Event Reviews

ICCA Finals 2017

Event Reviews

In a creative writing workshop a few years ago, my friend Dennis cited that “a house is just a bunch of rooms.” It was a statement that sounded simultaneously profound and profoundly obvious in a way that makes you want to laugh, cry, scratch your head, and roll your eyes all at once. I bring this up because when we consider a competition set for an a cappella group, the temptation may well be to say that a set is just a bunch of songs. It’s not altogether untrue, but 2017, perhaps more than any year before it, showed that just any old assemblage of songs—even really good songs—will not bring home the Gooding Cup. No, 2017 was the year of the set as an indivisible whole with bits of songs wedged and adhered together to create something unique, new, and wholly belonging to the college a cappella group at hand.

Before I get into individual groups, here’s a summary of this year’s ICCA Finals:

Venue: The Beacon Theatre, New York, New York

Guest Groups: ICHSA Champions and Top Runners Up Vocal Rush, Enharmonic Fusion, and Vocal Point

Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching

Judges:

  • Abbey Janes
  • Alex Green
  • Bill Hare
  • Ed Boyer
  • Julia Hoffman

Competing Groups:

  • The ICCA Mid-Atlantic Champions, The Towson Trills from Towson University
  • The ICCA Wild Card Champions, Amazin’ Blue from the University of Michigan
  • The ICCA United Kingdom Champions, Aquapella from the University of Bath
  • The ICCA Northeast Champions, The Nor’easters from Northeastern University
  • The ICCA Central Champions, The Water Boys from the University of Waterloo
  • The ICCA Southwest Champions, The ScatterTones from UCLA
  • The ICCA Northwest Champions, Furmata A Cappella from the University of Washington
  • The ICCA Great Lakes Champions, Voices in Your Head from the University of Chicago
  • The ICCA Midwest Champions, The Ohio State of Mind from Ohio State University
  • The ICCA South Champions, The Beltones from Belmont University

I’d like to lead off the review of the show with some high praise for Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching in their hosting duties. They’re charismatic showpersons, yes, but the degree to which the two of them are experienced and entrenched in the a cappella world helps them deliver an engaging performance all their own on stage that’s both entertaining and tailor fit to an a cappella audience. It’s such a delight that Varsity Vocals has had the two of them hosting Finals shows in recent years, and it’s an arrangement I hope will continue for some time.

The first competing group was The Towson Trills. I had a chance to interview Aaron Bayne from their group a week before competition, and it was remarkable to learn how quickly this crew ascended from coming together just a year and a half ago, to competing in ICCA for the first time, to storming their way all the way to Finals. All of this as a seven-member group, all of this with a group made up almost entirely of college sophomores. Groups like Pentatonix, Aurora, and Vocalight have underscored that smaller can be better in the contemporary a cappella landscape, and it’s really interesting to see a college group working from that paradigm and thriving. On a less important note, I liked their choice of black, sparkling attire and accessories, which helped immediately establish their identity as professional performers.

The group opened with “Death of a Bachelor,” originally by Panic! At the Disco. I was immediately struck by the group’s stage presence and strong vocal percussion for this one. They did a nice job of both keeping the choreography under control and letting it build as the performance went on, including a nice bit in which one member did a full-body bob as the group grooved, and the bobbing spread member-by-member until the group was fully in sync. Killer swirling bass sound as the first song wrapped up. Next up, “Unsteady,” originally by X Ambassadors, mixed with hints of “Apologize” by Timbaland and OneRepublic. Very nice complexity of sound, particularly for a group this size, and the group did a really nice job of keeping the hints of “Apologize” present but understated to build to a truly electric moment when the two songs mashed together. The Towson Trills finished with Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got).” The group deployed an excellent vocal trumpet to lead off and accent this jazzy take on the song. Good charisma from the soloist, and the group wove in a fun rap interlude. My only knock on this closer was the visual presentation. It’s a fine line, but when a small group is performing, I tend to feel as though choreography—and more particularly the artifice of it—can stick out more and feel contrived. I felt the group would have been better off sticking to a more straightforward presentation, holding their own as individual singers who looked like they were having more fun as they had earlier in the set. That’s a lot of verbiage for a relatively minor quibble, though. All in all, I felt the Towson Trills demonstrated the ways in which a more traditional ICCA set structure can still succeed and offer a fun, engaging experience for the audience. By the luck of the draw, they were on first, but I suspect the set may have come across even better closer to the middle of the show, in contrast to sets that were arguably less accessible for a general audience. Just the same the group did itself proud in its ICCA Finals debut, and I suspect we haven’t heard the last of them at this level of competition.

Amazin’ Blue was next up and offered up. At the top of the review, I noted the degree to which the 2017 Finals re-conceptualized the competition set, compelling the listener to think less about individual pieces and more about the sum of those parts. In my book, Amazin’ Blue kicked off that trend in earnest. With a set that artfully sampled from itself and felt tonally consistent in ways that were simultaneously brilliant and profoundly dark. I know that there’s been some push back in the a cappella community against a cappella that’s, frankly, less fun, but when groups are assembling sets this artful I have a hard time finding reason to complain.

Amazin’ Blue led off their set by not taking time to set up on stage, but rather already singing from on their way in, accented by a haunting, repeated whisper of, “I can feel them coming.” Their performance of The Weekend’s “In the Night” carried a palpable sense of danger both in its vocals and the visuals, particularly at the point in which they rotated in and out of two lines to generate a unique, unpredictable visual. The group moved seamlessly to Transviolet’s “Girls Your Age.” The song itself carried forward a themes of youth and of foreboding, particularly on their delivery of lyrics like “Girls your age never mean what they say.” Tremendous precision of sound all around on this song, and I particularly loved the edgy visual of the group closing in on the soloist, and later surrounding her in what could easily pass for a traditional a cappella arc but took on the sensation of overwhelming forces standing over and surrounding her until she collapsed to her knees. Powerful stuff. The early whispers of the set came back around as the group settled into “No One’s Here to Sleep,” originally by Naughty Boy. I can’t overstate how good Amazin’ Blue’s control of their visuals was—nothing gratuitous or overly literal, but so captivating in their ever-shifting staging. Bits of “Girls Your Age” came back in before the group moved to a soft, choral take on the opening to “Carry Me Home,” originally by The Sweeplings with a choral opening. The group offered a masterclass on the effect of doubling up on key parts of a song to really drive them home, before a lovely fall out moment that gave way to one more transition to Bishop Briggs’s “River.” I loved the way the intensity built on this one, both in terms of the vocals opening up and the group spreading the set and weaving in bits of stomp percussion to bring all that danger to fruition on a monster finish to this excellent set.

2016 saw the rise of the very first truly international ICCA Champions, when The Techtonics from Imperial College London took home the Gooding Cup. So, it was with great anticipation that we awaited the successors to the ICCA UK throne, Aquapella. Elite groups from the UK tend to have a different sound from their American counterparts, often leaning into old-fashioned humor in a way that top-tier groups from the US have steered further and further away from over the last decade. Moreover, their sound veers more toward an emphasis on traditional harmonies over bass and vocal percussion that increasingly get privileged in US-based groups. Aquapella embodied a lot of these aca-cultural differences, and I have to say that their style served them well in this show, as it helped them stand out from the pack. There’s also something to be said for accessibility as the group book-ended its set with mainstream music that was easily recognizable to a general audience, rather than deep cuts. All that, plus they offered one truly star-making solo. We’ll get to that, though.

Aquapella opened on an instrumental groove that gave way to what I can best describe as a sexy medley. The first song they settled into was Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback” which offered some welcome comic relief as the soloist strode from the back of the stage and let his British accent fly free across the theater. Fun bit as one group member gyrated his hips and the movement spread across the group. “Sexyback” gave way to snippets from “Let’s Talk About Sex,” “Let’s Get It On,” and “Sexual.” No denying that the medley was well-sung and very funny at points, but it also felt a bit oddly dated to me. I think this comes down, in part, to the aforementioned cultural differences, but as entertaining as it was, I didn’t think the medley had quite the hook necessary to sell Aquapella as top contenders at the Finals level. I liked the shift from there to The 1975’s “Fallingforyou,” which carried along a compelling sense of sensuality but was a slowed down, more serious piece of music that really let the group’s harmonies and sterling intonation take precedence. Excellent emotional vulnerability on both soloists on this one. Aquapella closed with “Purple Rain.” While I’m all for innovation in an a cappella set, this was the point at which I felt Aquapella’s more traditional sensibilities served them really well, and shot them back up to star status on this show. The solo on this one was just sensational, building nicely unaccompanied and then against the backdrop of a sparse arrangement, before positively exploding on the climax of the song. If you have a soloist with the capabilities of this young woman, it’s all but criminal not to showcase them, and this was truly a star-making performance to end the Aquapella set on a high note.

The fourth competing group was The Nor’easters. There are but a handful of collegiate a cappella groups that walk into a competition with everyone assuming they’re going to be great and—quite arguably, even at the Finals level—the group to beat. The Nor’easters are not only one of those groups, but occupy that even rarer space of groups we know will be great and yet have no friggin’ idea what to expect them. I mean that in the kindest way; the group has developed an identity as one that experiments, pushes limits, creates dramatic effect. To return to my opening metaphor of a room being a bunch of houses, The Nor’easters are the a cappella architect that will say, Oh, you wanted a house? My bad, I designed this gothic castle with a fire pole running down the middle and a stone dragon façade. Also, it’s a boat. In reply, you might say, What? And that’s exactly right. The Nor’easters arrange, sing, and occupy the stage in ways that no other a cappella group has done, because no other a cappella group has thought to perform in such a fashion. You might argue that this is a group of innovators that will influence the future of a cappella future, but I’m genuinely uncertain their template is one anyone else could follow. (And lest anyone have doubts, I mean all of this in the best ways possible.)

