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?

Best of British 2013: 3. Wonderwall

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

Eligible Tracks

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

The Process

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

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium
8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own
7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day
6. Choral Stimulation – Ode To Glasgow
5. All the King’s Men – Higher Love
4. The Other Guys – Christmas Gets Worse Every Year

3. The Sons of Pitches – Wonderwall

In at number 3 is one of the tracks from The Sons of Pitches‘ well received VF-UK set from 2013 and arguably one of the numbers which took them to the ICCAs in New York last April, their cover of Oasis’ Wonderwall. I’ve already raved about their album, Not Too Shabby, a masterpiece from the back end of last year, and so it’s no surprise that the group feature highly on our list.

Something the group prides itself on is their ability to make a song their own. Wonderwall is far from a straight cover of the Oasis original; in fact, the song was inspired by a swing cover by Paul Anka, and was written and arranged over one late night by the group’s vocal percussionist and now Liquid 5th employee Jack Blume. “The song immediately appealed to Jack’s sense of humour,” says Joe Novelli. “The whole concept seemed so funny and had so much performance potential for The Sons. He went home and transcribed and arranged right through the night, turned those high horn riffs into the ‘boyband’ falsetto BVs that seem to get every audience laughing, and sent us all a message saying ‘Ok, it’s 3am, but I’ve finally finished. I may be tired, but I’m pretty sure it’s funny!’”

Despite conforming to the group’s tendency to take songs apart and put them together again in their own unique way, the style of the song itself is very unusual for the boys from Birmingham, and indeed, the rest of the group were initially unsure of Blume’s arrangement. “We tend to cover a lot more chart stuff these days, throwing in dubstep, drum & bass, and occasional reggae and latin inflections for flavour,” said Novelli, before continuing: “We were all a little sceptical when Jack brought the arrangement to us and we saw he’d written ‘doo’ and ‘ba’ syllables. But as soon as Belham took the solo and the other Joes did their thing, it just kinda worked.”

The song made its début in the group’s Voice Festival set at the Birmingham Regional, where it was received raucously by the crowd. “We had a big audience full of our friends and they were laughing throughout. The YouTubers commenting on our videos may hate the ambient laughter, but we were loving it on the night!” As much as the group love performing the song, one of the other tracks from “Not Too Shabby” is held to high affection by the group. “Lose Yourself is probably our favourite from the past year, partly because it was our first ever ‘group arrangement’, and partly because it was never really notated, so it only really exists in our heads! There’s something special to be said about a song like that.”

As for the success of Wonderwall, Novelli concluded by saying: “Our performance aims to bring the very silly British humour out of all us! I think it just makes people smile in a way that more serious arrangements might not. And isn’t that sort of the whole point of a cappella?”

You can buy Not Too Shabby, which contains this song, right here.

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.

Album Review: Not Too Shabby

Not Too Shabby

Not Too Shabby

This is the best album of the year.

I’m talking about 2013, of course. Although I’d be surprised if this was topped in 2014, to be honest, such is the simply exquisite nature of this record. The Sons of Pitches have topped off what has undoubtedly been the best year of the group’s existence with a flawless four-track album that knocks any potential pretenders to the throne firmly off their perch. It’s modern, it’s funky, it’s unique, it’s stylish, and it’s bloody brilliant.

I sound like I’m gushing. Fine. Let me guide you through the reasons why this album is so flippin’ awesome.

The Sons of Pitches do not cover songs. They take songs, rip them apart, put an entirely new spin on them, add in some highly unconventional backing techniques, and put them back together again. They do this with flair and buckets of talent which any group would kill to possess – and the fact there’s only seven of them make it that much more impressive. The beatboxing is at worst excellent, at best frantically awe-inspiring; the bass has brief moments of glory which are taken with aplomb; some of the falsetto makes you wonder if they haven’t snuck a couple of girls in at the last minute; and even the more ‘common’ baritone and tenor voices have a little something extra than most other groups, whether it be a flicker of soul, a high, biting belt or an ooze of charisma.

