VF-UK 2014: Semi-Final Review

The morning and afternoon of Saturday 8th March saw twelve of the UK’s best collegiate a cappella groups descend upon the City of London School for Girls to battle it out for just five places in the Final on Sunday evening, 9th March. With the groups split into two semi-finals of six, and each group getting 8 minutes to show off their abilities rather than the traditional 12 minute set, the pressure was on to impress from the word go. And boy, did they impress. We’ve given our thoughts on each group’s performance and picked our top five to reach the Final tomorrow – but we won’t know who will be competing in the Final until later this evening.

Semi-Final 1

The King’s Chicks

Opening proceedings is no easy task, especially for a group that has never made it this far before – fellow semi-finalists Choral Stimulation suffered from nerves in last year’s final after being drawn first in their début final and it cost them. However, the King’s Chicks, dressed in black crop tops, jeans and red hairbands, showed no sign of nerves in their whirlwind set of three mid-length numbers, diving straight in with a nod to International Women’s Day and what I’m going to describe as a Girl Power Mash-Up. Beyonce, Lily Allen, Destiny’s Child… all the usual suspects made an appearance in this opening number, which seemed to finish no quickly than it had started. It began a theme for the afternoon of groups trying to mash one-too-many songs into each other with little regard for musical similarities, although Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here was met with a sassy solo which showed promise.

The girls’ middle song was their strongest, a cover of Regina Spektor’s Us, which began with some glorious bell tones and introduced the wonderfully controlled solo with consummate ease. The dynamics were blatant and rose and fell in all the right areas, although the girls could have used some variation in vowels aside from the ‘do’ sounds that were predominant throughout.

The King’s Chicks’ final number was the strongest in terms of arrangement but the weakest in terms of performance. Rabbit Heart and Say My Name are typically punctured by Florence Welch’s massively powerful lungs, and as a result this cover felt a little underwhelming; despite the girls’ best efforts to inflict the clichéd ‘wall of sound’ on the audience, they never quite got there, particularly the meek soloist on the former of the two numbers. The choreography throughout the set was simple but effective and interesting enough to watch, and with nothing to compare against, it was a decent enough start from the girls from King’s.

All the King’s Men

Following up their King’s College compatriots were three-time VF-UK Finalists All the King’s Men, hoping to make it four finals out of four. Wearing their usual blue shirts and dark trousers, the group presented a two-song set consisting of Livin’ On A Prayer and a Spider Medley which you may have heard at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a couple of years ago. AtKM always space themselves in a very refreshing way on stage – they rarely ‘shoe-up’ like many other groups, instead choosing to scatter themselves in an orderly fashion and facing different directions on stage, and while their choreography (or rather, movement) looks effective, in essence it’s just clever use of the stage space.

Livin’ On A Prayer was excellent. They had much improved in terms of pitching since their performance at the St Andrews A Cappella Christmas Concert, and Barry O’Reilly led the solo powerfully and note perfectly, although I just wish he had the voice to push the very challenging top notes into chest voice rather than falsetto as the song and the arrangement was simply crying out for it. There were nice moments with the brief sample of Michael Jackson combined with the moonwalk and the High School Musical-esque jump in unison towards the end, although if I were to be churlish, there were a few voices that stuck out from the otherwise fairly tight blend.

The Spider(Man) medley began with Gus Nicholson sat on the floor launching into a timid version of Incy Wincy Spider, which morphed quickly into a jazzy version (with a slight rhythmic blip along the way) and then into the Spider-Man Theme. The group took the opportunity to showcase several voices (and, indeed, varying facial expressions) which worked well, although the group didn’t quite manage to reach a suitable climax musically. They did achieve one comically, however, making sure to define that they weren’t talking about Irom Man, an X-Man, Jackie Chan, or indeed That Man in the front row. The crowd went wild and rightly so afterwards. This was a better performance than last year, but not quite as good as their title-winning one in 2012. Enough to send them to the Final? Probably.

The Sons of Pitches

Last year’s British ICCA Final representatives from the University of Birmingham, The Sons of Pitches were the first group to reach the New York Final without having become British champions in the process. Keen to amend this, the smallest group in the competition, just seven-strong, emerged in their new white boiler suits, but this emergence was unlike your usual entrance. Josh Mallett entered first, with a jar of jam. The rest followed, acting like zombies. All will be revealed in due course.

The zombies corresponded to the first song in the group’s Happy Medley – Gorillaz’ Clint Eastwood One thing that is so apparent watching SoP is that they enjoy performing SO MUCH. Their choreography was pure and simple fun. Cheeky and mischievous, yes, but also bloody good fun. It also appears the group have replaced the phenomenal beatboxing talent that is Jack Blume with someone even better and with more fun tricks up his sleeve – Mide Adenaike. He revealed what can only be described as a “bass growly thing”. It was awesome. Pharrell’s Happy merged in, as did a snippet of If You’re Happy And You Know It, and all-in-all this was a pretty outrageous start to the set.

Then something weird happened. The group slowed to an eerie, discordant, minute-long version of Girls Aloud’s Sound of the Underground. The solo from Joe Hinds was haunting. The backing, however, was either so brilliantly discordant that it was perfect, or simply plagued with tuning issues. Usually with numbers like that you can tell when chords are supposed to clash, but the song was so brief that it was difficult to tell and as a result it left you with somewhat of a sour taste.

The group were back to their brilliant best in the final number, another mash-up, this time of Jason Derulo’s Talk Dirty To Me and Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty. Adenaike demonstrated some more absurd throat singing. If he doesn’t win some sort of award I’ll be very surprised. The logic behind the jam was revealed when Christina’s lyric ‘That’s my jam!’ was sung; indeed, Jamie Hughes led the line superbly in this final number. The best thing about the Sons is that each member pulls their weight and is a huge character in the personality and make-up of the group, and they really are a joy to watch. While this wasn’t the best Sons of Pitches performance I’ve ever seen, it should still have easily been good enough to see the group through to the Final. They’ll need to tighten up if they’re to win it though.

The Uptone Girls

Also hailing from Birmingham and in their first London-based competition, the Uptone Girls entered the stage with shirt white tops and tight, shiny leggings. When I say shiny, I mean shiny. Like, super shiny.

The group kicked off with a cover of Lorde’s Royals. It was OK. The dual beatbox worked extremely well, and was particularly good for a girl group. The soloist was confident and capable, although I do feel pitching the song slightly lower would have allowed for a more powerful and expressive (and less squeaky!) performance all around. Also, I feel this is a very ‘safe’ song to choose; the original is very easy to adapt for a cappella – it has all the necessary harmonies ad moving parts already contained within it – and the girls didn’t add a huge amount to what was already there. Musically they were flawless, but they played it safe here.

In stark contrast, the arrangement of OneRepublic’s Counting Stars against Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball was one of the best of the night. The usage of a continuous ‘ooh-aah-ooh-aah’ vowel blend complemented the two marvellous solos and was a welcome change from the somewhat dry backing in the previous number. The real triumph here were the transitions from one song to the other several times throughout the piece and the way they came off in live performance, although their big climactic moment once again could have been just a tad bigger for more effect. The arrangement here was superb; the performance almost matched it.

The Techtonics

I was listening to the Techtonics version of Labrinth’s Earthquake in the car on the way down to London and marvelling at the oozing creativity and plethora of talent displayed in the electronic piece that made it onto the Sing! 8 compilation. The talent remains; the creativity, it seems, has dissipated. Or maybe I just have heightened expectations now.

The Techtonics demonstrated from start to finish that they possess possibly the best group of singers in the competition. From soaring, note perfect falsettos to plunging basses, they have the full range – and with pretty much an army of singers, it’s no surprise. However, aside from the odd chuckle here and there in the first number, their set dragged, despite only being 8 minutes long.

