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.

Album Review: Furplay

Furplay is a studio recording of The Alleycats' 2013 Voice Festival UK set.

Furplay is a studio recording of The Alleycats’ 2013 Voice Festival UK set.

If We’re Not Kitten, the Alleycats’ eighth studio album released last year, was the culmination of two significant litters’ worth of Alleycat, then the brief yet accomplished Furplay is perhaps a teaser of positive things to come from the new bunch. Despite its release last month, Furplay was recorded back in May while MD Brendan Macdonald was still at the helm; in a way, this album may also be seen as his final offering as creative head of a group into which he has poured so much.

The benefit of having such a short sample of the Alleycats’ 12/13 repertoire (indeed, a sample they felt worthy of making up their Voice Festival UK set earlier this year) is that each track is musically tight, diverse and shows off the best of what the group have to offer. There is no room for filler on an EP, and this works to the Alleycats’ advantage here.

The album opens with their ‘L.O.V.E. Mashup’, which incorporates What Is Love from Haddaway, Let Me Love You from Ne-Yo and Justin Bieber’s As Long As You Love Me. This is perhaps one of the most seamless mash-ups of the year, and is pulled off with aplomb by the entire group. What Is Love and As Long As You Love Me are smoothly and effortlessly worked into each other from the very beginning, and the strong start shows no signs of fading throughout the entire number. Ollie Hayes unleashes his gorgeous, smooth vocals on the Bieber section, which is far more pleasant to listen to than the original – as the new co-MD of the group, it seems they are in safe hands for the time being. The group capitalises on the anthemic nature of Bieber’s chorus by unleashing Hayes’ strong higher chest range and boosting it with some effective, if a little predictable, soprano harmonies. We only get a brief snippet of Ne-Yo, but once again, this addition is blended superbly with the other two numbers that it almost feels like one song rather than three – a hat tip to Brendan Macdonald for a superb, flowing and ultra-smooth arrangement which allowed the group to pull it off with such apparent ease.

The middle song, Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, has recently just reached number 8 on our countdown of the top 10 tracks of 2013, and sounds marvellous both live and on the album itself. The highlight is undoubtedly the solo from Ayanna Coleman, and, credit must go to Macdonald again, who doesn’t taint the talents of the soloist with too complex an arrangement, and expertly slows down the original, more dance-infused number into a more mellow ballad. The backing is so restrained that it washes over you with a calming sensation, and, for perhaps the first time in any Alleycat recording that I’ve listened to, it was very difficult to pick out any individual voice, such was the blend created throughout the number. (Credit is perhaps due to Matt Chinery and Liquid 5th, the production team on the album, for this). Coleman’s vocal performance is flawless throughout and brings that element of soul to the number which is inherent in any performance she gives. An enjoyable, pleasant and soothing middle number.

The final number, Shake It Out, led competently by Jill Wyman, Steph Bown and Tommy Rowe, is also fantastic, but for some reason I’m always left slightly underwhelmed after each listen. Don’t get me wrong, the trio of lead vocalists complement each others’ voices perfectly, and Rowe in particular on occasion has some compelling, refreshing and challenging harmonies, but the song doesn’t quite build to enough of a climax to make the journey through the song worthwhile. There doesn’t appear to be much range in volume: the group start loud and get slightly louder, and while the arrangement drops out in the more tender parts of the song, but the leads keep attacking the solo with the same energy and volume as before. The group also tend to use very similar vowel sounds in all their numbers, which can lead to this song almost verging into ‘going-through-the-motions’ territory. In spite of that, this is the number on the album which I enjoy listening to the most – it’s poppy, upbeat and conforms to much of what I love in a song – but I just feel with even just a small step a little further out of the group’s comfort zone, this track in particular could have turned a really good, solid number into an outstanding one.

If you like your a cappella easy on the ear and demonstrative of the array of talent inherent in this generation of The Alleycats, especially on lead vocals, then this is the album for you. It ticks all the boxes of a three-track a cappella EP – a flawless mash-up, a soulful and gloriously sung ballad, and a climactic clincher – but never gets close to thinking outside the box. The Alleycats have got classic contemporary a cappella sorted down to a tee – now’s the time to focus on pushing the boundaries a bit more.