Talent is one thing; displaying it in the right way is another. The Sons of Pitches know their strengths and play to them, track after track. The first, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, is a marvellous romp that demonstrates everything the boys are good at. The awesome swelling “wah wah wah” backing vocals throughout the first verse add so much more than a simple “ba” or “da” that other groups might employ; they take this to another level with “shwah, shwah-dah, swiggedy-dah, shwiggah-dah” during the chorus (listen to it if you don’t know what I mean) followed by an awesome breakdown with an African feel, brought about by the “kum-ya-te” and the (admittedly highly produced but in the best way possible) muffled beatbox. I haven’t even touched upon the solo yet – Joes Hinds and Novelli harmonise seamlessly and produce a soaring lead throughout. Even the end is highly creative, with the solo dropping to a funky and playful close. A roaring opener.

The second track is Lose Yourself by Eminem, although it becomes apparent from the off that it brings in elements of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River. Considering the first half of the track is predominantly rap, the arrangement is surprisingly highly musical. The eerie opening drops marvellously into the deliberate beat of Lose Yourself and correct me if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure they got Eminem in especially to rap on the track. Either that or some sort of identically-sounding doppelgänger. The thematic eeriness continues in the staccato, echoing “ah-oh-ah-oh” behind the rap before the song drops into what is a moment of genius: a pause to hear the crackle of a record player before a slowly rising pianissimo of “You betta lose yourself in the moment…” which is a perfect example of how playful a cappella production can work like a dream. It’s the best moment on the album. Upon melding into Cry Me A River, many of the themes from Lose Yourself remain, which is vital for a successful mash-up, as well as the addition of yet more playful nuances which make each and every second of listening to the track new, fresh and exciting. This is a stonkingly good track.

Having ticked the rap and disco boxes, the boys move on successfully to a jazz version of Oasis’ Wonderwall, with baritone Joe Belham leading the solo with bags, nay, bucketloads of charisma. One minor, minor criticism of this track is that it doesn’t quite come off as entertaining as it does when it’s performed live, although that’s more testament to the Sons’ humorous choreography than a comment on the state of the arrangement itself. Belham’s saunter through the song is reminiscent of Robbie Williams in his Swing When You’re Winning days, while the comical yet perfect high-pitched “And all those roads are winding” from Hinds and Novelli add an extra lace of frivolity to the feel-good number. Topped off with Hinds’ belt of a top A at the end and you have a slick, smooth arrangement with a rich solo – top marks again.

The final track is the original track, You Are The One. It has everything good from the previous three tracks and more: a reverberating beatbox breakdown, echoed backing, more unusual vowel sounds, some frankly phenomenal bass and a really catchy solo that is great to sing along to. I would know. It’s a short track, under three minutes, but gets everything done that needs to be done while remaining very fresh.

I’m genuinely running out of superlatives for this album. If you haven’t bought it yet, you should, even if you don’t like a cappella. I repeat: this is the best album of the year. By far.

You can buy Not Too Shabby right here.

Best of British 2013: 4. Christmas Gets Worse Every Year

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

Eligible Tracks

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

The Process

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

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium
8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own
7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day
6. Choral Stimulation – Ode To Glasgow
5. All the King’s Men – Higher Love

4. The Other Guys – Christmas Gets Worse Every Year

Sleigh-riding into fourth place is The Other Guys’ festive effort from last Christmas, Christmas Gets Worse Every Year, written by and featuring good friend of the group, Oscar Foxley. The song reached number 32 on the Official Scottish Charts last Christmas, and so while the group’s number one campaign didn’t quite succeed, they definitely made a splash. According to MD at the time, Matthew Pattie, however, the group never intended to release the track as a single. “We had wanted to do a Christmas album for over a year but hadn’t been able to. A single was never on the horizon until I spoke to Oscar Foxley who mentioned he had written a Christmas song. The idea of an original track was so exciting we jumped on it and I commissioned him to arrange it for us.”