The Nor’easters led off with Jason Derulo’s “Cheyenne.” Killer vocal percussion here on a somber, complex start, and the solo work was outstanding. The group went for some true explosions of sound. For a lesser group, you might think that the group was giving too much, too soon, but I kind of love the Nor’easter aesthetic of leaving everything they have on the stage, fully understanding that they’ve got just twelve minutes to prove themselves as the best collegiate a cappella group in the world. They transitioned to Bon Iver’s “715-CRƩƩKS,” starting with an unaccompanied solo. The group joined little by little in a choral presentation, which climaxed in some pretty spectacular swells of sound. The dynamics were insane on this one, and I particularly loved the choice to go un-mic’ed for a bit. Not to say that that’s unprecedented, but it is thinking outside the box. A cappella groups only have so many tools at their disposal. We’ve heard groups test the limits of their physicality, the stage, and microphone technique, but it's less common to see groups go in the opposite direction and strip away traditional pieces; it worked here to spectacular dramatic effect. Soaring high harmonies on the finish, before the group moved to its closer, “Writing’s on the Wall,” originally by Sam Smith. Downright insane solo work on this one from a guy who was solid throughout and demonstrated remarkable range when he went high. This was such a challenging set, and I loved the choice to spotlight a star soloist (not to mention an extremely unique star soloist) on the finish to really hone the audience’s attention on that single point. I really liked that one background vocalist on a “bing” syllable—it’s the kind of syllable choice that can get really grating with too many voices on it, but just one lent an edge and undertone of discomfort to the piece. A lot of groups settle for splitting up parts more simply—for example, everyone on each vocal part doing the same thing—whereas an arrangement like this, in some ways, pulled from the techniques of much smaller groups to achieve a remarkable complexity of sound. Killer finish to an exceptional set.

The Water Boys were up next. While it’s not exactly desirable to have to follow The Nor’easters, I actually think that the juxtaposition played in this particular group’s favor. On a night with more than its share of edgy performances, The Water Boys leaned into smooth identity that distinguished their set from others, and put an emphasis on clean, clear vocals, matched by put-together look, sporting matching blazers and collared shirts on stage. As the lone all-male group at Finals this year, the temptation easily could have been to come in hot and heavy or to go for laughs, but in this more mature set, the guys demonstrated exactly why they’d made it to Finals, mixing contemporary music and song stylings with some far more traditional material and harmonies for a set that was easy on the ears and masterfully performed.

The Water Boys kicked off their set with a classic, The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Such a crisp sound here, with pristine intonation and control of mechanics. An opener like this doesn’t knock down a door, but rather cracks it open and wafts the smell of your mother’s apple pie to invite you inside. Just a beautiful opening. I really liked the choice to jump generations from there, moving on to a mashup of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and “Maps,” originally by Maroon 5. The Clarkson part was fun, and a part of why it worked so well was that the guys didn’t play up the irony of an all-male group covering her for laughs, but rather thrived on keeping things musical and playing them straight. The result hit the precise sweet spot between something familiar and something that feels fresh for being performed in a way the audience isn’t accustomed to. This song was particularly strong when the soloists converged on the finish. Next up was OK Go’s “Needing/Getting.” This was another great showcase for the sheer musicality and harmonies this group was capable of, with the vocal percussionist as an unsung hero doing a terrific job in the background without ever threatening to overtake the piece. The most impressive piece of all may be how divergent The Water Boys’ interpretation was from the far grittier original, to reinvent the song in their style. The guys closed with One Direction’s “Midnight Memories.” Not so dissimilar from “Since U Been Gone,” it was fun to hear the guys cut loose a bit here, still offering pristine vocals but doing so in a looser, sillier context of a One Direction song. Very smooth solo work, and I loved the choice to bring back a sample of “Blackbird” to help tie together the set and give the audience a sense of the journey the group had taken them on.

I’d introduced The Nor’easters in the context of being a consistently great ICCA franchise; no question, The ScatterTones belong in precisely the same category after a series of tremendous showings at ICCA Finals in recent years. The ScatterTones approach aca-excellence from a very different angle, though, in some ways more traditional for their song choices and set structure, and yet nonetheless pushing the limits of sheer virtuosic musicianship. Check out an ICCA score card and you’ll see items like balance and blend, rhythmic accuracy, and intonation take precedence, alongside effectiveness of presentation and stage presence. The ScatterTones are the kind of group all but built to max out scores while still offering one of the most downright entertaining sets of the year. Their 2017 offering was a prime example of the things this group does so well, honed to one of the group’s best sets yet.

The ScatterTones opened with Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” Taking on The King of Pop in an a cappella set isn’t a great idea for most groups, because most groups can’t handle lead vocals at the level of The ScatterTones. Fortunately The ScatterTones are who they are, and put a positively killer solo front and center to open the set. The group also let this song build nicely with soft backing vocals early on, which gave way to a low, ominous hum on the chorus before launching into movement and more pronounced instrumentation as the song went on. I liked the stomp percussion that spread throughout the group—one of the definitive strengths of this group is building to big moments, rather than firing everything they’ve got all at once. Next up was “Magic,” originally by Coldplay. I loved the interaction—both aurally and visually—between the two leads on this one, and really appreciated the degree to which the sound opened up as this song moved along, before they pulled way back for a soft, broken finish. Just a lovely take on this song. The ScatterTones went back old school on their finish with Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” The group did an excellent job of working in rotating soloists on this one, which is such a difficult thing to do, both in terms of having talented enough soloists to justify the choice, and in maintaining the backing sound with parts moving in and out of it. Fun dance breakdown, en route to some really fun, high energy choreo to take this song home. While I thought they could have afforded to open up the sound a bit more to really drive home the party vibe on this song, that’s a relatively minor quibble for a very strong  finish to a stellar set.

Next up, Voices in Your Head took the stage. Much of what I wrote about The Nor’easters applies in similar ways to this group. This was the group’s third trip to Finals after a show-stopping performance that I’ll still call criminally under-recognized from 2012, and a second-place finish in 2015 that came as close as anyone ever has to beating The SoCal Vocals on the Finals stage (seriously, just six points away from a championship). And here the group was again, but with so few individual members from the past. In talking to group members and alumni after the show, I heard that 2017 was supposed to be a rebuilding year, with huge turnover in the group and little reason from optimism about the group’s chances in competition. Voices has always been the kind of group that reinvents the game, challenging the boundaries of what an ICCA set is, or rather can be, and that sensibility was very much in play this year for a set that was unique and uniquely inspired. Bear with me on another strained metaphor, but in evaluating the 2017 Voices in Your Head set in the context of an ICCA show, they’re the kids who showed up for the school bottle rocket competition with a reconstructed UFO they bartered from some extraterrestrials. Look at them fly. They didn’t match the parameters of any assignment any teacher ever gave them, but God almighty, look at them soar.

Voices in Your Head marched onto stage with a purpose, already making sound, and immediately walking in a spiraling formation to settle on a circle on stage before their whispers turned to a hum, to a swell of sound as they turned outward to face the crowd for Diplo’s “Revolution.” To pause for a moment, this was such an electric start to a set. While a set officially starts with the first sound a group makes, serious competitors understand that the audience really begins to judge them the moment anyone sets foot on stage. Great groups take the stage with conviction, but this was a next level version of making the entrance a vital part of the group’s art. Sensational harmonies here and the group demonstrated amazing control of their sound in varying dynamics. On another particularly cool note, they wove in pieces of songs ahead on the finish, a killer move to help bind the separate pieces of the set together. Next up was “How Deep Is Your Love,” originally by Calvin Harris and Disciples. They handled much of this song chorally and there was just so much going on at any given moment as the parts broke out, spiking in volume, killing it on VP, offering an ominous hum of bass and overlaying pieces with a positively gossamer high harmony. It’s rare for a group to challenge for best arrangement and best staging of the night with the same song, but that’s where this one landed for me. The group transitioned seamlessly to Eryn Allen Kane’s “Have Mercy,” nicely handled by two soloists. Really fun handling of the bridge with the female lead steering and the male soloist and the group alternately echoing or doubling up with her. This song gave way to Towkio’s “Heaven Only Knows.” It was the kind of shift, and the kind of choice that can only happen when a group fully knows its music inside out, makes discerning choices, and settles on something that only they could have brought together. I’d like to tip my hat, in particular, to the group’s music director Will Cabaniss who was reportedly responsible for arranging this set, because in addition to being so good, and so startlingly different throughout, this ending felt downright holy as the group lined the front of the stage for one final crescendo before finishing, soft, precise, and clean. I loved it.

Next up, we heard from Furmata A Cappella, making their debut at ICCA Finals. I really liked that this group delivered a sense of urban chic out of Seattle, with their sound and their sense of style all lining up to present something cool and deeply compelling. If the group had nerves going into this performance, you’d never know it as they came across completely collected. I love that they’ll have the foundation of this experience to hopefully find their way back to Finals again the years ahead, all the shrewder for the experience.

Furmata kicked off with heartbeat percussion on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” Cool, deep hum of the bass beneath this, and nice control of the stage from the whole group. I really dug the cymbal percussion that led off a jazzier section of the song, and a nicely staged bit with all of the group members snapping their fingers. The vocal percussionist swirled the group seamlessly into Charlie Puth’s “Dangerously.” Tremendous intensity on the solo here and the group created tension nicely with their purposeful reconfigurations on stage movements, and particularly a moment when the two leads all but squared off from opposite ends of the stage with separate clusters of group members behind each of them. Excellent explosion of sound from the leads on the finish. A foreboding hum gave way to the group’s last transition, over to “Freedom,” originally by Beyonce. Great fire from the soloist as she emerged from the back of the stage and the group fell into formation behind her. In the second verse they formed two lines between which the two soloists operated. The visuals and shifts in the leads did a ton of work to keep this performance dynamic and engaging, and a beatbox showdown from two group members over the bridge was a lot of fun. This felt like a kitchen sink closer in terms of throwing everything the group had into the mix—I mean that in a great way, because it’s exactly the kind of performance that gets a group to Finals and doesn’t leave a thing behind for them to regret or think twice about having left out.

The penultimate competing group was The Ohio State of Mind. This was another group making its debut at Finals, and there’s always a certain joy to that. Mind you, I enjoy catching more familiar groups and hearing how they’ve evolved over time, but each group only gets one first appearance on the biggest stage in collegiate a cappella and it’s great to see it in action. Make no mistake about it, though, because this wasn’t one of those “we’re just glad to be here” performances—this group attacked the stage with some killer solo work and a particularly grabbing bass to make the most of their big opportunity.

The Ohio State of Mind started their set with Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side.” Nice full sound here, and I enjoyed the bold shifts in dynamics to really make the song pop at all the right moments, including sweet swell from the lead trio late in the song. The bass got the last word on this one for a nice shift as he just started to show us all what he was capable of. The bass would be such a key factor, lurking beneath the surface for much of the set, and shining in key moments. The group carried on with “Kiss the Sky,” originally by Jason Derulo, which featured tremendous precision of sound from the group, not to mention a compelling visual presentation. Tremendous emotion on their next song, JoJo’s “Say Love.” The set really reached a climax on Bishop Briggs’s “River.” The group rotated through different leads early on before arriving at a positively monster solo, which really opened up on the chorus. Nice use of interesting staging on this one, including some cool stop-motion work. The Ohio State of Mind wrapped up by challenging the front of the stage full force for an epic finish. A part of what worked so well for this set was that each of the leads seemed perfectly fit to the song of choice. While it may seem obvious, featuring key talents, and showcasing them on songs that make the most of their personality and talents is so vital in engaging the audience, not to mention maxing out the Solo Interpretation row on the scoring sheet.

