The Magnets at the MAC

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magnetsA cappella group the Magnets performed at the Midlands Arts Centre on Friday night in a show in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust. I hadn’t heard them since 2002 or so, and was surprised to recognise many of the faces – apparently they’ve only had one permanent change of line-up in all that time (though they have had one temporary dep recently to cover a paternity leave).

It was an entertaining evening. All the singers create an easy and personably rapport with their audience from the opening, giving you the feeling you are being sung to, not just performed at. The show was also very well crafted, with a pleasing variety of pace, mood and visual impact. Each half of the show built to and away from a major focal point – the beat-box solo in the first half, an A-Z compilation for a game of name-that-band in the second – with fluent transitions throughout. It was striking how little talking they did (note: they didn’t need the padding to fill the programme) and that the few spoken interludes were well-placed and efficient.

Star of the show was undoubtedly vocal percussionist Andy Frost. Even without his solo spot, he gave a remarkable show of stamina, having very few moments of rest but remaining absolutely consistent and precise throughout. His solo was both playful and virtuosic, and interestingly marked a turning-point in the show after which the performance level of the whole ensemble shifted up a level.

For it has to be said that, in the first half particularly, there was a disappointing hole in the middle of the music. The bass and drum substrate was solid, and the solos well-characterised, but the harmonies in the middle that should have glued them together could not have been described (as they are on their website) as ‘razor-sharp’. The variety of vocal colours and styles of articulation that were such a strength when each singer took the lead spot became a liability when carried into the backing texture. My overall impression nine years ago was ‘fun, but a bit sloppy round the edges’, and it’s interesting that it’s their vocal ensemble that still leaves me wanting.

Of course, their choreographic ensemble also has this quality, but this comes over as a positive quality. They do all bring their individual personalities to the performance, and they flaunt this as something to enjoy: they ask quite early on, 'which is your favourite Magnet?' But the musical structures they use would be better served by enough vocal unanimity in the harmonic fill to be able to distinguish the chords clearly. (Whoever was on the 3rd at the start of ‘Call Me’ was really hedging his bets about whether it was a major or a minor triad.) Harmonies are, by definition composite entities that we hear as a single thing, not as a collection of disparate notes, so when you’re singing a harmony part you need let go of your own ego enough to become part of that entity.

The other thing that took the edge off my pleasure in the evening was the degree of vocal tension they brought to the stage. I was attending with more than half of the singers who would be performing in Magenta’s contribution to the Moseley Festival the next day, and it occurred to me that night that I would have to plan a warm-up to shed the strain we would have all picked up. And indeed the voices were tighter th day after the Magnets performance than they usually are when the singers arrive full of the stresses of a day’s work. Shedding some of that tension would not only be good for the Magnets’ own vocal health and career longevity, but would also be kinder to their audiences.

So, it’s a response of modified rapture. There’s lots there to enjoy, but you can tell that they’ve not had a lot of competition in the genre in this country. They have that quality of the broad-brush ensemble that has won a loyal and happy following without ever being required to really nail they things that would make them really first-rate. And I guess I’m being hard on them here because it is evident that they have the musicianship and intelligence and indeed the work ethic that they could be world-class if they really wanted to be.

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