The ‘album track’ quickly became popular within the group, and when the suggestion was made to record and release a video to accompany it as a potential Christmas single, the group lapped up the opportunity. “We felt it was such a wonderful song and so unique that we had to make more of it,” said Pattie. “We decided first to release it as a single. The idea for a video came afterwards. Then, freezing cold on the side of The Cairngorms mid-filming we all agreed, in a state of delirium, why not go for Christmas Number 1? We didn’t manage it – but we had a good crack. Charting at all was an amazing achievement.” The group are well known for their YouTube video successes (with last year’s St Andrews Girls charting at number 10 on our countdown last year), and Christmas Gets Worse proved more successful than the former, racking up 150,000 views at time of writing. The single also raised over £2000 for Student Bursaries in St Andrews. Pattie continues: “We couldn’t be happier. Well, we could – we could have been at Elton John’s Christmas party celebrating number 1, but you can’t win ‘em all…”

Following its YouTube exposure, the song made its live début at St Andrews’ Christmas Concert. “The home crowd loved it, and bizarrely, because of YouTube, some of them were singing along,” revealed Pattie, also adding that it was definitely his personal favourite track from his final year in the group. “It’s so special and has so many memories attached to it. That whole album does – it was a really special one to make, because it really captured so much of the group’s personality. As a stand-alone track though, yes, I think it would be my favourite. It’s a great sing.”

The popularity of the song comes not just because of the arrangement or the performance, but also because of the story behind it, according to the former Musical Director: “I think people love the love story. It’s something they can connect with. It’s a beautiful piece of music, arranged wonderfully for us to sing. Also the uniqueness of it – it’s a genuine, heart-felt original Christmas song. You don’t get those very often anymore and I think people appreciated that.”

You can watch Christmas Gets Worse Every Year again right here, or listen to and buy the whole album on Bandcamp.

Best of British 2013: 5. Higher Love

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

Eligible Tracks

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

The Process

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

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium
8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own
7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day
6. Choral Stimulation – Ode To Glasgow

5. All the King’s Men – Higher Love

Dropping delicately into the top 5 of our countdown is the opening number from All the King’s Men‘s award-winning VF-UK 2013 set, Steve Winwood’s Higher Love merged with Ed Sheeran’s Give Me Love. The group actually topped our countdown last year with their cover of Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek, and while Higher Love isn’t far from the standard of Hide and Seek in terms of musicality, arrangement and performance, it was more the raised standard of competition that has caused this slight dip in placing for the group – and indeed, what probably led to the group leaving this year’s VF-UK Final empty handed.

The song made its début very early on the year at the group’s annual Greenwood Theatre curtain raiser in October, where the group welcomes the new members and says goodbye to the old. MD Jonny Stewart revealed it was perhaps a little rash to perform what ended up being the most difficult number of the year so early on, but believes the gamble paid off. “Understandably the guys were a little nervous about performing in front of the old Men, but for a first performance it was solid enough, and it went down really well with the audience.” He added that a lot of the arrangements learnt later that year seemed a breeze in comparison: “In retrospect, it made everything else after that look a lot easier!”

With Higher Love being one of Stewart’s favourite songs for a long time, it was perhaps no surprise that the song was introduced so soon into his tenure as the group’s Musical Director, a position he has retained this year. “I can’t stop myself from smiling whenever I hear it. There’s something uplifting about the combination of warm pad and vibraphone, allied with a surprisingly complex beat and cheeky horn fills, and having Chaka Khan on backing vocals gives it some serious soul power.” The seeds of the Ed Sheeran sample came about during the group’s flight to Singapore earlier in 2012 as he and fellow group member Josh Cooter ended up “taking full advantage of British Airways’ generous alcohol policy, which made the mashup seem like a great idea at the time!”

