On a gorgeous sunny weekend in London, as twelve groups became five and those five were whittled down to just one winner, history was made as Out of the Blue became the first ever group to win the Voice Festival UK University Competition for the second time. But the other groups weren’t just there to make up the numbers. Here’s our full review.
The line-up for the evening was as follows:
OUT OF THE BLUE
University of Oxford
Best Result: Winners, 2009
University of Exeter
Best Result: Finalists, 2013
Imperial College, London
Best Result: 2 ‘Outstanding’ Awards at London Regional, 2012 + 2013
University of Leeds
Best Result: 2 ‘Outstanding’ Awards at Birmingham Regional, 2013
ALL THE KING’S MEN
King’s College, London
Best Result: Winners, 2012
Master of Ceremonies: Scott Riseborough
To preface this review, I’d like to give a mention to some of the groups that didn’t make it through to the Final. With no female groups in the Final for the third year in a row, it had been a toss up between The Accidentals and The Uptone Girls as to which of the all-female Semi-Finalists were the strongest, and it was a shame we didn’t get to see either of them perform their full length sets as I know there were some gems that had been left out. Furthermore, the absence of The Sons of Pitches was a real shock to the system – if it was their middle song that had let them down, I felt this was rather harsh as the remainder of their set, while not being up to their usual very high standard, was still, in my opinion, better than several of the Finalists here this evening.
However, the judges had made their decisions and first up were VF-UK veterans and massively popular all-male group, Out of the Blue. I was worried they would keep their rather flat first song from their semi-final set, and when they formed up to perform it again I was a little disappointed. However, despite the song being almost identical to their rendition of it at the semi-finals, it seemed to have a little more pizzazz and enthusiasm that perhaps was lacking on the previous morning. The soloist was excellent, and demonstrated his powerful belt at the top of his range, as well as considerable dexterity throughout the remainder of the vocal performance. As the Accidental sat next to me (who shall remain nameless) said, she would have loved for the soloist to be her treasure… I still think the backing is dull and that the group are better than this arrangement wise – there were too many repetitive ‘do’ vowels for my liking – but the boys showed charisma and fearlessness and were entertaining in terms of choreography and their overall performance to the very end, including their classic ‘let’s all point in different directions’ pose.
Their second number was Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence. This was as good, if not better, than at the semi-final. I got goosebumps almost instantly. The arrangement here is phenomenal. Starting off oh-so-tenderly with a couple of voices, they eventually grew into lush harmonies, and then ebbed and flowed gorgeously throughout the song, with different voices ranging from bass to falsetto taking the solo parts in different places. It really was a perfect demonstration of the vocal abilities contained within the group, and the entire song was utterly pitch perfect. They used more interesting vowels than in Treasure: some ‘jang’ sounds, some terrifically-timed belltones and a lovely warm sound as the song drew to a conclusion. I also adored the cliffhanger they left us on, choosing to physically leave us in silence, rather than singing the word. The perfect middle song.
Their final number was a glorious romp of a song. I Wanna Dance With Somebody was mashed-up briefly with Somebody to Love to form a musically tight yet crowd-pleasing finale. There was a few moment when the soloist looked nervous, as he was looking at the floor rather than out at the audience, but this was fleeting and he soon recovered to deliver one of the strongest solo performances of the night. The choreography was also apt, and often fitted with the words of the song, and the harmonies were so tight and far more interesting than those in the opening number. And then the key change! I love a good key change, and this was seamless. The addition of Queen led to a gospel, foot-stamping section which was simply marvellous and with a magnificent solo falsetto riff to close the number, the boys definitely went from strength to strength in their set, improving all the way through.
Overall, the boys delivered a fearless performance that was musically perfect and highly entertaining. That said, it was a classic Out of the Blue set – they did nothing outside of their remit that would have shown any sort of creative innovation, and I’d love to see them attempt something a little more outside of the box in years to come. But in terms of consistency through the set, there was very little to criticise.
The second group to perform was Semi-Toned from the University of Exeter. The boys in maroon have progressed dramatically in the past few years, having delivered a set at the Edinburgh Fringe that was of the highest standard, and with the creativity hinted at in their semi-final set, I was looking forward to seeing what they would put in the extra four minutes. I didn’t have to wait long, as their first song was something I hadn’t heard before – the first of several extremely creative mash-ups that the boys were to deliver this evening. A low hummed introduction to Far Over The Misty Mountains from The Hobbit launched quickly into John Newman’s Cheating, a pair of songs that together shouldn’t really have worked but somehow did. The mash-up was definitely Newman-heavy, and whenever the basses threatened to break through with the Hobbit again they were quickly and hilariously halted by the continuation of Cheating, which contributed to the multi-layered feel to the song and a entertaining as well as musically intricate piece. I particularly enjoyed the group’s inventive use of backing vocals, including a reverberating “dunnnng” with punctured the piece throughout. Not to mention the solo throughout, which was unreal.
