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.

Fringe Focus: The Oxford Alternotives

In the lead up to the 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 2012. In the third edition, we’ll be looking at third-time Fringe-goers, The Oxford Alternotives

Fringe History

The Alternotives have now performed in two consecutive Fringe Festivals, with their debut coming back in 2010, and received sell-out awards for both their runs. One of many groups from Oxford who have frequented the Fringe in recent years, they have impressed since 2010 with their very original style of a cappella and have received excellent reviews for their performances in the last two years. They will be hoping to build on their previous successes this year.

Previous Praise

“With entertaining dancing and stunning vocals, the Alternotives are at the top of a cappella.” – ThreeWeeks, 2011 (****)
“To take something complicated and unpredictable and carry it off with such panache was something that from an a cappella perspective I was massively impressed by.” – UACUK, 2011 (9 out of 10)

This Year

The group are performing a run of 14 shows at theSpaceUK @ Symposium Hall, from August 5th-18th, 2.05-2.55pm. The group will be bringing an entirely new set to Edinburgh this year, featuring arrangements of songs such as Jamiroquai’s Canned Heat, Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name, and the Scissor Sisters’ Take Your Mama, along with a handful of more heartfelt ballads such as Michael Buble’s Lost, Regina Spektor’s Samson, and Bonnie Rait’s Can’t Make You Love Me. “Expect a brand new set of our famous skits, too!” says President Ed Crawford. He adds some rather exciting news for all Alternotives fans across the world: “We’ll be launching our brand new album, the first one for 3 years, which is to be recorded in just a few weeks time and will feature many of the songs included in the Fringe set.” The album will be available for purchase outside their show, and we’ll definitely be picking up a copy.

What to Expect

The Alternotives are just that – they provide a new, fresh and funny spin into a cappella. The beauty of the Edinburgh Fringe is that groups like the Alternotives are allowed to be themselves a little more so than during the Voice Festival UK, and as such the audience will not only be entertained by some slick, bouncy pop-tunes and some smooth ballads, but also by their hilarious skits that add that extra dimension to their performance. They won’t be the first group you think of when you book your a cappella tickets, but the fresh, original nature of this group means they should definitely be on anyone’s list of “Things to See”.

Further Information

Fringe Listing
Facebook Page
Official Website

Ed Fringe Guide: The Hills of Edinburgh to Come Alive With the Sound of A Cappella Music

by John Lau

With the Summer months around the corner, the last day in May saw the publication of the programme for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2012, and with it the confirmation that the crème de la crème of UK College-based a cappella music and countless other contemporary a cappella groups from inside & outside the UK’s Universities would be decamping from all parts headed towards the capital of Scotland, to fill the High Street and the seven hills around Edinburgh with the sound of music for the enjoyment by the population of the city, which is said to treble in the month of August. We do hope that the comprehensive gig listing in this article will help you to plan your a cappella fix throughout the month of August.

Before the groups and their show information are listed below, you maybe interested to know that most of the groups are very kind to offer previews of their shows on a selection of stages (4 or 5 of them) throughout the High Street on the Royal Mile, for approximately 20 minutes, at various times every day in August. The schedules change on a daily basis and they are managed by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, but each stage has a timetable next to it. So, there’s really no excuse for you not to plan your entertainment. Talking of which:

The best collegiate a cappella group in the UK (and let us not forget the third-best group in the world), All the King’s Men have not one but TWO shows in the Fringe programme. Their own show, It’s Reigning Men, will provide the first opportunity for the public to be mesmerised by the King’s College students, however they do only have 6 shows as listed below, so I guess it’s a case of catch them while you can:

Dates: Monday 13 – Saturday 18 August
Times: 15:10 – 15:55
Venue: theSpace@Symposium Hall, The Royal College of Surgeons, Hill Square, EH8 9DR
Prices: Adults £8/9, Concessions £6/7

In their later show All The King’s Men Present…, the boys promise a late-evening of stunning singing with the very best of the collegiate a cappella scene, including distinguished guests such as Out of the Blue, The Accidentals and The Oxford Gargoyles and more. Again it’s a case of catch them while you can for there are only 2 of these shows:

Dates: Monday 13 & Tuesday 14 August
Times: 23:05 – 00:00
Venue: theSpace@Symposium Hall, The Royal College of Surgeons, Hill Square, EH8 9DR
Prices: £6

Further details about their shows can be found here.

From the University of St Andrews, the pioneers of a cappella music at the Singing University, those ever-popular Alleycats, who are bidding goodbye to 7 of their 2011/12 litter, will bring their show to the masses once again in Edinburgh this August, and I know I am looking forward to this as they shall have shiny copies of their brand new album from earlier this year.