The first number was a medley of too many songs that didn’t seem to gel particularly well and seemed to have been cobbled together for comedy value. There were occasional hilarious ‘WTF?!’ moments, including what I think might have been a Star Wars reference, but the song dissolved into a shapeless mish-mash that didn’t seem to have any real direction. It was sung competently enough, and there was some nice, realistic instrument imitation, but I just think they tried too hard to put too much into this number.

If their first song was too varied, their second suffered from not being varied enough. The soloist on Passenger’s Let Her Go was easily the best part of the song. I love a good, solid, strong baritone solo. The backing, however, was repetitive. I love a good “jah-nah-nah” as much as the next person, but for the entire song? No thanks. Musically, I couldn’t fault it. Each note was sung at pitch and the blend was fantastic. But there lacked a real spark to this performance, a real change of pace that would have made things a whole lot more interesting. There just wasn’t enough variation. When the boys decided to step out from their clustered formation I was hoping a climax was going to come, but instead they just got slightly louder and continued with the “jah-nah-nah” sounds. The boys clearly have talent by the bucketload; they just haven’t found the arrangement to demonstrate that talent to full capacity just yet.

The Accidentals

The final group in the first semi-final was The Accidentals from the University of St Andrews. Technically still the best all-female group in the country (but for how long?), the group took everyone by surprise by presenting a 8-minute long mega mash-up without any sort of break in between. It wasn’t half bad either.

Ellie Mason displayed her considerable pipes in the first number, Killing Me Softly, with was belted with gusto and verve on top of a restrained yet effective backing. The mash-up then gradually turned its attention to the Black Eyed Peas, incorporating Don’t Phunk With My Heart, Shut Up, My Humps, Boom Boom Pow, Pump It, Meet Me Halfway and Where Is The Love?. It was exhausting. The girls displayed relentless energy to make it through the entire number, and remained, for the most part, on key. They displayed the usual mix of solid musicality with some fierce dance moves, RnB magic, rap, grinding, and even put in a few cheeky modulations up and down just to toy with the audience.

On the plus side, the transitions were phenomenal, and each song was tackled with as much ferocity as the next. However, again it felt as if they had tried to put too many songs into the one, to such an extent that nothing stood out as being truly memorable – all the moments were too fleeting. It was a bold choice by the girls, and credit to them for taking a risk. I’m on the fence as to whether or not it paid off. It was entertaining, hilarious and VERY feisty, as always, and also demonstrated a huge range of styles that the girls executed flawlessly time after time. But was it simply too overwhelming?

Semi-Final 2

Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue have changed. Since last seeing them live at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2012, it seems every member of that Fringe generation has left the group. I saw no familiar faces in their line-up today. Would the OOTB legacy live on?

Just about. The light blue shirts, ties and lack of shoes are still there. The classic choreography is still there. They even had a strong soloist, something they have lacked in the past, on their first number, Bruno Mars’ Treasure, which was a standard, big-voiced, boisterous and fun OOTB number, without really becoming anything spectacular. The highest and lowest parts had the most variety, with the mid-ranged backing verging on becoming a little monotonous, but the boys changed things up enough to keep the arrangement relatively fresh with some perfect unison melodies and the classic pointing pose at the end of the number.

However, the boys brought their A-Game when it came to their second number, Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence. This was the best musical performance of the night. Out of the Blue know how to do close harmony. It had everything: gorgeous lofty belltones, marvellous pitching, fresh vowel sounds, glorious high falsetto and blend to match even the most professional of groups. There was one moment when the pitching was oh-so-slightly lost, but this was a tiny blemish on a stunning vocal demonstration. I wasn’t sure about their chances for the final after their first number; after their second, I felt they were nailed on finalists.

Semi-Toned

Some members of Semi-Toned were wearing extremely tight trousers. That’s all I have to say on this matter.

Sometimes I wonder what goes on in a Semi-Toned rehearsal. Whoever thought of having a set which mashed-up Ylvis’ The Fox with Olly Murs’ Dear Darlin’, followed by the Pokemon Theme Tune and Radiohead must be crazy. But good crazy.

Despite a nervy, pitchy start, Murs’ Dear Darlin’ was performed with a tenderness that befitted its position behind Out of the Blue’s closer. Just as we were lulled into a false sense of security, however, BOOM. Cue The Fox and some crazy dancing (granted, at the expense of musicality, but who needs it when you’re pretending to make fox noises?!) Semi-Toned are way too fun. I literally wrote on my notes the word ‘BANTER’ in capital letters during this number. A raucous ride.

To follow this with the Pokemon Theme was brave, as the group could have been seen to be taking the mick slightly, but the pseudo-serious bass solo added a touch of sincerity to the proceedings, as well as nostalgia. The group definitely proved they were the most charismatic of all the groups so far with their opening two numbers.

And then Radiohead. From the ridiculous to the sublime. They NAILED this. Michael Luya’s solo was delicate and floated and simply marvellous. There was something about the blurred backing vowels that fitted the nature of the arrangement so well. There was definitely an element of AtKM’s Hide and Seek inspiration to be found in this number. Quite brilliant. Deserved finalists.

The Alleycats

The Alleycats were next up, sporting their usual suited-up attire with bright white trainers. (How do they keep them so clean?) As a fellow St Andrews student, I really really wanted The Alleycats to be brilliant, and I knew they had to be to stand a chance of reaching the Final. And they were – in moderation.

Despite having a plethora of solo talent in their ranks, The Alleycats have one of the most distinctive and successful blends in the country, which one would think is a huge advantage in a competition like this. Indeed, soloists Ayanna Coleman and Ollie Hayes on Put Your Records On and Jason Derulo’s The Other Side respectively led the line superbly, gracing the stage with their vocal dexterity. Jess Browne added some delightful ‘twiddly bits’ at the top, while some of the cutesy choreography on Records reminded me of similar movement in their Fringe version of Sixpence Non The Richer’s Kiss Me when Annie Faichney was on lead vocals.

However, I think they played it too safe here. Yes, musicality they were tight. They looked great. They did everything right on the night. But they weren’t ambitious enough. The Alleycats are very good at what they do, to such an extent that they become stubborn and unwilling to think outside the box. Both these numbers were very ‘Alleycat’ numbers – ‘zum-zum-ba’ is their token backing vocal sound and was used here in full force – but neither number had enough variety or spice to stop them both from dragging just slightly towards the end.

If you’re looking for a solid a cappella group that never fail to sound bloody good, The Alleycats are who you’re gonna call. But in times when judges look ever more for shows of brilliant originality, I don’t think they provide enough of that.

The Scopes

The Scopes became the third group to fall into the trap of trying to fit too many songs into a small timeframe across the course of the afternoon in London. Credit must be due to them for the effort they put into their first London national event, but following the huge sound that the Alleycats create was never going to be an easy task and at times they almost drowned in the dull acoustics of the venue.

Their first song was good. A Queen mash-up of Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy, Don’t Stop Me Now and Bohemian Rhapsody was spearheaded by a cute tenor solo and all-in-all it worked well. The arrangement was solid, the beatboxing was effective if occasionally the slightest bit out of time, and their variation in rhythms kept everything interesting and took us on a journey more so than some of the other groups had done.

However, the second song, what can only be described as a 90s Pop Medley, was married by pitching issues at the very start and was simply another case of trying to squeeze too much into one song. The best mash-ups contain two songs, with a potential small sample of a third, which bear similar rhythms, key signatures and often themes, and have samples of each song throughout the arrangement. This was a cluster of pop songs stacked up one behind the other with no real room for any of them to become fully fledged – a shame really, because the group showed musically the potential to be really strong. But with S Club 7, Blink 182, B*Witched, Shania Twain, Steps, Blue, Busted, The Spice Girls and Peter Andre all squeezed into four minutes, it was just too much.

The Songsmiths

Note to other groups: This is how you perform at your first VF-UK national event. A seamless, eight minute long set of two songs which blended well into each other but had enough of their own identity to be praiseworthy on their own merit.