The second bizarre-yet-awesome mash-up was Olly Murs’ Dear Darlin’ with Ylvis’ The Fox, which was reprised from the semi-final. Again, the initial solo pitching was a little off, but the soloist was able to recover and delivered all-in-all a strong performance in a busy arrangement. While the backing again was very unique and had lots of stand-out parts that were musically interesting (and a lot more so than Out of the Blue before them), I did feel the boys were a touch vocally tired, which was highlighted by the key change which, while effective, led to a few pitchy notes in the upper ranges. Maybe it was because I had seen the performance of this number before and as a result was less surprised by it, but I felt this song had less impact overall than it had in the semi-final. Still a very unique and original number, though.
Third up was the bass-led jazz arrangement of the Pokemon theme tune, another creative masterpiece. So transfixed was I by this performance once again that I had wrote very little on my notepad – simply that the wall of sound was awesome and that once again, the backing parts were exceptional. I did get slightly worried that the boys had only performed upbeat numbers, but then my fears were allayed as they somehow managed to squeeze in a fourth number, and it was the best one yet. Radiohead’s Motion Picture Soundtrack was hauntingly led by Michael Luya’ astonishing, magical solo which had the audience in utter silence, muted by the sheer perfection of it. The blend behind Luya was just as brilliant, with the high harmonies floating just marvellously over the top without ever sticking out or screeching. The set was rounded off with a long, held, falsetto final note which pierced through the room leaving the audience stunned. The perfect closing number to a hugely strong set.
The third up were The Techtonics from Imperial College, London. This was the one group I did not call to be placed in the Final, and to be honest, I was surprised that they were. Upon speaking to one of the group members, James Hayward, on the morning of the Final, he said that he felt my comments on their semi-final set were fair, but that they had one surprise up their sleeve that would be right up my street. However, upon hearing their extended set, I had to say this ‘surprise’, which was their final number, was perhaps the weakest number of the three, with the two I had heard in the semi-final seeming that little bit more impressive now I knew exactly what they were trying to do.
The self-proclaimed ‘musically complex mash-up’ opened the set, as it had done the previous afternoon. I knew very few of the songs incorporated, but in a sense that made the arrangement flow a little better as there was no obvious segments in my head as I was listening. For the record, it was a mash-up of songs from Daft Punk’s 2013 album ‘Random Access Memories’. There were some complexities within the arrangement that will have impressed the judges: the gorgeous descending bell tones towards the end, the lack of obvious breathing, and as mentioned, the smooth transitions between numbers, but again I felt they tried to put too many songs into one number and as a result were unable to find a real sense of character to the song. Rhythmically too they struggled at the very start, but were able to reign things in as the song progressed. This showed signs of potential but could have been executed in a more energetic and confident way.
The song transitioned without pause into Passenger’s Let Her Go. I was wary of this number, because it had dragged somewhat the previous day, and although again there were some well-executed musical complexities contain within it (predominantly bell tones), I just felt the arrangement was a little unambitious. Musically it was flawless – the wall of sound that the group are able to produce due to their large contingent surpassed all other groups in the Final; the solo was strong and powerful enough to be heard over the blocked chords behind him; the movement was simple but effective; and there were some new high falsetto parts which I hadn’t noticed before that really added to the chord. Rhythmically they were also very good, especially in the difficult lyric-less section in the middle, but again it dragged slightly as they showed off their musical chops. I feel the song was more aimed at the judges than for the enjoyment of the crowd – a shrewd decision, given that it’s the judges that decide the winners, but perhaps the reason why there were a few surprised faces when the group made the Final.
The group’s final number was new, and again was a mash-up, this time filled with pizzazz and energy, more creative choreography and some excellent vocal percussion, but again suffered slightly from rhythmic inaccuracies from the beginning and an over-reliance on “do”s in the backing parts. Again, I didn’t know the root songs, which were DJ Fresh’s Louder and Gold Dust, but enjoyed the introduction of Kanye’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger and the introduction of some classic TTs dubstep reminiscent of their award-winning arrangement of Earthquake. I still think it was generally quite a safe arrangement and also not very memorable (a month, I remember very little of the set aside from the notes I made at the time), and it was unfortunate that the rapper forgot his lyrics – a tarnish on an otherwise professional, if not spectacular, set.
