VF-UK 2014: Semi-Final Review

The morning and afternoon of Saturday 8th March saw twelve of the UK’s best collegiate a cappella groups descend upon the City of London School for Girls to battle it out for just five places in the Final on Sunday evening, 9th March. With the groups split into two semi-finals of six, and each group getting 8 minutes to show off their abilities rather than the traditional 12 minute set, the pressure was on to impress from the word go. And boy, did they impress. We’ve given our thoughts on each group’s performance and picked our top five to reach the Final tomorrow – but we won’t know who will be competing in the Final until later this evening.

Semi-Final 1

The King’s Chicks

Opening proceedings is no easy task, especially for a group that has never made it this far before – fellow semi-finalists Choral Stimulation suffered from nerves in last year’s final after being drawn first in their début final and it cost them. However, the King’s Chicks, dressed in black crop tops, jeans and red hairbands, showed no sign of nerves in their whirlwind set of three mid-length numbers, diving straight in with a nod to International Women’s Day and what I’m going to describe as a Girl Power Mash-Up. Beyonce, Lily Allen, Destiny’s Child… all the usual suspects made an appearance in this opening number, which seemed to finish no quickly than it had started. It began a theme for the afternoon of groups trying to mash one-too-many songs into each other with little regard for musical similarities, although Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here was met with a sassy solo which showed promise.

The girls’ middle song was their strongest, a cover of Regina Spektor’s Us, which began with some glorious bell tones and introduced the wonderfully controlled solo with consummate ease. The dynamics were blatant and rose and fell in all the right areas, although the girls could have used some variation in vowels aside from the ‘do’ sounds that were predominant throughout.

The King’s Chicks’ final number was the strongest in terms of arrangement but the weakest in terms of performance. Rabbit Heart and Say My Name are typically punctured by Florence Welch’s massively powerful lungs, and as a result this cover felt a little underwhelming; despite the girls’ best efforts to inflict the clichéd ‘wall of sound’ on the audience, they never quite got there, particularly the meek soloist on the former of the two numbers. The choreography throughout the set was simple but effective and interesting enough to watch, and with nothing to compare against, it was a decent enough start from the girls from King’s.

All the King’s Men

Following up their King’s College compatriots were three-time VF-UK Finalists All the King’s Men, hoping to make it four finals out of four. Wearing their usual blue shirts and dark trousers, the group presented a two-song set consisting of Livin’ On A Prayer and a Spider Medley which you may have heard at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a couple of years ago. AtKM always space themselves in a very refreshing way on stage – they rarely ‘shoe-up’ like many other groups, instead choosing to scatter themselves in an orderly fashion and facing different directions on stage, and while their choreography (or rather, movement) looks effective, in essence it’s just clever use of the stage space.

Livin’ On A Prayer was excellent. They had much improved in terms of pitching since their performance at the St Andrews A Cappella Christmas Concert, and Barry O’Reilly led the solo powerfully and note perfectly, although I just wish he had the voice to push the very challenging top notes into chest voice rather than falsetto as the song and the arrangement was simply crying out for it. There were nice moments with the brief sample of Michael Jackson combined with the moonwalk and the High School Musical-esque jump in unison towards the end, although if I were to be churlish, there were a few voices that stuck out from the otherwise fairly tight blend.

The Spider(Man) medley began with Gus Nicholson sat on the floor launching into a timid version of Incy Wincy Spider, which morphed quickly into a jazzy version (with a slight rhythmic blip along the way) and then into the Spider-Man Theme. The group took the opportunity to showcase several voices (and, indeed, varying facial expressions) which worked well, although the group didn’t quite manage to reach a suitable climax musically. They did achieve one comically, however, making sure to define that they weren’t talking about Irom Man, an X-Man, Jackie Chan, or indeed That Man in the front row. The crowd went wild and rightly so afterwards. This was a better performance than last year, but not quite as good as their title-winning one in 2012. Enough to send them to the Final? Probably.

The Sons of Pitches

Last year’s British ICCA Final representatives from the University of Birmingham, The Sons of Pitches were the first group to reach the New York Final without having become British champions in the process. Keen to amend this, the smallest group in the competition, just seven-strong, emerged in their new white boiler suits, but this emergence was unlike your usual entrance. Josh Mallett entered first, with a jar of jam. The rest followed, acting like zombies. All will be revealed in due course.