Last out of the gate, but certainly not least, we heard from The Beltones. This was the third time the group has made it to Finals in just five years. Two of the group’s defining characteristics, traditionally, have been their commitment to razor sharp intonation and a distinctive country-fried approach to their set. It was interesting the see the group evolve and go toward a more conventional mainstream sound this year, if anything leaning into their showmanship more. Fittingly, their outfits were accented with shiny gold accessories to communicate a sense of excitement and electricity before they ever sang a note. The group served up one of the more diverse sets of the night, and I appreciated the degree to which they altered their sound and performance style to match different legs of the set for a tremendous all around performance that furthers their legacy as stars of the ICCA South and one of the preeminent collegiate a cappella groups of this era.

The Beltones kicked things off with “24K Magic,” originally by Bruno Mars. Simply fantastic charisma on the solo for this one and fun theatrics all around. In the late going, the group wove in some fun robotic sounds and a really neat effect in which they hit the rewind button and performed in reverse. Choices like that run the risk of coming across as gimmicky, but when a group has the unique set of chops to really pull it off, it can also present, a unique, memorable spectacle, and that’s exactly what we got in this case. The group progressed seamlessly to Beyonce’s “Freedom.” Great visual with the group members assembling into two lines and then peeling off to provide room for the soloist to move down the middle. Great command of the stage from the lead, and great energy from the group on the whole, in particular when they the sound grew biggest. From there, another seamless transition brought along Kirk Whalum’s “Inside.” I appreciated the subtle choice to reorder this song slightly to help the flow from one song to another—it’s the kind of adjustment most of the audience won’t even recognize happening, and that gives the group a lot of power to negotiate sound and lyrical content to create a fluid experience. The Beltones closed with “Something Beautiful,” originally by Tori Kelly. In and of itself, this was a nicely diversified piece of music with a fun, more jazzy section. Another strong visual choice in the group forming a triangle, and I’d loved the big sound that the group went for on the finish. While it seems to be going out of style, I actually felt like the group could have afforded to go for a clap-along with the crowd on the finish to really engage the audience, max out the sound, and, more functionally, to build even more physical excitement from the theater at the end of the long show. That’s a pretty minor point, though, for a group that performed beautifully with a big finish to wrap up the competition.

While the judges deliberated, the top three finishers from the previous night’s ICHSA Finals entertained the crowd with highlights from their competition sets. This remains one of my favorite traditions of ICCA Finals. It’s a practical choice for entertainment during the deliberation period. This guest appearance exposes the audience—some of which, for reasons beyond me, still skips ICHSA Finals—a taste of what high school groups are up to, besides inviting these high school stars to a preview of what’s ahead of them in college. On top of all of that, appearing at ICCA Finals has become sort of an unofficial, immediate prize for top finishers from the ICHSA to have the right to perform on another big New York stage, in front of another big audience.

While the high school groups performed, I made my picks for the night. As tends to be the case, it was tough the call. I found The Towson Trills to be engaging and inspirational in the sense of thriving with such a new and small-sized group.  Aquapella was fun and brought the house down with “Purple Rain” (especially that solo!). The Water Boys offered up such a polished, professional performance. Furmata A Cappella delivered a cappella chic to an unparalleled level. The Ohio State of Mind did a phenomenal job of highlighting soloists against the backdrop of a killer bass. The Beltones mixed their signature keen musicianship with elevated entertainment value this year.

Amazin’ Blue offered up sensational continuity and storytelling over the course of their set, and in my book, they just missed out on placing at this show. I had The ScatterTones just edging them out for third place. Mind you, it’s nuts to say that a set of this caliber is only the third best at anything, because they were so technically on point and masterfully designed a set built to show off their considerable talents.

2017, however, was the year of the cohesive, bizarre, original set at ICCA Finals. That’s not to say that weirdness on its own wins—far from it—but 2017 was the year when the best of the best transcended the genre of a cappella music to create twelve-minute compositions that were simultaneously tailor fit to thrive in ICCA competition, and yet also completely outside the box relative to a traditional set. Voices in Your Head was in many ways the more experimental of the two, with less clear lines between songs, more circling around, and more (well-designed) chaos in both sound and visual performance. The Nor’easters tackled the stage with such a mixture of organic emotion and intensity. It was the kind of set that they almost could have sung wordlessly, and just emoted music for how raw the energy they were tapping into was. In the end, I felt either of these groups could have very justifiably taken home the Gooding Cup. For sentimentality’s sake, it would have been something to have seen Voices in Your Head win their first ICCA crown in franchise history, not to mention the first ICCA Championship for the fledgling Great Lakes region. On the flip side, there’s a degree to which it felt right for The Nor’easters to enter rarefied air as just the fourth group in ICCA history to win more than one championship (the others are the UC Berkeley Men’s Octect, The SoCal Vocals, and Pitch Slapped, for reference). In the end, I had The Nor’easters taking it by a hair, but wouldn’t have had any problem seeing it go either way.

In an all too rare occurrence, the judges’ placements lined up with my own—The ScatterTones took home third, Voices in Your Head finished second, and The Nor’easters won it all. They capped the night with a cover of Justin Beiber’s “Sorry.” I found it sort of delightfully ironic for a group this heavy to close out one of the biggest shows in their history with the uncharacteristic levity of a Beiber song.

So comes a close to another great ICCA season. It’s been a pretty crazy year in my own life. Between Finals weekends, I finished grad school, traveled across the country, and got married. Over the course of this time, I was saddened that this was the first season in eleven years when I only got to two Varsity Vocals events, but I’m glad that those ones were the ICHSA and ICCA Finals. I hope to cover more shows in future seasons, and always welcome guest writers to help us collect coverage in other regions. Rest assured, while our coverage of live events and the rest of the a cappella world may not be as consistent as it once was, we’re far from closing up shop, and I personally have every intention of continuing to cover major shows like this to the extent that I am able. In the meantime, I’d like to thank our readers, ranging from those who read every column, to those who only check in for reviews of big shows, to those who only read when they suspected we might write about them directly. You’re all the reason why we carry forward with this project, and we’re honored to be in service to the a cappella community.

On a final note, The A Cappella Blog has partnered with Teespring to create a high-quality, limited edition A Cappella Blog t-shirt that we’re making available for sale to our site’s supporters. All proceeds from this campaign will go toward the costs of running The A Cappella Blog, including web hosting and subsidizing the cost for travel and tickets to cover live events. The t-shirts will only be produced if we meet a minimum order count, so we really appreciate your support in buying a shirt and helping us spread the word about this project over the next three weeks.

Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night:

Overall Placement:

  1. The Nor'easters
  2. Voices in Your Head
  3. The ScatterTones

 Outstanding Soloist:

  1. TIE: Aquapella for "Purple Rain" and The Nor'easters for "Writing's on the Wall"
  2. The Ohio State of Mind for "River"

Outstanding Arrangement:

  1. The Nor'easters for the full set
  2. Voices in Your Head for the full set
  3. Amazin' Blue

Outstanding Visual Presentation:

  1. Voices in Your Head
  2. The Ohio State of Mind
  3. The Beltones

Outstanding Vocal Percussion:

  1. The Nor'easters
  2. The Ohio State of Mind
  3. Furmata A Cappella

The Official ICCA Results:

Overall Placement:

  1. The Nor'easters
  2. Voices in Your Head
  3. The ScatterTones

Outstanding Soloist: The Nor'easters for "Writing's on the Wall"

Outstanding Arrangement: Voices in Your Head for "How Deep Is Your Love"

Outstanding Choreography: Aquapella for the full set

Outstanding Bass: The Ohio State of Mind for the full set

ICHSA Finals 2017

Event Reviews

Music has the power to activate social change. It’s an art form that can tackle issues head on by communicating them directly to the listener’s ears. Music can also evoke deeper thought by more subtly challenging us to view the world from a different perspective, or consider a narrative outside our personal experience.

The 2017 International Championship of High School A Cappella Finals were unmistakably a product of challenging times in the United States of America. While not every set or song got political, a lot of them did, and the competition carried with it an undercurrent of civil unrest. It’s no secret that we live in a country that is politically torn in the wake of one of the most divisive presidential elections in US history. I’m not here to provide political commentary—there’s no shortage of other blogs that will, and I trust that readers come to The A Cappella Blog to read about music, and maybe even as an escape from the harsher realities of our time. I will, nonetheless, say that one of the most striking, and dare I say inspiring elements of last Friday’s championship show was the degree of social consciousness that rocked The Town Hall in New York City for an unforgettable show. Make no mistake, the teenagers of this country are, as it’s come into vogue to say, “woke.” This show demonstrated the highest level of artistry as tool for communication, discourse, and working toward change.

Before I get into individual groups, here’s a summary of this year's ICHSA Finals:

Venue: The Town Hall, New York, New York

Guest Group: Vocalight

Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching

Judges:

  • Abbey Janes
  • Bill Hare
  • Ed Boyer
  • India Carney
  • Roopak Ahuja

Competing Groups:

  • The ICHSA South Champions, The A Cappella Group from Cypress Lake Center for the Arts
  • The ICHSA Southwest Champions, Walk the Line from Rockwall High School
  • The ICHSA Midwest Champions, Enharmonic Fusion from DeKalb High School
  • The ICHSA Northeast Champions, The Thursdays from Chelmsford High School
  • The ICHSA Northwest Champions, Synergy from the Oregon Children’s Choir
  • The ICHSA Wild Card Champions, Vocal Point from Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau High School
  • The ICHSA Mid-Atlantic Champions, Stay Tuned from Cherry Hill High School East
  • The ICHSA Great Lakes Champions, Ars Nova from The Miami Valley School
  • The ICHSA West Champions, Vocal Rush from Oakland School for the Arts

The first competing group was The A Cappella Group, often abbreviated to TAG. One of the joys of hearing this group at Finals is that, for all the proliferation and evolution of scholastic a cappella groups, they’re a franchise I remember hearing at some of my very first encounters with ICHSA Finals shows a decade ago and its testament to this school community that they’ve continued to create not only great a cappella over the years, but a cappella that has evolved with the times to remain competitive in the contemporary landscape. True to the group’s tradition, it was a large co-ed crew that filled the stage, and one of their strengths remained an ability to engage so many bodies in performance, creating visual spectacles the likes of which few other groups can for sheer coordination of so many individuals toward a common purpose.