Dates: Sunday 12 – Monday 27 August
Times: 17:30 – 18:20
Venue: C Venues, Chambers Street, EH1 1HR
Prices: Adults £9.50/11.50, Concessions £7.50/9.50

If you like your barbershop a cappella mixed in with a theatrical rendition, you may be interested in the Barbershopera version of The Three Musketeers, where the 3 men and 1 girl reinvent this story with fresh 4-part harmonies, bringing a new perspective on this legendary story, it will definitely be all for fun but maybe not fun for all comers, judging by the start time:

Dates: Wednesday 1 – Friday 3 August (previews); Saturday 4 – Monday 27 August
Times: 23:05 – 00:05
Venue: Pleasance Courtyard
Prices: £6 on preview days; £11.50/12.50

The Oxford Alternotives, veterans of the Oxford University a cappella scene, will bring their show to Edinburgh for the third year in a row in 2012, with their combination of stellar vocals and choreography out of this world and their renditions of all types of music.

Dates: Sunday 5 August (preview); Monday 6 – Saturday 18 August
Times: 14:05 – 14:55
Venue: theSpace@Symposium Hall, The Royal College of Surgeons, Hill Square, EH8 9DR
Prices: £7 (preview); £10

Not quite a collegiate group, but The Consort of Voices, one of the best vocal ensembles in Scotland return to the Canongate Kirk, with a programme of Scottish and French Music across the ages in a one-off concert named Auld Alliance:

Date: Saturday 11 August
Times: 18:00 – 19:00
Venue: Canongate Kirk, Canongate, EH8 8BN
Prices: £12

Some more French now, but only in the show title for The Oxford Belles gig in 2012, aptly named Belles Amies! who shall bring back their repertoire from classics to chart hits as well as their choreographic and beatboxing skills to the heart of the city:

Dates: Wednesday 1 – Saturday 18 August
Times: 17:25 – 18:10
Venue: Spotlites @ The Merchants’ Hall, Hanover Street, EH2 2EP
Prices: £7.50/8.50

From London, the Blossom Street a cappella vocal ensemble will present their varied programme of various genres of music at the Canongate Kirk, in a 1-week run:

Dates: Tuesday 14 – Saturday 18 August
Times: 14:00 – 15:00 Tuesday 14 to Friday 17; 19:30 – 20:30 Saturday 18
Venue: Canongate Kirk, Canongate, EH8 8BN
Prices: £10

The Wordsworth Singers chamber choir from Cumbria will hold a one-off gig full of rich sounds and inspired programming, led by the chorus master of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Mark Hindley:

Date: Saturday 11 August
Times: 12:30 – 13:30
Venue: St Cuthbert’s Parish Church, 5 Lothian Road, EH1 2EP
Prices: £9

The best thing to come out of Finland, FORK, who well and truly wowed me when I saw them in August 2011 and January 2012 in London, will return to Edinburgh this August with a revamped production. There are promises in store of ingenious rearrangements, electrifying vocals, glitz & glamour and even downright sauciness:

Dates: Thursday 2 & Friday 3 August (previews); Saturday 4 – Sunday 26 August
Times: 22:25 – 23:25
Venue: Assembly George Square, George Square, EH8 9LH
Prices: £10.00 (previews); £14/15

In what may possibly be the youngest group of a cappella singers to grace us the public with their presence this August, the London group named Chacapella formed in 2010, will bravely bring their show Glory of the Mainstream to Edinburgh. I am pretty sure theirs will also be the cheapest a cappella ticket in town this year:

Dates: Sunday 12 to Tuesday 14 August
Times: 19:00 – 20:00 on Sunday 12; 17:30 – 18:30 other days
Venue: St Cecilia’s Hall, Junction of Niddry St & Cowgate, EH1 1LJ
Prices: £2

From young girls to some more girls, Oxford University’s In The Pink are back in Edinburgh for an eighth year of Fringe fun, another highlight in their Summer 2012, which will already have seen them perform in Berlin in June, an experience which I hope will stand them in positive stead.

Dates: Sunday 12 – Monday 27 August
Times: 14:00 – 14:50
Venue: C Venues, Chambers Street, EH1 1HR
Prices: £9.50

Possibly Scotland’s solitary LGBT a cappella singing group, Loud and Proud, will hold a one-off gig with a proportion of the proceeds going to the local Waverley Care charity:

Dates: Saturday 25 August
Times: 20:30 – 21:30
Venue: Stockbridge Parish Church, Saxe Coburg Street, EH3 5BN
Prices: £12

Described by the Daily Telegraph as “A Cappella Maestros”, The Magnets have a season in Edinburgh, no mean feat considering they are in the throes of their current UK Tour and even have another gig a mere 8 days after their last date in Edinburgh this year:

Dates: Thursday 2 and Friday 3 August (previews); Saturday 4 – Wednesday 15 August
Times: 19:30 – 20:30
Venue: Assembly Hall, The Mound, EH1 2LU
Prices: £10 (previews only); £14/15 other dates

All the way from Australia, the Australian Voices group specialising in a cappella choral-theatre work, will bring their play Moon to Edinburgh this August:

Dates: Friday 3 – Saturday 25 August
Times: 19:00 – 19:55
Venue: theSpace@Symposium Hall, The Royal College of Surgeons, Hill Square, EH8 9DR
Prices: £8.00

The only collegiate a cappella group in the UK who will have a full month-long season in Edinburgh will be the Oxford boys from Out of the Blue. Their reputation precedes them, and as such they will be performing in the huge 500-seater venue at George Square, a further step up in terms of audience numbers after their record-breaking show last year:

Dates: Wednesday 1 – Friday 3 August (previews); Saturday 4 – Monday 27 August (except Wednesday 15)
Times: 14:00 – 14:50
Venue: Assembly George Square, George Square, EH8 9LH
Prices: £5 (previews); £9.50/£10.50

Former winners of the Voice Festival UK, the gorgeous Oxford Gargoyles will return in August to entertain us all with their eclectic mix of jazz, pop, soul numbers and even Disney pieces!:

Dates: Sunday 12 – Monday 27 August
Times: 15:00 – 15:50
Venue: C Venues, Chambers Street, EH1 1HR
Prices: £9.50

The beatboxer extraordinaire Shlomo will return to Edinburgh this August with his show Ministry of Mouth, following a sell-out debut run in 2011 to take vocal music to new heights with his choice of intricate beat patterms, loops and basslines. He also has a children’s show as well .. Which begs the question where does his versatility end? I wonder whether he could be called upon to provide a workshop at the London A Cappella Festival 2013?:

Dates: Monday 13 & Tuesday 14 August
Times: 20:50 – 21:50 on Monday 13; 22:15 – 23:15 on Tuesday 14
Venue: Underbelly Cowgate, Cowgate, EH1 1EG
Prices: £12.50

From one genre of music to the other, and Scotland’s prodigious chamber choir Coroedina who will present a sublime contemporary music set inspired by the American composer Eric Whitacre in a one-off gig at the St Giles’ Cathedral right in the heart of the Festival City:

Dates: Tuesday 23 August
Times: 20:00 – 21:30
Venue: St Giles’ Cathedral, EH1 1RE
Prices: Adults from £10.00

From the Republic of South Africa, the Soweta Entsha quartet of a cappella male singers, offers a feel-good experience, which may even culminate in one even dancing in the aisles of the venue. Opportunities to hear a cappella music African style do not come along too often, so make the most of this opportunity:

Dates: Friday 3 & Saturday 4 August (previews); Monday 6 – Monday 27 August (except Sunday 26)
Times: 20:00 – 21:15; 16:00 – 17:15 (9/16/21-25 August)
Venue: ST John’s Church, princes Street, EH2 4BJ
Prices: £8 (previews), £14.50

Closer to home, The Vocal Orchestra will celebrate everyone’s favourite tunes in the manner that we all like (7 mouths, 7 mikes and no instruments):

Dates: Thursday 2 & Friday 3 August (previews); Saturday 4 – Monday 27 (except Tuesday 14)
Times: 17:15 – 18:15
Venue: Underbelly Bristo Square, EH8 9AL
Prices: £10 (Previews), £14/16

The last of our collegiate groups, The Accidentals are making their Fringe debut this year in what will be a short but sweet run of six nights. The best all-female collegiate group in the country last year will be hoping to wow their audiences with their gutsy, feisty and fierce beats. Catch them while you can – this is their first gig outside of St Andrews for a long time!

Dates: Monday 13 August – Saturday 18 August
Times: 11:15 – 12:05
Venue: Space Cabaret @ 54, North Bridge, EH1 2HE
Prices: £4.50/£4

Finally, an a cappella sketch show that highlights the side-splitting situation that surrounds the decisions we make when it comes to choosing what to wear day in day out, CappellaJuice: Beyond the Wardrobe will be my last recommendation which will harmonically delight one and all who watch it:

Dates: Sunday 12 – Monday 27 August
Times: 17:05 – 18:05
Venue: C Venues, Chambers Street, EH1 1HR
Prices: from £8.50

In closing, the programme is full and varied in terms of musical repertoire covered by the individual artists and groups, and I hope to find space to see most of them in about 8 weeks time. Bring on the Summer and here’s hoping to see some of you a cappella fans from the UK Campus on our travels.

Don’t forget to check out the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Website for more details about all of these acts.

Event Review: VF-UK 2012 Oxford Regional Round

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

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

The Competitors:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

Awards:

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

WINNER:

OUT OF THE BLUE

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

Tours Galore in Oxbridge

With the dust having (just about) settled from the VF-UK competition for another year, groups are jetting off once again around the world to perform to awaiting fans across the northern hemisphere.

The Fitz Sirens, from Cambridge, are setting off tomorrow on a busking tour of Poland. Their presence in the Voice Festival this year was sorely missed, but having performed recently at the House of Lords, the girls are certainly more than making up for it by securing some prestigious gigs elsewhere. We wish the girls the best of luck in Poland, and continuing success in the next few months.

Over at Oxford, two groups are about to fly across the pond and try their hand in America. The Oxford Alternotives are jetting off to the East Coast until March 29th, where they will be touring the New York and Boston area, where they are bound to run into some top-class a cappella groups from the US. We wish the group all the best on their tour!

Out of the Blue are also about to head off to the US, heading for the West Coast and California! The group have promised to keep their fans updated every day via their Facebook page, and we can’t wait to hear all about it. We wish the group all the best, and urge them to wear enough suncream.

Out of the Blue Make It Four out of Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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