Voice Festival UK 2013 Preview – Part 3: London

A couple of weeks before Christmas, we here at the blog were once again provided with a wonderful Christmas present: the announcement of the round allocations for this year’s Voice Festival UK university competition. For the second year running, the competition is bigger than ever, with more groups from more universities competing than ever before in five Regional Rounds: Oxford, St Andrews, London, Birmingham and Exeter.

In this series of blogs, we will be previewing each Regional Round, commenting on each group and their chances of reaching the final, as well as introducing several groups you might not yet have heard of.

In our third installment, we go to the home of the current champions of the Voice Festival, London, one of the fastest growing hubs of a cappella in the UK. The round will be taking place on 9th March 2013, one week before the final, also in London.

Potted History

The London Regional began in 2011, when the competition expand to five Regional Rounds. In that inaugural year, current champions All the King’s Men qualified for the final, and last year they went one step further by winning the entire competition. That considered, the King’s-based group are therefore the only group to have ever represented London in the final, and as the only former Champions left in the competition, they won’t be giving up that title easily.

Notable Absence

Fitz Barbershop: Alongside fellow Cambridge groups The Fitz Sirens and Cadenza, the last remaining contingent from Cambridge have also pulled out of this year’s competition, meaning there will be no representative from the university which once held it’s own Regional from 2009-2011. Fitz Barbershop are also the only group to have ever won the Ward Swingle Award for Originality (in 2010) with their unorthodox style of a cappella (last year, they impressively blended all four of their songs into one another). The individual style of the group will be missed in this year’s competition, but we wish them well for their year ahead.

Newcomer Alert

The Houghtones: The first of three brand new groups competing in this Regional this year, The Houghtones are the sole a cappella group at the London School of Economics. Having been described as ‘the best a cappella band to come out of the UK since the 19th Century’ by one impressed fan of the group, the mixed-voice group will be hoping the enthusiasm created by the excitement at being at their debut Voice Festival will serve them well in the Regional. Having never heard them live myself, they are very much an unknown quantity and it will be fascinating to see how they do. You can find the group on Facebook.

The Scopes: I conducted a short interview a few months back with Justus Schmidt, founder of The Scopes, about his intention to compete in this year’s Voice Festival. Lo and behold, here they are – the fourth group to come out of Imperial College, London, the group have been slowly building their reputation since their foundation in 2011 and will be taking to the stage this year against the best London has to offer. Whether they will match the standards set by returning competitors remains to be seen.

Vive: Having already established themselves as a cappella giants, with performances at the London A Cappella Festival combined with workshop leading, an impressive YouTube video and an six-track debut album, the group from Guildford School of Music and Drama are by far the most developed and experienced of this year’s newcomers. With a Pentatonix-esque make-up (one girl and five boys) and a very unique, professional style, it will be interesting to be what kind of impact the group can make in their debut year. You can find the group on Facebook.

Old-Timers

The Imperielles: I said last year that these girls would be ones to watch in future. As the only all-girl group in this year’s London Regional, they will definitely stand out. Their performance last year in their debut competition was good without being outstanding, and with some strong-looking newcomers as well as last year’s champions in the mix, they will have to raise their game to stand a chance of qualification for the final.

The Techtonics: Despite having never made the final, The Techtonics must be one of the favourites to win the competition this year, after such a successful year since last year’s Festival. The third group from Imperial College in this year’s Regional, they have released a highly acclaimed debut full-length album, with one of the tracks featuring on CASA’s Sing 9 collection, a highly impressive achievement for a UK collegiate group. With such a morale boost behind them, they can build on last year’s award-winning set and really challenge not just for the Regional qualification, but for the entire competition.

All the King’s Men: Let’s not rule out last year’s winners just yet, though. The current champions, who also happen to be the third best group in the world having held their own at the international final in New York, they are the only former champions in this years competition, without Out of the Blue, The Oxford Gargoyles and Cadenza, and this will surely encourage them to push for further success. They have lost a chunk of their group, including founder and all-round musical maestro Henry Southern, so it will be interesting to see how they patch up the holes left from departing members. In such esteemed company, it could be difficult to repeat their success this year.