I liked TAG’s choice to open with Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” It’s a fun, familiar song with a lot of energy to it that let the group showcase its movement and its capacity to produce a complex sound. The choreography was particularly well chosen in that it was simple enough for no one to look awkward on it, while nonetheless looking impressive for the volume of young men and women doing it in concert. Very nice spotlight moment for the basses late in the song. “The Words” by Christina Perri was particularly strong for its dynamics, ranging from quiet and vulnerable to big and passionate. The visuals worked on this one, too, including starting with all of the group members’ backs to the crowd and only the soloist facing forward to create a sense of isolation. Similarly, the song finished with the closing soloist walking off stage alone, only to come back on as the group’s closing song keyed in, Jess Glynne’s “No Rights No Wrongs.” Very nice charisma from her and the song offered an excellent platform for the group’s beatboxer to show what he had late in the song. While I thought the choreography got a little unwieldy for this song, it was a fair enough choice in the name of leaving it all on the stage, and I liked the choice to get the crowd involved with a clap along on the finish.

Our second competing group was Walk the Line. If I’m not mistaken, this was the first time I’d encountered this particular group. In addition to, of course, featuring a group of very talented singers, I was most struck by their song selection, set structure, and sincerity. Anyone who has followed Varsity Vocals competitions for a period of years will be all too familiar with the traditional structure of happy song-sad song-happy song. I’m not here to bash groups that follow that template. There are often good reasons to do so, but there’s also something to be said for playing with it or, as Walk the Line did, outright inverting it. While a slow song can run the risk of boring an audience, Walk the Line did a stellar job of bookending its set with songs that not only featured slow tempos, but that allowed the group to emote, sing with real emotion, and hook the audience with feelings rather than firepower.

Walk The Line opened with Beyonce’s “Halo.” After an excelent, full-sounding opening, one of the best creative choices here was transitioning between a female and a male soloist to help keep the song fresh as carried on before building to a lovely moment when they doubled up on the chorus. Very clean, refined sound from the group. My only minor criticism here was that, while I loved one very talented group member transitioning from a solo to beatboxing, I found his transition, handing off one microphone to take up another a little visually awkward. With so many bodies on stage, I’d have loved to have that handoff obfuscated for a more fluid presentation. Clearly, a higher level detail for a group performing at this level. Walk the Line continued with Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” which was, above all else, a showcase for a soloist who really kicked in to gear and when she belted and defied most laws of human capability when she actually did hit the song’s signature high notes. Nice buzzing sound on the finish to that one before the group transitioned to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In this day and age when so many a cappella groups seem committed to picking the most obscure deep cuts they can find, there’s something to be said for going with a standard. I liked that the group made this one their own, fading in and out to let a fine soloist operate unaccompanied at times, and coming in to join her and amplify key lyrics. Tremendous swell of sound on the finish for an irresistible end to this excellent closer.

At the top of this review, I’d referenced that a number of groups got political at this year’s ICHSA Finals, and Enharmonic Fusion was the first crew to do so. I was particularly enamored with this choice because this is a group I’ve seen at ICHSA Finals multiple times and it’s especially gratifying to see a group grow and break new ground. I don’t want to take anything away from past incarnations of Enharmonic Fusion, which were all worthy Finals competitors. For me, though, 2017 was the year when the group ascended from one of the best high school a cappella groups in the country to one of the best-focused, most unforgettable, and downright great high school groups I’ve ever experienced live.

Enharmonic Fusion began with a fierce take on “Freedom,” originally by Beyonce. The group’s palpable energy and attitude immediately set the tone for the set. Moreover, a rotating cast of powerhouse soloists immediately showed the group’s depth of not only talent but strong personalities. I loved the way group carried itself on stage, too, completely committed to the moment, never looking self-conscious or “breaking character” with a rogue smile or betraying any nerves. Next up, I was such a fan of the group’s choice to sing “Seriously,” a song written by Sara Bareilles, most notably performed by Leslie Odom Jr. for NPR’s This American Life, and intended to speculate on what was going through Barack Obama’s mind during last fall’s election season. This is the point at which it became clear to me the group was sending the audience a message with its music, carrying forward a theme of civil unrest. A lesser set may have sacrificed musical integrity in favor of over-the-top theatrics to get its message across, and part of what I loved here was that someone oblivious to the meaning behind these song choices would still be fully engaged (and hopefully learn something if they looked up the songs later). Really stunning visuals on this one, too, with the soloist starting out encompassed in a circle of group members, working the stage brilliantly as the song went on, and then finding himself surrounded again on the finish. (Note: there’s a video floating around of the group serenading Bareilles herself with this song on Broadway—I couldn’t figure out a way to embed it, but it’s worth hunting down). In the most unlikely move of all, Enharmonic Fusion closed with its strongest song of all, a fiery take on Andra Day’s “The Light That Never Fails.” While this song had the least overt political overtones, it worked because it followed the other two songs, and communicated a message of hope and overcoming darker times. The group really clicked on all cylinders for this one, sounding great, looking great, and most notably of all providing platform for soloist Grace Klonoski to positively tear roof off the Town Hall with an emotionally vibrant, intense, professional-grade solo. (It’s worth noting that she accomplished much the same a year earlier with a star-making solo on Sia’s “Alive.”) It was a stellar finish to an exceptional set.

The Thursdays were next group. I was a big fan of their black and red attire—mostly traditional aca-wears, with the accent of a couple group members wearing checkered flannel that added a humbler, rougher edge. Not to belabor the point, but everyone wearing the flannel would run the risk of making them look like lumberjacks or a checkerboard-themed ensemble, but just a couple offered an image that I remembered, and remembered positively—no small feat for a night with nine competing groups. When The Thursdays began to perform, it was immediately clear that the Enharmonic Fusion wasn’t the only group trying to deliver a message with its music. The Thursdays set was no less politically charged. Say what you will about the current age and the current state of American culture, I was thrilled to recognize not one anomaly, but a trend of these high school students crafting thoughtful sets, so conscious of the world around them.

The Thursdays kicked off with a spoken word quote Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” which segued into Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” It’s strange to say that a song released over fifty years ago feels uniquely fit to the present time but Dylan was a visionary, his songs largely timeless, and his sense of unrest keenly apropos to our present moment. The group made a lovely choice to rotate soloists on this one, communicating a sense of common experience and common feeling as we all wander a strange landscape. The group moved seamlessly to Ariana Grande’s “Leave Me Lonely,” which featured a particularly sleek solo and very good vocal percussion. From there, the group moved back to Dylan in a move that I felt artfully showed connections between seemingly disparate times, besides lending the set a nice sense of cohesion. The Thursdays wrapped up with “If You’re Out There,” originally by ICCA alum John Legend, and a song inspired by Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Lovely, unaccompanied start on this one, and I loved some of the big visual moments here, like a soloist marching down a row of groupmates. In addition to being a great anthemic closer in and of itself, this song felt especially keenly chosen to for simultaneously remembering an earlier moment in American history—perhaps one of the first this largely post-9/11 generation of high school students would have really been aware of—while also suggesting a message of hope looking forward, whatever that hope might look like to any given individual. This was a very strong, smart set.

Synergy was the final group to go on before intermission. They were the lone all-female group at the show, and perhaps it’s fitting they share a lineage with Divisi—the ICCA barn-burners who inspired Pitch Perfect’s Barden Bellas by breaking the mold for female scholastic a cappella over a decade ago. The group was founded by Divisi co-founder Evynne Hollens, and is currently directed by more recent Divisi alum Megan Lenhardt. Yes, the young women of Synergy have great role models, but that doesn’t take a thing away from their talent, nor their boldness. To oversimplify, over the years I’ve observed a large proportion of all-female groups lean into traditional femininity by embracing a softer sound that their male competition can’t match, or go all out to improve they can “play with the boys” by taking on a harder edge. I loved that this set from Synergy combined elements of strength and vulnerability with a uniquely feminine sensibility—not least of all speaking out on an important social issue—to arrive at a set that was distinctively their own and that so clearly set them apart from any other group that performed at ICHSA Finals this year.

Synergy opened with “The Greatest,” originally by Sia. Killer vocal percussion on this one, and the rap interlude was plainly on point. Above all else, the group demonstrated awesome raw attitude on this song to hook the audience and all but scream Synergy’s relevance. It’s surely no coincidence, too, that this is a song Sia released in support of the LGBT community after the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting. The group’s intensity carried through on Bishop Briggs’s “River,” which opened up beautifully as it moved along, and featured a really shrewdly placed sample of Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River.” Synergy closed with Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens To You,” a song written for The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. While I could see an argument to have really toned down this song to vary the emotional tenor of the set, there was also something pretty special about the group’s unrelenting intensity—perhaps it bespoke the lyrics from “The Greatest” about having stamina. Nice doubling up on the solo to add power on the bridge, before the group arrived at a powerful moment with a group member explicitly citing a statistic that one in four women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. This was that special kind of set that truly challenges an audience, hitting them with powerful music and then ensuring they don’t miss the message by focusing every listener’s attention and imploring them to face an uncomfortable truth. A powerful conclusion to a startling set.

After the break, Vocal Point got things started for the second half. As much I felt that the first half of the show was rich in intensity and raw emotion, there was also a degree to which it felt refreshing to hear a group sing more traditionally beautiful music by this point in the night. Vocal Point fit the bill in that regard, and I particularly appreciated the folksy, almost country identity they espoused their song choices and execution. All of these pieces worked, of course, based on the strength of the group as musicians, featuring tight harmonies and sparkling intonation.

Vocal Point opened with Us the Duo’s “No Matter Where You Are.” I really enjoyed the unique, lovely start to this one with an unaccompanied duo of leads singing together, and harmonizing beautifully. The VP was very good when it keyed in here, and the group implemented some very precise shifts in their dynamics for a stunning opener. They continued the set with “Stone Cold,” originally by Demi Lovato. More good solo work here, and more compelling harmonies. I especially liked the way the group used the space on stage for this one to engage the full audience, and the group combined sound with visuals perfectly on an explosion of sound as the soloist came forward. Vocal Point closed with Carrie Underwood’s “Renegade Runaway,” which helped reinforce the down-home sound the group honed in its first song, while infusing a bit more edge. The VP pulsed on this one and the staging was really tremendous in keeping so many moving parts going at any given time, while it all looked organic to the performance, none of it forced. Nice, full sound on the finish. Again, on a night full of super intense performances, I liked that Vocal Point had its own distinct identity and held true to it, offering the audience a softer sound and an emotionally earnest set.

