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.

Fringe Focus: The Alternotives

Alternotive A Cappella

Alternotive A Cappella

In the lead up to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, every week we will be producing special focuses on our collegiate groups who will be performing at the world’s largest amateur arts festival in 2013. In the ninth of this series of articles, we will be looking at this year’s VF-UK Finalists, The Oxford Alternotives.

Fringe History

Despite being one the oldest groups in the country, it wasn’t until 2010 that the Alternotives made their Fringe debut, but it was well worth the wait, with rave reviews flying in left, right and centre. Since then, they have kept up the standard of high quality, as well as original, a cappella, and offered something just that little bit different, last year in particular providing a ‘Blind Date’ element to the show, in which an audience member would be serenaded by various group members and asked to pick their favourite.

Previous UACUK Ratings

2011: 9/10 – “To take something complicated and unpredictable and pull it off with such panache was massively impressive.”
2012: 7/10 – “I was blown away.”

This Year

Following a successful visit to London for the Voice Festival UK Final, the Alternotives are back for their fourth year on the trot, and return to the venue they did so well in last year, theSpace @ Symposium Hall. They kick off their run today, Monday 12 August, and will perform until Saturday 24th., at 14:05. After some excellent reviews all around last year, and a very solid year competitively, they will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of this year’s Festival – and they stand out, compared to the more straight-laced groups out there.

What To Expect

The unfortunate thing about the Voice Festival UK is that it allows very little scope for being different. Fringe sets are over four times as long and have no guidelines – in this atmosphere, therefore, the Alternotives thrive. They take the musical tightness that they develop for the Voice Festival and add to that smatterings of humour, comedy, sketches, and general frivolity that makes the group unique. Hopefully the group will keep true to their core principles and not only provide classy music but also a barrel of laughs. Miss it, miss out.

Further Details

Fringe Listing