Vive Triumph in Debut Season; Fifth Different Winner at Fifth Final

In a night full of passion, intricacy, humour, style, sophistication and most of all, music, it was debutants Vive that took this year’s Voice Festival, triumphing over the likes of The Sons of Pitches, The Oxford Alternotives and last year’s champions All the King’s Men in the final at the City of London School for Girls.

With the group from Guildhall College of Music and Drama only reaching the final via a Wildcard after winning the Ward Swingle Award for Originality at the London Regional in the same venue last week, they put together a set never before seen in recent Voice Festival memory, with breaks in between each song to outro and intro the songs either side – something most other groups rarely have time for. The group were clearly the best musicality and indeed in terms of originality – their set contained two songs penned by group members themselves – but the audience favourite appeared to be The Sons of Pitches, who toyed with the audience deliciously throughout their set, and more than deserved their awards for ‘Outstanding Vocal Percussion’ and ‘Outstanding Choreography/Stagecraft’, the latter of which they picked up at last year’s final. Special mention must also go to Jessie Reeves of The Oxford Alternotives, who took the audience on a real emotional journey through her solo of Regina Spektor’s Samson. Surprisingly, reigning champions All the King’s Men left empty handed, as did Glaswegian group Choral Stimulation and Exeter based Semi-Toned, but these were by no means poor performances – each and every group could have made a point for why they were deserved winners on the night; it was merely a case of which group was the most outstanding.

So Vive it was that claimed the title ahead of the rest. What next for the group from Guildhall?

Results Round-Up
Outstanding Musicality: Vive
Outstanding Choreography/Stagecraft: Joe Bellum and Joe Hinds of The Sons of Pitches
Outstanding Arrangements: Sam Robson of Vive
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Jack Blume of The Sons of Pitches
Outstanding Soloist: Jessie Reeves of The Oxford Alternotives for Samson

Winner: VIVE

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

Poll: Who will win the Voice Festival UK 2013?

With three weekends of top quality a cappella having whizzed past absurdly quickly, we are all set for a fifth Voice Festival UK University Final this weekend, taking place at the City of London School for Girls on Friday 15 March. With three groups having had experience in finals before, as well as three debutant groups, it really is wide open. Who is your favourite?

All the King’s Men

The reigning champions are in their third final in as many years, and having once again won the tough London Regional, must be feeling confident in their third straight final. The Men are currently the third best collegiate group in the world, having placed 3rd at last April’s ICCA Finals in New York, and will have been honing their VF-UK set while touring the US again this February. Losing their founder and long-time Musical Director Henry Southern will have been a blow, but it appears they have gone from strength to strength and look a good bet to defend their title.

Choral Stimulation

The hugely unfancied Glaswegian group (having only secured 4% of the vote for the St Andrews Regional Round in our previous poll) took everyone by surprise with their phenomenal set in St Andrews, becoming the first group outside of St Andrews to qualify from that particular Regional. This is their fourth year in the competition, which gives them more experience than all but one of the other groups, and they have been on a steady incline of improvement since their debut back in 2010. Will their lack of Final experience count against them though?

The Oxford Alternotives

The Alternotives last qualified for the final back in the first year of the Voice Festival UK, in 2009. That year, they made it through the now-defunct Cambridge Regional, whereas this year they progressed in their hometown in Oxford. The group have picked up several awards in the years they haven’t made the final, demonstrating they have always been there or thereabouts when it comes to qualification, but this is the year to really capitalise on their Final berth. They sounded fantastic at the Edinburgh Fringe over the summer – to what extent will this be continued?

Semi-Toned

Having made a strong debut last year, despite not making the Final, Semi-Toned secured one third of the vote to win the Exeter Regional and proved they had built on last year’s strong foundations with an astonishing set, picking up the majority of the awards at the Regional as well as securing qualification. As one of three all-male groups at the Final, they will need to do well to stand out, and a question marks lies over whether they have quite found their unique personality as a group, but they are definitely on their way to becoming one of the biggest male groups in the country. Can they rubber-stamp that fact with a win on Friday?

The Sons of Pitches

Having arguably been close runners-up in last year’s Final, the Birmingham-based group will feel in a strong position to further challenge for the VF-UK title this year, having picked up no less than three awards at the Birmingham Regional yesterday night. The boys claim that their success at last year’s Festival was a springboard for their spring and summertime successes, so imagine what the boys could achieve were they to win the thing? Praised for their masterful stagecraft and energetic performance in recent years, do the boys have enough musicality to win them the entire competition?