Stay Tuned was up next. I had the pleasure of catching this group years back at Mid-Atlantic Semifinals and was really pleased to see them make it to the Finals stage. They’re a top-tier a cappella franchise that’s had the misfortune of competing in the same region as The Highlands Voices who had a pretty solid streak going of making it to Finals every year, and whom I’m sure ICHSA hasn’t heard the last from. 2017 was Stay Tuned’s year. I remember the group for its dark sound and theatrics, and was pleased to see that they’d carried much of that sensibility forward in tweaking well-known songs to fit together and deliver an intense, fluid set.

Stay Tuned opened with Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” I really appreciated the group’s patience on slowing this one down, creating even more of a sense of foreboding than the original song and demonstrating excellent intensity. Yes, upbeat numbers can invite an audience into a set, but a song with this intensity all but demands everyone lean in a little closer to watch and to listen. Stay Tuned transitioned between soloists nicely which lent a nice sense of cohesion to the group as one unified identity. My only real knock on this first song was that the drum solo for it is so iconic that it’s the moment everyone’s waiting on. While the drummer for Stay Tuned was clearly talented, he didn’t quite blow the roof of Town Hall the way I would have hoped that moment would to really send this song into the stratosphere. Nonetheless, it was a solid opener. From there, we bot a mashup of “Unthinkable,” originally by Alicia Keys, and Ariana Grande’s “Greedy.” The visual presentation was particularly good on this one—very dynamic, and I particularly loved the moment when group members merged and then walked in three straight lines, all in different directions for a really unique, powerful visual that complemented the sound. The group moved next with Jessie Ware’s “Say You Love Me.” I liked the choice for the group to hit on a more sensitive, vulnerable note to demonstrate their range, and found their dynamics particularly well handled here to really deliver moments with an emotional wallop. There was an especially good moment late in the song with a brief sample of “Falling Slowly,” before the soloist positively owned the finish with an emotionally gripping performance that really connected with the crowd. Finally, wrapped up with Beyonce’s “Freedom.” This song offered another strong visual performance and the three-part solo helped mix up the sound nicely over the course of this closer. In such a long show, it’s vital for a group—especially one that goes on late, but not quite at the end of the competition—to keep that energy up to, and Stay Tuned was nicely up to the task to deliver a raucous, memorable closer.

Ars Nova was the penultimate competing group. I hadn’t previously encountered this group heading into Finals, and it’s such a joy to come across yet another scholastic powerhouse, boasting not only a unique, powerful sound, but like a number of other groups, approaching the show on a mission. Groups can sing pretty much any songs they want going into competition, but having a purpose and a message can make a group stand out, and can make a performance feel like more than just music for music’s sake. Ars Nova communicated a powerful message of empowerment, in particular with a feminist bent.

The first song from Ars Nova’s set was “That’s My Girl,” originally by Fifth Harmony. Really cool effect with the group sound fading in and out on the words, “that’s my girl,” before the group settled into a bit jazzier vibe, anchored by some very strong VP work. The mounting tempo and dynamics read like building confidence, and really fit the vibe of this song. The group did an excellent job on its high harmonies on a fake-out finish before the song truly wrapped up. From there, the group moved to Gallant’s “Weight in Gold.” I loved the attention-grabbing contrast of this number, starting with soft hums, leading to an unaccompanied solo. This piece—another about mounting confidence and self-worth—was a terrific showcase for a star soloist. Very nice, unconventional instrumentation in the background, too. Ars Nova finished with “Freedom.” I personally like “Freedom” a good bit, and I think, in a vacuum, it’s a terrific song to wrap up this set, tying together a feminist theme with an anthemic closer. I felt very poorly for Ars Nova, however, that they were third group to perform it that night, not to mention the added disadvantages the group directly before them wrapped up with this same song, and Ars Nova had one of the least desirable positions in the show in terms of crowd fatigue—exacerbating the repetition of the song to make it feel like we’d heard it four or five times already. All of these effects really undercut the fact that this cover of the song more than held its own with a brilliant, ripping solo and wonderful control of dynamics to keep the song artful and fully engaging. I particularly appreciated, too, that the group left the stage not smiling and waving, but rather staying in character, fiery, if not downright angry to really drive home the impact of the song and the overarching set.

It’s an unenviable position to close a nine-group competition, performing in front of a restless crowd. If there’s any scholastic group in the world capable of taking on that position, it’s Vocal Rush. In fact, I’d argue that, for the many in attendance who were hardcore a cappella fans and had been to Finals before, the anticipation of seeing the preeminent super group of high school a cappella transcended and overcame any risk of fatigue or the audience’s attention wandering. In a field so deep, with so much talent, there’s no such thing as a foregone conclusion about who will win a competition, but there’s no mistaking Vocal Rush was the group to beat going in, and there’s no question that they lived up to their billing. This was a night full of socially conscious a cappella, and that’s a tack that Vocal Rush hasn’t shied away from in the past, including the most recent of their previous three championship runs, for which the iconic finish to their set saw them silently display the message, “Black Lives Matter.” Vocal Rush was far from the only group with a powerful message in 2017, and yet they still remained unique and special in how and what they delivered.

Vocal Rush opened in a tight, elongated arc, singing a soft high harmony, accented with bird-chirping sound effects, before the first soloist stepped forward for a haunting, almost ethereal take on Bjork’s “All is Full of Love.” The song choice was so shrewd—striking that sweet spot as one that’s not entirely unfamiliar to a mainstream audience, but also not over-exposed; not truly old school but also out for over fifteen years. Moreover, it’s a thematically compelling song citing opportunities to find love around us, and the group did a masterful job of translating the off-kilter style of Bjork music while making the sound their own. Killer VP, and very nice solo and backing vocals over the course of this one, and I really dug the spoken word insertion toward the end, offering a quote about love setting us free, from Maya Angelou. The group hummed into Laura Mvula’s “People” for their second song. The precision of sound on this one was unreal, as Vocal Rush continues to sound less like a scholastic a cappella group, more like a professional band that happens to be composed of high schoolers. I loved their staging choices—not so much choreographing as manipulating space and creating organic visuals to accent their sound. Another spoken word insertion, this time from Clarissa Pinkola Estes, lent a sense of continuity to the set, carrying a similar message regarding the necessity to both “be fierce and to show mercy” and what a great gift it is “calm the tumult.” These spoken word pieces likely wouldn’t work for every group, but the control and power of Vocal Rush allowed them to weave in these pieces so they sounded effortless and added a wonderful dramatic effect, not to mention compelling the audience to listen and to think more carefully. The set closed on Eryn Allen Kane’s “Have Mercy”—a song of personal reflection, sorrow, and trying to make sense of big, troubled word around us. It was an emotionally gripping performance that featured a sensational solo. The movement for this song was a simple groove that never risked distracting from or over-complicating the music, but rather letting it be for a strong, unique closer.

While the judges left to deliberate Vocalight entertained the crowd. It’s hard to think of a group that would be better suited for this role, given the quintet consists of alumni and current members of Forte—ICHSA mainstays who won the championship last year. They gave a skilled, professional performance that was both impressive and refreshingly lighter and more mainstream than a lot of the competition had been. Their performance included covers of Allen Stone’s “Freedom,” “My Church,” “Rise Up,” “Shape of You,” “Unsteady,” “Rise,” and “Let Me Love You.” With just five members, the group came across as all stars, all mature performers with great stage presence. The solo work was fantastic and Justin Crichfield’s vocal percussion in particular stood out. Given how young these singers are, it will be interesting to see how they grow and what they might accomplish in the years ahead.

As Vocalight performed, I made my picks for the night. Placement was particularly difficult. Out of nine groups, I felt there were seven who would have seemed like totally fair picks for third place, ranging from TAG’s infectious energy to Walk The Line’s charisma and bold set choices to Stay Tuned’s ominous sound coupled with emotional vulnerability. I felt Synergy was worthy of recognition for sheer sustained intensity, not to mention their important message; I was really impressed with the journey that The Thursdays took us on and the way they blended music from different generations to deliver a set tailor fit to today. In the end, I had Ars Nova, for their unique sound and fierce finish, just edging out Vocal Point for their clean harmonies and musical precision for the third place spot.

Enharmonic Fusion earned a clear second place finish in my book, based on sensational soloists and the power of their own message. And then there was Vocal Rush. In a show like this, it’s a shame we can only declare one champion, but competition being what it is, there’s no denying Vocal Rush the crown. Faculty director Lisa Forkish is one of the great a cappella minds of our time and has clearly been instrumental in building a perennial scholastic a cappella powerhouse. Take nothing away from the students, though, who clearly worked their butts off to plan, practice, and finally execute this masterpiece of a professional-grade set.

Before the results came out, the ICHSA groups followed suit with ICCA in all the groups coming together to perform a song under the guidance of aca-virtuoso Ben Bram—“Sing A Song”—featuring  soloists from each of the Finalist groups.

I had minor quibbles, but no major disagreements on superlatives for the night or the final placements. Vocal Rush rightly walked out with the high school Gooding Cup and finished a stellar night with of a cappella with their encore, a cover of Andra Day’s “Rise Up.”

Thank you for reading and be sure to check back in a few days for our review of the 2017 ICCA Finals. On an additional note, The A Cappella Blog is excited to announce a new campaign. We’ve partnered with Teespring to create a high-quality, limited edition A Cappella Blog t-shirt that we’re making available for sale to our site’s supporters. All proceeds from this campaign will go toward the costs of running The A Cappella Blog, including web hosting and subsidizing the cost for travel and tickets to cover live events. The t-shirts will only be produced if we meet a minimum order count, so we really appreciate your support in buying a shirt and helping us spread the word about this project over the next three weeks.

Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night:

Overall Placement:

  1. Vocal Rush
  2. Enharmonic Fusion
  3. Ars Nova

Outstanding Soloist:

  1. Enharmonic Fusion for “The Light That Never Fails”
  2. Vocal Rush for “Have Mercy”
  3. The Thursdays for “Leave Me Lonely”

Outstanding Arrangement:

  1. Vocal Rush for the full set
  2. Synergy for the full set
  3. Vocal Point for the full set

Outstanding Visual Presentation:

  1. Enharmonic Fusion for the full set
  2. Stay Tuned for the full set
  3. Synergy for the full set

Outstanding Vocal Percussion:

  1. Vocal Point for the full set
  2. Synergy for the full set
  3. Vocal Rush for the full set

The Official ICHSA Results:

Overall Placement:

  1. Vocal Rush
  2. Enharmonic Fusion
  3. Vocal Point

Outstanding Soloist: Enharmonic Fusion for “The Light That Never Fails”

Outstanding Arrangement: Synergy for “'Til It Happens To You”

Outstanding Choreography: Enharmonic Fusion for the full set

Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Vocal Point for the entire set

Ireland’s A Cappella Competition

Event Reviews

This post was written by Leanne Fitzgerald, Mezzo Soprano with Ardú Vocal Ensemble, hosts of Ireland’s A Cappella Competition 2016.

A cappella music is one of the fastest growing forms of music performance in the world and this August the first A Cappella Competition was held in Dublin, Ireland.

Ireland’s A Cappella Competition is the brainchild of Ardú Vocal Ensemble, a mixed a cappella group of six singers from across Ireland and the UK. Since 2014, Ardú have pioneered the genre of a cappella music in Ireland with performances across the island and even represented Ireland abroad at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, London International A Cappella Choir Competition and the London A Cappella Festival 2016.

On Wednesday, 24 August, seven Irish ensembles competed for the winning title of Ireland’s A Cappella Competition which included a customized trophy along with a free recording session at Windmill Lane Recording Studios, recorded and produced by Dublin Studio Hub.

Opening the competition with an uplifting performance were Beating Time, a ladies barbershop chorus based in County Wicklow who specialize in close harmony four­-part a cappella singing.

Following them were The Ramparts Chamber Choir, a new, young men’s barbershop group, directed by Ruaidhrí Ó Dálaigh, who won the hearts of the audience (and the audience prize) with their rendition of John Michael Montgomery’s “Sold.”

The youngest contestants on the night by a long ­shot were The Decibelles. This promising four­piece female ensemble from Dublin gave a very charming and emotive performance of the Mumford and Sons tune “Timshel.”

The Kelly Family Vocal Ensemble is made up of Frank, Rebecca, Orlaith, Emily and John Kelly, to create a unique blend of voices because of their family relationship which has been honed since the young people were children. They entertained the audience on the night with one of the best known songs in the a cappella repertoire, “The Java Jive.”

Female a cappella group Síonra sang their own very fluid arrangement of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and stunned the judges with a particularly beautiful performance of “August” by Michael McGlynn.

The Apple Blossoms are a bright and bubbly girl trio and finished the competition to rapturous applause. They performed an impressive medley, arranged by the ensemble themselves to include snippets from Fleur East’s “Sax” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” to ultimately win the competition, in addition to earning joint Best Performance honors with The Ramparts Chamber Choir.

Other highlights from the night were a guest performance by adjudicators The Key Notes and an impromptu a cappella workshop by Ardú which culminated in a mass performance of Lorde’s “Royals” with all competing ensembles and the entire audience!

Ireland has a multitude of talented singers along with brilliant composers and arrangers. The audience for modern a cappella is primed, ready and waiting and events like Ireland’s A Cappella Competition could be the beginnings of a national platform for modern a cappella singing in the future.

ICCA Finals 2016

Event Reviews

On Saturday, April 30, The Beacon Theatre in New York City played host to the 2016 ICCA Finals. Before the review, a quick summary of the show.

The Competitors:
The ICCA United Kingdom Champions, The Imperial College London Techtonics
The ICCA Midwest Champions, Washington University of St. Louis Mosaic Whispers
The ICCA Wild Card Champions, Florida State University All-Night Yahtzee
The ICCA Northwest Champions, University of Oregon Divisi
The ICCA Mid-Atlantic Champions, University of Maryland Faux Paz
The ICCA Southwest Champions, Chapman University SoundCheck
The ICCA South Champions, University of Central Florida Voicebox
The ICCA Northeast Champions, The Boston University BosTones
The ICCA Great Lakes Champions, The Oakland University Gold Vibrations
The ICCA Central Champions, The Carnegie Mellon University Originals

Guest Groups: 
Centerville High School Forte
Port Washington High School Limited Edition
Cypress Lake High School The A Cappella Group

Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching

Judges:
Bill Hare
Ed Boyer
Edward Chung
India Carney
Julia Hoffman

Varsity Vocals Executive Producer Amanda Newman opened the night and introduced emcees Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching whose infectious energy, sense of humor, and musical chops went a long way toward adding connective tissue to the evening’s performances and keeping a lengthy night of a cappella fun and engaging.

The Techtonics opened the show. They started with just four members at the front of the stage, before the rest of the guys marched on from opposite sides behind them for a power choral lead into Queen’s “Bicycle Race.” You can’t knock the mechanics here—impeccable—and I certainly admired the creative ambition as the guys not only performed this song straight through but willfully took detours based on the lyrics, perhaps most prominently breaking to riff on the Star Wars theme upon the Star Wars lyric. The performance was chock full of very crisp and elaborate choreography and it all culminated in the guys assuming carefully planned roles, hunched, leaning and stretching to form the shape of a bicycle for the soloist to sit astride and peddle on on the finish. I can certainly understand the drive to assemble a song like this—throwing everything you’ve got at the crowd from the word go, and the guys certainly pulled it off nicely, but for my tastes the tangents felt as though they were going a bit far, and arrived more of a “kitchen sink,” do anything you can think of performance than a cohesive one, and I thought they may have been better served to have gone a bit simpler, despite a wildly entertaining opening number.

The Techtonics continued with Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down.” Really nice stripped down, elegant sound behind a masterful solo on this one, and I was pretty awed when they doubled upon the solo—two guys who gelled immediately and emoted fantastically on their parts. This was such a lovely contrast to the opener, and I’ll concede that the superficially simple aspects of it may have come across all the more subtle and reserved in juxtaposition to “Bicycle Race.” Beautiful transition as the group fell out and the leads sang unaccompanied to cap one of the most emotionally gripping and all-around impressive performances of the night.

To close out the set, The Techtonics delivered a high octane, and largely straight forward take on “I Saw Her Standing There” by The Beatles. There is a particular charm to hearing British men cover The Beatles, and the showmanship was off the charts for this number. Just when I feared that the performance might be a little too true to its source material to justify itself at a competition on this level in 2016, the guys worked their way into a slowed down groove on the song—capitalizing on the sexual energy inherent in it and reinterpreting it in a more modern style that was really excellent to finish up the set quite nicely, and immediately establish a high bar for the night’s competition.

Next up, we heard from Mosaic Whispers. The co-ed crew led off with Santana’s Smooth,” featuring a vocal percussion lead in. The group worked in some compelling variation on the tempo throughout the song. They made an interesting little tangent riffing off of the “on the radio” lyric, inserting the sound of static en route to a weather report, forecasting that it would be hot. This was a nice touch for such a sensual first song, which led into a sample of Justin Timberlake’s “Senorita.” While the choreography was a little excessive on this one for my tastes, the overall mood that the group created was on point, projecting an aura of confidence and a slick identity to make their debut on the Finals stage.

The group continued with “Elastic Heart” by Sia. This was a technically clean performance and I appreciated some of the creative choices here, leaving the excellent soloist room to operate unaccompanied at key moments before the group sound worked its way back in, and nailing the heart-beat percussion the song calls here. My main knock here has less to do with anything the group did wrong on stage than song selection—this is a song that has become very played in competitive a cappella and I wasn’t sure the group did quite enough to differentiate its presentation here to justify the played song choice.

Mosaic Whispers continued with Sohn’s “Tremors.” The staccato backing sound here was really on point, though I’d argue that the vocals were a little too loud on this one, verging on shout-y. To be fair, at Finals, I’d much rather a group go for the jugular than play it conservatively, so I appreciated the energy and confidence of this performance, but I probably would have advocated for them to have scaled back a bit on this one.

The set concluded with Marc Ronsons’s “Uptown Funk.” While some of my criticism about song choice certainly bleeds over to this, probably the most covered song in all of collegiate a cappella these past two years. That said, there’s a reason this song has grown so popular, and part of it is it being such an infectious, showy number, and the group did take full advantage of those factors with a star female soloist and very fun take on the choreography. The group worked in a fun variation on the lyrics, turning “Jackson, Mississippi” to “St. Louis, Missouri”—a nice way of representing their identity, in particular on a national stage. The song bled into Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” for a fun ending that nicely created a party atmosphere to close the group’s performance.

All-Night Yahtzee was up next. I was excited to hear what this group would bring to the stage after several years out of the Finals picture, and after going under the Sing It On microscope for the 2014-2015 school year, and particularly establishing their philosophy on that show of wanting to bring high energy, in-your-face music the whole set long—a novel approach that I was interested to hear  play out on stage, and to see how the concept might have evolved since last year. They opened with Shawn Mendes’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Terrific energy, particularly from the soloists, and a killer electric sound in the backing vocals here with choreo to match. As a statement opener to immediately draw attention to this group, I don’t expect that ANY could have done much better than this.

The set carried on with “Say (All I Need)” by OneRepublic. The sound was clean again, and I found myself particularly wowed by the <i>haunting</i> echo and electric guitar solo effects that the group worked in, really bringing this ballad to life and making it their own. The group transitioned into JoJo’s “Say Love.” It was the intensity that really sold this one, elevating it from forgettable ballad to a truly intense performance that kept up the momentum leading into ANY’s closer.

Last up, “Levels” by Nick Jonas. Nice showmanship all around here, and the vocal percussion in particular was <i>on fire</i> for this song. This performance gave way to “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child. While I could see this coming across as a non-sequitur in terms of song style and era, I actually really appreciate the extreme that ANY pushed its set to at this moment. “Bootylicious”—particularly when performed in the year 2016—is wildly over the top. Sexualized. Full of bravado. In short, it’s the musical equivalent of ANY’s identity as a group, in the best possible way, and a totally fitting topper to this explosive set.

Divisi was next on stage. The group that Pitch Perfect’s Barden Bellas were essentially patterned off of. The franchise that, by many accounts, got robbed of a championship in 2005, and was making just its second appearance on the Finals stage since that time. True to form, the group was the only all-female ensemble to compete at Finals this year. They opened up with Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl.” I love their interpretation of this song, taking a loud, fast song and reimagining it as a slowed down, sensual jam with jazzy overtones. While the tempo picked up in the late stages, it remained a classy, slick performance that established a unique identity of this year’s incarnation of this group.