The group from Leeds began with Alt J’s Fitzpleasure, intertwining some already existing harmonies with a strong hi-hat beatbox, some awesome dubstep bass and a gorgeous, if unorthodox, soloist. Towards the middle of the song, the girls did get a little pitchy, especially towards the faster-paced section of the arrangement, but corrected themselves quickly enough and grew to a huge wall of sound into the start of Total Eclipse of the Heart. Gorgeous belltones preceded the revelation that the aforementioned beatboxer is also a strong tenor, who added in the “Turn Around” echo with a pure, crisp tone. The Eclipse solo itself was lead magnificently, although the group could have been accused of extending the song a little longer than was necessary.

Most importantly, the group made a huge warm wall of sound as they built to a climax that had sadly been missing for much of the rest of the afternoon: as if I’d been inches away from a big, long, warm hug and the Songsmiths were finally the ones who gave it to me. The arrangement here must be praised as it was the springboard on which the Leeds group could build their very well received performance.

A dark horse for the Final?

Choral Stimulation

The very final group to perform was Glasgow’s Choral Stimulation. As always, they were dressed in traditional Scottish attire, including kilts, sporrans and oodles of tartan.

Again, the group seemed nervous and as a result had a few pitching issues throughout the set. Their first number was a tender mash-up of Use Somebody with Mr Brightside. The solo on Use Somebody was simply phenomenal: delicate in the most delicate of moments, and powerful in the most overwhelming of moments, it was sung with silky soul. Again, though, the big climax threatened to arrive but never quite did, before they marched on into their second number, which incorporated Go Your Own Way with Locked Out Of Heaven and Cher’s Believe. While much laughter was garnered from the gimmick from the soloist on Believe hitting his throat to impersonate the auto-tuned nature of Cher’s original, the group sounded a little tired, and I just felt this arrangement wasn’t as perfect a fit for the group as their ‘Ode to Glasgow’ was last year. Having seen Choral Stimulation perform many times, I feel they have done better in the past.

The group rounded off proceedings by gradually leaving the stage, with just the stoic beatboxers/drumrollers remaining on stage for an effective finale.

Something didn’t quite click for me with CS’s set this time around. Perhaps after last year’s marvellous effort I was expecting too much. Possible finalists.

The Verdict:

UACUK’S Finalist Picks:

SONS OF PITCHES
OUT OF THE BLUE
ALL THE KING’S MEN
SEMI-TONED
THE SONGSMITHS

VF-UK Semi-Final Results:

Outstanding Arrangement: Edward Scott of Semi-Toned and Harry Style of The Songsmiths
Outstanding Musicality: Out of the Blue
Outstanding Choreography: Choral Stimulation
Outstanding Soloist: Peter Noden of the Techtonics
Outstanding Performance: Semi-Toned

Finalists:

THE TECHTONICS
OUT OF THE BLUE
ALL THE KING’S MEN
SEMI-TONED
THE SONGSMITHS

So we called four out of the five finalists. Did your favourite group go through?

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VF-UK 2014 Semi-Final Line-Up Announced

After a much anticipated couple of days, with groups steadily revealing their individual successes via various means of Social Networking, the full line-up of groups competing in the Voice Festival UK 2014 Semi-Finals has been revealed. And here it is, with our own additional commentary:

The Accidentals (University of St Andrews)
Having made the Final two years in a row back in 2010 and 2011, the girls have suffered in more recent years from the ever increasing competition provided by the St Andrews Regional round. This year, three of the four Scottish groups who entered have qualified for the trip to London, further emphasising the quality of a cappella in Scotland that has only previously been speculation. With Final experience under their belt, and still technically the top all-female group in the country, The Accidentals will feel they have a strong shot at being one of the final five.

The Alleycats (University of St Andrews)
It’s often forgotten that The Alleycats, a permanent fixture in UK a cappella since way back in 2001, last made the London Final in 2010 when two groups qualified from each Regional Round. Since the reduction to one group, the co-ed group have always been there or thereabout without making that final step. This year, they have a huge chance to do that, and with the group following in the footsteps of Out of the Blue by auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent, this could be their breakthrough year.

All the King’s Men (King’s College, London)
A regular fixture in VF-UK Finals in recent years, All the King’s Men have qualified for every Final they have attempted to qualify for. With three consecutive Finals, including their victory in 2011, they will be aiming for four in a row and are well equipped to do so. However, with a huge turnover of members this year and the loss of some stalwarts of the group, it will be interesting to see how the fledgling group has come together by the time the Final rolls round in March.

Choral Stimulation (University of Glasgow)
With their début Final performance coming last year after a stunning victory in the St Andrews Regional, Choral Stimulation have a big chance to build upon last year’s success, as well as being the third group from Scotland to qualify for the Final. They were visibly nervous in last year’s Final, but the experience will have served them well, and they have held on to the majority of their members, which bodes well. Whether they can capture the spirit of the group and of Scotland as well as they did in their marvellous set last year remains to be seen.

The King’s Chicks (King’s College, London)
After multiple unsuccessful attempts, it is a delight to see The King’s Chicks fulfilling their potential and qualifying for the Semi-Final. In doing so, they become the second of three all-female groups in the Semis and have a chance to dislodge The Accidentals as the best girl group in the country. They have no experience of reaching any further than Regional Rounds which may count against them, but they will bring something fresh and new to the London crowd and it would be great to see an all-girl group in the Final after such a long drought.

Out of the Blue (University of Oxford)
Only Out of the Blue and The Ultrasounds entered from Oxford this year, but if you were to put money on any Oxford group making the Final, it would be the OOTB boys. They have never failed to reach the Final, except last year when they didn’t enter, and won the inaugural competition back in 2009. They are the most successful internationally and the most popular group in the UK in terms of Facebook fans – but it will be the music that counts on the night, and six years after their last victory, they will be keen to return to the pinnacle of UK a cappella.

The Scopes (Imperial College, London)
Having only débuted last year, The Scopes have done well to make it through to the Semi-Finals. In the shadow of fellow Imperial group The Techtonics since their inception, this year has given them the chance to show the rest of the aca-community how far they have come since their founding in 2011. With The Techtonics also having qualified, though, will they rise above their rivals and make it into the top 5?

Semi-Toned (University of Exeter)
2013 was a big year for Semi-Toned – their first VF-UK Final, their first Fringe run (to heaps of critical acclaim), and a huge reputation boost in the process has put them, and a cappella in the South West, firmly on the map. This stage experience will have been crucial and may serve them well in the Semis – but there are a lot of strong, experienced groups against them, and they will need to really raise their game if they are to push for the title.

The Songsmiths (University of Leeds)
As a Yorkshireman, I’m proud of The Songsmiths for being the first group based in Yorkshire to qualify for a London VF-UK event. Formerly 95 Keys, and a group that seems to change their name fairly regularly, they were a part of the award-mad Birmingham Regional last year and picked up a few awards themselves, but they’ve never progressed further than that and will have their work cut out if they’re to reach the Final.

The Sons of Pitches (University of Birmingham)
Arguably the favourites. They sounded great at the London A Cappella Festival, and having bought their own handheld mics and released a thoroughly impressive album at the end of 2013, not to mention their ICCA Final experience in New York City last April, they are definitely the group to beat, especially given reigning champion Vive’s absence. They have kept a small group of 7, recruiting two very impressive new members, and don’t seem to have a weak link. There are former champions in the field though, who have been there and done it before, but the speed at which SoP are developing as a group could just be too much for the rest to keep up with.

The Techtonics (Imperial College, London)
An interesting group, really. Their 2012 album, Groundbreaker, was phenomenal, with Earthquake making it onto a cappella compilation CDs in the States, but they have never really translated this success into live competitions. The London Regional has become extremely strong recently, with All the King’s Men monopolising it in recent years, and the new format could give them a chance to break out and prove they’re better than their competitive pedigree would suggest.

