Best of British 2013: 7. Lovely Day

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

Eligible Tracks

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

The Process

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

The countdown continues:

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

7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day

In at number seven is a late entry into proceedings – The Oxford Alternotives‘ version of Lovely Day only really came into existence after March’s Voice Festival UK and the Alts’ successful run to the final of the competition. Beating out their covers of Knights of Cydonia and Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You into our top 10, Lovely Day was arranged by friend of the group and UACUK contributor Nick Barstow, who even ended up joining the group as the song débuted at August’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Ex-OOTB member Barstow was drafted in to arrange after the group had tried in vain to incorporate some so-called “Barstow Chords” into some of their own arrangements. Departing group member Heather Young describes how they coaxed him into getting involved: “With a few puppy dog eyes and some batting of eyelids we got him to write an arrangement for us!” Indeed, Young claims the arrangement, and the way it enhanced the group’s togetherness, was part of the reason for the success of the number. “All the individual lines were nice to sing in isolation which I think is difficult to achieve in arranging, but is very rewarding to perform! This is definitely a song where we were working really closely as a group, with everyone being linked, quite intuitively, into what everyone else was doing.”

The arrangement, combined with the feel-good nature of the song, made it one of the group’s favourites by the end of the year, despite its relatively short life as part of their set. “The song itself is very sunny and it’s impossible not to be in a good mood when singing it! Combined with Beyonce’s Sweet Dreams mash up in the middle and you’re on to an absolute winner!” However, the irony of singing the song on the grey and rainy Royal Mile was not lost on the group, nor on the spectators: “We particularly enjoyed singing it on the mile, although the crowds seemed to quite enjoy the irony when it was bucketing it down with rain!”

The song garnered the most successful reviews from Fringe for its soloists, Barstow and Niamh Furey, both of which Young describes as “amazing.” Indeed, despite the intricate and clever arrangement, no song is complete without an excellent soloist (or, in this case, two!) However, it was the laid-back nature of the song which Young believes was the real source behind the popularity of the track. “The arrangement manages to really capture that kind of chilled out, lying-in-the-sunshine vibe which I think is quite hard to find in a cappella; usually the songs chosen are either slap-you-in-the-face-til-you-smile happy or sad and brooding, so I think this arrangement was both refreshing for us to sing and for others to hear.”

So, The Oxford Alternotives make our countdown for the first time at Number 7. There are still two more débutantes on our countdown to come. Any guesses? Stay tuned.

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Best of British 2013: 10. Knights of Cydonia

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

Eligible Tracks

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

The Process

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

The countdown begins here:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternotives Alternate Between Brilliant and Ordinary

Alternotive A Cappella

Alternotive A Cappella

Rating: 7/10

With the standard of a cappella at this year’s Edinburgh Festival higher than ever, it takes a great deal to stand out amongst the crowd year after year. The Alternotives always manage to do this, but this year they did so more through their gimmicks and (at times awkward) spoken interludes than their music, which was at times majestic but all too often a little underwhelming, leading to a rather inconsistent set.

The highlights, while sparse, were phenomenal and possibly the most memorable in the entire festival, and were spearheaded by two of the most angelic female soloists in UK collegiate a cappella right now. Heather Young sparkled on Noel Harrison’s Windmills of your Mind, backed up by Nick Barstow’s gorgeous choral descants, while Musical Director Jessie Reeves once again proved her ability to mesmerise an audience on a ballad, backing up her previous award-winning Samson rendition with a similarly brilliant version of Adele’s Make You Feel My Love. While Reeves doesn’t possess a conventional powerhouse voice that works so effectively on power ballads, her breathy tones are so well controlled and her voice rises and falls perfectly to fit the mood of the song. Even a month after the Festival, the goosebumps ellicited from the song still live long in the memory.

The real moment of comedy gold that the group struggled for a long while to achieve was a hilarious rendition of the Vengaboys’ Boom Boom Boom Boom during the blind date section of the show which they had reintroduced after much success last year, with the bass soloist blasting through the choral arrangement with creepy eyes galore amidst side-splitting laughter from the majority of the audience.

While the rest of the Blind Date section of the show, whereby a reduced section the group would perform amusing ‘romantic’ numbers to a blindfolded audience members, evoked titters from the rest of the crowd, musically it further exposed the deficiencies that were apparent when the entire group performed together. One thing lacking was a real strong tenor presence, both on the solos and in the group’s blend. The group’s opening number, I Shot The Sherriff was an intriguing opener with a real reggae/jazzy feel, especially when they segued into Superstition, but cried out for a real belter of a tenor solo, as well as a much tighter overall blend.

This sense of underwhelming inconsistency could be found throughout many of the numbers. Put Your Records On, led by the usually flawless Olivia Willis, wasn’t quite up to her usual standards, but ended on a very cool jazzy chord; Coldplay’s The Scientist showcased another unextraordinary solo but contained some controlled and effective falsetto ‘ooh’s towards the end; and Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror had a complex, interesting chorus, a phenomenal key change and some brilliantly controlled crescendos, but the verses were plain dull.

I really like the Alternotives: they always offer something quite different to all the other groups at the Festival, rather than just performing song after song without interlude. But they didn’t quite live up to the high standards they set themselves over the past year; indeed, at times they left a lot to be desired musically. Intertwined with some flashes of utter brilliance, though, and I left the show wondering what might have been had this magnificence been maintained throughout.

Fringe Focus: The Alternotives

Alternotive A Cappella

Alternotive 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 ninth of this series of articles, we will be looking at this year’s VF-UK Finalists, The Oxford Alternotives.

Fringe History

Despite being one the oldest groups in the country, it wasn’t until 2010 that the Alternotives made their Fringe debut, but it was well worth the wait, with rave reviews flying in left, right and centre. Since then, they have kept up the standard of high quality, as well as original, a cappella, and offered something just that little bit different, last year in particular providing a ‘Blind Date’ element to the show, in which an audience member would be serenaded by various group members and asked to pick their favourite.

Previous UACUK Ratings

2011: 9/10 – “To take something complicated and unpredictable and pull it off with such panache was massively impressive.”
2012: 7/10 – “I was blown away.”

This Year

Following a successful visit to London for the Voice Festival UK Final, the Alternotives are back for their fourth year on the trot, and return to the venue they did so well in last year, theSpace @ Symposium Hall. They kick off their run today, Monday 12 August, and will perform until Saturday 24th., at 14:05. After some excellent reviews all around last year, and a very solid year competitively, they will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of this year’s Festival – and they stand out, compared to the more straight-laced groups out there.

What To Expect

The unfortunate thing about the Voice Festival UK is that it allows very little scope for being different. Fringe sets are over four times as long and have no guidelines – in this atmosphere, therefore, the Alternotives thrive. They take the musical tightness that they develop for the Voice Festival and add to that smatterings of humour, comedy, sketches, and general frivolity that makes the group unique. Hopefully the group will keep true to their core principles and not only provide classy music but also a barrel of laughs. Miss it, miss out.

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.

Event Review: VF-UK 2013 University Final

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

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

The line-up for the evening was as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master of Ceremonies: Overboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

Awards:

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

WINNER:

Vive

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

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.