Summary

On first glance, All the King’s Men are the hot favourites as last year’s winners. However, with such strides being made by fellow all-male group The Techtonics in the past year, they will definitely not be complacently strolling into the final, and will still need on the top of their game in order to progress. Of the newcomers, Vive, as music school students, will undoubtedly bring a higher level of musical professionalism and nuances that regular university students might not have, and this could hold them in good stead. The Imperielles will need to step up in order to challenge for the places, while other newcomers The Scopes and The Houghtones have a big task ahead of them (namely, beating the third best group in the world) to have a successful debut. It’s a tough call, as always, but I have a feeling we might have a surprise winner of this one.

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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.

Album Review: Groundbreaker

Groundbreaker is The Techtonics first full length studio album, and one of the tracks has already been selected to appear on Sing 9, a CD compiled in the US.

Debut albums can go one of two ways: either the group can absolutely nail it, laying down a marker for any future projects and stamping their authority and identity on their genre; or, the album can fade away after the first few songs or, indeed never really take off at all. Fortunately, Imperial College’s The Techtonics fall resoundingly into the former category, with Groundbreaker more than living up to its name.

Before I continue this review, I will warn you that this album is heavily produced. As in, to the extent that some of the tracks don’t actually sound like human voices anymore. Whether or not this is a bad thing is up to the listener’s personal tastes, but I for one love it, for the most part. Indeed, I have become so obsessed with the final song on the album, Labrinth’s Earthquake, which is indubitably the furthest removed from what the original recording sounded like, that I have been overplaying it in my flat to the extent that it now tops my Top 25 Most Played on iTunes for the past two months. For a cappella, that’s pretty impressive.

There are two things I like about this album – the first is the running tectonic theme throughout. That may sound a little obvious, but featured on several tracks is an overt rumbling bass and an echoed nature to some of the solos which makes it feel as if the ground is actually shaking and the voices are bouncing around an eerie, empty, dark room. Such running motifs make me happy. Secondly, I love the fact that they cover songs that are very rarely touched by a cappella groups, with these gambles paying off, for the most part. There are a couple of curious songs that don’t quite work – 10cc’s Dreadlock Holiday is the weakest track on the album, as it doesn’t ever really bring anything new, apart from being a repetitive reggae track. It plods along nicely but fails to find a spark, and the fade out at the end is fitting for a cover that fades quickly from memory.

Thankfully, this song is lost within what in the majority is a really great album. The stand out track, as mentioned previously, is Earthquake, which grimily captures the dubstep elements and lays down some phat beats that boom about bombastically from any speakers which a decent sub-woofer. It’s perfect for parties, and so easy to rave to. Not words I imagined I would say about any a cappella record ever, but there you go. Orson’s No Tomorrow is one of my favourite tracks ever, and while this version isn’t that original, it definitely does the song justice and does maintain a small sense of originality, and the soloist, David Verhoeven, absolutely nails it, as he does on Jessie J’s Domino, popular one this year, and while it’s again not the most original track on the album, the unexpected key change, while a little too cheesy, does allow Verhoeven to show off his incredible skyscraping tenor range.

Most of the individuality of the group comes through in some of the less upbeat tracks on the album: The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun has a very funky opening and maintains an eeriness throughout, while the Local Natives’ Who Knows Who Cares has a delicious thunderous breakdown in the second verse, which fits aptly with the title of the album. U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday is similar to House of the Rising Sun, with an eerie blend to start before dropping into a catchy tempo. Even the Big Opener shows off the ample vocal talent of the boys.

One thing does strike me though, as I listen through the album for the umpteenth time – it doesn’t quite connect with an audience as a lot of other a cappella albums do, because that purity, that simplicity, that vulnerability that comes from the unadulterated human voice isn’t there on this record. The various editors, mixers and masterers, including Bill Hare, Dave Sperandio and Matt Chinery must be given huge credit, as this album is as much down to them as to the singers themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I love this album and several of the tracks on it, but I would be so curious to hear what it all sounded like pre-production. For now, enjoy the ground-shaking sound of a group that with this album, and their subsequent selection onto Sing 9, have taken a massive step forward.

Audition Alert! (6)

Audition fever has been rife over the past few weeks: here a short round-up:

The University of Cambridge’s The Fitz Sirens are calling for new members to message them through their Facebook page to book a slot; The Oxford Belles are auditioning this weekend on both Saturday and Sunday from 10am-5.30pmm, with more information available here; The Techtonics from Imperial College, London held their first auditions yesterday, and are also auditioning Sunday and Tuesday of the coming week – more information is available on their page also.