The Uptone Girls (University of Birmingham)
The final girl group to make the Semis, the Uptone Girls have, like The King’s Chicks, been slightly upstaged by their male counterparts in recent Regional rounds. However, having made the Semi-Finals, the girls will be desperate to prove they are just as good as the Sons of Pitches and show off their competitive edge – something they will definitely need if they’re to make the Final in a very strong field.

So who didn’t make it?
For the most part, the groups with the most experience qualified for the Semi-Finals. One notable exception is 2011 Winners Cadenza, who didn’t make the Final, and previous Finalists HotTUBBS. None of the début groups qualified, which is a shame as live competitive stage experience is vital to the progress of a developing group, and groups that have shown promise in the past, the likes of Aberpella, Sweet Nothings and The Ultrasounds also missed out. We look forward to hearing more about these groups throughout the year regardless!

To book tickets for the University Semi-Finals and Final, click here.

Best of British 2013: 6. Ode To Glasgow

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 Guys‘ Christmas 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 continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium
8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own
7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day

6. Choral Stimulation – Ode To Glasgow

Award: ‘Outstanding Arrangement’ – Voice Festival UK 2013, St Andrews Regional

Staggering drunkenly into sixth place on our countdown is the hilarious, hugely varied and frankly wonderful ‘Ode To Glasgow’ from Glasgow’s only university group, Choral Stimulation. The song was part of the group’s award winning Voice Festival set earlier this year, and indeed went some way to helping the group to their first ever VF-UK Final. However, had the group not débuted the song in a small room at Glasgow University’s Students Union in preparation for the St Andrews Regional, the outcome may have been slightly different. “It didn’t go well,” admits David Ragg, MD of the group and arranger of their entire VF-UK 2013 set. However, some jokes were reworked and a few of the harmonies were tweaked, and the second public performance came on stage under the pressures of VF-UK competition, a performance which, according to Ragg, went “considerably better.”

The origins of the arrangement came about after the group for the first time decided to capitalise on their perception as ‘outsiders’ at the St Andrews Regional. “I had wanted to do a ‘super-medley’ for a long time,” said Ragg, “And we had been throwing about ideas in the group what this could be. We hit on Glasgow as a theme because we have, in the past few years, been the outside contender in St Andrews; we wanted to acknowledge and be proud of this. When I suggested it to a Glaswegian I was sat down and given a list of songs that HAD to be in there. It then evolved from others’ input into an Ode to Glasgow, with an overarching storyline to it that I hope can be seen in the finished thing.” Incorporating music from Love Actually, several Glasgow folk songs, Travis, the infamous ‘There’s been a murder’ line from Taggart, and even a solo for Ragg himself, the song really caught the imagination of the audience, although more so in St Andrews than at the Final in London.

“The final was an entirely different dynamic for the group,” said Ragg, “As well as being our first performance as a Final and outside Scotland, the audience was significantly smaller than the extremely popular Scottish Regional stage. Some of our Scottish humour may have fallen slightly short at times!” Despite the popularity of the song, it was not Ragg’s favourite from the groups’ setlist this year. “My favourite song would be ‘Feeling Bad’, the last song in our 2013 set. I had come up with an idea and came with it unfinished to the group. We then worked on it together as a group to make a funny and fairly silly song that has really grown on me. It is special as it is the first song I’ve co-written and I’m glad it came off so well.”

Despite this, Ragg understands why ‘Ode’ has become so highly regarded, and trumps the variety of the song, both in the arrangement, and also in the distribution of solos, as one of the main factors for its success. “We gave everyone in the group a solo to give everyone a chance; too often in a cappella, MDs, myself included, give the solos to a few good tenors or female voices because it is easier to write for these voices; in one way this was an exercise to help stop myself doing this, and I think audiences enjoy it because you get to see everyone in the group equally, and I think in our video you can see that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously and having a lot of fun.”

You can hear ‘Ode To Glasgow’, as well as the rest of the group’s Voice Festival UK 2013 right here. I’ve also been told that this track will feature on the group’s brand new EP – release date TBC!

So, only the top 5 remains. Who will be named the Best of British 2013? Stay tuned…

Event Review: VF-UK 2013 University Final

Question: What’s the best way to kick off a weekend full of a cappella workshops, socialising and all around musical mayhem? Answer: Get the best collegiate groups from around the country together to battle it out for the title of Voice Festival UK Champion.

That’s exactly what happened on Friday 15th March 2013 at the City of London School for Girls, as the winners of the five Regional Rounds, plus one wildcard entry, took to the stage to show off the best of their a cappella skills. And my, what a final it was…

The line-up for the evening was as follows:

CHORAL STIMULATION
University of Glasgow
Winners of St Andrews Regional Round
4th VF-UK
1st Final

VIVE
Guildhall School for Music and Drama
Winners of ‘Ward Swingle Award for Originality’, London Regional Round
1st VF-UK
1st Final

SONS OF PITCHES
University of Birmingham
Winners of Birmingham Regional Round
3rd VF-UK
2nd Final

SEMI-TONED
University of Exeter
Winners of Exeter Regional Round
2nd VF-UK
1st Final

THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES
University of Oxford
Winners of Oxford Regional Round
5th VF-UK
2nd Final

ALL THE KING’S MEN (Reigning Champions)
King’s College, London
Winners of London Regional Round
3rd VF-UK
3rd Final

Master of Ceremonies: Overboard

Despite the late start, the tension was palpable within the audience as professional US group Overboard took us through the ins and outs of the evening, before our first act, Scotland’s own Choral Stimulation took to the stage, aptly clad in tartan here, there and everywhere. Having seen this group at the St Andrews Regional, I knew they had a solid set with some standout moments – I just hoped their nerves, which were quite apparent from the start, didn’t stop them from showing off their talent. They kicked off with their hilarious ‘Ode to Glasgow’ mash-up, which incorporated songs such as the Glasgow Theme Tune from the film Love Actually, Love Is All Around Me and Why Does It Always Rain On Me? among several others, which were blended together masterfully throughout and really gave the audience a sample of their hometown. As you would have expected from a mash-up, there was a great deal of variety to the number, allowing the group to demonstrate their versatility. Highlights included one of the Scottish members of the group lolling around on stage pretending to be a drunkard, to huge uproar from the audience; some lovely bell-tones as the start; and a drumroll from the impressive vocal percussionist towards the end of a song which was a great start to the evening. My only worry was that, as has happened in the past, songs that have a distinct regional feel to them often don’t go down as well as they do in the Regional Rounds as audiences and judges fail to ‘get’ them – indeed, the applause in St Andrews was far more gratuitous than in London.

Their second number was a gorgeous and tender rendition of Michael Jackson’s Will You Be There?. The lead, while not having a typically pure, trained vocal, instead had a husky, gravelly tone to his voice which was juxtaposed gloriously against a backing that was so tender at the start it could barely be heard. The song built nicely into the smooth key change, and the beatboxer again demonstrated some skilful and apt percussion. Although the less in-your-face of their three numbers, this one stuck out to me in particular, more so than it did in St Andrews – perhaps there was a magic touch about this version that was missing from their set three weeks previously. Regardless, this was a beautiful middle song that did Michael Jackson justice.

Their final number was another mash-up, stylised as ‘Feeling Bad’, kicking off with Feelin’ Good and incorporating samples of Gangnam Style, Michael Jackson’s Bad and Show Me Love. Having seen the group perform this in St Andrews, I have to say I think the nerves got the better of them on this one, because it just wasn’t as tight, comedic or indeed musical as it seemed to be in the previous round. Nevertheless, the group allowed the arrangement to speak for itself in certain cases, with thematic rhythms penetrating the entire number and the four girls showing us all why they’re only a foursome with some powerful vocals, as well as some great instrument imitation. Again, some great beatboxing (worthy of an award perhaps, although maybe it wasn’t showcased enough for that) and all-in-all a great set from the group, although in the end I think their lack of Final experience showed them up, as they were unable to shake their nerves throughout the set. A valiant effort from the group to a rapturous applause, but I couldn’t help feeling there were going to be better groups to follow.

