Gargoyles To Hit Hong Kong

interview by Henry Southern

The Oxford Gargoyles, Oxford’s premier jazz a cappella group, are embarking on their debut tour to Hong Kong and Macau from March 20th to April 2nd. We sat down with their Tour Manager, Sam Galler, to find out more.

UACUK: What made you decide to tour Hong Kong and Macau?

SG: The Gargoyles have had a longstanding tradition of traveling to the United States, where we have strong relationships with many terrific collegiate a cappella groups at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, and UPenn. This year, we wanted to try something different, and after discussing it with the leadership of the group, we all decided to take a chance and plan a tour in a completely new place.

This tour has only been made possible by a lot of hard work from the group this year, and we are so thrilled to have the opportunity to share our music with people in Hong Kong and Macau.

UACUK: What are you most looking forward to during the tour?

SG: I am most looking forward to our 10+ school workshops, where we will be able to share our passion and enthusiasm for our music with local youth. We will be listening to choirs and learning from each other, and I think this will be a really special part of our tour. We are very fortunate to be working with a variety of schools in different areas of the city, including local schools, international schools, primary, and secondary schools.

UACUK: We are aware that you have recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the tour. Why did you decide do this and why FringeBacker?

SG: We are so excited to go on this tour, and really want to share our excitement with other people who would like to support our group. We also wanted to find a way to include people both in the UK and in Hong Kong, so we decided to try out crowdfunding and see if we could use it as a way to include supporters in our adventures and experiences we sing and travel. So we decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign — FringeBacker offered strong bilingual and international customization, and we have been very happy to have support from their team.

We have done our very best to come up with things that people might really like to get in exchange for supporting us, and will offer limited edition postcards, T-shirts, and concert posters to those who back our trip!

UACUK: Do you think that more collegiate a cappella groups will undertake crowdfunding?

SG: Yes, crowdfunding can be a very helpful thing for small groups with big ideas. Collegiate a cappella groups like the Gargoyles owe so much to the support of their supporters and fans, and platforms like FringeBacker simply make it easier for them to conduct fundraising campaigns to launch new projects.

UACUK: What are your plans for when you get back?

SG: After we return to Oxford, we get to enjoy Oxford’s best season, the Spring. At Oxford, it is called “Trinity” Term, and for those who don’t have exams, it is an amazing time to be here. We are singing at many garden parties and balls, and will be preparing more exciting music for our annual run at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh this coming August!

UACUK: That all sounds very exciting! Thank you very much for talking to us!

For more information and to support The Oxford Gargoyles’ tour, visit their FringeBacker campaign page.

Follow the Oxford Gargoyles on Facebook or on Twitter at @oxfordgargoyles.

VF-UK 2014: Semi-Final Review

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

Semi-Final 1

The King’s Chicks

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

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

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

All the King’s Men

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

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

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

The Sons of Pitches

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

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

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

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

The Uptone Girls

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

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

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

The Techtonics

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

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

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

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

The Accidentals

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

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

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

Semi-Final 2

Out of the Blue

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

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

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

Semi-Toned

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

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

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

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

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

The Alleycats

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

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

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

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

The Scopes

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

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

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

The Songsmiths

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

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

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

A dark horse for the Final?

Choral Stimulation

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

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

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

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

The Verdict:

UACUK’S Finalist Picks:

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

VF-UK Semi-Final Results:

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

Finalists:

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

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

VF-UK 2014 Semi-Final Line-Up Announced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LACF 2014: Line-Up Confirmed; Tickets Available NOW!

The line-up for the 5th London A Cappella Festival, taking place from Wednesday 22nd January – Saturday 25th January 2014, has been confirmed, and tickets are now available to buy on their website.

Full Festival passes are already sold-out, but individual tickets to events are still available for next month’s festivities. The stand-out acts include The House Jacks, who have performed in the past with the likes of Ray Charles and The Temptations; Swedish a cappella stars The Real Group, supported by VF-UK 2013 University Champions Vive; and of course, the curators of the Festival, The Swingle Singers, who are currently celebrating their 50th anniversary.

