Event Review: VF-UK 2013 Oxford Regional Round

by Nick Barstow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WINNER:

THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES

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

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

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Alternotives Reach First Final Since 2009

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

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

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

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

Winner: THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES

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

Voice Festival UK 2013 Preview – Part 1: Oxford

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

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

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

Potted History

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

Notable Absence

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

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

Switching Sides

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

Old-Timers

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

Have Your Say

Event Review: VF-UK 2012 Oxford Regional Round

On Sunday 26th February, Oxford Town Hall played host to the third Voice Festival UK 2012 University Competition Regional Round, with six groups from the University of Oxford competing for a solitary place in the final in London.

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

The Competitors:

OUT OF THE BLUE from the University of Oxford
THE OXFORD GARGOYLES from the University of Oxford
THE OXFORD BELLES from the University of Oxford
THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES from the University of Oxford
IN THE PINK from the University of Oxford
THE ULTRASOUNDS from the University of Oxford

The first group to grace the stage were The Oxford Alternotives. I had never heard this groups perform live before, so I was intrigued to see how they would incorporate their ‘alternative’ nature in their VF set, which can be quite restrictive. They were wearing mainly black, and kicked off with Jamiroquai’s Canned Heat. A subdued start led into the bouncy verse, and for some reason I was surprised to see a female take the lead on this song, although considering the skyscraping tenor range of the original artist perhaps I should have expected it. Some nice choreography with some good levels, which progressed in the second verse into a semi-circle with each member of the group doing some freestyle moves, some of which were rather comical, and it was a nice way of expressing the individual characters within the group. The song itself was above average without really being exceptional, and they blended into Boogie Wonderland, which incorporated a male soloist, who did well. Then came the step-clapping – I really don’t like step-clapping in a cappella, so it really frustrates me when groups do it when they could be doing something so much more impressive – especially as it went on for 40 seconds, far too long in my opinion. It was an average opener for the group, which started promisingly but didn’t quite deliver as much as I was expecting towards the end.

Their second song was a slowed down cover of Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name, and I was immediately hit by a wall of sound in the very sultry opening, with the silky voiced ladies taking the lead in the early stages. As the beatbox kicked in, the sound dropped slightly to make way for the solo, and I enjoyed the simple yet effective ‘dum’ sounds from the basses throughout most of the song, but until the group changed it up a little with I’m A Survivor it was dragging just a tad, partly due to the slow tempo of the song. The arrangement did lose its way a little towards the end, and I was glad to see them reach a climax towards the end of the song, as I feared it might not arrive, and the intricate finish was a touch of class on an arrangement which did leave me wanting a little bit more.

The group’s final song was Spandau Ballet’s Gold. Some really nice wave-like choreography at the start, and the group really filled the stage with their sound. I really liked the tone of the soloist’s voice, and there some great cheesy 90s moves in the first chorus which I highly approved of. I also particularly liked the boys miming drums on top of the girls in many of the instrumental sections, which really added to the depth of the song. In fact, the comic value of the choreography really stood out in this number, and I laughed out loud when the boys posed and shouted “Hooh” after “You’re indestructible”, and the girls followed suit the following time, much to the pleasure of the audience. The energy levels for this song were noticeably higher than the previous two, and I was thoroughly impressed by this final performance, which was definitely at a higher standard than the previous two songs. An excellent end to to a good performance, but I wasn’t sure if it was quite strong enough to stand out above the rest of tonight’s performances.

Second up were the only new group in this round, the all-male, all-medic group The Ultrasounds. I was intrigued to see how they would fare against much more experienced opposition, and was delighted to see them dressed in their scrubs – a signature look if ever I saw one. They kicked off with two club anthems, Dynamite by Taio Cruz and Barbara Streisand by Duck Sauce. The boys clearly enjoyed themselves here. Some really great high harmonies, and the soloists were solid enough. Some humorous choreography here too. Unlike a lot of the other groups, they were strongest when they had a clear soloist – the song lost a little bit of its punch during the unison chorus. Their merge into Barbara Steisand worked well, despite being more of a “stop one song and then start the next one”, and they finished really abruptly and effectively, to much applause. An impressive start from the new boys.

