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.

Event Review: VF-UK 2013 Oxford Regional Round

by Nick Barstow

The Oxford round of the Voice Festival is always one of the best attended and most hotly contested, thanks to Oxford’s reputation as the spiritual home of the UK a cappella scene. With five out of six Oxford groups regularly performing at the Edinburgh Fringe and embarking on tours across the globe, the groups here are among the most experienced nationwide. The lack of two regular attendees – Out Of The Blue and the Oxford Gargoyles – did nothing to dampen the competition’s energies and if anything heightened the competitive spirit as the field appeared much more open, having between them seen off every competing Oxford group since the Alternotives and Belles last final appearance back in 2009.

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

The Competitors:
THE KING’S CHICKS from King’s College, London
IN THE PINK from the University of Oxford
THE OXFORD BELLES from the University of Oxford
THE ULTRASOUNDS from the University of Oxford
THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES from the University of Oxford

In order to fill the running order and ease the pressure on the fast growing London stage of the competition, the first act of the evening were the London based all female group The King’s Chicks – their first performance in Oxford and a real baptism of fire considering both the Oxford Belles and In The Pink’s wealth of experience. The Chicks, however, were unphased and gave a slick and impressive show. This year the group have benefitted from an experienced musical director – Alexandra Platt hails from California and has sung with a group on the west coast, and her American roots proved to be a real positive influence on the group. The girls, under the direction of Ella Ross, have obviously mastered the more intricate ‘serious’ style of choreography favoured in the US but often shunned in the UK in favour of slightly more raucous, humorous style and it really helped to set them apart from their competitors on the night. Perhaps more unexpectedly, the other real strength of the group was its second song – often in an all girl group the slow songs are marred by a tendency to ‘make the most’ of the sopranos by sending them soaring into the stratosphere away from the rest of the block, and the soloists can often be too predictable, either set at saccharine sweet or overpoweringly belted with little in between. The chicks version of The Temper Trap’s Sweet Disposition however managed to avoid all of those setbacks whilst still providing real contrast to the outer two, upbeat pieces. The arrangement (by Platt) was closely written, the range kept small, and the inner parts kept active which gave the piece a really attractive shimmering quality. The soloist Khyati Modgil too was captivating, with a unique and soulful tone that was clearly audible above the block but never overpowering. The group also kept moving through the song, looking engaged and at ease throughout the performance.
If anything, the girls were hindered a little by a lack of inventiveness in the arrangement of the faster songs. Whilst their finale End of Time had some great strong homophonic sections, good choreography and a strong VP, the strong bass line of the original which provides much of the actual harmonic interest was simply left out – although such things can be a challenge for female groups, I didn’t feel that they’d actively tried to work out how to get that harmonic drive into their arrangement. It was strongly delivered, but a little too simple to remain interesting. The inclusion of the bollywood mash was an unexpected and pleasant surprise, and it showcased a real stylistic diversity or voices within the group, but it didn’t give the number the punch I felt it really needed.

The second group of the evening was In The Pink, and with a plethora of previous MDs and Presidents in the audience the group were well supported with whoops and whistles as they sashayed onto stage looking quietly confident. It’s amazing what a new wardrobe can do for a group’s onstage presence and overall attitude, (a best dressed award for next year, VF-UK?) and I think group president Carla Peters idea of matching black playsuits and a pink belt was an excellent one. The playsuit vibe matched the group’s performance impeccably – cheeky but not cheesy, sassy but not raunchy, energetic but not out of control. To move on to the set itself, the song choices on paper were perhaps a little predictable but they were brilliantly executed. The group’s overall arranging style was streamlined last year into a more modern, simple style with more emphasis on the percussion and solo, with tracks like Rumour Has It and Perfect being their best mainstays in ’11-12. That was carried on this year in the group’s more upbeat numbers, but each had some added complexity that really helped lift the group to another level. The group has also obviously had a really strong intake this year, and retained a lot of strong voices from last year also, with excellent solo work and VP across the board. Their highlight is unquestionably the ‘Hero/Survivor’ mash which was their third song, written by ’11-’12 MD Becca Nicholls towards the end of her tenure, and it’s a real winner for the girls. The opening of Survivor divides the famous arpeggiated line between a minimal number of singers which is all it needs, the rest of the block are given on beat chords to an ‘ah’ vowel. It doesn’t sound much, but having so many singers focussed on the one beat means the girls could give it real character as well as sound. Each ‘ah’ had a great breathy, studio-quality punch and the VP was really strong. Of all the groups on the night, In The Pink had the best overall ensemble quality with each member looking and sounding strong and engaged – the choreo wasn’t perhaps as tight as the Chicks’, but it was delivered with a little more energy and abandon which made it that little bit more exciting to watch. The group’s slow number was the weakest of their three, perhaps because a song as iconic and expansive as Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now is difficult to capture with a vocal group – especially if you’re familiar with the orchestrated version of the more recent studio recording. The arrangement was pleasant, and the soloist commendable for not copycatting Mitchell’s original but lending her own rich tone to the piece, but it just lacked the depth and scope of the original, and therefore the emotional power.