With various other big names and university groups taking part, the Festival is sure to be another must-see occasion. If you haven’t got your tickets, you’d better get in there quickly!

Alternotives Alternate Between Brilliant and Ordinary

Alternotive A Cappella

Alternotive A Cappella

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vive Come Alive at the Edinburgh Festival

Vive - Jazz A Cappella

Vive – Jazz A Cappella

by John Lau

Rating: 9/10

In an Edinburgh Festival Fringe season with many débutantes, the current Voice Festival UK Champions joined the party as Vive arrived in Edinburgh with a week-long run at everyone’s favourite amateur arts Festival at the start of August. Following their visit to Lithuania, the home country of one of their members, Martynas Vilpisauskas, they had secured airtime on local television and this exposure had clearly kept the group’s fast-paced momentum moving in the right direction.

As I took my seat at the Space Cabaret on their first night, despite their award-winning and indeed title-winning performance at the Final of this year’s Voice Festival, I was still wondering about what to expect of the five students and one female graduate of the London Guildhall School of Music & Drama: what could they possibly add to or how could they possibly improve on a musically flawless VF-UK set? What would they sound like in a much smaller, intimate venue? Would the crowd ‘get’ their intricate, experimental jazz?

The answer to all of these questions was undoubtedly positive: any apprehension I may have had was put to one side with the professionalism that the group has: the group took their places on bar stools on the stage and launched straight into the phenomenal Your Motivation, with Martynas on the lead vocals, and the reception from the audience was that of uproar.

The group proceeded to demonstrate that they are capable of a diverse range of re-arrangements from pop through jazz and even spiritual pieces such as hymns, the experts of which are Baritone James Rose and Alto Sam Robson. It is the versatility and their willingness to experiment that is not only endearing, but means they are always pushing the boundaries of their abilities, something which other groups would do well to replicate, even if they do sometimes verge a little too far over the ‘showing-off’ line. This was well demonstrated by the smooth vocal performance of Emily Dankworth in her rendition of The Lighthouse Family’s High; this, the later performance of Ezekiel Saw De Wheel and the opener Your Motivation were the stand-out moments of an overall highly impressive show, all the more so given the innate polish and shine within that is often lacking on a first night.

So, Vive certainly came alive on the first weekend of the Fringe, justly living up to Vocal Blog’s Florian Staedtler’s recommendation as a ‘bright young hope’ for vocal music. I expect more of the same in the coming year.

In The Pink In Their Prime

In The Pink - Fabulous Female A Cappella

In The Pink – Fabulous Female A Cappella

Rating: 8.5/10

The moment I left the In The Pink concert, I couldn’t help think to myself – this performance was head and shoulders above and beyond the effort they had delivered just one year ago. As I was fighting my way through the crowds of people departing, I took a moment to speculate as to why this was.

Was it because of the more intimate venue they were performing in this time around? Perhaps. The close-quarters three-sided stage of C(+1) was far less daunting, and indeed, less alienated than the high, deep stage of C(-1) that they had braved in 2012.

Was it because each and every member of the group seemed to hold their own, not only on the strong vocal parts but also in the often complex backing? Maybe. The stark contrast between the rabbits-in-the-headlights look of last year and the strong, confident and powerful soloists of this year was definitely a factor.

Or was it because last year I caught them on their first night, a night where nerves would have certainly played a part, whereas this year they had already got past that often difficult barrier? Possibly. The girls demonstrated a confidence and assurance throughout their well-structured set.

However, the most likely reason is this: that they simply sounded a darn sight better than last year.

The most pleasing aspect of In The Pink’s evolution from last year is that they have taken on board past criticisms and worked on the areas in need of improvement. I have accused the girls in the past, rightly or wrongly, of being too ‘cutesy’ and lacking a real ‘oomph’, for lack of a better word, to their sound. To make that claim again after this year’s performance would be highly inappropriate, as they demonstrated from the very start an almost Accidentals-esque feistiness and a real vocal bite.