Their second song was Yazoo’s Only You. Nice layered effect throughout. Soloist solid, not outstanding though, and was complimented nicely by the second soloist. The boys acted the song well – the original soloist confessing his love for the second harmony soloist, while moving ever closer to him, with the second one looking ever more worried every step the first one took, and trying to edge further away from him, constantly rejecting his advances – the audience tittered away throughout. Finally, the second soloist succumbed after a lot of arm-stroking, and the group finished on a lovely soothing chord which reminded us that they weren’t just about the performance – the musicality was solid throughout.

The boys’ third song was You And Whose Army? by Radiohead. One word to describe this one – haunting. Lots of minor chords, a few clashes here and there, and it led to a really unsettling effect – which I think is what they were going for. I wasn’t massively keen on the soloist’s voice, but his tone actually fitted the song and the mood of the performance really well. The boys crescendoed to great effect towards the end (which, suitably, was when they added the most movement to the piece) and filled the stage with some more haunting melodies, this time in falsetto. I was really impressed with the arrangement here and the way the boys took it on – a very interesting and effective choice.

The boys finished with two pop classics: Could It Be Magic by Take That and Irene Cara’s Fame. You could always tell the boys would move on to Fame, as the backing was there from the very start, despite starting with the Take That song. Another strong tenor soloist here, if a little shouty at the top of his range, and the arrangement itself wasn’t all that complex, but again the boys’ energy let them get away with that. An awesome backflip just before the Fame chorus came in. The boys proceeded to have a bit of a sing-off, with one side singing Take That and the other singing Irene Cara, with the two soloists leading each side. It again did get a little bit shouty as the boys tried to out-sing each other, and the arrangement did eventually get a little messy as there was so much going on. A really good set if I’m honest here, especially from a brand new group, however that last song did seem a little rushed – clearly they were pushed to get four songs in the allotted time. Then again, there was no real weak link in their set, so I’m not sure what they would have dropped. Very impressive stuff.

Next up were In The Pink with their classic, sleek combination of black dresses tied around the waist with a pink sash. They kicked off with a mash-up of Adele’s Rumour Has It and Duffy’s Mercy. Their stamp-clapping start reminded me instantly of The Accidentals’ performance of Rollin’ In The Deep at last’s year’s final, and I knew straight-away that this song would need a powerful soloist. Thankfully, I was not disappointed – the solo was controlled and well reigned in, and stood out against the fairly simplistic backing. When they shifted to Mercy, they switched soloists, and again it was well controlled with some nice runs. I wasn’t a huge fan of the clapping and stamping, which lasted through the entire song, but the ending was clean and effective, and there was very little else to complain about in this opening number.

Next up was Damien Rice’s The Blower’s Daughter. I was intrigued by this choice, and am a big fan of Damien Rice, and knew if this song was arranged well it could be very effective. A beautiful, crisp, clean solo which I loved. Some lovely bell tones introduced in the second verse, followed by some pretty impressive tremolos which I thought worked really well in keeping the arrangement interesting and engaging. Huge blocked chord swell into – a key change! Awesome. And the solo gets even more effortlessly higher! Really enjoyed this, although I maybe would have liked a little more volume directly after the key change, as I feel they held back at a time when they should have just gone for it. But a very impressive second song.

The girls closed with One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful. Not the most musically intricate original, so I was curious to see what they would add to the song. The stand out aspect of this performance was the choreography, which was fun and amusing, and although the soloist showed some impressive range, I wasn’t that impressed with the arrangement itself. I also felt it was a little rushed. A solid finish to a solid set, but I wasn’t sure it was impressive enough to get them through.

The next group were the jazz specialists, The Oxford Gargoyles. Having impressed me at the Edinburgh Fringe, I was excited to see what they would offer this year. They opened, wearing smart black dresses and suits respectively, with You’ve Got A Friend In Me by Randy Newman, and launched instantly into a very laid back swing beat which fitted the song perfectly. The dulcet tones of the two male leads complemented each other really nicely, and I kind of wished it had lasted a little longer – but the two-lead theme continued with a couple of sopranos and thereafter the group switched soloists with consummate ease throughout the song. It was refreshing to hear something completely different at the start of their set, and while the song didn’t blow me away, it did keep me thoroughly entertained and my foot was tapping along throughout. A solid start.