The zombies corresponded to the first song in the group’s Happy Medley – Gorillaz’ Clint Eastwood One thing that is so apparent watching SoP is that they enjoy performing SO MUCH. Their choreography was pure and simple fun. Cheeky and mischievous, yes, but also bloody good fun. It also appears the group have replaced the phenomenal beatboxing talent that is Jack Blume with someone even better and with more fun tricks up his sleeve – Mide Adenaike. He revealed what can only be described as a “bass growly thing”. It was awesome. Pharrell’s Happy merged in, as did a snippet of If You’re Happy And You Know It, and all-in-all this was a pretty outrageous start to the set.

Then something weird happened. The group slowed to an eerie, discordant, minute-long version of Girls Aloud’s Sound of the Underground. The solo from Joe Hinds was haunting. The backing, however, was either so brilliantly discordant that it was perfect, or simply plagued with tuning issues. Usually with numbers like that you can tell when chords are supposed to clash, but the song was so brief that it was difficult to tell and as a result it left you with somewhat of a sour taste.

The group were back to their brilliant best in the final number, another mash-up, this time of Jason Derulo’s Talk Dirty To Me and Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty. Adenaike demonstrated some more absurd throat singing. If he doesn’t win some sort of award I’ll be very surprised. The logic behind the jam was revealed when Christina’s lyric ‘That’s my jam!’ was sung; indeed, Jamie Hughes led the line superbly in this final number. The best thing about the Sons is that each member pulls their weight and is a huge character in the personality and make-up of the group, and they really are a joy to watch. While this wasn’t the best Sons of Pitches performance I’ve ever seen, it should still have easily been good enough to see the group through to the Final. They’ll need to tighten up if they’re to win it though.

The Uptone Girls

Also hailing from Birmingham and in their first London-based competition, the Uptone Girls entered the stage with shirt white tops and tight, shiny leggings. When I say shiny, I mean shiny. Like, super shiny.

The group kicked off with a cover of Lorde’s Royals. It was OK. The dual beatbox worked extremely well, and was particularly good for a girl group. The soloist was confident and capable, although I do feel pitching the song slightly lower would have allowed for a more powerful and expressive (and less squeaky!) performance all around. Also, I feel this is a very ‘safe’ song to choose; the original is very easy to adapt for a cappella – it has all the necessary harmonies ad moving parts already contained within it – and the girls didn’t add a huge amount to what was already there. Musically they were flawless, but they played it safe here.

In stark contrast, the arrangement of OneRepublic’s Counting Stars against Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball was one of the best of the night. The usage of a continuous ‘ooh-aah-ooh-aah’ vowel blend complemented the two marvellous solos and was a welcome change from the somewhat dry backing in the previous number. The real triumph here were the transitions from one song to the other several times throughout the piece and the way they came off in live performance, although their big climactic moment once again could have been just a tad bigger for more effect. The arrangement here was superb; the performance almost matched it.

The Techtonics

I was listening to the Techtonics version of Labrinth’s Earthquake in the car on the way down to London and marvelling at the oozing creativity and plethora of talent displayed in the electronic piece that made it onto the Sing! 8 compilation. The talent remains; the creativity, it seems, has dissipated. Or maybe I just have heightened expectations now.

The Techtonics demonstrated from start to finish that they possess possibly the best group of singers in the competition. From soaring, note perfect falsettos to plunging basses, they have the full range – and with pretty much an army of singers, it’s no surprise. However, aside from the odd chuckle here and there in the first number, their set dragged, despite only being 8 minutes long.

The first number was a medley of too many songs that didn’t seem to gel particularly well and seemed to have been cobbled together for comedy value. There were occasional hilarious ‘WTF?!’ moments, including what I think might have been a Star Wars reference, but the song dissolved into a shapeless mish-mash that didn’t seem to have any real direction. It was sung competently enough, and there was some nice, realistic instrument imitation, but I just think they tried too hard to put too much into this number.

If their first song was too varied, their second suffered from not being varied enough. The soloist on Passenger’s Let Her Go was easily the best part of the song. I love a good, solid, strong baritone solo. The backing, however, was repetitive. I love a good “jah-nah-nah” as much as the next person, but for the entire song? No thanks. Musically, I couldn’t fault it. Each note was sung at pitch and the blend was fantastic. But there lacked a real spark to this performance, a real change of pace that would have made things a whole lot more interesting. There just wasn’t enough variation. When the boys decided to step out from their clustered formation I was hoping a climax was going to come, but instead they just got slightly louder and continued with the “jah-nah-nah” sounds. The boys clearly have talent by the bucketload; they just haven’t found the arrangement to demonstrate that talent to full capacity just yet.

