Out of the Blue Claim Second VF-UK Title

On a gorgeous sunny weekend in London, as twelve groups became five and those five were whittled down to just one winner, history was made as Out of the Blue became the first ever group to win the Voice Festival UK University Competition for the second time. But the other groups weren’t just there to make up the numbers. Here’s our full review.

The line-up for the evening was as follows:

OUT OF THE BLUE
University of Oxford
5th VF-UK
5th Final
Best Result: Winners, 2009

SEMI-TONED
University of Exeter
3rd VF-UK
2nd Final
Best Result: Finalists, 2013

THE TECHTONICS
Imperial College, London
5th VF-UK
1st Final
Best Result: 2 ‘Outstanding’ Awards at London Regional, 2012 + 2013

THE SONGSMITHS
University of Leeds
3rd VF-UK
1st Final
Best Result: 2 ‘Outstanding’ Awards at Birmingham Regional, 2013

ALL THE KING’S MEN
King’s College, London
4th VF-UK
4th Final
Best Result: Winners, 2012

Master of Ceremonies: Scott Riseborough

To preface this review, I’d like to give a mention to some of the groups that didn’t make it through to the Final. With no female groups in the Final for the third year in a row, it had been a toss up between The Accidentals and The Uptone Girls as to which of the all-female Semi-Finalists were the strongest, and it was a shame we didn’t get to see either of them perform their full length sets as I know there were some gems that had been left out. Furthermore, the absence of The Sons of Pitches was a real shock to the system – if it was their middle song that had let them down, I felt this was rather harsh as the remainder of their set, while not being up to their usual very high standard, was still, in my opinion, better than several of the Finalists here this evening.

However, the judges had made their decisions and first up were VF-UK veterans and massively popular all-male group, Out of the Blue. I was worried they would keep their rather flat first song from their semi-final set, and when they formed up to perform it again I was a little disappointed. However, despite the song being almost identical to their rendition of it at the semi-finals, it seemed to have a little more pizzazz and enthusiasm that perhaps was lacking on the previous morning. The soloist was excellent, and demonstrated his powerful belt at the top of his range, as well as considerable dexterity throughout the remainder of the vocal performance. As the Accidental sat next to me (who shall remain nameless) said, she would have loved for the soloist to be her treasure… I still think the backing is dull and that the group are better than this arrangement wise – there were too many repetitive ‘do’ vowels for my liking – but the boys showed charisma and fearlessness and were entertaining in terms of choreography and their overall performance to the very end, including their classic ‘let’s all point in different directions’ pose.

Their second number was Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence. This was as good, if not better, than at the semi-final. I got goosebumps almost instantly. The arrangement here is phenomenal. Starting off oh-so-tenderly with a couple of voices, they eventually grew into lush harmonies, and then ebbed and flowed gorgeously throughout the song, with different voices ranging from bass to falsetto taking the solo parts in different places. It really was a perfect demonstration of the vocal abilities contained within the group, and the entire song was utterly pitch perfect. They used more interesting vowels than in Treasure: some ‘jang’ sounds, some terrifically-timed belltones and a lovely warm sound as the song drew to a conclusion. I also adored the cliffhanger they left us on, choosing to physically leave us in silence, rather than singing the word. The perfect middle song.

Their final number was a glorious romp of a song. I Wanna Dance With Somebody was mashed-up briefly with Somebody to Love to form a musically tight yet crowd-pleasing finale. There was a few moment when the soloist looked nervous, as he was looking at the floor rather than out at the audience, but this was fleeting and he soon recovered to deliver one of the strongest solo performances of the night. The choreography was also apt, and often fitted with the words of the song, and the harmonies were so tight and far more interesting than those in the opening number. And then the key change! I love a good key change, and this was seamless. The addition of Queen led to a gospel, foot-stamping section which was simply marvellous and with a magnificent solo falsetto riff to close the number, the boys definitely went from strength to strength in their set, improving all the way through.