Their second song was Fields of Gold by Sting, and there were some nice dynamics in the first verse with the female lead, and I enjoyed the unexpected key change when the male took over the solo. Clearly showing off their strong soloists in this set. The song really got going when the two leads combined into another duet, and the two voices, while very different, blended well together and were backed up by rising backing volume, which soared to another inspiring key change, before a glorious ritardando and some wonderful blocked harmonies, and the final thirty seconds of the song really gave me goosebumps. The song opened averagely, but improved massively as it went on, and ended up being on of the best songs I had heard all night.

The group closed with Toploader’s Dancin’ In The Moonlight, which began with a very jazzy, slow feel, but burst into life around thirty seconds in when Euan Campbell burst through the back of the group and took over with a silky solo. I really enjoyed the lead vocals, as it was very different to the original, and added an original spin on an otherwise plain arrangement. However, the group again changed it up when they introduced Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, and although the very soprano did get a little pitchy at times, it was an inspired addition to the original song. They then merged into a highly original jazz take on I Believe In A Thing Called Love by The Darkness, and then went Back To The Start and began to mash-up all four songs, including Cheryl Cole’s Fight For This Love, and the group did a good job of filling the stage with different songs without it sounding too messy. Clearly the group have a great deal of musicality and skill with rearranging modern songs and giving them a classier feel, and in my opinion they were the strongest and most original group had I seen so far.

The Oxford Belles were up next, wearing their classic black cardigans and skirts with blue tops combination, and set themselves up rather oddly on stage – it was only when they launched into their TV Medley that it became clear that they had formed a makeshift television out of people. It began with the theme from the Channel 4 news, before swiftly switching to the Simpsons’ Theme, which allowed them to show off a great sense of blend and a variety of music styles as well. This then blurred into the Go Compare song, which I find to be highly irritating, which thankfully slurred seamlessly into the Eastenders Theme, followed by the Lloyds TSB advert theme, then The Apprentice – they really mashed several different themes into this, not just three or four. I commend the girls for their originality and a high sense of musicality, and this was completely different to anything I had seen so far in the entire competition, but I did feel as though the lack of a real purpose to the song may have been the weakness here – there was nothing they really built towards until the very end – but that’s being over critical. A humorous, inspired and unique opener from the girls.

The Belles’ second song was a rendition of Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri. I first heard this song in Germany late last year and instantly thought it would be a perfect song to cover a cappella, and boy did these girls sing it well. The song built perfectly from the quiet opening through verses one and two to the bridge, and they really let themselves go towards the end, with a fantastic solo – restrained in all the right places, but superbly belted at the big moments – and some really powerful and moving blocked chords. I had goosebumps throughout the entire song, ESPECIALLY when all the girls turned around before the final chorus, and the solo was even more impressive given the deep range required at the very beginning of the song. There was no movement at all, but it would have been superfluous as the song and the soloist carried itself. Best song of the night.

The Belles closed with Michael Jackson’s Beat It. I keep saying it and I’ll keep on saying it, Michael Jackson is so difficult to cover well, because the originals are not only so good, but universally recognised, and as such it’s very difficult to live up to. So I was sort of dreading this performance, especially after such a good set so far. REALLY sweet moonwalking at the top of the song. Another really strong soloist here, and some neat choreo. Their imitation of instruments wasn’t bad, but nothing special. They merged into Smooth Criminal about halfway through, which worked well, but I wasn’t massively fond of the way they merged into the song. The energy level stayed pretty much the same throughout the song – cranked up to the max. I would have maybe liked to see the girls either build a little more from the start, or break it down more in the middle. I also feel the arrangement wasn’t that interesting, and relied too much on the energy of the song to carry it through. More positives than negatives though, and the crowd went wild after what was a thoroughly impressive set from the girls. They looked real contenders on this kind of form.