The Accidentals

The final group in the first semi-final was The Accidentals from the University of St Andrews. Technically still the best all-female group in the country (but for how long?), the group took everyone by surprise by presenting a 8-minute long mega mash-up without any sort of break in between. It wasn’t half bad either.

Ellie Mason displayed her considerable pipes in the first number, Killing Me Softly, with was belted with gusto and verve on top of a restrained yet effective backing. The mash-up then gradually turned its attention to the Black Eyed Peas, incorporating Don’t Phunk With My Heart, Shut Up, My Humps, Boom Boom Pow, Pump It, Meet Me Halfway and Where Is The Love?. It was exhausting. The girls displayed relentless energy to make it through the entire number, and remained, for the most part, on key. They displayed the usual mix of solid musicality with some fierce dance moves, RnB magic, rap, grinding, and even put in a few cheeky modulations up and down just to toy with the audience.

On the plus side, the transitions were phenomenal, and each song was tackled with as much ferocity as the next. However, again it felt as if they had tried to put too many songs into the one, to such an extent that nothing stood out as being truly memorable – all the moments were too fleeting. It was a bold choice by the girls, and credit to them for taking a risk. I’m on the fence as to whether or not it paid off. It was entertaining, hilarious and VERY feisty, as always, and also demonstrated a huge range of styles that the girls executed flawlessly time after time. But was it simply too overwhelming?

Semi-Final 2

Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue have changed. Since last seeing them live at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2012, it seems every member of that Fringe generation has left the group. I saw no familiar faces in their line-up today. Would the OOTB legacy live on?

Just about. The light blue shirts, ties and lack of shoes are still there. The classic choreography is still there. They even had a strong soloist, something they have lacked in the past, on their first number, Bruno Mars’ Treasure, which was a standard, big-voiced, boisterous and fun OOTB number, without really becoming anything spectacular. The highest and lowest parts had the most variety, with the mid-ranged backing verging on becoming a little monotonous, but the boys changed things up enough to keep the arrangement relatively fresh with some perfect unison melodies and the classic pointing pose at the end of the number.

However, the boys brought their A-Game when it came to their second number, Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence. This was the best musical performance of the night. Out of the Blue know how to do close harmony. It had everything: gorgeous lofty belltones, marvellous pitching, fresh vowel sounds, glorious high falsetto and blend to match even the most professional of groups. There was one moment when the pitching was oh-so-slightly lost, but this was a tiny blemish on a stunning vocal demonstration. I wasn’t sure about their chances for the final after their first number; after their second, I felt they were nailed on finalists.

Semi-Toned

Some members of Semi-Toned were wearing extremely tight trousers. That’s all I have to say on this matter.

Sometimes I wonder what goes on in a Semi-Toned rehearsal. Whoever thought of having a set which mashed-up Ylvis’ The Fox with Olly Murs’ Dear Darlin’, followed by the Pokemon Theme Tune and Radiohead must be crazy. But good crazy.

Despite a nervy, pitchy start, Murs’ Dear Darlin’ was performed with a tenderness that befitted its position behind Out of the Blue’s closer. Just as we were lulled into a false sense of security, however, BOOM. Cue The Fox and some crazy dancing (granted, at the expense of musicality, but who needs it when you’re pretending to make fox noises?!) Semi-Toned are way too fun. I literally wrote on my notes the word ‘BANTER’ in capital letters during this number. A raucous ride.

To follow this with the Pokemon Theme was brave, as the group could have been seen to be taking the mick slightly, but the pseudo-serious bass solo added a touch of sincerity to the proceedings, as well as nostalgia. The group definitely proved they were the most charismatic of all the groups so far with their opening two numbers.

And then Radiohead. From the ridiculous to the sublime. They NAILED this. Michael Luya’s solo was delicate and floated and simply marvellous. There was something about the blurred backing vowels that fitted the nature of the arrangement so well. There was definitely an element of AtKM’s Hide and Seek inspiration to be found in this number. Quite brilliant. Deserved finalists.

The Alleycats

The Alleycats were next up, sporting their usual suited-up attire with bright white trainers. (How do they keep them so clean?) As a fellow St Andrews student, I really really wanted The Alleycats to be brilliant, and I knew they had to be to stand a chance of reaching the Final. And they were – in moderation.

