (trust me, I would know), Earthquake can be bought on the Imperial College Website as part of the Groundbreaker.

Best of British 2012: 4. Got To Get You Into My Life

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
7. The Accidentals – Rolling in The Deep
6. The Oxford Gargoyles – Dancing in the Moonlight
5. The Oxford Belles – Jar of Hearts

4. Out of the Blue – Got To Get You Into My Life

Awards:
‘Highly Recommended Soloist’, Voice Festival UK 2012, Oxford Regional
‘Outstanding Performance’, Voice Festival UK 2012, Final

Smashing in at number 4 is the lively cover of the Beatles’ Got To Get You Into My Life, as performed by Oxford’s finest, Out of the Blue. The track was one of the first track the 2011/2012 generation of the group learnt, with its debut coming at the groups’ annual debut performance at G&Ds Cafe, about 3 weeks after the new group formed, along with other album tracks, With or Without You and Stop. The song made its way into the groups’ Voice Festival set that year, being used as a powerful opener before Lippy Kids and Domino.

The song’s origins came about very much by chance, according to the group’s MD, Nick Barstow: “The arrangement came when Laurie [Cottam, the soloist on the song] and I were in the car on our way to the airport one day – Laurie only has Beatles albums and Brahms string quartets in his car, and we’d gone for Beatles. Got To Get You Into My Life came on, and I didn’t know it well, but Laurie really liked it. I did too but I thought it was missing something.” That ‘something missing’ was resolved when Laurie revealed the Earth, Wind and Fire cover of the same song. “At 7 minutes long, it was a little self-indulgent, but the arrangement is insane. I cut it down, mixed the best of the original and the cover together, and we had the basis for the arrangement.” Barstow’s addition of Isn’t She Lovely? was prompted by the desire for a strong baritone solo. “The solid baritone solo matched the epic tenor solo really well, partly because of the similar pentatonic motif.”

From the perspective of the group, the song has had its highs and lows throughout the year. “It’s definitely one of my favourites,” said Barstow, before continuing: “But we fell out of favour with it a bit halfway through the year; sometimes you go off a song when you sing it too much.” The group decided to use it more sparingly at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which gave it a much needed rest, before breathing new life into it during their tour of Japan. “We sang at a special Beatles and Jazz circuit in Tokyo in September which was incredible and kicked it back into life. At that point, we all began to remember why it was so great in the first place.”

Barstow believes the song has become such a hit due to the variation contained within the arrangement. “There are some really chromatic passages and you’re constantly changing the vocal sound between scat vocal, instrumental style a cappella and real voice singing. Also, there’s nowhere to breathe.” Despite some snags the song hit during the year, because it was such an early part of their set, Barstow claims it maintained some of that initial, start of year hype. As or the album track, Barstow gives credit to Bill Hare, who is “fantastic in general but also a big fan of the Beatles so really got into it.”

Nick’s favourite song of the year remains their cover of Elbow’s Lippy Kids, because of the sentimental value it held for him. “Without being overly sentimental, it summed up my year with the group, and it is pure and poetic.” He is unsure whether Got To Get You will make a return to the group’s set in the near future. “There are some songs that you associate so much with one particular year and group of people that it wouldn’t be right without them.” However, he does concede that it might “come back in a year or two.”

You can buy Out of the Blue’s album, Music Up!, which contains the track, on iTunes.

Best of British 2012: 5. Jar of Hearts

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
7. The Accidentals – Rolling in The Deep
6. The Oxford Gargoyles – Dancing in the Moonlight

5. The Oxford Belles – Jar of Hearts

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

In at number five is our highest placed track that hasn’t been released on a recording this year, the powerful rendition of Christina Perri’s Jar of Hearts by The Oxford Belles. We certainly hope the song might be forthcoming on an album soon, but as it is, this was one of our favourite live performances of the year.

Surprisingly, the girls themselves were expecting a slightly different reaction when the song debuted at the Oxford Regional of the Voice Festival back in February. “We were actually expecting our standout song to be our TV Medley,” said Alicia Gayle, current MD of the group. “I thought Jar of Hearts was a good arrangement, but other than that I wasn’t expecting a prize for it,” added the ever modest Sophie Giles, who took the lead vocals on the number. The arrangement itself wasn’t actually one done by a member of the group, but by someone else in the a cappella world. “The song was arranged by Lauren Barreiro, who is a part of fellow all-female group Musae,” mentioned Gayle.

Regardless of who arranged the song, the girls really took it by the scruff of the neck and continued to perform the song for the remainder of the academic year, including at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, where it was also highly praised, being described as “the best a cappella solo […] all year,” alongside mentions of being a “standout solo performance” by audience members and reviewers alike. The girls feel it’s not suitable for every occasion though: “I do like the song, but there are other songs I really enjoy performing,” said Giles, before adding: “I think that it is a great song for certain occasions, but for some gigs it’s just not appropriate.”

As far as I’m concerned, though, I want to hear it whenever and wherever they sing. As the girls suggest, everyone in the group really commits to song when it’s being performed and are able to convey the necessary emotion in both their voices and their expressions as they sing the number. “It’s quite a powerful song in itself,” concluded Gayle, and we are inclined to more than agree. We definitely hope to hear this one again.

You can watch the award-winning rendition of Jar of Hearts right here.