Fourth up were The Songsmiths from the University of Leeds. Perhaps limited by the Sons of Pitches’ dominance in the Birmingham Regional in recent years, the group finally got the chance to sing in the London Final, and boy did they capitalise on this chance! The Songsmiths’ set was proficiently and professionally crafted and a far cry from the musically basic sets that often come out of new groups. The group kicked off with Total Eclipse of the Heart, oozing instantly into a gorgeous warm blend with delicate bell tones, and a gorgeously lofted ‘Turn Around’ from the male vocal percussionist on top of the pitch perfect building solo. In fact, this piece would have been flawless were it not for the solo – although it was musically sound, there wasn’t enough belt on it, which meant all the potentially deafening dynamics had to be dialled down in order for the solo to be heard. And what a shame! There were some gorgeous decrescendos, some beautiful floated soprano lines, and a gradual growth in volume throughout the song which was only limited by the soloist. Aside from these limitations, the song was magical – it was just a shame these volume limitations hampered the entire piece quite significantly.
The group’s second number was a rendition of the Ghostbusters theme. If the soloist on Eclipse wasn’t up to scratch, this one certainly was – his unorthodox look matched his rasping, rocky twang that soared effortlessly into tenor territory and made me extremely jealous. This song had everything – huge variety musically, with some hilarious interjections of ‘I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost’ and the classic ‘Ghostbusters’ from the rest of the group in between the slightly sarcastic solo which was just perfect. Combined with some huge hi-hat beats from the vocal percussionist and again some pure toned sopranos, and this was a highly entertaining but also musically precise middle song.
I was hoping to hear the group’s version of Alt J’s Fitzpleasure as their final number, but instead was treated to a medley of James Bond themes. I think this may have been a faux pas. As entertaining and musically tight as this medley was, I feel they made a similar mistake to other groups by trying to include too many songs all at once. There were highlights – the dual beatbox (which later turned into a Sons of Pitches-esque beatbox battle), the lovely dual solo on Goldfinger and the neat transitions from one song to another, but the entire song felt a little too busy, which became slightly distracting. These are churlish comments though – on the whole, The Songsmiths really did blow me away, not only with their musical precision, but also their ambition and their ability, for the most part, to match this ambition with a high-octane performance.
The final group of the night were All the King’s Men, who were looking to win their second title in three years. They opened with Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi, which was as solid as it had been the previous day. I really enjoy the “go go wah” backing sounds in the build up to the introduction of the solo, while the solo itself was hilariously and charismatically delivered by Barry O’Reilly, although it would have been nice to have someone be able to belt the chorus rather than slip into falsetto – although that’s just a prejudice from knowing the original so well. There were some stand-out individual moments – the moonwalk, the High School Musical-esque jump, and the boys circling around the soloist towards the end, doing well to keep the sound projecting outwards as they did so, but all-in-all, I wouldn’t have said this was any better than the previous opening songs we had heard.
Their middle song, their token slow number, was the weakest – which was a surprise, given the group have historically been so tight in close harmony numbers. It was Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got You, and was plagued with pitching issues throughout: from the very opening high falsetto notes to the big solo money note that went a touch flat, the overall effect of this number was just underwhelming and not at all reminiscent of All the King’s Men. Despite these issues, the song was carried by the solo from Thana’a Mohajer – a silky, chocolatey solo which melted the hearts of the audience and, were it not for the big note at the end, had a chance of being the most accomplished solo performance of the evening. Overall though, this was a bit meh.
Their final number was the Spider Medley, starting with Insy Winsy Spider and progressing through to a jazzy rendition of Spiderman. I can’t help but thinking that this rendition of a song that a previous generation of the group has sung before serves only to highlight how good All the King’s Men used to be, and how the latest generation, while still singing and performing to an exceptionally high standard, just aren’t as tight as they were when they won the competition in 2012. Everything here was good – the solos were good, the choreography was funny, the story of the song was interesting – but the soloist could have been better, the choreography could have been tighter, the story of the song could have been more emphatic. Maybe it’s because I’d seen this sung before and it didn’t surprise me any more. Or maybe it’s because they’ve been better. Everyone gave 100%, but I wasn’t sure it would be enough to challenge for the title.
For me, it was a three-horse race. My favourites were Semi-Toned, who combined a highly original set with hilarious choreography, tight musicality and some genuinely emotional moments (I’m looking at you, Michael Luya.) The Songsmiths delivered a hugely impressive debut Final performance and were definitely underdogs to claim the victory, while Out of the Blue were the most consistent, delivering a classic, comfortable and charismatic performance that was simply a pleasure to watch throughout. All the King’s Men and The Techtonics were great, but in both cases I feel like they’ve been better in previous years.
Outstanding Soloist: Michael Luya of Semi-Toned for Motion Picture Soundtrack
Outstanding Performance: Out of the Blue
Outstanding Arrangement: Bobby Goulder of Out of the Blue for the Entire Set
Outstanding Choreography: The Songsmiths
WINNER: OUT OF THE BLUE
So, Out of the Blue became the first ever group to win the Voice Festival UK for a second time – and deservedly so. Their success was based on a consistently musically tight set and allowing the audience to be at complete ease throughout – their professionalism was second-to-none. Further proof that experience and consistency is often the key to success.