The arrangement that the group ended up with went through several revisions: “One of my favourite artists, James Vincent McMorrow, recorded a haunting cover with only piano and vocals, which became the inspiration for the opening section. Removing the instrumentation makes the lyrics come to the fore, and it gave the song a new meaning for me.” However, even when the arrangement had been initially completed, tweaked and performed several times, Stewart and the rest of the group felt there was something missing. It wasn’t until February, one month before the Voice Festival, that the finishing touches were added on the number. “Previously the song had ended with the solo bringing back ‘Bring me a higher love‘ over the ‘O my my a‘ 6/8 accompaniment, which was interesting but not really a climactic ending; we noticed that audiences weren’t really sure when to clap or not! As it happened, our hosts at Yale, the mixed-voice group Out of the Blue, did a version of Higher Love which was much closer to the original, including the trio of bombastic backing singers at the end. The audience were absolutely loving it, and, although nobody said it at the time, we were all thinking that this was something we could use to our advantage.” Stewart took full advantage of this receptive ending being fresh in his mind: “Feeling inspired on the train the next day, I tinkered with the arrangement, printed it off at Harvard, and then rehearsed it with the group. It couldn’t have worked any better; though the arrangement is (of course) not lifted, we owe a debt of thanks to Yale OotB for the ‘lightbulb’ moment!”

The track was not only the opener for their Voice Festival UK set, but also for their studio album, ‘Royal Flush’, released in the summer. Stewart claims the song perfectly encompasses the spirit and nature of All the King’s Men in a succinct four minutes. “In a competition such as VF-UK, the opening song needs to be all-encompassing, showing the full capability of the group, and Higher Love ticks that box; the opening requires a great deal of sensitivity, both musical and emotional, and the rest is all about the energy of the performance. The arrangement grows continually throughout the song before climaxing in a rousing gospel-style chorus, and I think that forward momentum is really important to any song’s success, both on CD and in competition.” Stewart urges against the idea that the song carried them to the Final of the competition though: “A lot of our work was done in the second and third numbers, but Higher Love did fulfil its function by condensing the spirit of All the King’s Men into roughly four minutes.”

In his closing remarks, Stewart springs a surprise along with some advice: “I usually don’t like mash-ups, as I think they can be highly tenuous. There’s got to be a real connection between the songs involved, far more substantial than a shared chord sequence, and collegiate groups often don’t develop enough ideas when doing a mash-up – they tend to be one song followed by another, rather than a unification of musical and lyrical themes. Higher Love and Give Me Love are both about a deep yearning for something greater, and the mutual themes in the lyrics help make our mash-up effective. It’s also one of the [ed. very!] few instances where the dreaded step-clap works…”

You can purchase Higher Love as part of the group’s latest album, ‘Royal Flush’, on iTunes or listen to it on SoundCloud.

So, All the King’s Men open our top 5. Who will complete it? Stay tuned…

Voice Festival UK 2014 Line-Up Analysis

Exciting news! The line-up for next year’s Voice Festival UK has been announced in the last couple of days, and as an early Christmas present, we thought we would take a look at those competing, revealing the ins, the outs, and the usual suspects in the competition.

2014 will see 27 groups compete, the same number in total as last year, and each group will submit an 8 minute video to the Voice Festival, reminiscent of the International Wild Card round of the ICCAs. The best groups will proceed to two Semi-Finals and then a final, taking place on one weekend in March, where the best group will be crowned VF-UK 2014 University Champions.

So without further ado, here’s the line-up:

The Usual Suspects:
The Sons of Pitches – VF-UK Finalists 2012, 2013; ICCA Finalists 2013
The King’s Chicks
All the King’s Men – VF-UK Winners 2011, Finalists 2012, 2013; ICCAs – 3rd, 2011
The Ultrasounds
Sweet Nothings
Semi-Toned – VF-UK Finalists 2013
Illuminations
The Imperielles
The Scopes
The Techtonics
Score (formerly Voice Versa)
The Uptone Girls
The Treblemakers
The Accidentals – VF-UK Finalists 2010, 2011
The Alleycats – VF-UK Finalists 2009, 2010
The Houghtones
The Songsmiths
Aberpella
Choral Stimulation – VF-UK Finalists 2013

The Debutants:

The J Walkers (University of Birmingham) – a brand new group from the University of Birmingham, The J Walkers make the number of entries from Birmingham up to 5, alongside the Sons of Pitches, Uptone Girls, the newly named Score and last year’s debutants, The Treblemakers. We don’t know much about them just yet, but look forward to seeing what they have to offer.