Furplay is available to purchase and stream on Bandcamp and on the group’s official website.

Best of British 2013: 8. Dancing On My Own

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

Strolling in at number eight is the gorgeous ballad from The Alleycats, Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, which was the group’s middle song in this year Voice Festival UK competition and part of their recently released EP, Furplay. The song shows off what The Alleycats arguably do best these days – taking an originally more upbeat number and slowing it down, allowing the voice of the incredible soloist, in this case, Ayanna Coleman, to shine through. Last year, the group hit number 2 on our countdown with Titanium, and while this number hasn’t reached those dizzy heights this time around, it certainly had a similar impact on its début public performance – at the St Andrews Regional of the Voice Festival UK.

“As always with VF-UK numbers, it was accompanied by some pretty intense nervous energy, but in a way I think that helped,” said former MD of the group, Brendan Macdonald. “Because it has never been heard by anyone apart from ourselves within a rehearsal setting, those first performances can be a bit of an experiment, but it was received well and, of course, Ayanna was spectacular.” The origins of the arrangement are an indication of the group’s never-ending desire to look to the future. “During 2012’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival,” explains Annie Faichney, another graduated member of the group, “Robyn’s version of the song was playing in C Main all the time. Despite the fact we were focused on the Fringe run and the current setlist, everyone was still speculating as to how it would make a really good a cappella number, especially if it was slowed down further.” Macdonald was initially doubtful at the suggestion of the latter, feeling the impact of the power-ballad would be lost with the removal of some of the tempo in the song. “However, when the new aca-year rolled around, Annie showed me Robyn’s acoustic version of the song, and it was just perfect – so I went right ahead with the arrangement.”

Macdonald credits another ex-Cat as a source of inspiration for this and many of his arrangements – Lizzy Weintz. “Lizzy was seemingly an expert at taking faster numbers and slowing them down, and as such this has become almost an Alleycat tradition. I also took inspiration from some of Out of the Blue’s older stuff, specifically Cold Water [which featured on BOCA 2008], a number which focused specifically on the solo while being simplistic yet effective in its execution.” On the subject of the solo, Macdonald confirms that Ayanna was always at the top of his list: “Ayanna was definitely in mind when arranging this number, and the arrangement is built to highlight her strength as a soloist and a performer. We knew that she would absolutely nail the song, and bring the power into the song that it might have lost from slowing it down.” However, he adds that she is not the only one to have blown audiences away on lead vocals over the year. “Melissa [Wilkie] deputised for Ayanna for a few nights during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and absolutely nailed it as well!”

Faichney believes the song’s success works on two levels: “While our slowed-down version initially sounds like a heart-wrenching ballad, when you listen to the lyrics it becomes clear that really it’s all about empowerment, and how great it feels to rise above that awful feeling. Ultimately the song’s effectiveness is in its universal familiarity – it definitely portrays a feeling we can all relate to at some ungodly hour in a nightclub!”

In terms of legacy, Faichney is unsure if the song will be handed down from litter to litter: “The arrangement was specifically written for the 2012/13 litter, and as such I think it really reverberated as the sound of that year. It was definitely one of our favourites from the year, as it’s a relatively simple number to perform but so enjoyable and always garners a brilliant reaction from any crowd. But because it was so special and unique to last year’s group, I don’t know how it will develop in the new group – I guess that’s up to them to decide!”

So, the hard-hitting Dancing On My Own ballad, complete with stunning solo, makes number 8 on this year’s list. It’s going to take some beating to top that! Who will be at number 7? Stay tuned…

You can buy The Alleycats brand new EP, which includes this track, on Bandcamp.

The Alleycats Take Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

The Alleycats: Contemporary A Cappella

The Alleycats: Contemporary A Cappella

Rating: 8/10

Something odd is happening to the Alleycats. For years, they played to their strengths, both competitively and in Fringe sets – that strength being an ability to provide an energetic, enthusiastic performance combined with some slick and emphatic choreography, occasionally (but less so recently) at the expense of musicality. Indeed, having won an award for Outstanding Choreography or Performance in three of the last five Voice Festival UK seasons, the Alleycats are renowned across the a cappella scene for their vivacious performances.