The second group to perform were Ward Swingle Award Winners Vive, and we were about to experience something completely different. From the off, it became clear that Vive were not in the same mould as any group we had seen throughout the entirety of the competition. Dressed with a running red theme, the jazz-spiritual group kicked off with an original song, called Your Motivation, with Lithuanian Martynas Vilpisauskas coming in after a wonderful jazzy introduction with a lovely, controlled solo. It is clear that the group are exceptional musically, with some interesting and original consonant sounds a welcome release from the familiar ‘Do’s and ‘Dum’s that make up most other groups’ backing. Martynas exhibited some gorgeous falsetto towards the end of the track, before the group began clapping – which for a group of their high standards I’m not sure was entirely necessary – but such was the blend that I had no idea who was singing which part, despite my strategic seating on the second row from the front. A strong, bouncy opening number.

I was shocked when the group’s founder, James Rose, went into a short speech (!) before the second song as an interlude. Again, demonstrating the unusual nature of the group. Would that still allow their set to fit into the time limit? Rose introduced their second song, another original entitled Troubles We Find, and again the group demonstrated blend, control, dynamism and a keen ear for music as their bass (although more like a bass-baritenor) Lewis Daniel took them through this one. It became apparent that the group had no choreography to speak of, again setting them apart from all other groups, and as such, despite their impeccable musicality, the group provided less of the crucial entertainment factor than most other groups: no amusing on-stage interaction, no great or not-so-great dance moves – and I began to wonder whether this would hamper their chances of winning. However, it goes without saying that their phenomenal musicality and tuning went a long way to making up for the lack of ‘performance’ – and while I personally enjoy the combination of music and performance, there were a lot of audience members who were blown away by their stunning musical proficiency.

Another spoken interlude prefaced the final song, which was the only non-original number of the set, a spiritual piece called Ezekiel Saw De Wheel. Again, a very jazzy feel to the piece, with a fantastic tenor solo from Sam Robson – with his afro also quite something to behold. Some phenomenal runs too from Robson. But I found myself writing down all the same things about this song as about all the others – great musicality, lovely blend, exceptional tuning. Coming from a music school, you expect the group to be exceptionally musically talented, but there was no “Wow!” moment here, no one climactic moment that blew me away: I feel the group sat well within their comfort zone, without venturing exciting new territory, and as such their set felt a little one-dimensional.

Vive were followed by another group with a lower-than-average number of members, Birmingham’s The Sons Of Pitches. They wore their token orange boiler suits and effortlessly eased into the eerie beginning to Eminem’s Lose Yourself, which was a highly manipulated and original version of the song which the boys had really made their own: clearly some fantastic arranging skills within the small group. Some nice echoed ‘Ah’s and the three-part lone lead on the chorus was breathtaking, before dropping back into the rap was also great. The shift into JT’s Cry Me A River swelled into a tempo shift and made for a commanding mash-up, with some playful melodies and harmonies and some impressive and frantic beatboxing from Jack Blume. Normally I’m not a fan of a fade-outs, but in this instance it worked, because they faded straight into the next song without the need for a pitch-pipe, an altogether impressive feat.

Not as impressive, however, as the original song that followed. Group member Joseph Novelli’s original song, You Are The One, really played to all the strengths of the group. With such a small group, it was imperative that each group member held his own, and while this was apparent throughout the set, it was this song which best accentuated that fact, with the bass in particular remaining strong and rooting the song in its entirety, and combined with the again proficient beatboxing to provide a strong driving beat throughout he number. In contrast to Vive’s original pieces, this one showed more variety, with a three-way beatbox breakdown, some hilarious yet also actually quite good choreography and some well-controlled volume changes. The complexity of the song was such that upon first listen, I had no idea it was an original number, such was the professionalism and aplomb with which it was performed.

The boys’ final number was the cheeky Wonderwall. It is testament to the entertainment value of these boys that the biggest laughs in this number were received before the song had even started, with the boys feigning nervousness and the musical director even using the blowing of the pitch pipe to comedic effect, casting furtive glances here and there as if they wanted to be singing in private. This transitioned into the lovely jazzy start to the number, which was again a highly original arrangement, and itself was utterly hilarious, with the group toying and playing with the audience as if it were a comedy sketch show, exemplifying and accentuating their entertainment value over and over again. Again, the bass held his own throughout. It goes without saying that the solo was strong – these boys have magnificent voices, and allowed the solos to shine through in just the right places. My notes concluded with three words twice underlined on the bottom of my notepad page: They were TIGHT.

Next up were the first groups from Exeter to reach the final, the boys of Semi-Toned. They wore black and maroon, the latter of which, in a bizarre twist of fate, matched the curtains on the stage. It was almost like they planned it that way. They kicked off with their mash-up of Cee Lo Green’s Bright Lights Bigger City and Hard-Fi’s Living For The Weekend, with a different soloist tackling each number. The first soloist was far stronger here than he had been back in Exeter, with a much more solid, confident performance, with really lifted the whole number. Eddie Henley took over the second solo and owned the stage – he really has great stage presence and acted and sung as if he was born to be there. In contrast to the two previous groups, Semi-Toned really hit us with the so-called ‘wall of sound’ in this first number, using their larger group to their advantage with some great harmonies, simple yet effective choreography and good volume control. Once again, Jack Telfer St Claire exhibited some great beatboxing and dance moves, and while this number was a slight improvement on their Regional performance, it just didn’t quite have the same originality or indeed entertainment value as the previous group.

Their second number was Smile Please by Stevie Wonder. I rated this as their weakest number in the Regionals, but again the boys stepped it up slightly with a more polished performance than they had provided in Exeter. The bass was gorgeous throughout, and the entire song was very lethargic and laid-back, which on the one hand was advantageous, as the theme of the song was reflected in the performance by the group, in what I’ll assume was a conscious decision, but on the other hand it did lose my attention just slightly towards the end, despite some lovely, if a little uninteresting chords. I couldn’t fault the number musically, as it felt a lot fuller and more fleshed out than the version they had sung in Exeter, but I think the arrangement of this one let them down a little, as they could only bring it to a certain level without having a great deal more going on.

Talking of having a great deal going on, the group closed with Muse’s Knights of Cydonia, their triumphant and anthemic closer. The opening of the number was quite unique – the eerie whistle that is present in the original was mimicked very accurately by one of the group members, before the wall of sound was once again breached with the brash, hard-hitting opening chords. This was followed by some awesome instrument mimicry, including some pretty hilarious electric guitar faces, but unfortunately the rest of the number wasn’t quite as powerful as it had been in the Regionals: a few of the higher harmonies were lost slightly, perhaps due to tired voices, and overall the group appeared to lose a little concentration and the musicality suffered ever so slightly, although this was made up for by the relentless beatboxing throughout the number, and despite the tired voices, the drop into the unison chorus was still the highlight of the piece. Again, I felt myself let down by the final chord, which was something of an anti-climax, given the harmonic variety to the rest of the piece. Overall, I think the boys from Exeter definitely did themselves proud and gave a solid performance in their first final.

Bringing their purple theme to the stage were The Oxford Alternotives, who opened with, as luck would have it, Muse’s Knights of Cydonia. No pressure then. The two arrangements were thankfully very different, with Semi-Toned going for the more brash, in-your-face approach to the number, whereas The Alternotives presented a more restrained yet musically more interesting cover of the song. That did nothing to dampen the wall of sound, but the group chose only to use it sporadically, instead using the musical intricacies of the arrangement to full effect, accentuating them where necessary to highlight this musical flair. Without wishing to compare the two covers too much, this one did seem a little more natural, with the group making the most of their female contingent by having them effortlessly cover the high harmonies, while the arrangement itself was a lot more interesting and rather dramatic, with the group donning their serious faces throughout at the risk of alienating the audience. A tough task to follow one song with the exact same song, but the Alts’ version was different and unique enough that it didn’t hamper their chances significantly.