The pressure was on The Oxford Belles therefore as the third all female group in a row to make sure they stood out from the crowd. The Belles always put in a good showing at the Voice Festival, and often bring something a bit different to the table. Two years ago they gave us a slow song with no soloist, last year a medley of TV themes, and this year they ran together a set with no breaks, completely continuous. It’s a tactic which the Voice Festival has been keenly encouraging acts to attempt for years, but I’m not convinced what it added to the girl’s set. Effectively three songs (I’m a Woman, This Woman’s Work and Independent Women) stuck together with interludes, the set doubtless required a lot of practice to hold together but I think that the audience were a little bemused at the lack of space in which to applaud – and conversely without the boost of the audience’s adoration after each song I think the Belles lost momentum a little. Having taken part in the Voice Festival in the past, in my experience for the first song the group runs largely on nervous energy and adrenaline and it takes the applause from that to reassure that everything is going to plan, and so you calm down and tackle the rest of the set with a clearer head. The Belles denied themselves that opportunity, and I feel like it showed. That’s not to say however that their set wasn’t impressive. Their first full song is taken from the musical ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’, and the group used the songs theatrical roots to their advantage – the four soloists strutted across the stage with great presence, and when they came together at the end for an extended bit of belting and riffing it was really quite exciting. They didn’t overpower one another but worked together, the chords were firm and strong, the tuning on the song’s awkward minor-to-major modal changes was spot on. The second song kept this strong ensemble feel going – despite being led at first by soloist Celia McLuskie, the build-up towards the end allowed the block to take on bits of the main tune and words too. So often in slow songs the ensemble feel can be lacking, the main soloist too heavily relied on to carry the emotion, but the Belles avoided that. Their final song allowed MD Alicia Gayle to take centre stage and lead from the front, and her impeccable poise, finely tuned attitude and powerful vocal in my mind made her one of the best soloists all night – it was at this point however that I felt the lack of applause (especially after an emotionally draining second song) began to show in the girl’s overall performance, and the block seemed a little under-energised. The diction felt a little sloppy (although to be fair to the girls having listened to the original version I still have no idea what the words are in the chorus) and it just seemed that the group were unable to keep up the level of polish that the rest of their set demonstrated.

And then, for something completely different. The Ultrasounds made their Voice Festival debut with quite a bang last year, with some booming VP, club-night song choices and even the odd bit of break dancing. Barrelling onto stage in their overalls, their onstage presence could hardly have been more polarised from the three female groups, and sadly the difference extended to the quality of arrangements and overall performance. With such a small pool of potential talent (the group accepts only medics) the group is bound to be susceptible to qualitative peaks and troughs, and so the group’s attitude is evidently focussed on the enjoyment of its members and a sense of energy and fun. The group had strong support from a huge number of medics in the crowd, but they just didn’t pull off their set as well as they did in last year’s VF-UK debut. The first song, John Legend’s Ordinary People either had serious arranging issues or serious tuning issues – aside from the main line itself, it wasn’t especially recognisable as the original. It was a shame, as in theory the taking of a slow song and turning it into an upbeat, cheeky chappy style number (which was obviously the intention, with the boys striding merrily across the stage with an almost ‘hi-ho’-esque brand of choreography) is really quite good, but it just didn’t work. Their slow song, a mash-up of Without You and With Or Without You suffered from similar arranging issues, with the backing not lending enough support to the lead vocalists who coped well with the really demanding material. With their final number they returned more to the club-style which they showcased last year, and were all the better for it. The block was stronger, the group seemed more energised and more relaxed. Overall, however, it was a weaker showing for the group than last year by some margin.