Overall, the boys delivered a fearless performance that was musically perfect and highly entertaining. That said, it was a classic Out of the Blue set – they did nothing outside of their remit that would have shown any sort of creative innovation, and I’d love to see them attempt something a little more outside of the box in years to come. But in terms of consistency through the set, there was very little to criticise.

The second group to perform was Semi-Toned from the University of Exeter. The boys in maroon have progressed dramatically in the past few years, having delivered a set at the Edinburgh Fringe that was of the highest standard, and with the creativity hinted at in their semi-final set, I was looking forward to seeing what they would put in the extra four minutes. I didn’t have to wait long, as their first song was something I hadn’t heard before – the first of several extremely creative mash-ups that the boys were to deliver this evening. A low hummed introduction to Far Over The Misty Mountains from The Hobbit launched quickly into John Newman’s Cheating, a pair of songs that together shouldn’t really have worked but somehow did. The mash-up was definitely Newman-heavy, and whenever the basses threatened to break through with the Hobbit again they were quickly and hilariously halted by the continuation of Cheating, which contributed to the multi-layered feel to the song and a entertaining as well as musically intricate piece. I particularly enjoyed the group’s inventive use of backing vocals, including a reverberating “dunnnng” with punctured the piece throughout. Not to mention the solo throughout, which was unreal.

The second bizarre-yet-awesome mash-up was Olly Murs’ Dear Darlin’ with Ylvis’ The Fox, which was reprised from the semi-final. Again, the initial solo pitching was a little off, but the soloist was able to recover and delivered all-in-all a strong performance in a busy arrangement. While the backing again was very unique and had lots of stand-out parts that were musically interesting (and a lot more so than Out of the Blue before them), I did feel the boys were a touch vocally tired, which was highlighted by the key change which, while effective, led to a few pitchy notes in the upper ranges. Maybe it was because I had seen the performance of this number before and as a result was less surprised by it, but I felt this song had less impact overall than it had in the semi-final. Still a very unique and original number, though.

Third up was the bass-led jazz arrangement of the Pokemon theme tune, another creative masterpiece. So transfixed was I by this performance once again that I had wrote very little on my notepad – simply that the wall of sound was awesome and that once again, the backing parts were exceptional. I did get slightly worried that the boys had only performed upbeat numbers, but then my fears were allayed as they somehow managed to squeeze in a fourth number, and it was the best one yet. Radiohead’s Motion Picture Soundtrack was hauntingly led by Michael Luya’ astonishing, magical solo which had the audience in utter silence, muted by the sheer perfection of it. The blend behind Luya was just as brilliant, with the high harmonies floating just marvellously over the top without ever sticking out or screeching. The set was rounded off with a long, held, falsetto final note which pierced through the room leaving the audience stunned. The perfect closing number to a hugely strong set.

The third up were The Techtonics from Imperial College, London. This was the one group I did not call to be placed in the Final, and to be honest, I was surprised that they were. Upon speaking to one of the group members, James Hayward, on the morning of the Final, he said that he felt my comments on their semi-final set were fair, but that they had one surprise up their sleeve that would be right up my street. However, upon hearing their extended set, I had to say this ‘surprise’, which was their final number, was perhaps the weakest number of the three, with the two I had heard in the semi-final seeming that little bit more impressive now I knew exactly what they were trying to do.

The self-proclaimed ‘musically complex mash-up’ opened the set, as it had done the previous afternoon. I knew very few of the songs incorporated, but in a sense that made the arrangement flow a little better as there was no obvious segments in my head as I was listening. For the record, it was a mash-up of songs from Daft Punk’s 2013 album ‘Random Access Memories’. There were some complexities within the arrangement that will have impressed the judges: the gorgeous descending bell tones towards the end, the lack of obvious breathing, and as mentioned, the smooth transitions between numbers, but again I felt they tried to put too many songs into one number and as a result were unable to find a real sense of character to the song. Rhythmically too they struggled at the very start, but were able to reign things in as the song progressed. This showed signs of potential but could have been executed in a more energetic and confident way.