The group followed up with “Manhattan” by Sara Bareilles. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this group perform at every stage of this tournament from quarterfinals to semifinals to ICCA Finals, and watching the group arrange bodies in the shape of the Manhattan skyline and key in on this song very much felt like an ascension—the moment this song was destined for as the group reached its pinnacle. Once again, the emotion was rich and the mechanics were sterling. My lone knock on this performance was that the tripling up to compound the solo—which, if memory serves was new to this round of competition—while well executed, pared away some of the sense of emotional intimacy of this song that is, itself, about being alone. It’s a relatively minor quibble, but was the piece of this particular performance that didn’t quite measure up to my previous encounters with this set.

Divisi wrapped up with Jetta’s “Start A Riot.” This is the song, more than any other in Divisi’s set, that I had the feeling I’d seen grow and develop in a positive direction across each layer of the tournament. The first time, the closer felt a little small on a set that had been pretty subdued up to that point, the second time it rightly came across as their biggest number, and in New York I felt it arrived as precisely the barnburner it needed to be tie up this set on a conclusive note and demonstrate the full range of what this year’s Divisi is capable. It was powerful closer that, for me, vaulted this group toward the top of the night’s competitors up to that point.

Faux Paz was up next. This was a group that I had the opportunity to see develop over the course of my six-plus years in Maryland, progressing from the type of group that threatened to place at quarterfinals, to semifinal mainstays, to knocking on the door of ICCA Finals. 2016 marked their second consecutive trip all the way to Finals and I was eager to hear what they’d have in store this year. I’d previously described their vibe as “horror a cappella,” for their dark, almost sinister aural aesthetic, paired a stage presentation that leans toward powerful, sudden movement to match it (or the occasional zombie lurch). I felt this description very much held up for Faux Paz this year, starting with a largely creepy take on Panic! At the Disco’s “Emperor’s New Clothes.” This song thrived on charismatic solo work and a haunting undercurrent of the “finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers” lyrics in the background. This was an arresting, off beat start to the set.

Next up, “Where R U Now” by Skrillex and Diplo. It’s difficult to call the transition between these songs truly seamless, but I appreciated the gesture toward that with the VP carrying on between songs, over the applause to carry the group straight into this next song. The rhythm section really started to shine here, with an ominous hum killer drums. The overarching sound was so distinctive at this point in the set, really setting Faux Paz apart from any of the groups we had heard up to this point—not just great but representing a unique, dark aesthetic.

Faux Paz moved on to “Mad World” by Tears for Fears. They started this one with the group in a circle and humming, their soloist at the center. The circle dispersed, the group spanned the stage, and the perc keyed in again in an excellent moment of great visuals really complementing a great sonic moment. I had mixed feelings on this song choice. On one hand, it doesn’t feel like as a fresh of a selection as you’d expect from a group that had, up to this point, really sounded on the cutting edge, making bold choices like few other groups. On the other hand, the fundamentally creepy sound of this song fit the group’s identity perfectly. Very good solo, very good sound all around again.

The set came to a close Florence and the Machine’s “The Dog Days Are Over.” I liked the slowed down tempo the group espoused for the first verse of this song—a bridge between Faux Paz’s sound throughout the set (and particularly “Mad World”), and initially eschewing the optimism the original represents. To use a somewhat belabored metaphor, the opening verse of this one was like a car struggling to make headway through highway traffic. The chorus was when the soloist, passed cleared past the point of the accident that had slowed down the movement of cars and hit the open road, flooring the accelerator and go-go-going. I’m not so much describing the tempo as the point at which this soloist was able to open up and really show off her pipes—a perfect combination of power, volume, and control for quite arguably the very best solo in a night full of great ones. It felt as though the unbridled optimism of this song finally forced its way through, to lend the overarching Faux Paz set a sense of trajectory and forward motion, culminating in this epic feel-good performance. ICCA Finals always feature truly tremendous sets, but out of them, there tend to be one or two that transcend to a whole other level, and deliver the kind of iconic performances that year will be remembered for. For me, Faux Paz, and particularly their closer, represented that first transcendent moment of the 2016 Finals.

SoundCheck was up next, a co-ed group dressed in red and black. I may be showing my age, but from the opening instrumentation, I could have sworn the group was singing Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” but, no—once again—I’d placed myself in the wrong era, and instead we were getting Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries.” The group constructed some interesting formations, including lining the back of the stage before stepping forward into a triangle with the soloist at the point closest to the audience. The group wove in Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” which, on one hand I liked for its tonal similarities as songs ostensibly about proving oneself in the face of rivals—a fitting enough theme for the competition setting—but that I wasn’t sure were connected enough to quite jive for me. Nice rap on the Kendrick Lamar part here to help drive the intensity a little further on a good, high energy opener.

Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” was up next. Well executed soft, high harmony on the start here. Good, clean solo work for this song, including a very nice falsetto. Structurally, this was a nice contrast to the group’s opener for showing a really different side of the group and casting a spotlight on their musical chops over pyrotechnics, though this song felt a little long to me, and I thought they probably could have afforded to clip a verse to keep things moving.

Last up, Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man.” Nice attitude and power from the final soloist here, which I’d argue was exactly what this set needed to make a statement and a lasting impression in wrapping up. While this was a perfectly sound number, and the right song selection, I never felt as though it quite hit that next gear to elevate it to barnburner status. Mind you, SoundCheck is clearly very, very good, but at this level of competition, I’d love to have heard them take a bigger chance here for a bit more distinctive closing number to round out their strong set.

Voicebox was the first group out after intermission. I’ve said it before, and alluded to it multiple times within this very review, but one of the key elements I look for in a Finals set is not just very good sound but choices distinctive to that group’s identity, strengths, and the story they’re choosing to tell us. As such, I really liked the choice to lead off with “Come Little Children” from Hocus Pocus--a song pick unlike anything else we’d hurt in the competition thus far, and that quickly established a sense of magic and drawing the listeners into the story of this set. The group transitioned into a bit of “Lightning” by Little Mix, featuring a nice moment of three soloists converging on the “electricity” lyric, at which point the group whirred to create a nice sense of kinetic energy. Cool chanting sound on the finish of this strange and appealing opener.

The group continued with Panic! At the Disco’s “This Is Gospel” Nice soft opening on this one, which turned out to foreshadow the performance to follow, including the brilliant choice to <i>not</i> explode on the “if you love me let me go” lyric, but rather render a soft, broken interpretation of it, which is arguably truer to the spirit of the lyrics, and nicely drew in the audience only to offer an artful surprise, in addition to building tension so that when the group <i>did</i> explode on that lyric late in the song, it felt like a payoff to the song leading up to that point. Nice execution on the slowed down heartbeat percussion at the end of the song.

To close out the set, Voicebox continued the Panic! At the Disco theme with “Victorious.” While it’s a little on the nose, I can appreciate this song selection as, if nothing else, a psych up song for a group en route to Finals. Very good solo work here, and in particular a terrific moment as the group turned to the crowd for a big sound before falling out to let the soloist operate unaccompanied. This was a strong creative finish for a solid set.

The BosTones were up next—a co-ed group out of the powerhouse Northeast region that I don’t believe I’d encountered in person before. They opened with Beyonce’s “Déjà Vu.” After a choral opening, the soloist took a confident stroll from the side of the stage to front and center and proceeded to deliver a very good power solo with a nicely dynamic visual presentation behind her that focused on movement across the stage over static choreo, which was great for keeping the audience visually engaged with the performance.

Next up, "I Miss You" by Adele. Excellent power solo work on this one and the group did a nice job of executing within a tight cluster in the early going before sprawling into an arc on the first chorus and later forming a circle around her, shrewdly having the people in front of her kneel down so as to not block the audience’s sightlines—the kind of detail that might seem obvious, but that plenty of groups overlook in plotting their staging. Nice fall out moment on the finish for the soloist to get the last word alone.

The group continued with “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” by Lauryn Hill. Again, the group formed a circle, and everyone kneeled around the lead, before standing, only for her to walk out from the middle to the front of the stage. Nice echoing effect from the background as this one built into an emotionally intense, gripping performance.

The BosTones wrapped up on “If I Go” by Ella Eyre. The soloist started out unaccompanied here before the VP keyed in, and the group launched into motion as the background vocals entered. Really excellent vocal percussion work on this one to drive the beat and I appreciated the use of sways and reaching motions from the group, in a tight bundle at center stage, to consistently accent what was going on musically. Nice big sound on the finish as the group lined the front of the stage, then fell out for the soloist to get the final word and strong finisher to a strong set.

The Gold Vibrations were the penultimate group. Another co-ed group, wearing black and gold. They opened with “Expensive” by Tori Kelly. Nice, bold opening here with a female lead who really commanded the stage early on. I liked the ways in which the group tended to foreground the women in the group early on with the guys clearly in a backing role—totally appropriate for the song choice, all the way up to a well-executed rap interlude.

The group used its positioning at the end of “Expensive” to transition directly into Tove Lo’s “Talking Body.” I really liked the slowed down, stripped down, creative take on this song, particularly in contrast to the preceding number, and allowed for some really nice harmonic moments as a female lead joined the original male soloist, and particularly on the choruses.

Once again, The Gold Vibrations took advantage of the staging from their preceding song to set up the next number, this time “Cracked” by Pentatonix. In an art form still dominated by covers, there’s something particularly refreshing about hearing an ICCA Finalist group cover another a cappella group’s original, and perform it at this exceptional level. Killer bass sound and tremendous VP work here. Dark, slick transition into “Chains” by Nick Jonas. This one really hit on the next level as “Cracked” and “Chains” mashed together. There was a fierce repetition of the “fire” lyric with opposing groups of guys on either side of the stage and women from the group clustered in the middle. The solos opened wide toward the end to create an excellent dramatic presentation to close this set.

Finally, we arrived at the last competing group for the evening, The Originals. I’d encountered this group quite a few years back (a photo of them from around 2008 actually featured prominently in some early ACB promotional materials) and I was excited to see what the group was up to since that time. I remembered them as wearing white shirts and jeans—a group that reveled in being dorky. It was immediately apparent that this version of the group had evolved, clad in black blazers over black button ups and jeans and immediately establishing a slick, almost robotic sound on “Levels” by Nick Jonas. When you’re singing a Nick Jonas song, it’s easy to take it to a cheesy place, and I appreciated the choice to keep this one serious—first emphasizing the electronic qualities of the sound through both instrumentation and movements, then playing it straight as a cool, sexy song, with a strong lead on it.