The final group to take to the stage were The Oxford Alternotives, and like In The Pink they have made some quite drastic stylistic changes to their style in the past few years. In previous years harnessing a sort of nerdy humour, last year they were one of the Oxford round highlights, managing somehow to be both charmingly quirky and disarmingly suave, with an old school pop set studded with intricate harmonies, blink-and-you-miss-it mash ups, jokes and references (a five-second jazz a cappella parody in Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ still stands out as one of the best moments of the night). Tonight, as one of only two Oxford groups present to have made the final in the past five years, they must surely have been feeling the pressure to come good and repeat the feat. Opening with Knights of Cydonia was a bold choice and another stylistic departure for the group – but from the minute they opened their mouths it was evidently the right choice. That a cappella trope, the ‘wall of sound’, made its first appearance of the night, and I couldn’t help but feel as if the show had only really just started. The group’s sound was incredibly strong but not shrill or forced, it was wholesome and rich. Combined with some excellent vocal percussion work from Dom Burrell and Max Woodman, it was an exceptional opening number. The one thing it did perhaps lack was personality – it was sonically exciting but almost a little too serious. Perhaps in the context of the group’s own show this would have been less of an issue, but when thrown into contrast with the charm and energy of In The Pink as an opener it felt a little impersonal and unrelatable. However, any issues they might have had with getting the audience on their side were completely forgotten after their second song, Regina Spektor’s Samson. Having heard the song on the group’s latest studio album, I was looking forward to hearing it live in the town hall’s wonderful acoustic – and it really was quite a special experience. The block singing was stunning, the balance perfection. So often in a cappella discussion the word ‘blend’ is bandied about, and usually I tend to think that it’s only one letter different from ‘bland’ for a reason. Sometimes the ‘blend’ that groups strive for can strip them of personality, leaving the sound pleasing enough but lifeless and unengaging. The Alts, however, achieved a blended sound that was warm and expressive – and the shading of tone colour between the men and women was a real delight. With the tenors often sliding into falsetto and occasionally moving above and around the lower alto lines, it was the aural equivalent of dip dye – two separate colours flowing together, retaining their individual sense but creating something new in the middle. Particular credit for block work has to go to Olivia Willis, whose versatility is simply awesome. Although billed on the group’s website as an Alto, she took the high soprano line (which involves sitting on a top F# for approximately half the song) on her own, and throughout the piece it sounded free and effortless – and in the penultimate exposed passage (mimicking the piano in the original) it was nothing short of angelic. An incredible block needs an incredible solo, and Jessie Reeves’s take on the song was beautifully understated, and totally compelling. I feel that slow song soloists can often buckle under pressure and be too aware of the pitfalls of poor tuning or cracking, and the consequence is a tight and inanimate delivery. Jessie suffered none of these problems – her tone was so smooth and effortless, unhindered by the mechanics of vocal production. If there’s one performance you should look up on YouTube from this round, it’s this song. The sound the Alts produced is indescribable. I think it fair to say that their final song was never going to live up to their second in terms of musicality and sheer vocal beauty, and so it was a good decision by the group to finally show their more comic, playful side, and allow soloist Ed Crawford to flirt outrageously with the judges, the crowd, his fellow Alts and life in general whilst suavely singing Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You. The choreo was a little cluttered, and the sound a little sparse at times but having demonstrated the group’s vocal strengths it seemed appropriate to allow those things to slide a little in favour of an energetic, amusing finisher.