Closing the show were three-time finalists Out of the Blue. As always, I was expecting a lot from the boys in blue. Well, they weren’t actually in blue – that phrase has a catchy ring to it, so it’s a shame, really – but rather had suits with their classic Out of the Blue ties. Suave. Anyway, they opened with two tracks from two legendary artists – Got To Get You Into My Life by The Beatles and Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder. Really strong soloist on the Beatles section, and for a moment I felt like I was back in the 60s – it had that sort of feel to it. Impressive choreography too, almost flawless, which added to the high entertainment value of this number. That soloist was really rocking the money notes, although he did seem a little out of his range during the choruses, which was a blemish on an otherwise flawless lead vocal. The Isn’t She Lovely did seem a little bit random, and the arrangement was not quite up to the same standard of mash-up I have seen the boys do previously, but otherwise it was a typically impressive start from the group.

Their second song was Elbow’s Lippy Kids. I’d not heard the song before, and am not a huge fan of Elbow, so I was intrigued to see what they’d make of it. As usual, outstanding musicality from the boys, with some flawless harmonies, but for me, this song only proved that very thing – that Out of the Blue are very, very tight musically. Aside from that, I found the performance quite boring. I don’t think that was down to the arrangement (which, on the contrary, was superb) or the way it was sung; rather because the original itself was designed to be restrained and minimalistic. Maybe that’s what the boys were going for – a song to show off their obvious musical strengths, and I’m not denying the boys sung sung it tremendously beautifully; I just found it also quite dull and I felt it dragged a little. By the boys’ standards, not their best, because I think they excel in the more upbeat numbers, but the sophisticated sound throughout this song was better than most other groups of the evening.

I was hoping that their final song would be their best. It was Jessie J’s Domino. Excellent soloist again, and some wonderful and apt choreography – especially the domino effect and the human guitar, which was a crowd pleaser if ever I saw one. The arrangement itself, however, seemed rather ordinary, until one of the boys started singing “Ooh Baby Baby” – first one, then two, then the whole group joined in, much to the crowd’s delight, before dropping seamlessly back into the original song and the excellent final chorus, which was ended superbly and effectively when the entire group dropped out to leave the soloist singing the final line with just the right amount of vibrato. All in all a very good set from the boys, but I’m always left wanting a little bit more whenever I see them. Tough reputation to live up to? Perhaps.

Verdict:

I felt it was a pretty close call between the Oxford Belles and Out of the Blue. While The Ultrasounds were mightily impressive in their debut outing, I just think Out of the Blue had a touch more musicality to their performance. I do think the Oxford Belles really raised their game this evening and I could have seen them snatching a place in the final, especially due to their middle song, which was the best song of the night, in my opinion. The Gargoyles were the dark horses, as they are highly original and different to the rest of the groups, and therefore always stand out, while the Alternotives were perhaps unable to fully express their ‘alternative’ nature in such a short space of time. In The Pink were solid, but hadn’t quite done enough to stand out ahead of the rest.

Awards:

Outstanding Musicality: The Oxford Gargoyles
Outstanding Performance: The Ultrasounds
Outstanding Arrangement by a Friend of the Group: Samuel Parsons for ‘The Blower’s Daughter’, performed by In The Pink
Outstanding Soloist: Sophie Giles of The Oxford Belles for ‘Jar of Hearts’
Highly Recommended Soloist: Laurie Cottam of Out of the Blue for ‘Got To Get You Into My Life/Isn’t She Lovely?’
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Alexander Deng of The Ultrasounds
Outstanding Choreography: The Oxford Alternotives

WINNER:

OUT OF THE BLUE

And so Out of the Blue made it four out of four finals, overcoming some very stiff competition along the way. Some very encouraging performances from all the groups, solidifying Oxford as the home of UK University A Cappella.

Out of the Blue Make It Four out of Four

In the third Regional Round of the Voice Festival UK 2012, 2010 winners Out of the Blue continued the male dominance of the competition by booking their place in the final, after pipping The Ultrasounds, The Oxford Belles, In The Pink, The Oxford Gargoyles and The Oxford Alternotives earlier this evening.

The boys in blue have thus continued their impressive record of qualifying for every single Voice Festival Final since the tournament’s inception, and due to Cadenza’s withdrawal this year, will be the only group in the country to have done so.

With three all-male groups through to the final, who will join them next weekend at the Bristol and St Andrews Regionals?

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

Who will reach the Final of the Voice Festival UK? Poll Results!