It seems, though, that times, they are a-changin’. While the ‘Cats put just as much tireless energy as ever into their Fringe performance, the mixed results demonstrated the continued emergence of a new, tightly blended and musically precise group, while casting question marks over the relevance of their choreography.

It wasn’t that their choreography was bad; on the contrary, it established each and every member of the group, at the very least, as a competent dancer, and was performed with vigorous energy and beaming smiles the whole way through. It was more the fact that it was irrelevant and, at times, unnecessary. This was evident from the very first number, As Long As You Love Me, in which the choreography, while not affecting the music at all, ended up being more of a distraction than an addition to the number. It looked fun, don’t get me wrong, but as an audience member, it didn’t do anything for me.

Choreography aside, the Alleycats were really impressive, and demonstrated a great deal of musical variety throughout the set, with some real gems, both individually and collectively. The standout performer of the afternoon was undoubtedly Ollie Hayes, who took on most of the male lead vocals with great proficiency, but was really in his element during the sole jazz number of the set, Moondance, displaying some Michael Buble-esque vocals in a tight and compelling arrangement that made me feel like I was still in the Gargoyles concert I had just left.

Highlights were plentiful throughout the set: Steph Bown delivered a gorgeous soprano solo on Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, although the backing did seem a little murky at times; Ayanna Coleman impressed as always with her soulful rendition of Dancing On My Own, who despite having a tired voice, was still able to bring a tear to my eye through the sheer emotion she brought to the number; and the powerful finale, Shake It Out, remains my favourite Alleycat track of the year, so I was delighted that they chose it for the audience participation number of the set. I heartily joined in.

There were a couple of musical issues, however – the lack of amplification has caused soloists Festival-wide to struggle to be heard over the rest of the group, but this seemed to be a particular issue in this performance, with a lot of the up-tempo numbers remaining firmly at mezzo-forte throughout and drowning out the talented soloist. The group did seem to be lacking tenors too, especially when Hayes or MD Brendan Macdonald took lead vocals, leaving the middle of the chord sometimes a little empty. And bizarrely, despite it being a firm Alleycat classic year after year, there were tuning issues in Signed, Sealed, Delivered. I’m pretty sure that was just a one-off.

All-in-all, I really like what seems to be happening in the Alleycat rehearsal room. The group sound better than I have ever heard them, and if they were to tone down or simplify the choreography slightly, or even make it vaguely relate to the song, then they’re not far away from being the complete package.

Fringe Focus: The Alleycats

The Alleycats: Contemporary A Cappella

The Alleycats: Contemporary A Cappella

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 third of this series of articles, we will be looking at one of the most impressive groups from last year’s Festival, the Alleycats.

Fringe History

The Alleycats made their Fringe debut back in 2010 with a short six-day run, which earned them much critical acclaim and an official Fringe Sell-Out award. They have since been back every year, becoming ever more popular, and last year was arguably their best yet, expanding their audiences and receiving some of their highest praise since they graced the Fringe scene.

Previous UACUK Ratings

2011: 8/10 – “Thoroughly entertaining”
2012: 9.5/10 – “Impeccable blend”

This Year

The Cats will be hitting up the Fringe in a week’s time, starting early on 31 July and performing until 13 August. They will once again be in C Venues’ main venue on Chambers Street, and will be part of an a cappella afternoon feast, starting their 50-minute show at 15:30. After what many were calling the ‘Golden Generation’ of the group last year, they will surely be one of the hottest tickets in town, so get them fast!

What To Expect

The Alleycats in recent years have become the complete package: no other group has the energy, dynamism and ‘hipness’ combined with the solid musicality that the mixed-voice group from St Andrews provide. While many groups will offer slick musicality, a highly-tuned blend and the so-called ‘wall of sound’, The Alleycats bring this and more: last year, they proved that they sacrifice no amount of musical intricacies for their energetic choreography. This could partly be down to departing musical director Brendan Macdonald, who has overseen two CDs (one forthcoming) in his two-year tenure and has a real ear for blend. If the group can muster up the same variety as last year, this could be one of the stand-out shows at the Festival.