The Cosmopolitones (University of Leeds) – Leeds’ second a cappella group after The Songsmiths, The Cosmopolitones are an all-female group founded this year, 2013, and having made a couple of public performance in October and over the Christmas period, they’ve been quick to rack up the on stage experience. Will they make the Semi-Final? Watch this space…

A Patella (University of Aberdeen) – Aberdeen’s all-medic group have been around for a while – they formed in November last year but did not take the chance to compete in last year’s competition. This year, however, they join the only other all-medic group, Oxford’s The Ultrasounds, in the competition and will be hoping to impress in their début year.

The Polyphonics (University of Warwick) – Warwick’s first group already has a slick website and some matching jackets, so if their singing is as solid as their organisational skills, they could well be dark horses going into the competition this year.

Durham University A Cappella Choir (University of Durham) – the originally named Durham University A Cappella Choir (are we calling them DUACC for short?) were founded only a couple of months ago, and will have their work cut out if they’re to progress to the Semi-Finals amongst such an illustrious cast of groups against them.

The Returnees:

Out of the Blue (University of Oxford) – the winners of the very first VF-UK competition back in 2009, Out of the Blue’s phenomenal record of making every final was dashed last year only due to their withdrawal from the competition. With the boys back to set the record straight, they will certainly be a name to watchgiven their previous pedigree in the competition.

Cadenza (University of Cambridge) – After two years away from the competition, Cadenza will be in the remarkable of being the only group in the competition to have won the competition the last time they competed. Cadenza won in 2011 and haven’t competed since. In a way, therefore, they will be defending their title, especially given the absence of reigning champions Vive (further information below).

HotTUBBS (University of Bristol) – After reaching the Final on their début performance in 2012, HotTUBBS chose not to compete last year due to other commitments. However, they’re back in force this year and will be hoping to do just as well second time around.

Notable Absences:
The Oxford Belles – VF-UK Finalists 2009
The Oxford Gargoyles – VF-UK Winners 2010; ICCA Finalists 2007
The Oxford Alternotives – VF-UK Finalists 2009, 2013
In The Pink – ICCA Semi-Finalists 2006
Fitz Barbershop – VF-UK Finalists 2010; ICCA Semi-Finalists 2006
The Fitz Sirens – VF-UK Finalists 2010
The Other Guys – VF-UK Finalists 2009, 2012
The Hummingbirds
The Augmentals
Vive – VF-UK Winners 2013
Aquapella

Verdict:

While the new format seems to have pleased some, there are a lot of absentees from the competition this year, some from groups that have been a staple in Voice Festival UK competition in past years. The Belles, Alternotives and In The Pink have joined the Gargoyles as Oxford withdrawals, while The Other Guys and The Hummingbirds have chosen not to continue their long-standing presence as part of the Scottish contingent. Even more poignant is the absence of the reigning champions Vive, who judging by their Facebook feeds, have taken their talents on to new projects. Other groups withdrawing from last year are Aquapella and The Augmentals, while groups like Fitz Barbershop and the Fitz Sirens will be absent for the second and third year running respectively.

That leaves us with three out of five former Champions – Out of the Blue, All the King’s Men and Cadenza – in this year’s competition, but judging by their latest album release and their performance at last year’s ICCAs, I would have The Sons of Pitches down as favourites – they’re just so unique and entertaining. That said, several groups could win it if their repertoire works: the new 8 minute video format will force groups to hone their sets and essentially cut a song, so it may well end up being the groups who can adapt to this new format (up until the semi-finals, of course) the best who reap the rewards.