The group then came along with Regina Spektor’s Samson. I have expressed my views on this number before, having heard it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer and on their latest album – it was on our shortlist for the Best of British 2012, only narrowly missing out on the top 10. This solo from Jessie Reeves was as near perfection as you could possibly get, with the backing swelling and dipping where necessary. I have to mention the insanely good soprano line in this number, which was, as always, unreal, and while it was a highlight, it never got carried away from the gorgeous blend of the piece. Reeves sang with emotion and vigour, and this was easily the best slow song of the night, stunning the audience to silence throughout. I could gush about this song all day, I really could, so I’ll stop while I can. Definitely worth an award, that one.

Their last song, Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You, was carried by the charisma of the soloist. The arrangement was the least musically interesting of the three, but this was put to one side as the cheeky grin of the cheeky male soloist took over, serenading various audience members and dancing with female group members throughout the piece. The nature of the song aided the entertainment factor of this piece, as it has natural rhythmic changes which the group made the most of, while the soloist dominated centre stage with a powerful solo – his suave, flirtatious manner was highly entertaining. This was the real let-your-hair-down number of their set, with the group coming up with some creative and fitting choreography and closing with almost mock-fawning over the soloist, at the expense of the tight musicality demonstrated in the previous two numbers. Overall, the group demonstrated why they were in the Final and had definitely provided one of the stronger sets of the night.

The final group to grace the stage were reigning champions All the King’s Men, notably for the first time competing without any of their founding members in the group, but still in their usual blue shirted attire. From the very off, I felt the group lacked the creative direction that previous MD Henry Southern had provided, and this had impacted on their spark and polish throughout the set. That said, they still delivered one heck of a performance. They began with Steve Winwood and James Vincent McMorrow’s Higher Love, a number I had not heard before but which was fantastically performed. The falsetto solo was a little shaky at the very start, but the delicate opening to the number was gloriously emphasised by the group’s use of silence. They were not afraid of it, and it was hugely effective. You could hear a pin drop, such was the hushed atmosphere in he crowd whenever the group made use of it. I really enjoyed their use of the ‘ng’ combination in the backing too, something generally reserved for warm-ups in rehearsal – another bold choice which paid off. After the opening, the group dropped into the rhythm of the number, and wile the beatboxing left something to be desired, the rest of the number was strong, demonstrating some powerful vocals, a lovely breakdown and build up from the basses, and even step-clapping, which I usually abhor but here actually was quite effective, given the spiritual nature of the song. Definitely a feel good number which got the boys off to a promising start.

The next song was John Mayer’s Slow Dancing In A Burning Room, which was led spectacularly by Cameron Carr’s dulcet bass-baritone, an unusual yet inspired choice of soloist which again really worked within the arrangement. Some lovely bell tones throughout, and a great build-up towards the word ‘bitch’, which really allowed to group ad the soloist to demonstrate their heartfelt emotions while singing the song, something which not many of the other groups had done. I also enjoy how not everyone in the group sings all the time. With a big group such as AtKM, sometimes less is more, especially in the more tender moments. Again, good direction for that. All in all, a solid, emotional performance.

Their final number, and the final number of the evening, was Forever by Chris Brown, with a running Viva La Vida motif and elements of other tracks thrown in, including Rebecca Black’s Friday. This was a fun number, and I loved the way the group teased the audience with the sample of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida without ever bringing it to the forefront of the song. More use of ‘ng’. Simple, effective, humorous choreography. Great harmonies, especially in the unison sections. Classic All the King’s Men, basically, done really well. I think the set just lacked a real sense of originality, which in previous years would have mattered less, but with two other groups providing original songs as well as some highly unique arrangements, I just feel this was a step sideways in terms of this particular group, whereas other groups had taken huge strides forward.

Verdict:

This was undoubtedly one of the most difficult finals to call in Voice Festival history. Each group demonstrated reasons why they ought to have won, each group had a unique style and personality, and each group provided great entertainment. In terms of specifics, my choice for the title was The Sons of Pitches, simply because their set was the most varied, most entertaining, and contained the least weaknesses. Their set and their songs told more of a story than any other group, and they were constantly inventive and interesting, with my concentration not lapsing once throughout their set. I feel All the King’s Men stood a chance, simply because they were about as good as last year, but in an ever growing, evolving and improving genre of music, staying at the same level one year to the next is not good enough competitively. That’s not to say that All the King’s Men did a bad job, on the contrary, I think they still demonstrated that they are one of the best groups in the country. The Oxford Alternotives were also potential winners, especially given the stand-out strength of their middle song, but again I feel they were eclipsed by the boys from Birmingham, who really brought something fresh to the competition. I felt Semi-Toned and Choral Stimulation did excellently in their debut finals, but perhaps nerves and tired voices were their undoing. Then we have the wild-card, Vive. I had no idea how the judges would react to this group. They were undoubtedly head and shoulders above the rest of the groups musically, but their take on the competition was so far removed from what we are used to that I wasn’t sure whether that would play into their hands or not. On a personal level, they were great to listen to, and their blend and musical intricacies were quite astonishing, but I felt they lacked variety. Either way, I was very glad not to be on the judging panel.

Awards:

Outstanding Musicality: Vive
Outstanding Performance: Jessica Reeves of The Oxford Alternotives for ‘Samson’
Outstanding Arrangement: Sam Robson of Vive for ‘Troubles we find’
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Jack Blume of Sons of Pitches
Outstanding Choreography: Joe Hinds and Joe Belham of Sons of Pitches

WINNER:

Vive

So it was Vive who took the title amidst a mixed reaction from the audience, but their musicality, originality and sheer musical dexterity won them the title. The Sons of Pitches claimed their just rewards with two awards, while Jessie Reeves deservedly picked up the award for ‘Outstanding Soloist’.

Vive Triumph in Debut Season; Fifth Different Winner at Fifth Final

In a night full of passion, intricacy, humour, style, sophistication and most of all, music, it was debutants Vive that took this year’s Voice Festival, triumphing over the likes of The Sons of Pitches, The Oxford Alternotives and last year’s champions All the King’s Men in the final at the City of London School for Girls.

With the group from Guildhall College of Music and Drama only reaching the final via a Wildcard after winning the Ward Swingle Award for Originality at the London Regional in the same venue last week, they put together a set never before seen in recent Voice Festival memory, with breaks in between each song to outro and intro the songs either side – something most other groups rarely have time for. The group were clearly the best musicality and indeed in terms of originality – their set contained two songs penned by group members themselves – but the audience favourite appeared to be The Sons of Pitches, who toyed with the audience deliciously throughout their set, and more than deserved their awards for ‘Outstanding Vocal Percussion’ and ‘Outstanding Choreography/Stagecraft’, the latter of which they picked up at last year’s final. Special mention must also go to Jessie Reeves of The Oxford Alternotives, who took the audience on a real emotional journey through her solo of Regina Spektor’s Samson. Surprisingly, reigning champions All the King’s Men left empty handed, as did Glaswegian group Choral Stimulation and Exeter based Semi-Toned, but these were by no means poor performances – each and every group could have made a point for why they were deserved winners on the night; it was merely a case of which group was the most outstanding.

So Vive it was that claimed the title ahead of the rest. What next for the group from Guildhall?

Results Round-Up
Outstanding Musicality: Vive
Outstanding Choreography/Stagecraft: Joe Bellum and Joe Hinds of The Sons of Pitches
Outstanding Arrangements: Sam Robson of Vive
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Jack Blume of The Sons of Pitches
Outstanding Soloist: Jessie Reeves of The Oxford Alternotives for Samson

Winner: VIVE

A full review of last night’s show will be available shortly.

Poll: Who will win the Voice Festival UK 2013?