Further Details

Fringe Listing

Ed Fringe Guide: The Who, Where and When of A Cappella This Summer

by John Lau

The world’s largest celebration of the Arts descends on the Capital of Scotland for the best part of 4 weeks from the last day in July, and we here at UACUK cannot wait to see so much vocal talent from across the UK campus and even further afield. This article lists all 29 a cappella acts who will take to the many temporary stages that are set up across all manner of premises in Edinburgh for everyone’s delectation.

Returning for their second Fringe run, The Accidentals will be presenting their show Who Runs The World?, highlighting their Beyonce-esque fierceness – something which undoubtedly will be demonstrated in the show itself.

Dates: Monday 12 August – Saturday 17th August
Times: 19:05 – 19:55
Venue: theSpace @ Symposium Hall, EH8 9DR
Prices: £7.00 Adults, £6.00 Concessions

The Alleycats of St Andrews with all their energetic display of contemporary a cappella will return to the Edinburgh Fringe for another run:

Dates: Wednesday 31 July to Tuesday 13 August
Times: 15:30 – 16:20
Venue: C Venues, Chambers Street, EH1 1HR
Prices: £9.50-£11.50 Adults, £7.50-£9.50 Concessions, £5.50-£7.50 Under 18s

All the King’s Men from King’s College London will hold a daytime show and a night time show as per last year when they successfully sold out their daytime show. Their own show in the daytime was critically acclaimed by the reviewers as full of “Professionalism and Utter Precision”, but just like last year you will do well to catch them in the daytime as they only have 6 shows, entitled Knight Fever! as listed below:

Dates: Monday 12 August – Saturday 17 August
Times: 15:10 – 15:55
Venue: theSpace @ Symposium Hall, EH8 9DR
Prices: £8.00 or £9.00 Adults, £6.00 or £7.00 Concessions

Their night time show All The King’s Men Present… is a showcase featuring some of the groups who happen to be in Edinburgh through the month of August, preparing us all for an “Aca-awesome” night (or 2) at theSpace:

Dates: Monday 12 & Wednesday 14 August
Times: 23:15 – 00:00
Venue: theSpace @ Symposium Hall, EH8 9DR
Prices: £7.00 Adults, £5.00 Concessions

The Oxford Alternotives, featuring the best Soloist in the Voice Festival UK, Miss Jessie Reeves, will return in 2013 for a fourth consecutive run with their mix of outrageous choreography and sketch comedy in the second half of the month of August:

Dates: Monday 12 August – Saturday 24 August
Times: 14:05 – 14:55
Venue: theSpace @ Symposium Hall, EH8 9DR
Prices: £7.00 or £10.00 Adults, £5.00 or £7.00 Concessions

The Oxford Gargoyles will no doubt make their new album “Musical Statues” available for sale following their shows featuring jazz, pop and Disney pieces all delivered in their beautiful black tie-style:

Dates: Wednesday 31 July – Saturday 17 August
Times: 14:20 – 15:10
Venue: C Venues, Chambers Street, EH1 1HR
Prices: £9.50-£11.50 Adults, £7.50-£9.50 Concessions, £5.50-£7.50 Under 18s

In The Pink will return for their ninth year in Edinburgh with their mix of lush harmonies, lush selves, VFUK-acclaimed soloists and a toe tapping family show, prior to returning to the Chor Open Stage Festival in Berlin:

Dates: Sunday 11 August – Friday 23 August
Times: 16:30 – 17:20
Venue: C Venues, Chambers Street, EH1 1HR
Prices: £9.50 – £11.50 Adults, £7.50 – £9.50 Concessions, £5.50 – £7.50 Under 18s

The Other Guys from St Andrews University will join in the festivities with a “One Night Stand” literally bringing their exquisite musicality, questionable dance moves and a selection of their favourite parodies. No better way then to bring in a Friday night really:

Date: Friday 16 August
Time: 19:30 – 21:30
Venue: Greyfriars Kirk, EH1 2QQ
Prices: £15.00 Adults, £10.00 Concessions