The song transitioned without pause into Passenger’s Let Her Go. I was wary of this number, because it had dragged somewhat the previous day, and although again there were some well-executed musical complexities contain within it (predominantly bell tones), I just felt the arrangement was a little unambitious. Musically it was flawless – the wall of sound that the group are able to produce due to their large contingent surpassed all other groups in the Final; the solo was strong and powerful enough to be heard over the blocked chords behind him; the movement was simple but effective; and there were some new high falsetto parts which I hadn’t noticed before that really added to the chord. Rhythmically they were also very good, especially in the difficult lyric-less section in the middle, but again it dragged slightly as they showed off their musical chops. I feel the song was more aimed at the judges than for the enjoyment of the crowd – a shrewd decision, given that it’s the judges that decide the winners, but perhaps the reason why there were a few surprised faces when the group made the Final.

The group’s final number was new, and again was a mash-up, this time filled with pizzazz and energy, more creative choreography and some excellent vocal percussion, but again suffered slightly from rhythmic inaccuracies from the beginning and an over-reliance on “do”s in the backing parts. Again, I didn’t know the root songs, which were DJ Fresh’s Louder and Gold Dust, but enjoyed the introduction of Kanye’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger and the introduction of some classic TTs dubstep reminiscent of their award-winning arrangement of Earthquake. I still think it was generally quite a safe arrangement and also not very memorable (a month, I remember very little of the set aside from the notes I made at the time), and it was unfortunate that the rapper forgot his lyrics – a tarnish on an otherwise professional, if not spectacular, set.

Fourth up were The Songsmiths from the University of Leeds. Perhaps limited by the Sons of Pitches’ dominance in the Birmingham Regional in recent years, the group finally got the chance to sing in the London Final, and boy did they capitalise on this chance! The Songsmiths’ set was proficiently and professionally crafted and a far cry from the musically basic sets that often come out of new groups. The group kicked off with Total Eclipse of the Heart, oozing instantly into a gorgeous warm blend with delicate bell tones, and a gorgeously lofted ‘Turn Around’ from the male vocal percussionist on top of the pitch perfect building solo. In fact, this piece would have been flawless were it not for the solo – although it was musically sound, there wasn’t enough belt on it, which meant all the potentially deafening dynamics had to be dialled down in order for the solo to be heard. And what a shame! There were some gorgeous decrescendos, some beautiful floated soprano lines, and a gradual growth in volume throughout the song which was only limited by the soloist. Aside from these limitations, the song was magical – it was just a shame these volume limitations hampered the entire piece quite significantly.

The group’s second number was a rendition of the Ghostbusters theme. If the soloist on Eclipse wasn’t up to scratch, this one certainly was – his unorthodox look matched his rasping, rocky twang that soared effortlessly into tenor territory and made me extremely jealous. This song had everything – huge variety musically, with some hilarious interjections of ‘I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost’ and the classic ‘Ghostbusters’ from the rest of the group in between the slightly sarcastic solo which was just perfect. Combined with some huge hi-hat beats from the vocal percussionist and again some pure toned sopranos, and this was a highly entertaining but also musically precise middle song.

I was hoping to hear the group’s version of Alt J’s Fitzpleasure as their final number, but instead was treated to a medley of James Bond themes. I think this may have been a faux pas. As entertaining and musically tight as this medley was, I feel they made a similar mistake to other groups by trying to include too many songs all at once. There were highlights – the dual beatbox (which later turned into a Sons of Pitches-esque beatbox battle), the lovely dual solo on Goldfinger and the neat transitions from one song to another, but the entire song felt a little too busy, which became slightly distracting. These are churlish comments though – on the whole, The Songsmiths really did blow me away, not only with their musical precision, but also their ambition and their ability, for the most part, to match this ambition with a high-octane performance.