With three weekends of top quality a cappella having whizzed past absurdly quickly, we are all set for a fifth Voice Festival UK University Final this weekend, taking place at the City of London School for Girls on Friday 15 March. With three groups having had experience in finals before, as well as three debutant groups, it really is wide open. Who is your favourite?

All the King’s Men

The reigning champions are in their third final in as many years, and having once again won the tough London Regional, must be feeling confident in their third straight final. The Men are currently the third best collegiate group in the world, having placed 3rd at last April’s ICCA Finals in New York, and will have been honing their VF-UK set while touring the US again this February. Losing their founder and long-time Musical Director Henry Southern will have been a blow, but it appears they have gone from strength to strength and look a good bet to defend their title.

Choral Stimulation

The hugely unfancied Glaswegian group (having only secured 4% of the vote for the St Andrews Regional Round in our previous poll) took everyone by surprise with their phenomenal set in St Andrews, becoming the first group outside of St Andrews to qualify from that particular Regional. This is their fourth year in the competition, which gives them more experience than all but one of the other groups, and they have been on a steady incline of improvement since their debut back in 2010. Will their lack of Final experience count against them though?

The Oxford Alternotives

The Alternotives last qualified for the final back in the first year of the Voice Festival UK, in 2009. That year, they made it through the now-defunct Cambridge Regional, whereas this year they progressed in their hometown in Oxford. The group have picked up several awards in the years they haven’t made the final, demonstrating they have always been there or thereabouts when it comes to qualification, but this is the year to really capitalise on their Final berth. They sounded fantastic at the Edinburgh Fringe over the summer – to what extent will this be continued?

Semi-Toned

Having made a strong debut last year, despite not making the Final, Semi-Toned secured one third of the vote to win the Exeter Regional and proved they had built on last year’s strong foundations with an astonishing set, picking up the majority of the awards at the Regional as well as securing qualification. As one of three all-male groups at the Final, they will need to do well to stand out, and a question marks lies over whether they have quite found their unique personality as a group, but they are definitely on their way to becoming one of the biggest male groups in the country. Can they rubber-stamp that fact with a win on Friday?

The Sons of Pitches

Having arguably been close runners-up in last year’s Final, the Birmingham-based group will feel in a strong position to further challenge for the VF-UK title this year, having picked up no less than three awards at the Birmingham Regional yesterday night. The boys claim that their success at last year’s Festival was a springboard for their spring and summertime successes, so imagine what the boys could achieve were they to win the thing? Praised for their masterful stagecraft and energetic performance in recent years, do the boys have enough musicality to win them the entire competition?

Vive

The wild-card entry (literally) in this year’s final, Vive have taken a leaf out of Pentatonix’ book by being a small, male-dominated group with one exceptional female lead to add the extra-dimension to their numbers. While the group focus on an entirely different repertoire to their American counterparts, the Guildhall-based group inherently have a huge amount of musical proficiency behind them and to qualify ahead of the likes of The Techtonics from the London round is quite an achievement, even if it was through the use of the Ward Swingle Award for Originality. I cannot wait to see these guys live, and see what they can offer. Will their lack of experience hamper their ability to win? Time will tell.

Have Your Say

Our poll is now open. Who do YOU think will win this year’s final?

Event Review: VF-UK 2013 St Andrews Regional Round

by John Lau

Saturday 23 February 2013 was the night when the Road to the Voice Festival UK Final started in Scotland, with the first of five regional competitions throughout the UK taking place at the Younger Hall in St Andrews. Six groups from three different universities competed for the sole place on offer at the Final in London on 15 March.

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

The Competitors:
THE HUMMINGBIRDS from the University of St Andrews
ABERPELLA from the University of Aberdeen
CHORAL STIMULATION from the University of Glasgow
THE ALLEYCATS from the University of St Andrews
THE OTHER GUYS from the University of St Andrews
THE ACCIDENTALS from the University of St Andrews

Master of Ceremonies:
THE ST ANDREWS REVUE

The first group to grace the stage (literally) were The Hummingbirds, who entered the stage in little black dresses and some fetching pairs of turquoise feather shaped earrings, a sight in itself. Their set kicked off with a mellow & soulful rendition of Poor Wayfaring Stranger, a spiritual-folky kind of song covered by many, most recently the Swingle Singers at LACF. As soulful as this piece was, I felt it was dragged out a little – indeed, the girls remind me of the early Belles from Pitch Perfect: making some gorgeous music but music that bops along in a cutesy kind of fashion without any real oomph to it.

This lack of pizzazz continued into their second song, as four of the girls donned blonde wigs in order to prepare for their rendition of Taylor Swift’s recent offering, Never Getting Back Together. The jump in terms of tempo between their opener and this rendition was admirable, but I always felt that there was an edge missing in this rendition I heard on the night compared to what we have all seen on the music video for this piece. Nevertheless, this was a hilarious number, backed up by some humorous spoken ad-libs, and it was the first piece of the night to really get the audience going.

The last piece in the Hummingbirds bid to qualify for their first national Final was a mash-up between 2 memorable pieces from 2012: Don’t You Worry Child from Swedish House Mafia and Adele’s Skyfall, two tracks with very different tempos, and I was intrigued to hear how they would juxtapose the electronic hook of Don’t You Worry with the soulful solo of Skyfall. In the end though, I was pleased to hear this pretty adequate combination of two quality tracks where the vocal performances in each part were competent. And with this end-piece the Hummingbirds exited the stage in the hope that they had done enough to qualify. I couldn’t help but to feel though that there was a sense of looseness about the set which may prove to be their undoing on the night. Could the group be blamed once again for a lack of competitive edge?

The next group on the stage was the first half of the non-St Andrews contingent, Aberpella from the University of Aberdeen, the mixed group who were, for the most part, wearing black suits and black shoes. Their first piece was a rendition of Alex Clare’s Too Close To Loving You, which sounded somewhat moody at the time, but having since listened to more of Clare’s work, the Aberdonian students’ rendition of this piece has proven highly effective, even if it was the most forgettable of their three pieces.

The next piece was a more brighter and positive effort, a mash-up of feel-good pieces When The Going Gets Tough and Build Me Up Buttercup, which was made memorable in terms of spectacle by some fancy footwork from the soloist, Nathan Chadwick, who implored the audience to get going when the going got tough. The soloists and their hysterical dance moves were indeed the real highlight of this piece – while the backing was solid, it wasn’t hugely original, which will have been picked up on by the judges, but from the perspective of an audience member it was a playful and witty middle song, and so credit to the group for winning over the crowd with this number.

The Aberdonians appeared to leave their best till last, when they came out with their rendition of Read All About It from Emeli Sande, interspersed with the chorus of The Cranberries Zombie. I do not generally have much time for the vocal output of Emeli Sande, so my expectations of this mash-up were relatively low. However, the vocal performance of Victoria Metcalf was one that made me, and everyone else in the audience, sit up and take notice. It was truly exceptional – controlled in all the right places, it rose and fell as necessary an really told the story of the song. It was a masterful solo, and I was therefore convinced that this vocal performance would struggle to be matched or exceeded by anyone else in this competition. A very strong finish to the set from the Aberdeen representatives.

Next on the stage were the 11-strong group Choral Stimulation from the University of Glasgow, this year with an unusual abundance of males in the group – almost double that of the girls, in fact. The group looked like some kind of unofficial ambassadors to the city, because they all had some form of tartan on them. This perception was reinforced when their first piece was an ‘Ode To Glasgow’ medley with no less than 14 tracks which all had a connection to the City of Glasgow, from Squealing Pigs by Admiral Fallow to the TV Theme tune for Taggart and even Why Does It Always Rain On Me? from Travis to name but three. This was an act of immense imagination and was pulled off with great aplomb, and I imagine that their arranging maestro David Ragg will have been up all night for quite some time trying to work out the complex ties between each song, not to mention figuring out which solos to dish out to whom.