Whatever happens, we’ll be present at the semis and the final in March next year to give you all the reviews and results as they happen, and all the build-up along the way. Get excited – VF-UK 2014 is just around the corner.

Best of British 2013: 6. Ode To Glasgow

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

Eligible Tracks

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

The Process

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

The countdown continues:

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

6. Choral Stimulation – Ode To Glasgow

Award: ‘Outstanding Arrangement’ – Voice Festival UK 2013, St Andrews Regional

Staggering drunkenly into sixth place on our countdown is the hilarious, hugely varied and frankly wonderful ‘Ode To Glasgow’ from Glasgow’s only university group, Choral Stimulation. The song was part of the group’s award winning Voice Festival set earlier this year, and indeed went some way to helping the group to their first ever VF-UK Final. However, had the group not débuted the song in a small room at Glasgow University’s Students Union in preparation for the St Andrews Regional, the outcome may have been slightly different. “It didn’t go well,” admits David Ragg, MD of the group and arranger of their entire VF-UK 2013 set. However, some jokes were reworked and a few of the harmonies were tweaked, and the second public performance came on stage under the pressures of VF-UK competition, a performance which, according to Ragg, went “considerably better.”

The origins of the arrangement came about after the group for the first time decided to capitalise on their perception as ‘outsiders’ at the St Andrews Regional. “I had wanted to do a ‘super-medley’ for a long time,” said Ragg, “And we had been throwing about ideas in the group what this could be. We hit on Glasgow as a theme because we have, in the past few years, been the outside contender in St Andrews; we wanted to acknowledge and be proud of this. When I suggested it to a Glaswegian I was sat down and given a list of songs that HAD to be in there. It then evolved from others’ input into an Ode to Glasgow, with an overarching storyline to it that I hope can be seen in the finished thing.” Incorporating music from Love Actually, several Glasgow folk songs, Travis, the infamous ‘There’s been a murder’ line from Taggart, and even a solo for Ragg himself, the song really caught the imagination of the audience, although more so in St Andrews than at the Final in London.

“The final was an entirely different dynamic for the group,” said Ragg, “As well as being our first performance as a Final and outside Scotland, the audience was significantly smaller than the extremely popular Scottish Regional stage. Some of our Scottish humour may have fallen slightly short at times!” Despite the popularity of the song, it was not Ragg’s favourite from the groups’ setlist this year. “My favourite song would be ‘Feeling Bad’, the last song in our 2013 set. I had come up with an idea and came with it unfinished to the group. We then worked on it together as a group to make a funny and fairly silly song that has really grown on me. It is special as it is the first song I’ve co-written and I’m glad it came off so well.”

Despite this, Ragg understands why ‘Ode’ has become so highly regarded, and trumps the variety of the song, both in the arrangement, and also in the distribution of solos, as one of the main factors for its success. “We gave everyone in the group a solo to give everyone a chance; too often in a cappella, MDs, myself included, give the solos to a few good tenors or female voices because it is easier to write for these voices; in one way this was an exercise to help stop myself doing this, and I think audiences enjoy it because you get to see everyone in the group equally, and I think in our video you can see that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously and having a lot of fun.”

You can hear ‘Ode To Glasgow’, as well as the rest of the group’s Voice Festival UK 2013 right here. I’ve also been told that this track will feature on the group’s brand new EP – release date TBC!

So, only the top 5 remains. Who will be named the Best of British 2013? Stay tuned…

Album Review: Furplay

Furplay is a studio recording of The Alleycats' 2013 Voice Festival UK set.

Furplay is a studio recording of The Alleycats’ 2013 Voice Festival UK set.

If We’re Not Kitten, the Alleycats’ eighth studio album released last year, was the culmination of two significant litters’ worth of Alleycat, then the brief yet accomplished Furplay is perhaps a teaser of positive things to come from the new bunch. Despite its release last month, Furplay was recorded back in May while MD Brendan Macdonald was still at the helm; in a way, this album may also be seen as his final offering as creative head of a group into which he has poured so much.