Their opener, a mash-up of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River and Alex Clare’s Too Close, contained just the right amount of attitude and flair, with difficult rhythms tackled proficiently and a strong, effective VP keeping the beat driving throughout the number. Both soloists sung with aplomb and pizzazz, and the girls showed they weren’t afraid of the wall of sound, building to a thoroughly satisfying crescendo. A superb start.

And then suddenly we were treated to a gorgeous, exquisite cover of The Feeling’s Rose, an arrangement dug up from the ITP backcatalogue and treated with all the delicacy and fragility of a butterfly’s wing. The solo, a soaring, effortless soprano from Gabie Meade, was simply wonderful, and the simplicity of the backing made the solo stand out even more effectively. With these two numbers, the girls probably gave the best first impression of any of the groups at this year’s Festival. One upbeat, powerful, meaty number, and one sublime close harmony piece. Stunning.

The rest of the set, while not flawless, almost lived up to the magnificent opening. Certain numbers blew me away: their closer, Holding Out For A Hero mashed with Destiny’s Child’s I’m A Survivor combined a real belter of a solo in the former with some dropped RnB beats, demonstrating a new and refreshing side of the group I was thoroughly enjoying; Wonderwall and Boulevard of Broken Dreams, while an obvious mash-up opportunity, was tackled superbly, with some effective echoes in the harmony; and the real highlight of the set, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, gave me goosebumps for the first (and only) time in the Festival, Gabie Meade once again proving her soprano is not only pitch-perfect, but mesmeric.

However, no performance is perfect, and the girls fell into many of the same traps as other groups at this year’s Festival: several times in the upbeat numbers, we lost the solo due to overpowering backing. It’s all well and good having a powerful base behind you, but if you can’t belt out the number louder than the rest of the group, then they need to tone it down a bit. Also, in a couple of numbers, the girls failed to sing right through to the end of each bar. This was most notable in the weakest number of the set, Eagle Eye Cherry’s Save Tonight, in which the rather same-y backing wasn’t helped by the tendency to peter out at the end of each bar. And while I appreciated the attempt to change things up with some numbers that only included half the group, these may have been more effective if they were close harmony numbers, rather than upbeat ones, which often felt a little sparse.

However, these niggles shouldn’t take away from the fact that this was a outstanding demonstration of not just vocal talent, but also the benefits of active self-improvement and a refusal to rest on your laurels. Seriously encouraging stuff from the girls from Oxford.

The Alleycats Take Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

The Alleycats: Contemporary A Cappella

The Alleycats: Contemporary A Cappella

Rating: 8/10

Something odd is happening to the Alleycats. For years, they played to their strengths, both competitively and in Fringe sets – that strength being an ability to provide an energetic, enthusiastic performance combined with some slick and emphatic choreography, occasionally (but less so recently) at the expense of musicality. Indeed, having won an award for Outstanding Choreography or Performance in three of the last five Voice Festival UK seasons, the Alleycats are renowned across the a cappella scene for their vivacious performances.

It seems, though, that times, they are a-changin’. While the ‘Cats put just as much tireless energy as ever into their Fringe performance, the mixed results demonstrated the continued emergence of a new, tightly blended and musically precise group, while casting question marks over the relevance of their choreography.

It wasn’t that their choreography was bad; on the contrary, it established each and every member of the group, at the very least, as a competent dancer, and was performed with vigorous energy and beaming smiles the whole way through. It was more the fact that it was irrelevant and, at times, unnecessary. This was evident from the very first number, As Long As You Love Me, in which the choreography, while not affecting the music at all, ended up being more of a distraction than an addition to the number. It looked fun, don’t get me wrong, but as an audience member, it didn’t do anything for me.

Choreography aside, the Alleycats were really impressive, and demonstrated a great deal of musical variety throughout the set, with some real gems, both individually and collectively. The standout performer of the afternoon was undoubtedly Ollie Hayes, who took on most of the male lead vocals with great proficiency, but was really in his element during the sole jazz number of the set, Moondance, displaying some Michael Buble-esque vocals in a tight and compelling arrangement that made me feel like I was still in the Gargoyles concert I had just left.