Vive

The wild-card entry (literally) in this year’s final, Vive have taken a leaf out of Pentatonix’ book by being a small, male-dominated group with one exceptional female lead to add the extra-dimension to their numbers. While the group focus on an entirely different repertoire to their American counterparts, the Guildhall-based group inherently have a huge amount of musical proficiency behind them and to qualify ahead of the likes of The Techtonics from the London round is quite an achievement, even if it was through the use of the Ward Swingle Award for Originality. I cannot wait to see these guys live, and see what they can offer. Will their lack of experience hamper their ability to win? Time will tell.

Have Your Say

Our poll is now open. Who do YOU think will win this year’s final?

Alternotives Reach First Final Since 2009

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

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

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

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

Winner: THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES

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

Voice Festival UK 2013 Preview – Part 1: Oxford

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

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

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

Potted History

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

Notable Absence

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

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

Switching Sides

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

Old-Timers

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

Have Your Say

Album Review: Take Your Mama

Take Your Mama is the sixth studio album from The Oxford Alternotives, who also hit the US for a tour earlier in the academic year.

Having only really been involved in a cappella for the past two years, I had not been in the community for the release of The Oxford Alternotives’ previous albums, most recently the intriguingly named Get Naked With…The Oxford Alternotives, and having only seen them live for the first time at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I was very intrigued to hear what the group had to offer in the studio. While there are significant strengths as well as areas in which to improve, the album makes for a thoroughly enjoyable listen, punctuated with three or four truly sensational numbers.

Two things strike me as I listen through their latest album, Take Your Mama – one is that the female soloists seem to be a lot more vocally solid and assured than their male counterparts; and the other being that the group seem to have developed an inherent skill at covering the slower numbers with great proficiency. Two songs demonstrate these two remarks excellently: the first being the hauntingly beautiful Samson, originally by the magnificent Regina Spektor. When I saw this live, I didn’t expect it to be topped on the album, as it was incredible live, but I was wrong – Sarah Anson handles the solo delicately and with passion and a beautiful pure tone. The real triumph of this track, though, is the high soprano line, which is simply flawless. There were occasions at which that line lingered longer than the others, and the tone to these lingering notes was unbelievably good. The second song is perhaps the even more impressive Can’t Make You Love Me by Bonnie Raitt, which again has a phenomenal solo from Natasha Heliotis, who riffs effortlessly and just the right amount throughout her silky alto solo that strolled into my heart. The arrangement itself was simple but effective, and allowed this wonderful solo to deservedly shine through.

After that, the album descends into enjoyable songs that work well as a cappella arrangements but all have imperfections. The ‘best of the rest’, as it were, is the penultimate track, Janelle Monae’s Tightrope, with the tricky solo being tackled superbly by Olivia Willis, climaxing to a very deliberate finish with suitably punchy backing, which was an impressive finish to a dexterously arranged track. One expects the opening track to generally be one of the stronger ones on the album, and indeed Canned Heat is an energetic, lively start, setting the mood well for the rest of the album, with some solid bass. There was some noticeably accomplished beatboxing on the title track, Take Your Mama, with a sturdy solo performance throughout from Alastair Livesey, while the Beach Boys section of California Girls was tackled with some very atmospheric 80s pop breathy-ness that really set the summer mood, despite the dreadful British weather of recent times. And Dom Burrell’s low, dulcet solo during Say My Name was honeyed and soothing – a lot of the time I wish basses got more of a chance to take a solo, because a lot of them can have a great quality and tone to their voice.

There were unfortunately some letdowns. Thriller and Lost felt a little like non-entities, neither of them really grasping my attention, with the former a little flat and the latter simply not that musically ornate. While the closing track, Spandau Ballet’s Gold was on the whole thoroughly entertaining, it did lack a little of the oomph necessary in the chorus. Nevertheless, these were minor glitches in an otherwise excellent effort from the oldest group in Oxford.

While the production value of this CD is not quite as high as some of their contemporaries, namely their all-male counterparts from Oxford, the Alternotives clearly have a lot of good arrangers in their midst, as well as some very strong female soloists. The album could be slicker, tidier and tighter, but these are churlish comments, and on the whole an album well worth setting aside your money and time to purchase and listen to. I look forward very much to what they produce in the coming academic year.

Albums Galore On Sale in Edinburgh

We here at the UK University A Cappella Blog are almost overcome with aca-excitement as studio album after studio album are falling into our possession up here in Edinburgh. No less than six brand new albums, some full length, some extended plays, have become available over the past two weeks.

The Oxford Alternotives have released their sixth studio album, entitled Take Your Mama, with ten sensational tracks on it. Meanwhile, Out of the Blue are on an incredible eleventh, Music Up!, which is packed full of energetic, powerful numbers that the boys do so well, many of which can be heard in their Edinburgh show. On a different note, All the King’s Men have released a five-track EP It’s Reigning Men, which was recorded live, and should bring a slightly different perspective to their music. The majority of the album consists of their recent Voice Festival UK winning set, but there are some amazing extras on there too.