The benefit of having such a short sample of the Alleycats’ 12/13 repertoire (indeed, a sample they felt worthy of making up their Voice Festival UK set earlier this year) is that each track is musically tight, diverse and shows off the best of what the group have to offer. There is no room for filler on an EP, and this works to the Alleycats’ advantage here.

The album opens with their ‘L.O.V.E. Mashup’, which incorporates What Is Love from Haddaway, Let Me Love You from Ne-Yo and Justin Bieber’s As Long As You Love Me. This is perhaps one of the most seamless mash-ups of the year, and is pulled off with aplomb by the entire group. What Is Love and As Long As You Love Me are smoothly and effortlessly worked into each other from the very beginning, and the strong start shows no signs of fading throughout the entire number. Ollie Hayes unleashes his gorgeous, smooth vocals on the Bieber section, which is far more pleasant to listen to than the original – as the new co-MD of the group, it seems they are in safe hands for the time being. The group capitalises on the anthemic nature of Bieber’s chorus by unleashing Hayes’ strong higher chest range and boosting it with some effective, if a little predictable, soprano harmonies. We only get a brief snippet of Ne-Yo, but once again, this addition is blended superbly with the other two numbers that it almost feels like one song rather than three – a hat tip to Brendan Macdonald for a superb, flowing and ultra-smooth arrangement which allowed the group to pull it off with such apparent ease.

The middle song, Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, has recently just reached number 8 on our countdown of the top 10 tracks of 2013, and sounds marvellous both live and on the album itself. The highlight is undoubtedly the solo from Ayanna Coleman, and, credit must go to Macdonald again, who doesn’t taint the talents of the soloist with too complex an arrangement, and expertly slows down the original, more dance-infused number into a more mellow ballad. The backing is so restrained that it washes over you with a calming sensation, and, for perhaps the first time in any Alleycat recording that I’ve listened to, it was very difficult to pick out any individual voice, such was the blend created throughout the number. (Credit is perhaps due to Matt Chinery and Liquid 5th, the production team on the album, for this). Coleman’s vocal performance is flawless throughout and brings that element of soul to the number which is inherent in any performance she gives. An enjoyable, pleasant and soothing middle number.

The final number, Shake It Out, led competently by Jill Wyman, Steph Bown and Tommy Rowe, is also fantastic, but for some reason I’m always left slightly underwhelmed after each listen. Don’t get me wrong, the trio of lead vocalists complement each others’ voices perfectly, and Rowe in particular on occasion has some compelling, refreshing and challenging harmonies, but the song doesn’t quite build to enough of a climax to make the journey through the song worthwhile. There doesn’t appear to be much range in volume: the group start loud and get slightly louder, and while the arrangement drops out in the more tender parts of the song, but the leads keep attacking the solo with the same energy and volume as before. The group also tend to use very similar vowel sounds in all their numbers, which can lead to this song almost verging into ‘going-through-the-motions’ territory. In spite of that, this is the number on the album which I enjoy listening to the most – it’s poppy, upbeat and conforms to much of what I love in a song – but I just feel with even just a small step a little further out of the group’s comfort zone, this track in particular could have turned a really good, solid number into an outstanding one.

If you like your a cappella easy on the ear and demonstrative of the array of talent inherent in this generation of The Alleycats, especially on lead vocals, then this is the album for you. It ticks all the boxes of a three-track a cappella EP – a flawless mash-up, a soulful and gloriously sung ballad, and a climactic clincher – but never gets close to thinking outside the box. The Alleycats have got classic contemporary a cappella sorted down to a tee – now’s the time to focus on pushing the boundaries a bit more.

Furplay is available to purchase and stream on Bandcamp and on the group’s official website.

Best of British 2013: 7. Lovely Day

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

Eligible Tracks

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

The Process

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

The countdown continues:

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

7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day

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

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

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

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

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