Out of the Blue Claim Second VF-UK Title

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

The line-up for the evening was as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

Master of Ceremonies: Scott Riseborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict:

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

Results:

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

WINNER: OUT OF THE BLUE

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

Who will win the Voice Festival UK 2014?

VF-UK 2014: Semi-Final Review

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

Semi-Final 1

The King’s Chicks

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

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

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

All the King’s Men

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

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

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

The Sons of Pitches

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

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

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

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

The Uptone Girls

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

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

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

The Techtonics

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

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

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

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

The Accidentals

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

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

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

Semi-Final 2

Out of the Blue

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

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

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

Semi-Toned

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

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

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

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

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

The Alleycats

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

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

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

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

The Scopes

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

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

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

The Songsmiths

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

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

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

A dark horse for the Final?

Choral Stimulation

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

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

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

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

The Verdict:

UACUK’S Finalist Picks:

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

VF-UK Semi-Final Results:

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

Finalists:

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

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

VF-UK 2014 Semi-Final Line-Up Announced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sons of Pitches Reach Second Final in Award-Crazy Regional

In a Regional Round full of top drawer a cappella, it was The Sons of Pitches who made it through to their second successive London Final, picking up no less than three awards in the process. The boys from Birmingham made it count on home turf once again, as they beat off stiff competition from experienced and debutant groups alike at the Elgar Concert Hall this evening.

With four groups hailing from the University of Birmingham itself joined by Birmingham Conservatoire based The Augmentals and Leeds-based The Songsmiths (who have had as many names as they have had years competing in VF-UK), it turned out to be a hotbed of raw talent as awarded were dished out left, right and centre for all manner of things, including a brand new award for the Augmentals for ‘Outstanding Audience Participation’.

The Sons of Pitches therefore become only the second group to have reached the Final before to be in the same situation again this year, and it means we will yet again have an all-female-less final for the second consecutive year.

Results Round-Up
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:Jack Blume of The Sons of Pitches and Lizzie Jones of the Uptone Girls
Outstanding Arrangement: The Sons of Pitches for Lose Yourself
Outstanding Musicality: The Songsmiths
Outstanding Audience Participation: Andrew Wilson of The Augmentals for Don’t Worry, Be Happy
Outstanding Soloist: Lorcan Byrne of The Songsmiths for Big Love and Charlye Simpson of the Uptone Girls for Landslide
Outstanding Performance: The Sons of Pitches

Winner: THE SONS OF PITCHES

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

Voice Festival UK 2013 Preview – Part 5: Birmingham

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 fifth and final installment, we’re checking out what’s on offer in the Birmingham Regional, taking place for the third time on 9 March 2013.

Potted History

In the two previous years that the Voice Festival has visited Birmingham, two different groups have won the Regional. In 2011, Augmented Seven, a group which disbanded last year, won the inaugural round ahead of three other groups from the University of Birmingham. Last year, with the net cast a little wider, it was all-male group The Sons of Pitches which claimed the victory, ahead of award-winning performances from the likes of Voice Versa and 95 Keys from the University of Leeds.

Newcomer Alert

The Augmentals: One of two new groups this year, The Augmentals hail from Birmingham Conservatoire and are very much an unknown quantity. They were founded in November 2012 and currently consist of 11 members, but aside from that we don’t really know much about them! We look forward to hearing them in the upcoming event. You can find the group on Facebook.

The Treblemakers: The second of the new groups, the Treblemakers become the sixth group from the University of Birmingham to compete in the competition, and the fourth currently. With a name identical to the all-male group in the recent Aca-Film, Pitch Perfect, they will be hoping to have just as much success in competitive a cappella as their namesakes.

Old-Timers

The Songsmiths: The name might not be familiar, but the group certainly will be: Leeds based group The Songsmiths were known last year as 95 Keys, and impressed in their debut performance at this Regional Round, picking up the award for ‘Outstanding Arrangement’. Not many groups manage that upon their debut, and with the entire of Leeds’ student body to choose from, they do have some talented singers in their midst too. Definitely ones to look out for.

The Uptone Girls: Another name you may not be familiar with, but whose members may be recognisable – formerly The Birmingham Songbirds, the all-female group have returned with a much punnier name, and will hope this improve their fortunes on stage too. Having not picked up an award in their two previous competitive efforts, they will be hoping that will change this year. With more experience than the majority of the groups in the competition, they could be in with a shout.

Voice Versa: Back for a second year, the award-winning mixed group (‘Outstanding Musicality’) looked very tight last year, and if they can add a little more spice and originality to their set compared to last year, they too could do well. They showed a spark of invention last year with their Feel Good Medley, as well as a lot of soul during their opening number, so if they play to their strengths they may find themselves through to the final.

The Sons of Pitches: For The Sons of Pitches, life really began after the Voice Festival last year. After they progressed to the final, they began to secure gigs left, right and centre, and their YouTube on-the-spot arrangements were vastly popular, and help them to develop a huge new fanbase. That just shows to show how much of an impact winning a competition like this can have. This year, the all-male group return as clear favourites, and having won awards in both previous years they have competed, as well as ‘Outstanding Stagecraft’ in last year’s final, they have the energy, the know-how and the vocal ability to qualify again. Can any of the other groups defy the odds?

Summary

In a strong turnout in Birmingham, all four groups that competed last year are back, with two newcomers making it one of the most competitive rounds in the competition this year. It’s hard to look past The Sons of Pitches, simply because of their incredible set and success last year – there were some at last year’s final who believed they should have won. However, they must not rest on their laurels, because there are five groups wanting to nick that final spot away from them. The most likely to do so is difficult to pinpoint, though – The Songsmiths had a great debut last year, as did Voice Versa, but The Uptone Girls have more experience and this may work in their favour. Not much is known about newcomers The Treblemakers or The Augmentals, although the latter, coming from a music school, could well provide us with some very tight Musicality, if nothing else. It’s all to play for.

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