The final group of the night were All the King’s Men, who were looking to win their second title in three years. They opened with Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi, which was as solid as it had been the previous day. I really enjoy the “go go wah” backing sounds in the build up to the introduction of the solo, while the solo itself was hilariously and charismatically delivered by Barry O’Reilly, although it would have been nice to have someone be able to belt the chorus rather than slip into falsetto – although that’s just a prejudice from knowing the original so well. There were some stand-out individual moments – the moonwalk, the High School Musical-esque jump, and the boys circling around the soloist towards the end, doing well to keep the sound projecting outwards as they did so, but all-in-all, I wouldn’t have said this was any better than the previous opening songs we had heard.

Their middle song, their token slow number, was the weakest – which was a surprise, given the group have historically been so tight in close harmony numbers. It was Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got You, and was plagued with pitching issues throughout: from the very opening high falsetto notes to the big solo money note that went a touch flat, the overall effect of this number was just underwhelming and not at all reminiscent of All the King’s Men. Despite these issues, the song was carried by the solo from Thana’a Mohajer – a silky, chocolatey solo which melted the hearts of the audience and, were it not for the big note at the end, had a chance of being the most accomplished solo performance of the evening. Overall though, this was a bit meh.

Their final number was the Spider Medley, starting with Insy Winsy Spider and progressing through to a jazzy rendition of Spiderman. I can’t help but thinking that this rendition of a song that a previous generation of the group has sung before serves only to highlight how good All the King’s Men used to be, and how the latest generation, while still singing and performing to an exceptionally high standard, just aren’t as tight as they were when they won the competition in 2012. Everything here was good – the solos were good, the choreography was funny, the story of the song was interesting – but the soloist could have been better, the choreography could have been tighter, the story of the song could have been more emphatic. Maybe it’s because I’d seen this sung before and it didn’t surprise me any more. Or maybe it’s because they’ve been better. Everyone gave 100%, but I wasn’t sure it would be enough to challenge for the title.

The Verdict:

For me, it was a three-horse race. My favourites were Semi-Toned, who combined a highly original set with hilarious choreography, tight musicality and some genuinely emotional moments (I’m looking at you, Michael Luya.) The Songsmiths delivered a hugely impressive debut Final performance and were definitely underdogs to claim the victory, while Out of the Blue were the most consistent, delivering a classic, comfortable and charismatic performance that was simply a pleasure to watch throughout. All the King’s Men and The Techtonics were great, but in both cases I feel like they’ve been better in previous years.

Results:

Outstanding Soloist: Michael Luya of Semi-Toned for Motion Picture Soundtrack
Outstanding Performance: Out of the Blue
Outstanding Arrangement: Bobby Goulder of Out of the Blue for the Entire Set
Outstanding Choreography: The Songsmiths

WINNER: OUT OF THE BLUE

So, Out of the Blue became the first ever group to win the Voice Festival UK for a second time – and deservedly so. Their success was based on a consistently musically tight set and allowing the audience to be at complete ease throughout – their professionalism was second-to-none. Further proof that experience and consistency is often the key to success.

Who will win the Voice Festival UK 2014?

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?

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: 10. Knights of Cydonia

The Best of British 2013 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other GuysChristmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown begins here:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semi-Toned Sparkle at Symposium Hall

Semi-Toned: The Exemen

Semi-Toned: The Exemen

Rating: 9/10

For a group making their Fringe début after just three years of being in existence, you would have forgiven the boys from the University of Exeter for not quite being up to the same standard as the rest of the groups at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. However, there was no need for forgiveness: indeed, Semi-Toned shone through a mass of a cappella at the summer Festival, emerging glorious and triumphant at the end of it all, five-star reviews and all.

The potential of the group was perhaps properly noticed when they pipped the other Exeter-based groups to make the Final of this year’s Voice Festival UK. Although their Final performance felt tired and a touch lacklustre, any momentum they lost back in March was completely ignored, as they powered onwards with their Fringe preparation and delivered a hilarious, varied and musically tight showcase of some frankly phenomenal a cappella.

The beauty of the Edinburgh Festival is that it allows groups to show a diversity within their group that the short 12-minute VF-UK sets don’t quite allow, and Semi-Toned made the utmost of this opportunity to show off what they could do, dazzling the audience with some ‘Semi-Toned classics’, as well as a host of surprises pulled out of thin air, in a set that was reminiscent of All the King’s Men’s stellar effort this time last year.