From one all-male a cappella group to another, the Oxford stars of Out of the Blue are the only UK Collegiate group to have a full run throughout August when they will take the stage at Assembly George Square with their boyish charm and sparkling harmonies:

Dates: Previews: 1&2 August, Saturday 3 August – Monday 26 August (not 14)
Times: 14:00 – 14:50
Venue: Assembly George Square, EH8 9LH
Prices: Previews: £5.00, £9.50 or £11.00 Adults, £8.00 or £9.50 Concessions

All the way from the University of Exeter, Semi-Toned, the Voice Festival UK Finalists in 2013, will come to Edinburgh for a 1-week run at theSpace:

Dates: Preview: Saturday 3 August, Sunday 4 August – Saturday 10 August
Times: 15:05 – 15:55
Venue: theSpace @ Symposium Hall, EH8 9DR
Prices: Preview: £4.50 Adults, £2.50 Concessions, £7.00 or £8.00 Adults, £5.00 or £6.00 Concessions

The Voice Festival UK 2013 Collegiate Champions Vive will arrive in Edinburgh for their first visit to the Fringe full of award-winning harmonies and uniquely worked covers and original pieces at North Bridge:

Dates: Friday 2 August – Thursday 8 August
Times: 18:10 – 18:55
Venue: Space Cabaret @ 54 North Bridge, EH1 2HE
Prices: £9.00 Adults, £7.00 Concessions

Over and above all the collegiate a cappellantics that have been listed here, our friends at the Voice Festival UK may also put on another showcase as a one-off event sometime in August, in much the same style as All The King’s Men have with their night time show. Please check the Voice Festival UK website for further details nearer the time. Which leads me quite nicely to the Patron of VFUK…

Mr Dominic Peckham whose day job is Assistant Musical Director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, whose charges will be enthralling us all with a one-off concert full of works by Byrd, Bach and Parry to name but 3 artists from the past in their show entitled “Light and Song”:

Date: Thursday 15 August
Time: 19:30 – 21:00
Venue: St Cuthbert’s Parish Church, Lothian Rd, EH1 2EP
Prices: £10.00 Adults, £6.00 Concessions

Next, the lovable Magnets will come back to Edinburgh with their show All This Time, and I can’t wait to see them again after seeing them live in August 2012. You will not miss their venue as they are booked to play in the Underbelly (the upside down purple cow on Bristo Square). You will also be pleased to know that they are here for the full month, almost like them boys from Out Of The Blue:

Dates: Previews: 1&2 August, Saturday 3 August – Monday 26 August
Times: 17:50 – 18:50
Venue: Underbelly, Bristo Square, EH8 9AL
Prices: Previews: £10.00, £14.00 or £15.00 Adults, £13.00 or £14.00 Concessions

The other groups may also interest some of you, as there are all manner of groups from far and wide, so please consider paying them a visit as you may be pleasantly surprised by what you hear of the likes of:

Aberdeen Chorus of Sweet Adelines on Saturday 17 August
Africa Entsha from Johannesburg throughout the month except Sundays
The Enkelit Singers from Finland with “Angels of the North” between 9 & 12 August
The Choir of St Andrew’s & St George’s West Church on selected nights
The British Vocal Jazz Festival at Le Monde George Street on selected evenings
The National Youth Choir of Scotland Girls Choir at St Giles’ on Saturday 24 August
Cantica Alba at St Andrew’s & St George’s West on Saturday 24 August
The St Giles’ Cathedral Choir on Friday 16 August
The Loud & Proud LGBT Choir at Greyfriars Kirk on Saturday 17 August
“Songs of the Scots” by the Linten Adie Community Choir at St Bride’s on Sunday 11 August
“The Spooky Man In History” at St Bride’s on Tuesday 20 August
The Choir of St Augustine’s Church on Lothian Road on Sunday 4 August
Vintage Twelve at St Andrew’s & St George’s West on 19 & 20 August
The Voices of Lions (not literally you understand) in different Churches between 3 & 8 August

So please come one come all and enjoy the A Cappella Festival in Edinburgh and we will see you on our travels.