All-female group from Oxford In The Pink have released their sixth studio album, She Who Dares, while fellow Oxford group The Oxford Gargoyles have released Up The Scale, which is a mixture of studio and live tracks, and is sure to be a thoroughly professional effort. And We’re Not Kitten is the latest of a string of fantastic feline puns for the new album of The Alleycats from the University of St Andrews, the first group from Scotland to release a full length album this year.

If you can’t make it to the Fringe Festival, these albums are sure to be available for purchase online in the next few weeks, but why miss the chance to see the groups live at the best arts festival in the world? Details of each of the shows can be found below.

Alleycats
All the King’s Men
Alternotives
Gargoyles
In The Pink
Out of the Blue

Fringe Diary 2012: Part 1 – The Oxford Alternotives and Out of the Blue

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is well on its way now, with almost a week gone since shows officially started on August 3rd. We here at the blog have seen shows left, right and centre, including lots of a cappella and university groups Out of the Blue and The Oxford Alternotives. Our thoughts are below:

The Oxford Alternotives
Rating: 7/10

I was looking forward to seeing what ‘alternative’ things the Oxford Alternotives had to offer, and not only was I impressed by their at times hilarious set list, I was also blown away by the close harmony slower numbers, especially Regina Spektor’s Samson, which was tackled superbly by Jessie Reeves and the even more impressive Natasha Heliotis, whose smooth and silky alto mesmerised on Bonnie Raitt’s Can’t Make You Love Me, which was the best number of the night.
The alternative antics began with a song about Business Socks, which was a hilarious parody of the differing expectations from each gender of sexual interactions. The group also included a ‘blind date’ element to the show, whereby they invited a male and female audience participant onto the stage to be blindfolded and serenaded. As one of those picked, it was a very interesting and telling experience to be sat within the blend of the group – they had a very strong, solid sound that was perhaps not quite as evident from a few rows back in the audience.
There were some weaknesses though – at times, especially when there was a male soloist, the very bottom notes of the chord were a little weaker and lead to the ‘wall of sound’ not quite having the same effect as it did in some of the stronger numbers. The beat boxing was also very average, which worked for some of the slower songs, but perhaps needed a bit more oomph in some of the bigger numbers.
All in all, though, The Alternotives provided a pleasant hour of musical bliss, and they certainly opened and closed the show with two memorable numbers, Jamiroquai’s Canned Heat and Spandau Ballet’s Gold, which were both VF-UK numbers and clearly two of the most well rehearsed songs. I particularly enjoyed the entire male section imitating drums during the latter, and rounded off the show on an extremely high note. Worth watching.

Out of the Blue
Rating: 8/10

When a student group sells out a 500-seater venue, you know you’re probably about to witness something pretty special. As the boys from Oxford entered the stage, the crowds whooped and cheered in anticipation of an incredible hour of a cappella from their favourite group of them all. They were right to be excited.
We were instantly hit with a wave of sound as the boys kicked off with the opening chords to Fat Bottomed Girls, which was the perfect start to the set from the boys – kudos to whomever came up with that. There were so many highlights to the rest of the set it was difficult to single out certain songs, but their cover of U2’s With or Without You really gave me goosebumps (and clearly the person sat in front of me, who whispered to her friend “I just got goosebumps”), while their Voice Festival songs Domino and Got To Get You Into My Life were performed professionally and with much pizzazz.
Their soloists did leave a little to be desired though. While the group have a real gem in Laurie Cottam, who took the lead several times, including in the aforementioned Got To Get You Into My Life, and has one of the best voices I have ever heard, the rest of the group are not quite up to the same standard, and so while the arrangements and backing are at times superb, some songs are let down by merely above average solos. I commend the group for allowing several members of the group to take short solos on Mambo No. 5, but it never really allowed any of the boys to really get their teeth into the solo, and combined with a couple of shaky high harmonies made it one of the weaker numbers. And while their mash-up of the Spice Girls’ Stop and 5ive’s Keep On Movin’ was impressively arranged, I’m not sure the low solo quite worked within the Spice Girls segment.
Expectations are always high of Out of the Blue, and for the most part they really live up to them here, and add to their charm with a real surprise in their hilarious sketch involving a human drum kit, which I was not expecting at all. It served as an effective comic interlude midway through the set and was a refreshing new twist from the group. I recommend going to see the boys if at all possible, as you will be blown away by their infectious energy, charismatic choreography and catchy covers, and you won’t be able to get them out of your head.

Out of the Blue and The Oxford Alternotives both have brand new albums on sale outside their shows. The Alternotives’ album can also be purchased on iTunes.