So we had the two big bombastic numbers from the Voice Festival topping and tailing the set, somehow cranked up to be even more energetic and musically far stronger and meatier than they had been back in March. Living For The Big City opened the 50-minute masterpiece, and my personal favourite Knights of Cydonia wrapping it up in riotous style, imaginary horse riding and all. But what was the most impressive was the unexpected flashes of brilliance that the group just kept on providing.

The first glimpses of something truly special came during Panic! At The Disco’s I Write Sins Not Tragedies, whose introduction, despite being very similar to a version featured on BOCA 2008 by University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers, still required a great deal of rhythmic discipline and skill to get right. Lady GaGa’s Americano involved singing in Spanish, hilarious imaginary moustaches and lip-trills, as well as some mock-flamenco dancing which was truly a sight to behold. Then, to top it all, they did Pokemon. BUT IN JAZZ FORM. The only criticism I could ever have of Pokemon in jazz form would be that it didn’t last for long enough – alas, that was the case here.

Many groups have a tendency to excel in either upbeat, dance-heavy numbers or slower, close harmony numbers. After a slightly uninteresting middle song at the Voice Festival, I wasn’t expecting a great deal from the Exemen’s slower numbers, but once again I was happily surprised. Their VF-UK filler was nowhere to be seen: instead, they gave us a gorgeous Arctic Monkeys number, Only Ones Who Know, led delicately by Michael Luye, whose tender tones suited the song perfectly.

The remainder of the set maintained the hugely high standard throughout: the nod to Naturally 7 with two adaptations of their work in the middle was tackled with aplomb and verve; the simple choreography was at times laugh-out-loud hilarious without detracting too much from the musical side of things; and Justin Timberlake was arranged intricately and the tough falsetto solo was solid; and I haven’t even mentioned the incredible beatboxing from Jack Telfer St Claire. The rest of the set was so good that it almost went by unnoticed.

Occasionally, the boys (especially the baritones) would get a little carried away and drown out the soloist, but this did little to detract from the masterful performance that the boys delivered. Fringe débutantes, maybe, but definitely giving a demonstration on how it should be done.

UK groups, watch out – Semi-Toned are the new rising stars of collegiate a cappella.

Fringe Focus: Semi-Toned

Semi-Toned: The Exemen

Semi-Toned: The Exemen

In the lead up to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, every week we will be producing special focuses on our collegiate groups who will be performing at the world’s largest amateur arts festival in 2013. In the sixth of this series of articles, we will be looking at another of our Fringe debutants, all the way from Exeter, it’s Semi-Toned.

Fringe History

Semi-Toned are performing for the first time at the Festival since their inception in the autumn of 2010. The group is still in its first generation, for the most part, and after reaching the Voice Festival UK Final earlier this year, they have decided to take the large next step of taking their talents to Edinburgh.

Previous UACUK Ratings

N/A

This Year

The boys are joining a plethora of other groups at theSpace @ Symposium Hall from 3rd-10th August, a venue which in recent times has become somewhat of a hub of UK collegiate a cappella. Their show goes up at 3.05pm for the usual 50 minutes, and they promise that audience will be able to ‘witness the best in the South West’. Get your tickets now – they’ll be gone before you know it.

What To Expect

Something new. Something fresh. Something vibrant. Something awesome. Semi-Toned unleashed a wall of sound at the Voice Festival UK Final earlier in the year, and while they lacked polish, they were unlucky not to pick up any accolades. To reach the final is an achievement in itself, though, and for a fledgling group it shows how far they have come in such a short space of time. The boys aren’t afraid to mock the choirboy stereotype in their sets, and indeed are one of the groups that are great to watch simply because you can tell they’re having a bloody good time on stage. They don’t sound half bad either. Also, watch out for their beatboxer, Jack Telfer St. Claire. He’s something special.