Highlights were plentiful throughout the set: Steph Bown delivered a gorgeous soprano solo on Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, although the backing did seem a little murky at times; Ayanna Coleman impressed as always with her soulful rendition of Dancing On My Own, who despite having a tired voice, was still able to bring a tear to my eye through the sheer emotion she brought to the number; and the powerful finale, Shake It Out, remains my favourite Alleycat track of the year, so I was delighted that they chose it for the audience participation number of the set. I heartily joined in.

There were a couple of musical issues, however – the lack of amplification has caused soloists Festival-wide to struggle to be heard over the rest of the group, but this seemed to be a particular issue in this performance, with a lot of the up-tempo numbers remaining firmly at mezzo-forte throughout and drowning out the talented soloist. The group did seem to be lacking tenors too, especially when Hayes or MD Brendan Macdonald took lead vocals, leaving the middle of the chord sometimes a little empty. And bizarrely, despite it being a firm Alleycat classic year after year, there were tuning issues in Signed, Sealed, Delivered. I’m pretty sure that was just a one-off.

All-in-all, I really like what seems to be happening in the Alleycat rehearsal room. The group sound better than I have ever heard them, and if they were to tone down or simplify the choreography slightly, or even make it vaguely relate to the song, then they’re not far away from being the complete package.

Gargoyles Stagnate With Play-It-Safe Set

The Oxford Gargoyles: Jazz A Cappella

The Oxford Gargoyles: Jazz A Cappella

Rating: 7.5/10

Previous years’ incarnations of the Gargoyles have been quite something to behold – musicality awards galore from the Voice Festival; five-stars and critical acclaim dished out year upon year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; and Up The Scale was one of the a cappella albums of the year, with two of the tracks featured on our top 10 tracks of 2012.

So it was with a whole heap of expectation that I went into see the usually flawless Gargoyles at this year’s Festival, and whether it was my heightened expectations or a slight dip in standards of the group since last year, something didn’t quite click in the same way as it had done in previous years.

For me, this was more an exhibition of talent than top quality entertainment. Let me elaborate:

Musically, the Gargoyles were, as ever, unmatchable from start to finish. A couple of the sopranos have been accused of being a little shrill this year. I didn’t find that; on the contrary, the challenging soprano lines prevalent throughout the set were just right, occasionally dropping on top of the rich chords with the utmost delicacy. The blend, too, was magnificent, especially in the slower numbers – their rehash of And So It Goes from a previous generation was quite astonishing, although it did lack some of the emotion required. Even the beatboxing, which was shared between two or three of the male group members, was impressive, with Henry de Berker in particular showing off more than just his vocal talents with some unique and original VP sounds.

However, while the musical intricacies and wealth of vocal talent was plain to see, I just wasn’t gripped, fixated, enthralled by their performance as I was in previous years. Classical jazz numbers such as Mas Que Nada and Dream A Little Dream formed part of the at times soporific opening few minutes. I enjoy it when the group put jazzy twists on existing numbers, but efforts such as The Turtles’ Happy Together and the Beatles’ Got To Get You Into My Life just didn’t quite work as jazz adaptations, mainly due to a lack of meaty crescendo that each song cries out for.

That said, some of these adaptations did work, and were funny to boot. Jamie Cullum’s Twentysomething was perfect for the group, referencing an ‘expensive education’ and proving they’re not afraid to poke fun at themselves. That solo, as well as the one on Tainted Love/Maneater was tackled by Jacob Swindells, a tall, lanky male with a dyed blonde fringe who was rather conspicuous throughout the set, but his unorthodox appearance and technique seemed to work well for the more humorous numbers. Their encore, Cruella de Vil, was on the same lines as the previous two, and was a pleasant reminder that the group don’t take themselves too seriously.