Potential auditionees for Oxford’s In The Pink are being encouraged to email itp@hotmail.co.uk; The Imperielles are holding auditions this Saturday and Sunday (find out more here; Cadenza from Cambridge have auditions continuing from this Monday 8th, which you can sign up for here); and finally, Blue Shakti are looking for vocalists and beatboxers to email them at blueshakti.acappella@gmail.com

If you’re at university – make sure you get involved in all the action!

Tours Galore as Out of the Blue and The Techtonics Jet Off

Two groups are joining or have already joined All the King’s Men on the tour circuit this September, as The Techtonics from Imperial College London and Out of the Blue from the University of Oxford head off to opposite ends of the globe to further increase their fanbases.

Out of the Blue set off for their tour to Japan a couple of days ago, and arrived just about 24 hours ago. They will be performing across the country, having performed their first show in a Tokyo Girl’s High School earlier today. For full updates on their performances, keep an eye on their Twitter feed.

Meanwhile, The Techtonics are heading off to the United States, and according to the group’s Facebook page, they will be touring for 12 days in 2 cars, travelling 1500 miles through 5 states and 8 cities – quite the program of events! The boys will be updating their fans from their USA Blog.

The Techtonics Announce Debut Full-Length Album

A year after their trip to Croatia for the Vocal Marathon competition, the Techtonics are releasing their debut album, Groundbreaker.

The exciting aca-news keeps flooding in left, right and centre, and none more exciting than the news that Imperial College London’s premier all-male group, The Techtonics, are releasing their debut full-length album, Groundbreaker, on September 5th.

The boys have been a little quiet since the London Regional of the Voice Festival 2012, but have clearly been making the most of their summer by heading to the recording studio, and the result is their highly anticipated debut full-length and professionally mastered album, which follows in the footsteps of several other collegiate groups who have also released new albums this summer.

The Techtonics did release an LP back in 2010, but this effort is the first to be fully released since the group’s inception.

This time last year, The Techtonics flew to Croatia for the Vocal Marathon competition, and we are interested to see what kind of impact that extra competitive experience will have had upon their music.

For now, we must wait, but get excited for the second debut album of the year.

The Techtonics can be found on Facebook.

Up-and-Coming: The Scopes

Here at the blog we always get extremely excited when we hear of new groups being formed, and these days it’s happening more and more regularly, as the popularity of a cappella in the UK continues to grow, having spread to Leeds, Bath and Aberdeen in the past year or so.

So, in the first of a new set of Spotlights, we got in touch with co-founder and pseudo-MD, Justus Schmidt, of new Imperial College group, The Scopes, to discuss their short history and see what their plans for the future were.

UACUK: Hi Justus, thanks for agreeing to speak to me.

JS: Gladly!

UACUK: Tell us about the formation of the group then.

JS: We only formed last November [2011], and as such aren’t even a year old yet. We initially had only six people, but that increased to eight when two others joined us. We consist of both male and female singers, and used to be called Kaleidoscope, but since then we’ve shortened the name to simply ‘The Scopes’.

UACUK: How’s it going so far?

JS: It’s very much trial and error so far. None of us had sung a cappella before, and we don’t have an official MD yet, although I practically do the job, despite the fact I’ve not had any previous experience. We also only have a repertoire of just three songs so far, with all of them being group arranged numbers, so not quite ready to hold any big concerts yet!

UACUK: Have you performed publicly yet?

JS: Not so to speak. We did do one hour of busking during a rehearsal rather spontaneously, but apart from that, like I say, we don’t have enough material to do it justice yet.

UACUK: How do you hope to develop the group in the next few months?

JS: I think the first things to do would be to stabilise the core members of the group and recruit more people, so that we can really start to make a solid sound. That would probably involve finding a group identity, as we don’t want to just be a copy of other groups out there. Obviously extending our repertoire is also very important, and we’d love to secure some gigs further down the line.

UACUK: Awesome! Well good luck with the future, and we hope to see you in action soon!

JS: Thanks a lot!

To get in touch with The Scopes, either to express an interest in joining the group or to book them for an event, contact Justus Schmidt on Facebook.