Round-Up:
At the interval, then, I felt pretty strongly that it should be a win for the Alts, although I could also see the judges being swayed by In The Pink. By far the strongest female a cappella performance I have seen, their set was really impressive and depending on whether the judges favoured musicality and vocal prowess or overall entertainment value and stage presence their decision could go either way. I was hoping for a fairly award heavy evening though, as there was a lot to commend onstage. The vocal percussion was strong all through the night, but Maria Constantine of In The Pink and the Burrell/Woodman pairing of the Alts stood out for me. The solos likewise were also very good, although I felt that Khyati Modgil’s interpretation of a very characterful male original (Sweet Disposition, from the King’s Chicks) deserved something, as did Jessie Reeve’s take on Samson. Outstanding Overall Performance, frequently a mark of entertainment value and stage presence, I was fairly sure would make an appearance for In The Pink. Whilst the Belles did a lot very well, I wasn’t sure if they had done anything significantly better than the other groups – they were strong and professional, but they weren’t thrilling.

Awards:
Outstanding Musicality: The Oxford Belles
Outstanding Soloist: Georgia Comrie of In The Pink for ‘Both Sides Now’
Outstanding Performance: In The Pink

WINNER:

THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES

In general, I was in agreement with the judges. I was pleased they’d recognised In The Pink’s performance, but I did feel the Alts were the worthier winners. The solo result I found a little surprising – in many was Comrie was an obvious choice, and quite possibly the best technical singer of the soloists, but I feel like outstanding solo shouldn’t necessarily mean best singer. Jessie Reeve’s solo felt much less technically produced, the tone was beautiful, unique and full of character. Likewise Khyati Modgil brought something unique and was the only slow song soloist to really physically engage with the song, and I feel that she should have been mentioned. I felt a little sorry for the Chicks that the judges didn’t give them an award to take away, as their showing was much stronger than the previous year and they got so much right which the more experienced groups have struggled with. Best Choreography could easily have been theirs for the taking.

Seeing as pre-coverage of the Oxford round largely dealt with the ‘notable absences’, it was great to see the groups on show taking the bull by the horns and making their mark. The real strength of Out Of The Blue and The Gargoyles is their niche is clearly established and it makes them much easier to talk about. OOTB are the best known university group in the UK, and their critical successes at the Fringe and beyond, well-publicised tours and top quality albums mean they can’t be ignored – likewise the Gargoyles are the only true jazz a cappella group on the scene and their victory in the BBC Choir of the Year Open Category (not to mention almost every Musicality award ever in Oxford) makes them an equally formidable force. The lack of recognition the other Oxford groups can occasionally suffer from is solely due to a narrow field of view of the public and a cappella commentators – the standard of groups on show tonight proved that in performance quality and musicality they are all capable of matching up to their more talked-about counterparts and have just as much individual personality. Had the circumstances been different and the Gargs and OOTB not been away during the competition period, I find it hard to imagine that the Alts wouldn’t still have been victorious.

Alternotives Reach First Final Since 2009

In the fifth annual Oxford Regional Round of the Voice Festival UK, it was mixed-group The Oxford Alternotives who progressed to the Final in London in a fortnight’s time, despite the rest of the awards being dominated by the all-female groups in the competition.

In a round devoid of the likes of Out of the Blue and The Oxford Gargoyles, it was The Alternotives who stepped up to the mark with an exceptional performance which helped them to qualify from Oxford for the first time: their final place in 2009 was gained through the now-defunct Cambridge Regional. With a repertoire that included one of our favourite tracks of last year, Regina Spektor’s Samson, the Alts capitalised on the notable absences to secure their final spot. Other highlights included three all-girl groups breaking out some amazing all-female a cappella, and The Ultrasounds in their token scrubs wowing with their dulcet tones.

So The Alternotives join Semi-Toned and Choral Stimulation in the final, in a year which is shaping up nicely for mixed groups…

Results Round-Up
Outstanding Musicality: The Oxford Belles
Outstanding Performance: In The Pink
Outstanding Soloist: Georgia Comrie of In The Pink for Both Sides Now

Winner: THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES

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

Voice Festival UK 2013 Preview – Part 1: Oxford

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

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

In the first blog, we kick off at one of the longest running Regional Rounds, that in Oxford, and the line-up looks slightly different this year. The round will take place on Sunday 3rd March 2013.