For the last month and a half, our readers have been voting on five separate polls, one for each Regional Round, and giving us their opinion on who they think will be competing in the final on 10 March in London. With the first Regional Round taking place tomorrow in London, our polls have finally closed and the results are in.

With a total of 206 votes cast in total, we firstly want to thank everyone for voting and sharing their opinion!

In the Oxford Regional, the overwhelming fan favourites are Out of the Blue, who received almost half of the entire share of votes. The 2009 Champions, who ended up finishing 2nd in the ICCA Final in New York that same year, have never failed to reach a VF-UK final and they must feel confident of maintaining this record, particularly with their success in Britain’s Got Talent in April and another sensational Edinburgh Fringe run in August. The group are really setting the standard for a cappella in the UK, and must be considered one of the favourites for the entire competition. Following them are the The Oxford Gargoyles with one fifth of the vote, and as I commented in my initial preview, are probably Out of the Blue’s main competition. They won the competition more recently than Out of the Blue, in 2010, but were beaten by the boys to the final last year and will be looking to even the score. Their unique style of a cappella will bring something different to the Oxford Round as always, and on their day, they are one of the best collegiate groups in the country and absolutely stand a chance. The Oxford Belles, The Alternotives and new boys The Ultrasounds all finished with a similar number of votes, but with only the Belles having reached the final before, all three groups will need to be on top form to progress in probably the toughest of all the Regionals. In The Pink gained the least amount of votes, and the girls in pink will be hoping their new blood will help them to spring a surprise.

 

According to our readers, the favourites to progress from the St Andrews Regional are The Other Guys, who secured one third of the overall vote. The group will feel confident after recent successes, particularly their viral video, Royal Romance and the resulting album, but the group have not qualified for the final since the inaugural competition in 2009, and therefore must up their game in order to progress. Their main rivals are officially the best all-female group in the UK, The Accidentals, who were the winners of this Regional last year and will feel confident of repeating this success, having now qualified for two years’ running. The Hummingbirds and The Alleycats are similarly favoured, with the Alleycats having qualified twice before. Interestingly, the two non-St Andrews groups, Choral Stimulation and newbies Aberpella, are the least-backed groups, but Choral Stimulation did win ‘Outstanding Performance’ last year and may well have a chance.

 

Last year’s finalists All The King’s Men are the favourites to qualify out of this weekend’s London Regional, managing to acquire over half of the overall vote. With the group set to go on tour to the US a week after the Regional, they will be hoping to go there with the prospect of a final to look forward to upon their return. They do, however, have more competition than this poll suggests. The Techtonics competed in the Vocal Marathon in Croatia last summer, and have also competed in the Voice Festival longer than their King’s College compatriots. They also won ‘Outstanding Performance’ last year and could stand a good chance. The other group who have reached the final before, Fitz Barbershop, will be hoping their migration from the defunct Cambridge Round will carry them to their second final. The King’s Chix and The Imperielles are the two all-female groups (interestingly no mixed groups in this Regional) and will want to defy the odds and impress enough to reach the final themselves.

 

In Birmingham, unlike the other three rounds, the fan favourite is less than obvious, although it does appear to be a two horse race between The Birmingham Songbirds and Sons of Pitches, with both groups claiming all but one vote in the course of the poll. And understandably so – both groups, unlike Voice Versa and 95 Keys, have competed in the competition before, albeit only once, and this experience could be absolutely crucial to their chances. It would be nice to see the Songbirds qualify, as the three favourites so far have been all-male groups, but it’s really a tough one to call. The two newcomer groups will undoubtedly learn from the experience and may even be good enough to make the final… Only time will tell.

 

The final Regional in Bristol also has an all-male group as the favourite – Semi-Toned have been working very hard since their inception, and despite being a relatively new group and first time competitors, are highly favoured, even over previous competitors The Sweet Nothings and The University of Bristol Barbershop Singers, who received the least amount of votes, alongside Bath’s first group Aquapella. Semi-Toned’s biggest competition is the competition-focused HotTUBBS, who seem to be favoured over their parent group, but in this brand new Regional, anything could happen.