Despite having a plethora of solo talent in their ranks, The Alleycats have one of the most distinctive and successful blends in the country, which one would think is a huge advantage in a competition like this. Indeed, soloists Ayanna Coleman and Ollie Hayes on Put Your Records On and Jason Derulo’s The Other Side respectively led the line superbly, gracing the stage with their vocal dexterity. Jess Browne added some delightful ‘twiddly bits’ at the top, while some of the cutesy choreography on Records reminded me of similar movement in their Fringe version of Sixpence Non The Richer’s Kiss Me when Annie Faichney was on lead vocals.

However, I think they played it too safe here. Yes, musicality they were tight. They looked great. They did everything right on the night. But they weren’t ambitious enough. The Alleycats are very good at what they do, to such an extent that they become stubborn and unwilling to think outside the box. Both these numbers were very ‘Alleycat’ numbers – ‘zum-zum-ba’ is their token backing vocal sound and was used here in full force – but neither number had enough variety or spice to stop them both from dragging just slightly towards the end.

If you’re looking for a solid a cappella group that never fail to sound bloody good, The Alleycats are who you’re gonna call. But in times when judges look ever more for shows of brilliant originality, I don’t think they provide enough of that.

The Scopes

The Scopes became the third group to fall into the trap of trying to fit too many songs into a small timeframe across the course of the afternoon in London. Credit must be due to them for the effort they put into their first London national event, but following the huge sound that the Alleycats create was never going to be an easy task and at times they almost drowned in the dull acoustics of the venue.

Their first song was good. A Queen mash-up of Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy, Don’t Stop Me Now and Bohemian Rhapsody was spearheaded by a cute tenor solo and all-in-all it worked well. The arrangement was solid, the beatboxing was effective if occasionally the slightest bit out of time, and their variation in rhythms kept everything interesting and took us on a journey more so than some of the other groups had done.

However, the second song, what can only be described as a 90s Pop Medley, was married by pitching issues at the very start and was simply another case of trying to squeeze too much into one song. The best mash-ups contain two songs, with a potential small sample of a third, which bear similar rhythms, key signatures and often themes, and have samples of each song throughout the arrangement. This was a cluster of pop songs stacked up one behind the other with no real room for any of them to become fully fledged – a shame really, because the group showed musically the potential to be really strong. But with S Club 7, Blink 182, B*Witched, Shania Twain, Steps, Blue, Busted, The Spice Girls and Peter Andre all squeezed into four minutes, it was just too much.

The Songsmiths

Note to other groups: This is how you perform at your first VF-UK national event. A seamless, eight minute long set of two songs which blended well into each other but had enough of their own identity to be praiseworthy on their own merit.

The group from Leeds began with Alt J’s Fitzpleasure, intertwining some already existing harmonies with a strong hi-hat beatbox, some awesome dubstep bass and a gorgeous, if unorthodox, soloist. Towards the middle of the song, the girls did get a little pitchy, especially towards the faster-paced section of the arrangement, but corrected themselves quickly enough and grew to a huge wall of sound into the start of Total Eclipse of the Heart. Gorgeous belltones preceded the revelation that the aforementioned beatboxer is also a strong tenor, who added in the “Turn Around” echo with a pure, crisp tone. The Eclipse solo itself was lead magnificently, although the group could have been accused of extending the song a little longer than was necessary.

Most importantly, the group made a huge warm wall of sound as they built to a climax that had sadly been missing for much of the rest of the afternoon: as if I’d been inches away from a big, long, warm hug and the Songsmiths were finally the ones who gave it to me. The arrangement here must be praised as it was the springboard on which the Leeds group could build their very well received performance.

A dark horse for the Final?

Choral Stimulation

The very final group to perform was Glasgow’s Choral Stimulation. As always, they were dressed in traditional Scottish attire, including kilts, sporrans and oodles of tartan.

Again, the group seemed nervous and as a result had a few pitching issues throughout the set. Their first number was a tender mash-up of Use Somebody with Mr Brightside. The solo on Use Somebody was simply phenomenal: delicate in the most delicate of moments, and powerful in the most overwhelming of moments, it was sung with silky soul. Again, though, the big climax threatened to arrive but never quite did, before they marched on into their second number, which incorporated Go Your Own Way with Locked Out Of Heaven and Cher’s Believe. While much laughter was garnered from the gimmick from the soloist on Believe hitting his throat to impersonate the auto-tuned nature of Cher’s original, the group sounded a little tired, and I just felt this arrangement wasn’t as perfect a fit for the group as their ‘Ode to Glasgow’ was last year. Having seen Choral Stimulation perform many times, I feel they have done better in the past.