Potted History

This is the fifth time the Oxford Regional Round has taken place, having started at the inaugural Voice Festival competition back in 2009. In the first two years, Out of the Blue qualified for the final twice, alongisde The Oxford Belles and The Oxford Gargoyles in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Since the introduction of two extra Regionals, Out of the Blue have gone on to qualify alone in 2011 and 2012, meaning they have made the final in every year possible.

Notable Absence

Out of the Blue: The first of two huge absences from this year competition, the boys from Oxford have this year decided to withdraw from the competition in order to focus on other projects. Their departure is a huge loss to the competition and will mean the group relinquish their record of being in every single VF-UK Final. Having proceeded to the ICCA Finals in New York as winners in 2009 and coming second, alongisde huge national exposure on Britain’s Got Talent and having the largest fanbase in the UK, they leave a legacy behind them, while blowing the Regional in Oxford wide open.

The Oxford Gargoyles: The second significant absence from the competition this year is the well-established jazz group. While the group have only ever reached the final once, the year they won the competition in 2010, they are seen as one of the most professional groups in the country, having reached the final of BBC’s Choir of the Year 2012 and appearing on national television as a result. Judging by what I saw of the group at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, their departure is another big loss to the competition, and we hope to see the group back in coming years.

Switching Sides

The King’s Chicks: New name, new location. Formerly the King’s Chix, the group have decided to indicate their maturity by stylising their name slightly differently, and have been re-jigged into the Oxford Regional due to the large number of groups popping up in London this year. With this their third year in the competition, having competed in London in the previous two years, now would seem to be the best time to be relocated to this particular round, given the notable absences above. Having seen them at the Edinburgh Fringe briefly in the summer, there was room for improvement, but a New Year and a fresh batch of members could allow the group to thrive in their new surroundings.

Old-Timers

The Oxford Alternotives: Having competed in Cambridge twice and in Oxford twice, it seems with the lack of Cambridge participants at all this year, the Alternotives are back home for good. Having won an award every year they have competed (last year for ‘Outstanding Choreography’), and having reached the final in 2009, their longevity and experience could hold them in good stead this year.

The Oxford Belles: One of three all-female groups in this year’s Oxford Regional, the Belles are one of only three all-female groups to ever reach the final of the competition, and as such will feel confident going into this year’s Regional. The group blew us away last year with an ‘Outstanding Soloist’ during their cover of Jar of Hearts, which was later awarded 5th place in our countdown of the top tracks of 2012. If they can utilise their members to such good effect again this year, they may well be the favourites to qualify – after all, I had them down as a close second last year.

In The Pink: Credit to In The Pink, since last year’s competition they have strived to build on simply gaining experience from the Voice Festival. Having had another successful Fringe run and toured Berlin, they have been picking up experience here, there and everywhere, and have released a solid studio album. Whether this will translate to a live competition remains to be seen, but the girls should not be underestimated.

The Ultrasounds: After a very solid debut last year, claiming award for ‘Outstanding Vocal Percussion’ and ‘Outstanding Performance’. Having since released a debut studio album, the all-male, all-medic group are now the sole male-only group in this Regional, and if they can build on their impressive debut, they could surprise a few.

Summary

With two previous winners no longer competing, this has blown not just this Regional but the entire competition wide open. As the only two previous finalists left in this round, you have to suggest that the favourites are either The Oxford Alternotives or The Oxford Belles, despite neither group having made the final since 2009. Based on recent performances, I would say the Belles are the closest to making it this year. However, experience does not necessarily mean victory, and the strong debut from The Ultrasounds last year is something that, if properly built upon, could stand them in good stead this year. In The Pink have also had a good year since the last competition, and their experience in Germany and in Edinburgh will have undoubtedly strengthened their core sound. That leaves The King’s Chicks, who I am sure will be well received by the new Oxford crowd, and in their third year of competition, they will also be expecting some sort of progress. This one is really tough to call.

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