 

So, according to our readers, the final on 10 March will consist of four all-male groups and one all-female group: Out of the Blue, The Other Guys, All The King’s Men, Semi-Toned and The Birmingham Songbirds. Surely our mixed groups will have something to say about that? Whatever happens, we wish every group the best of luck in the coming weeks, and look out for our event reviews as we find out our Final line-up!

Voice Festival UK 2012 Preview – Part 1: Oxford

A couple of days before Christmas, we here at the UK University A Cappella Blog received possibly the best Christmas present of them all – confirmed dates and competitors for this year’s Voice Festival UK. While it is the largest competition so far, with more groups than ever competing, one Regional Round has unfortunately been cancelled due to lack of competitors – that in Cambridge.

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

In the first blog, we look at one of the longest running Regional Rounds, that in Oxford, taking place on 26 February 2012.

Potted History

The Oxford Regional Round began in 2009 in the inaugural year of the competition, and has thus far had three different groups qualify for the final. In 2009, Out of the Blue and The Oxford Belles progressed to the final, with the boys in blue winning the entire competition and finishing second in the ICCA final in New York that year, officially becoming the 2nd best collegiate group in the world. Since then, Out of the Blue have qualified for the final each year – in 2010 they were joined by eventual winners The Oxford Gargoyles, while in 2011 they were the sole qualifiers, due to the Festival’s expansion to five Regional Rounds.

Newcomer Alert

The Ultrasounds: It’s always good to see new groups forming and developing, and it is no surprise that in the UK’s largest a cappella hub, a new group has also formed. The Ultrasounds are Oxford’s second all-male a cappella ensemble, and are made up solely of medical students from the University of Oxford. With Out of the Blue performing beside them, they will be adding a further touch of all-male flair to the proceedings. To look up the new boys, click here.

Switching Sides

The Oxford Alternotives: In 2009 and 2011, The Oxford Alternotives took part in the Cambridge Regional Round, to make the numbers up from three to four. However, the demise of the Cambridge Round has caused the group to return to their natural home in Oxford once again, and compete against their fellow students like they did in 2010 – where they won the award for ‘Outstanding Performance’, a feat which they repeated last year at the Cambridge Round. Having qualified for the final once, in 2009, the group will be hoping to build upon the fact they have never failed to win an award of some sort and progress to the final this year for the first time since the competition’s inception.

Old-Timers

The Oxford Belles: The oldest group at Oxford University, the one-time all-girl finalists will have a point to prove this year after failing to reach the final for two years running. After a successful Fringe run in August, and a large changeover of personnel at the start of the year, they will be looking to their fresh blood to bring them success this year and take them to the final.

The Oxford Gargoyles: The 2010 winners will be looking to make up for the fact they were not at the final to defend their crown last year, after Out of the Blue beat them to the sole qualifying place. After a successful Fringe run and several five star reviews, the jazz a cappella ensemble look to be best placed to qualify for the final, especially given their previous ICCA experiences in the US.

In The Pink: The only group with previous experience not to have reached the final before, the In The Pink girls will be desperate to taste some London Final action this year – and with a large influx of new members, they are a relatively unknown entity and could do well.

Out of the Blue: Contrary to the information we received earlier, Out of the Blue WILL in fact be competing in the competition this year, and we here at the blog are delighted that they will be doing so. No doubt the boys have a great chance of reaching the final – indeed, they have never failed to make the final, and their previous experiences throughout the US and the UK will stand them in very good stead. We are positive their infectious energy and flawless harmonies will be tough to beat in this particular regional round, and they will probably be one of the favourites to win the entire competition.

Summary

There is no doubt that Oxford has one of the strongest line-ups at this year’s festival. Who will qualify be remains to be seen, but I think the Gargoyles have a fantastic chance – they have lost fewer members than the other groups, namely The Belles and In The Pink, and it could be a year of transition for the two all-female ensembles. The Alternotives could well make it instead of the Gargoyles, and their impressive record of award wins is not something to be taken lightly. Of course, Out of the Blue are always a threat and are probably my favourites, especially given their success in ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ this year and the learning curve that will have come with it. I wish The Ultrasounds the best of luck in one of the most difficult places to start competing, but they will be in good company, and will surely learn a great deal from the experience.

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