The group rounded off proceedings by gradually leaving the stage, with just the stoic beatboxers/drumrollers remaining on stage for an effective finale.

Something didn’t quite click for me with CS’s set this time around. Perhaps after last year’s marvellous effort I was expecting too much. Possible finalists.

The Verdict:

UACUK’S Finalist Picks:

SONS OF PITCHES
OUT OF THE BLUE
ALL THE KING’S MEN
SEMI-TONED
THE SONGSMITHS

VF-UK Semi-Final Results:

Outstanding Arrangement: Edward Scott of Semi-Toned and Harry Style of The Songsmiths
Outstanding Musicality: Out of the Blue
Outstanding Choreography: Choral Stimulation
Outstanding Soloist: Peter Noden of the Techtonics
Outstanding Performance: Semi-Toned

Finalists:

THE TECHTONICS
OUT OF THE BLUE
ALL THE KING’S MEN
SEMI-TONED
THE SONGSMITHS

So we called four out of the five finalists. Did your favourite group go through?

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VF-UK 2014 Semi-Final Line-Up Announced

After a much anticipated couple of days, with groups steadily revealing their individual successes via various means of Social Networking, the full line-up of groups competing in the Voice Festival UK 2014 Semi-Finals has been revealed. And here it is, with our own additional commentary:

The Accidentals (University of St Andrews)
Having made the Final two years in a row back in 2010 and 2011, the girls have suffered in more recent years from the ever increasing competition provided by the St Andrews Regional round. This year, three of the four Scottish groups who entered have qualified for the trip to London, further emphasising the quality of a cappella in Scotland that has only previously been speculation. With Final experience under their belt, and still technically the top all-female group in the country, The Accidentals will feel they have a strong shot at being one of the final five.

The Alleycats (University of St Andrews)
It’s often forgotten that The Alleycats, a permanent fixture in UK a cappella since way back in 2001, last made the London Final in 2010 when two groups qualified from each Regional Round. Since the reduction to one group, the co-ed group have always been there or thereabout without making that final step. This year, they have a huge chance to do that, and with the group following in the footsteps of Out of the Blue by auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent, this could be their breakthrough year.

All the King’s Men (King’s College, London)
A regular fixture in VF-UK Finals in recent years, All the King’s Men have qualified for every Final they have attempted to qualify for. With three consecutive Finals, including their victory in 2011, they will be aiming for four in a row and are well equipped to do so. However, with a huge turnover of members this year and the loss of some stalwarts of the group, it will be interesting to see how the fledgling group has come together by the time the Final rolls round in March.

Choral Stimulation (University of Glasgow)
With their début Final performance coming last year after a stunning victory in the St Andrews Regional, Choral Stimulation have a big chance to build upon last year’s success, as well as being the third group from Scotland to qualify for the Final. They were visibly nervous in last year’s Final, but the experience will have served them well, and they have held on to the majority of their members, which bodes well. Whether they can capture the spirit of the group and of Scotland as well as they did in their marvellous set last year remains to be seen.

The King’s Chicks (King’s College, London)
After multiple unsuccessful attempts, it is a delight to see The King’s Chicks fulfilling their potential and qualifying for the Semi-Final. In doing so, they become the second of three all-female groups in the Semis and have a chance to dislodge The Accidentals as the best girl group in the country. They have no experience of reaching any further than Regional Rounds which may count against them, but they will bring something fresh and new to the London crowd and it would be great to see an all-girl group in the Final after such a long drought.

Out of the Blue (University of Oxford)
Only Out of the Blue and The Ultrasounds entered from Oxford this year, but if you were to put money on any Oxford group making the Final, it would be the OOTB boys. They have never failed to reach the Final, except last year when they didn’t enter, and won the inaugural competition back in 2009. They are the most successful internationally and the most popular group in the UK in terms of Facebook fans – but it will be the music that counts on the night, and six years after their last victory, they will be keen to return to the pinnacle of UK a cappella.

The Scopes (Imperial College, London)
Having only débuted last year, The Scopes have done well to make it through to the Semi-Finals. In the shadow of fellow Imperial group The Techtonics since their inception, this year has given them the chance to show the rest of the aca-community how far they have come since their founding in 2011. With The Techtonics also having qualified, though, will they rise above their rivals and make it into the top 5?