The next piece was a somewhat less memorable one, as the group stepped into a rendition of Michael Jackson’s Will You Be There? The backing vocals from the rest of the group provided an apt contrast to the soloist’s voice, which sounded remarkably like Joe Cocker, and his gravelly voice was a refreshing change of pace from the more familiar vocal purity that is found in many of the modern day soloists.

The last piece of the Glaswegian set was another mash-up, officially titled ‘Feeling Bad’ – a mixture of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, Michael Jackson’s Bad, Show Me Love from Robyn S and even Psy’s Gangnam Style hit from 2012. Although it carried parts of another Michael Jackson hit, I thought it was a good touch for the Arranger to allocate the vocal parts of Bad to the women of the group, who seized this opportunity to show off their phenomenal vocal skills – one could argue that they were a little underused throughout the set, but it was worth it to see them shine through on this number. This was another fantastic mash-up to close, and the amount of work done behind the scenes by arranger David Ragg really shone through in this set. This was, in my opinion, by far the most memorable set of the night, and that could only be a good thing.

Next on the stage were the pioneers of St Andrean a cappella, the six young women and seven men who form The Alleycats, looking their usual best with black suits or dresses and white trainers. Their set started with what I will describe as a ‘Love Medley’ formed of parts of tunes such as What Is Love from Haddaway, Let Me Love You from Ne-Yo and Justin Bieber’s As Long As You Love Me, a young man who we seemingly cannot escape from these days. The piece was sung professionally and, as always, competently choreographed and performed by the energetic group.

Ayanna Coleman then stepped onto the spotlight in the middle piece, a rendition of Robyn’s Dancing On My Own. As I was listening to this, I couldn’t help but to feel that there was an high quality emotional element to this soloist’s performance, which countered the relative mellowness of this piece. Coleman has an angelic voice, and this shone through against the bare-bones backing, which was highly effective in conveying the mood of this piece.

The final piece was very much the highlight of their set, a rendition of Florence and the Machine’s Shake It Out. Not only was this a highly intricate arrangement, but in having a trio of soloists, we were taken through the feisty tones of Jill Wyman, the delicate, soulful tonality to Steph Bown’s gorgeous voice, as well as the powerful tenor of Tommy Rowe. There was a real build to this piece, which culminated in a huge climax of money notes, belted harmonies and an overall gorgeous sound. Credit must go to MD Brendan Macdonald for the arrangement of this one, and knowing how to best utilise the voices at his disposal. Definitely an award-winning track. Despite this magnificent final number, though, I was convinced that as competent a set as this was, there was something missing to equal the success of the previous years’ group

Next on the stage were the twelve Other Guys in suits of all hues and colours all set to entertain us with their set which was heavily reminiscent of their recent visit to the recording studio. The first piece was their very own I Only Bought You Flowers Because I Love You So, a song which had previously been released as a Valentine’s Day single, with moderate success. It sounded a little different than the original, with Ted Haxby and Matthew Pattie splitting the solo and the tempo significantly faster, which meant we lost a few of the words, but I have to say that it is brave and admirable to sing an original song at the Voice Festival – something that has not been done before by any group, and it was a most impressive start from the well-established group.

From something new to something borrowed, their next piece was a King’s Singers arrangement of When She Loved Me from Toy Story 2. While there were a couple of tuning issues, perhaps self-created due to the difficulty of some areas of the arrangement, I’m not sure I have ever seen an audience stunned to silence as they were when Laurie Slavin began singing: his beautiful counter-tenor was definitely the last thing you’d expect to come out of a bearded man who looks more like a bass! This rendition had the audience captivated, and unsurprisingly so.

This mood was destroyed somewhat too early as the boys prepared to close their set with a mash-up of Justin Bieber’s Beauty and a Beat and Taylor Swift’s I Knew You Were Trouble. The most remarkable part of this number was the boys’ decision to strip off into vest and all manner of (very short) shorts, unfortunately at the expense of the vocal performance, which dipped significantly here. The dance routine was typically humorous, and Andrew Pattie’s lead was complemented by Mark Gregory on the Taylor Swift number, with the two songs blending together nicely after a hard-to-hear rap from Ted Haxby. The set epitomised what The Other Guys are all about in terms of taking things seriously (in other words, they don’t), but this is the principal reason as to why they are so popular: choreography like the show on display and the propensity the group has in filming and recording for charity more often than not.

The last group on the stage were The Accidentals who are still, officially speaking, the best all-female collegiate group in the UK following their appearance at the Voice Festival Final in 2011. With the ten girls in their group donning their white Accidental tops, black sheer leggings and black shoes, they kicked off with a piece new to my ears, Bottom Of The River, an original from Delta Rae, an American folk-rock kind of group, which was powerfully delivered in terms of lead vocals by Anna McDonald, who, as always, demonstrated her huge set of lungs with an emphatic vocal performance.

The middle piece reminded us all of their urban style of music and how they can deliver such pieces so well, with a mash-up between Flo Rida’s Good Feeling and Taio Cruz’s Dynamite, among others. As you can imagine from the pieces chosen for this mash-up, the girls wasted no time in dropping successfully back into their hip-hop roots, with some lovely high harmonies that, while impressive, further emphasised the absence of the lower register in the girls’ range – the altos were slightly overpowered throughout much of the set, particularly in this number.

Their third piece was Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac, which against demonstrated the girls’ ability to incorporate some gorgeous, delicate harmonies in numbers where they are less focused on the brash, boisterous RnB that they are so fond of. Grace Hardy in particular showed off her heavenly soprano at the very top of the range, which never fails to be perfectly tuned.

Their last piece brought them back to hip hop with a mash-up of No Diggity from Blackstreet and Niggas in Paris by Jay-Z and Kanye West, stylised as ‘Accidentals in Paris’, complete with lyric changes. The highlight was a particularly memorable rapping performance delivered by Tessa Stokes, which was almost up there with the like of The Boxettes, despite the hurried pace meaning a few of the lyrics were rendered unintelligible. This was a classic demonstration of what the girls do best, and was received rapturously by the ever-captivated audience.

Verdict:

During the interval, as I wandered about the hall, the opinions were divided as to who had been the best group of the evening. I must admit, I was almost in agreement, and definitely didn’t envy the job of the judges at the end of the night. However, there were strengths and weaknesses to all of the performances: The Hummingbirds make gorgeous music, but never seem to bring a ‘Wow!’ moment to proceedings – they were guilty of this again this year. Aberpella were definitely hugely improved from last year, but whether or not this was good enough to see them through to the final was another matter. They clearly have a gem of a soloist in Victoria Metcalf, though. Choral Stimulation were probably the most consistent group of the evening, with some great arrangements fulfilling their potential on stage. The Alleycats were as solid as ever, but lacked a number like last year’s Titanium that really blew everyone away. The Other Guys had the whole package – some great blending and rhythmic nous in the first two songs, coupled with their typical barrel-of-laughs final number, while The Accidentals demonstrated why they are still the best all-female group in the country with their typical feistiness, and delivered a gutsy performance that rivalled that of anyone. From a personal point of view, it was between The Other Guys and The Accidentals. But it was too close for me to call – any of the groups had a good case for being declared the winner.

Awards:
Outstanding Musicality: The Other Guys
Outstanding Soloist: Miss Victoria Metcalf of Aberpella for Read All About It
Outstanding Arrangement: David Ragg of Choral Stimulation

WINNER:

CHORAL STIMULATION

So, Glaswegian group Choral Stimulation were classified as the Winners of this regional heat, and in doing so become the first non-St Andrean group to qualify for the National Final, and it was hard to argue with a result like this, for everything was memorably good, whether it was the tartan on show, the fantastic first piece ‘Ode To Glasgow’, the high standard of vocal percussion which may have been a little underused, or indeed their final piece, used as their encore, ‘Feeling Bad’. The group were delighted, and will compete again in the Final next weekend.