However, the fact that two of the final tracks, the aforementioned And So It Goes and one of the highlights of last year’s set, It Don’t Mean A Thing, were also the highlights of this year’s set, gave rise to some food for thought: there is no doubt the group still possess musical proficiency in spades, but this year’s group have ducked significantly under the high bar set by previous generations. There was no stunning arrangement a la Euan Campbell’s Dancing In The Moonlight; no breathtaking slow number like last year’s Fields of Gold; and even It Don’t Mean A Thing didn’t quite seem to make the same impact as it had done on first listen last year.

I am not saying this was a bad performance; far from it. I would recommend anyone to go and see the group and marvel at their musical magnificence. But the set felt a little safe, a little stagnant, and a little bit below the high standards that I know the group hold themselves to.

Semi-Toned Sparkle at Symposium Hall

Semi-Toned: The Exemen

Semi-Toned: The Exemen

Rating: 9/10

For a group making their Fringe début after just three years of being in existence, you would have forgiven the boys from the University of Exeter for not quite being up to the same standard as the rest of the groups at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. However, there was no need for forgiveness: indeed, Semi-Toned shone through a mass of a cappella at the summer Festival, emerging glorious and triumphant at the end of it all, five-star reviews and all.

The potential of the group was perhaps properly noticed when they pipped the other Exeter-based groups to make the Final of this year’s Voice Festival UK. Although their Final performance felt tired and a touch lacklustre, any momentum they lost back in March was completely ignored, as they powered onwards with their Fringe preparation and delivered a hilarious, varied and musically tight showcase of some frankly phenomenal a cappella.

The beauty of the Edinburgh Festival is that it allows groups to show a diversity within their group that the short 12-minute VF-UK sets don’t quite allow, and Semi-Toned made the utmost of this opportunity to show off what they could do, dazzling the audience with some ‘Semi-Toned classics’, as well as a host of surprises pulled out of thin air, in a set that was reminiscent of All the King’s Men’s stellar effort this time last year.

So we had the two big bombastic numbers from the Voice Festival topping and tailing the set, somehow cranked up to be even more energetic and musically far stronger and meatier than they had been back in March. Living For The Big City opened the 50-minute masterpiece, and my personal favourite Knights of Cydonia wrapping it up in riotous style, imaginary horse riding and all. But what was the most impressive was the unexpected flashes of brilliance that the group just kept on providing.

The first glimpses of something truly special came during Panic! At The Disco’s I Write Sins Not Tragedies, whose introduction, despite being very similar to a version featured on BOCA 2008 by University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers, still required a great deal of rhythmic discipline and skill to get right. Lady GaGa’s Americano involved singing in Spanish, hilarious imaginary moustaches and lip-trills, as well as some mock-flamenco dancing which was truly a sight to behold. Then, to top it all, they did Pokemon. BUT IN JAZZ FORM. The only criticism I could ever have of Pokemon in jazz form would be that it didn’t last for long enough – alas, that was the case here.

Many groups have a tendency to excel in either upbeat, dance-heavy numbers or slower, close harmony numbers. After a slightly uninteresting middle song at the Voice Festival, I wasn’t expecting a great deal from the Exemen’s slower numbers, but once again I was happily surprised. Their VF-UK filler was nowhere to be seen: instead, they gave us a gorgeous Arctic Monkeys number, Only Ones Who Know, led delicately by Michael Luye, whose tender tones suited the song perfectly.

The remainder of the set maintained the hugely high standard throughout: the nod to Naturally 7 with two adaptations of their work in the middle was tackled with aplomb and verve; the simple choreography was at times laugh-out-loud hilarious without detracting too much from the musical side of things; and Justin Timberlake was arranged intricately and the tough falsetto solo was solid; and I haven’t even mentioned the incredible beatboxing from Jack Telfer St Claire. The rest of the set was so good that it almost went by unnoticed.

Occasionally, the boys (especially the baritones) would get a little carried away and drown out the soloist, but this did little to detract from the masterful performance that the boys delivered. Fringe débutantes, maybe, but definitely giving a demonstration on how it should be done.

UK groups, watch out – Semi-Toned are the new rising stars of collegiate a cappella.