Semi-Toned (University of Exeter)
2013 was a big year for Semi-Toned – their first VF-UK Final, their first Fringe run (to heaps of critical acclaim), and a huge reputation boost in the process has put them, and a cappella in the South West, firmly on the map. This stage experience will have been crucial and may serve them well in the Semis – but there are a lot of strong, experienced groups against them, and they will need to really raise their game if they are to push for the title.

The Songsmiths (University of Leeds)
As a Yorkshireman, I’m proud of The Songsmiths for being the first group based in Yorkshire to qualify for a London VF-UK event. Formerly 95 Keys, and a group that seems to change their name fairly regularly, they were a part of the award-mad Birmingham Regional last year and picked up a few awards themselves, but they’ve never progressed further than that and will have their work cut out if they’re to reach the Final.

The Sons of Pitches (University of Birmingham)
Arguably the favourites. They sounded great at the London A Cappella Festival, and having bought their own handheld mics and released a thoroughly impressive album at the end of 2013, not to mention their ICCA Final experience in New York City last April, they are definitely the group to beat, especially given reigning champion Vive’s absence. They have kept a small group of 7, recruiting two very impressive new members, and don’t seem to have a weak link. There are former champions in the field though, who have been there and done it before, but the speed at which SoP are developing as a group could just be too much for the rest to keep up with.

The Techtonics (Imperial College, London)
An interesting group, really. Their 2012 album, Groundbreaker, was phenomenal, with Earthquake making it onto a cappella compilation CDs in the States, but they have never really translated this success into live competitions. The London Regional has become extremely strong recently, with All the King’s Men monopolising it in recent years, and the new format could give them a chance to break out and prove they’re better than their competitive pedigree would suggest.

The Uptone Girls (University of Birmingham)
The final girl group to make the Semis, the Uptone Girls have, like The King’s Chicks, been slightly upstaged by their male counterparts in recent Regional rounds. However, having made the Semi-Finals, the girls will be desperate to prove they are just as good as the Sons of Pitches and show off their competitive edge – something they will definitely need if they’re to make the Final in a very strong field.

So who didn’t make it?
For the most part, the groups with the most experience qualified for the Semi-Finals. One notable exception is 2011 Winners Cadenza, who didn’t make the Final, and previous Finalists HotTUBBS. None of the début groups qualified, which is a shame as live competitive stage experience is vital to the progress of a developing group, and groups that have shown promise in the past, the likes of Aberpella, Sweet Nothings and The Ultrasounds also missed out. We look forward to hearing more about these groups throughout the year regardless!

To book tickets for the University Semi-Finals and Final, click here.

Event Review: VF-UK 2013 London Regional Round

by Folarin Akinmade

For those of you that weren’t at the London round of the Voice Festival UK on Saturday 9 March, you truly missed a treat. As always, the standard of quality was soaring and a good time was had by all.

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

The Competitors:
THE SCOPES from Imperial College, London
ALL THE KING’S MEN from King’s College, London
THE HOUGHTONES from London School of Economics
VIVE from Guildhall School for Music and Drama
IMPERIELLES from Imperial College, London
THE TECHTONICS from Imperial College, London

Master of Ceremonies:
Scott Riseborough, Voice Festival UK

The show was opened by newcomers, The Scopes, from Imperial College. Their relative youth seemed to show in a certain timidness at the beginning of their performance, but as their set wore on it became apparent that the group has accomplished a great deal in their short careers, having only formed last year. The second song of their set, Live While We’re Young by One Direction gave them a chance to really settle into the show, and have fun with their performance, and by the time it segued into Starships by Nicki Minaj, their energy and enthusiasm was beginning to rub off on the audience. Though the beginning of their third and final song had a slightly prolonged start, it soon became the best song of their piece with simple, but extremely effective choreography, and a fantastic solo from Will Carr. All in all, it was a good performance and a brilliant debut at the VF-UK.

All The King’s Men, King’s College London’s all-male group were next to the stage, and as the reigning champs they had a lot to live up to, and they didn’t disappoint. They opened with Steve Winwood and James Vincent McMorrow’s Higher Love, and immediately demonstrated the slick, togetherness that carried them to victory last year. It was clear that they’ve been doing this a while. Their second song was Slow Dancing In A Burning Room by John Mayer, a fantastic arrangement that played with the texture and emotion of the original, even adding choral elements whilst still retaining the raw emotion of John Mayer’s classic. The final song of their set was Forever by Chris Brown. This number, fronted by one Eunseog Lee had the men showing off their boy band credentials with dance moves that would throw teenage girls into a frenzy. The judges later awarded them the award for ‘Outstanding Choreography’ with judge Paul Howard Davies noting that it was not just for the elaborate moves, but also for the times when their subtle or non-movements were just as effective in conveying the power and emotion of a song.

The Houghtones of LSE were the third group to take to the stage, and they opened with a fantastically original idea. The theme of radio jingles cleverly ran through their first number. They opened with the BBC Radio 2 jingle, segueing into Queen’s Radio Gaga, Ignition (Remix), and even Beethoven’s fifth symphony combined with When I Get You Alone, Robin Thicke number based on a sample of A Fifth of Beethoven by Walter Murphy, before ending on the ‘This Is Heart’ jingle. In that fantastic introduction – complete with a William and Kate parody – they established themselves as having a fantastic sense of humour, great stage presence, and fantastic, simple, but extremely effective arrangements. They clearly enjoy a good medley and so I was already sold, but then their next number, an arrangement of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water that borrowed elements of Aretha Franklin’s version of the song, really brought the good stuff, combining a brilliant soloist with an arrangement that was both subtle, pretty, powerful and full on. Their set culminated in a mash-up of We Are Young by fun. and Take A Walk by Passion Pit. This is definitely a group to look out for.

And now, time for something completely different. Vive of Guildhall School of Music took to the stage next, and we simply were not prepared for them. With a distinct lack of choreography, they were not what you might usually expect from an a cappella group competing at VF-UK, but the fact of the matter is, they simply don’t need to conform, the music speaks for itself. I’m struggling to know where to begin, but let it suffice to say that I am in love with Vive. As individuals they all have fantastic voices with Soprano Emily Danworth’s heavenly tone beautifully piercing the blend (though we would be remiss to forget Sam Robson’s beautiful falsetto). They opened with Your Motivation, an original by group founder, James Rose. I had always thought that it would be hard to keep the attention of an audience with an original song in this sort of competition, but Vive were captivating, and the judges recognised this, later awarding them this song the ‘Outstanding Arrangement’ award for its beautiful use of melody. Though Your Motivation was fantastic, for me it was their next song Somewhere from the musical ‘West Side Story’, arranged by alto Sam Robson that really showed what they could do with a beautifully complex arrangement, rich in crunchy, almost-dissonance. Their set ended with a stunning rendition of the spiritual Honour Honour. Vive brought a certain relaxed cool, and an absurdly high level of musicality to their set, and watching them was an absolute pleasure.

The Imperielles of Imperial took to the stage with a very strong opening and a fantastic soloist, though a little steam seemed to be lost towards the end of the song, it was firm start to the set. We then saw their arrangement of the aforementioned fun. song, We Are Young, putting them in direct competition with The Houghtones. The Imperielles take on the song was perhaps more delicate and they held their own beautifully. They ended their set on a high with an arrangement of I Knew You Were Trouble. It was a fantastic arrangement, with brilliant choreography. All the while, their performance was strengthened by the skills of their beat-boxer, a fact noted by judge, Yvette Riby-Williams, whose use of vocal percussion was very imaginative, not simply constraining herself to the standard techniques heard in such a context, but creating interesting and dynamic accompaniment.

The Techtonics‘ set was an absolute delight. It seemed to centre around their desire to subvert and parody every a cappella cliché, other groups and even their own past, and make us wet ourselves with laughter in the process. They started their performance with a rendition of Bangarang by Skrillex, setting the scene for their entirely electronic (mostly dub-step) set that included the likes of Bonkers, Harlem Shake, We Will Rock You, and The Veldt. At this stage it seems pertinent to mention that their deft interpretation of dubstep a cappella was made possible due to the monstrous vocal percussion of Max Hunter who was later presented the ‘Vocal Percussion‘ award. A highlight of their set was Harlem Shake in which they managed to incorporate the dance seen in the viral videos, complete with a man in a horse mask to start it off. As well as not taking themselves to seriously, at one point singing “We really like this song but it’s a little ridiculous”, they also took the time to parody the moving V for which All The King’s Men have gained notoriety for, as well as poking a little fun at VF-UK sets in general – “Now’s the time in a Voice Fest set where everyone knows how it goes”. It was truly rip-roaring stuff, but they took the time to show us that they are fantastic singers with lovely arrangements, particularly at the beginning of the instrumental song, The Veldt, which was a genuinely beautiful moment, and one of their number who asked to be referred to as ‘The Sexy Baritone’ walked away with the ‘Outstanding Soloist’ award.

Awards:
Outstanding Choreography: All the King’s Men
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Max Hunter of The Techtonics
Outstanding Arrangement: Sam Robson of Vive for Your Motivation
Outstanding Soloist: ‘The Sexy Baritone’ of The Techtonics

Ward Swingle Award for Originality: VIVE

WINNER:

ALL THE KING’S MEN

Ultimately, All The King’s Men won the round, with judge Paul Howard Davies saying it was their complete package that won them the day, and Vive were given the ‘Ward Swingle Award for Originality’, meaning the two groups went through to compete in the final.

All the King’s Men Set to Defend Title; Vive Pick Up Ward Swingle

In an astonishing night of a cappella at the City of London School for Girls, potentially two groups made it through to the final next weekend – All the King’s Men, as overall winners of the Regional, and Vive, who according to Voice Festival rules, will qualify also, unless a group from Birmingham also picks up a Ward Swingle Award as the six-strong group did this evening.

In a night filled with a high standard of collegiate a cappella, it was reigning champions All the King’s Men that saw of stiff competition from other London groups, including The Techtonics, debutants The Scopes and The Houghtones, and all-female group The Imperielles. But it was Vive who perhaps steal the headlines, becoming the first group since Fitz Barbershop in 2010 to pick up the Ward Swingle Award for Originality, and the second group ever to do so.

Depending on events in Birmingham, both All the King’s Men and Vive will be joining Choral Stimulation, The Oxford Alternotives and Semi-Toned in next weekend’s final, plus the representative from Birmingham that will be announced later this evening. Hold onto your seats.

Results Round-Up
Outstanding Choreography: All the King’s Men
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Max Hunter of The Techtonics
Outstanding Arrangement: Sam Robson of Vive for Your Motivation
Outstanding Soloist: The Techtonics

Winner: ALL THE KING’S MEN

Ward Swingle Award for Originality: VIVE

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

Voice Festival UK 2013 Preview – Part 3: London

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

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

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

Potted History

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

Notable Absence

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

Newcomer Alert

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

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

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

Old-Timers

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

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

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

Summary

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

Have Your Say

Voice Festival UK Competition Applications NOW OPEN!

In some exciting news today, it was revealed that applications for the Voice Festival UK 2013 competitions are now open! After last year was the most successful year since its inception in 2009, with a record number of groups participating UK-wide, that number is set to increase this year with more new groups emerging around the country.

One such group is London-based The Scopes, who have been steadily establishing themselves around Imperial College in the past year and are being encouraged to make the step up to competition level. Other potential debutants might include Blue Shakti from the University of Cambridge, Chordiac Arrest from Aberdeen and with rumours of a new group forming at the University of Edinburgh, this could well be one of the most hotly contested university competitions in recent years. We here are also hoping that former champions Cadenza will be back to battle it out for the crown, having made three consecutive finals from 2009 to 2011.

Excitingly, as a celebration of the fifth birthday of the festival, the organisation plans to have a Big Weekend down in London on the same weekend at the competition final, where groups can all join together in one place for a weekend of workshops, collaborations and, most importantly of all, singing. More will surely be revealed in due course.

Whatever happens and whoever is competing, we’re sure it’s going to be one hell of a ride. Brace yourselves for the best collegiate a cappella the UK has to offer – only four months to wait!

Groups can apply for the competition here, with the deadline being two weeks yesterday, 28 November. Get your applications in!

Techtonics & Friends Set to Bring A Cappella-Fest to ICU Metric

The Techtonics have once again organised a huge a cappella evening at the Imperial College Union Metric, with groups from London, Cambridge and even the US joining the Vocal Marathon participants for what is sure to be an a cappella sensation not to be missed.

The Techtonics are joined by fellow Imperial College groups The Imperielles and, in their first public outing, The Scopes, as well as Voice Festival UK 2012 Winners and 3rd placed group at the resulting ICCAs All the King’s Men from King’s College. Also joining them are the King’s Chix, also from King’s College, and award-winning group The Refrains, who competed this year in the inaugural VF-UK Community Competition. If that wasn’t enough, a new group, The Dynamics, will be making their public debut as well.

But even more excitingly, the world’s oldest collegiate a cappella group, the Yale Whiffenpoofs, will be kicking off their world tour that very evening.

It really is a show not to be missed. For more information about the event, check about the Facebook Event Page. To buy tickets, click here.