They continued with a slowed down, haunting interlude of “Ring Around The Rosey” before returning to that electronic, almost industrial sound that had marked the intro to “Levels,” and then keying into a slowed down, creepy take on “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears for Fears, that  I read as wildly divergent from the feel-good 1980s jam, but rather a song that felt reimagined as a meditation on a dark, dystopian exploration of world domination by a malevolent force, featuring some wonderfully eerie body manipulation on the part of the soloist, leaning backward, standing at the center of sagging group members’ bodies, and finally winding up seated on a throne made of other group members’ bodies. Songs this aggressively reinvented are a huge gamble, and I felt that this one paid off in truly magnificent fashion for The Originals—possibly the single most memorable song of the evening.

The Originals closed with “Stone Cold” by Demi Lovato. If we’re going to follow a narrative arc of this set, I’d interpret the first song as occurring in the world we know—perhaps hedging toward a dystopia or apocalypse, but still ostensibly familiar; the second song showed the new regime in power; and after this vibe of humanity’s collapse, here we arrived at a profoundly personal, emotionally rich, soulful closing number, that represented the everyman still making do within this changed world. The performance spotlighted a truly spectacular and sensitive solo. While there were still hints of the more industrial sound and more robotic movement in the background, this all served to underscore the lead’s vulnerability on this touching, off-beat closer. Truly remarkable stuff, and an unforgettable performance.

During this time, I made my picks for the night, and boy, was it challenging! There was the irresistible heat of Mosaic Whispers, the infectious energy of SoundCheck, the attitude and thoughtful transitions of The Gold Vibrations, and the distinctive personality of Voicebox to take into consideration—each of these groups were engaging, entertaining, easily worthy of a spot at Finals, and easily worth considering for placement.

When pressed to make my pick for third place, I narrowed things down to a choice few. The BosTones’ polish and imagination made them an attractive pick for sure. The boundless energy and unyielding vision of creating a party on stage made All-Night Yahtzee serious contenders. The Techtonics were world-class entertainers, and their take on “Lay Me Down,” in particular, was simply stunning. Divisi awed me with their patience, raw emotion, and the sense of emotional build in their set that arrived at an explosive finish. In the end, I had Divisi just edging out The Techtonics for third.

When it came to picking a winner, I had two groups in close contention. Faux Paz demonstrated a truly unique sound this year, rooted in a sensational bass sound and vocal percussionist, besides featuring a truly star-making solo on “Dog Days Are Over,” made all the better with the slowed down, reimagined backing sound. And then there were The Originals, who wove an unparalleled narrative arc, threatened to set the theatre on fire with their brilliant interpretation of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” and then went <i>so</i> raw and intense on their unconventional closer, “Stone Cold.” These were the two sets that I felt like we’d all still be talking about for years to come, and so the two sets I felt had to be ranked number one and number two for the night. In the end, I went with The Originals—a group that’s mechanics were tight, that looked sensational, and that assembled not only the most memorable narrative of the 2016 ICCA tournament, but one of the top few, truly elite narratives I’ve ever experienced across twelve minutes of a cappella.

In the end, the judges had Faux Paz at number three, The Originals at number two, and The Techtonics winning the night. While I didn’t agree, I can certainly respect that the judges’ technical knowledge and ear each tend to supersede my own. I was heartened to see the final scores roll out after the show and observe that The Techtonics had only won by a margin of twelve points, not to mention that Faux Paz was only twenty points further behind. For fuller context there, The Techtonics had one their semifinal by forty-five points; The Originals won theirs by seventy, and Faux Paz bested the top runners up in the Mid-Atlantic by thirty-nine. Long story short, like last year, Finals was quite close.

And while I hadn’t crowned The Techtonics the winners myself, I won’t deny that they’re a worthy addition to the list of world champions, and it was a particularly satisfying end to this competition season to see how genuinely excited these guys were to win the UK’s first ICCA Championship, and to see the guys engage in a wonderfully raucous encore performance of Labrinth’s “Earthquake.”

That's a wrap for our coverage of the 2016 ICHSA and ICCA seasons. We'd like to offer our congratulations and thanks to all of the competing groups, and to all of the Varsity Vocals production staff, including Amanda Newman, David Rabizadeh, Andrea Poole, Sara Yood, and so many others. Kudos, too, to Liquid 5th for the expert sound work at this year's Finals shows.

Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night:

Overall Placement:
1. The Originals
2. Faux Paz
3. Divisi

Outstanding Soloist:
1. Faux Paz for “Dog Days Are Over” and The Originals for “Stone Cold”
3. Divisi for “Start A Riot” 

Outstanding Arrangement:
1. The Techtonics for “Lay Me Down”
2. Voicebox for “This Is Gospel”
3. Divisi for “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”

Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. The Techtonics
2. The Originals
3. Divisi

Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Faux Paz for the full set
2. The Originals for the full set
3. All-Night Yahtzee for the full set

The Official ICCA Results

Overall Placement:
1. The Techtonics
2. The Originals
3. Faux Paz

Outstanding Soloist: Faux Paz for “Dog Days Are Over” and The Originals for “Stone Cold”

Outstanding Arrangement: Voicebox for the full set

Outstanding Choreography: The Originals for the full set

Outstanding Vocal Percussion: The Originals for the full set

Event Review: ICHSA Finals 2016

Event Reviews

On Friday, April 29, Town Hall in New York City played host to the 2016 ICHSA Finals. Before the review, a quick summary of the show.

The Competitors:
The ICHSA Midwest Champions, Centerville High School Forte
The ICHSA Southeast Champions, The Cypress Lake Center for the Arts A Cappella Group
ICHSA Wild Card Champions DeKalb high School Enharmonic Fusion
The ICHSA West Champions, Cheyenne Mountain High School Crimson
The ICHSA Northeast Champions, The Masters School Dobbs 16
The ICHSA Mid-Atlantic Champions, The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices
The ICHSA Northwest Champions, West Albany High School Rhythmix
The ICHSA South Champions, White Station High School Key of She
ICHSA Wild Card Champions, Port Washington High School Limited Edition
The ICHSA Southwest Champions, MacAurthur High School PFC

Guest Group: VXN

Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching

Judges:
Bill Hare
Ed Boyer
India Carney
Julia Hoffman
Sean Patrick Riley

After VXN opened the night with a slick performance, ICHSA Director Andrea Poole made her announcements, and emcees Cooper Kitching and Courtney Jensen warmed up the crowd. This was the entertaining transcontinental duo’s return to Finals weekend after presiding over the ICCA Finals last year, and I particularly appreciate that each of them has the extra credibility of having competed as ICCA Finalists, besides working behind the scenes with Varsity Vocals in recent years.

Forte was the first competing group. Forte has, in large part, established its name on recorded a cappella excellence, including multiple celebrated albums that have consisted entirely of original music. That’s not to diminish the group’s live performance credentials, though. They’ve opened for the Sing-Off tour. And no, this was not their first visit to ICHSA Finals—a consistent contender and top runner up when they’ve competed over the last five years. For the 2016 Finals, the co-ed crew took the stage in black and purple threads and kicked off their set with “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked" by Cage The Elephant. First and foremost, this performance featured scintillating solo work—not just a vocally adept lead, or one that demonstrated good stage presence, but a charismatic, <i>performed</i> solo that was irresistible to the audience—almost to the point that you could easily miss the big, full sound behind him. But make no mistake about it, Forte was firing on all cylinders for this performance, boasting intricate and exceptionally well-executed backing vocals, not to mention a strong visual show. As I tend to write at this time of year, groups legitimately hoping to win a championship need to look at their sets as having ten minutes to make their case they are the greatest high school a cappella group singing in the world today. This was a tremendous opener that clicked all around to immediately establish Forte as contenders.

The set continued with JoJo’s "Say Love," a nice, emotionally resonant contrast to the first song, sold with great sincerity from the not only the soloist, but the rest of the group—paying attention to the little things and always emoting on stage.  The backing sound swelled toward the end of the second verse, and this was where Forte really had the chance to shine—growing louder, evoking feelings, but keeping their mechanics pristine throughout. The best groups take you on the type of emotional ride that allows you to forget you’re watching a staged performance, and that’s exactly the confluence of creative plotting and what I’m sure was <i>hours upon hours</i> drilling this music in the rehearsal room that we saw here, to allow for such challenging, clean vocals to come across as afterthoughts to the more theatrical elements of the big finish. In the final stages of the song, parts fell away to pave the road for a six-woman union at the end.

Forte closed with "Barton Hollow" by The Civil Wars. This is a song that’s been covered pretty exhaustively in a cappella circles these past few years, and so regular readers will probably foresee that I’d be hesitant about bringing it to this level of competition. The corollary to that hesitation is that if you can make an over-exposed song truly your own—recreating it based around your own vision and strengths, it has the potential to let a group a shine not in spite of, but because the audience can compare it to less unique interpretations. The members of Forte fetched stools from off stage and staggered themselves across the performance space before beginning on a slowed down, deconstructed riff on the “if I die before I wake” lyrics, before powering their way into the first verse. The group gave me goosebumps at that moment, and just kept going, including showing their patience in slowing way, way down on the first chorus, and introducing an artful scream-like sound in the background to further push the drama of the piece, and further make it their own. The song finished with the duel soloists facing off for a wonderfully intense moment. Competitive a cappella sets—at any level, let alone high school—don’t get much more impressive than this. Forte had set the bar sky high to open the show.

Next up, The A Cappella Group (TAG). Like Forte, this group is no stranger to the world’s stage, having appeared at ICHSA Finals before and earned accolades for their own recording efforts. One of the pieces to TAG’s identity that has continued throughout the years is the sheer size of the group—I don’t think I’ve ever seen them perform with fewer than twenty bodies on stage, which opens up tremendous possibilities when it comes to complex staging, not to mention delivering a big sound. It’s also a testament to this group’s preparation that they can corral that many voices and people to deliver a cohesive performance. For this show, the group took the stage in black and white garb, and opened with a mashup of Karmin’s “I Want It All” and “How Deep Is Your Love by Calvin Harris & Disciples. Really tremendous female lead on this one, and I appreciated how seamlessly the group wove these songs together. The choreography was on point to communicate the sensation of a full-blown musical theater production, and I really enjoyed the way the group broke down the sound in the final movements.

TAG continued with Rihanna’s "Stay." Good, soft opening here, and great patience and control from the soloist. This was the first point in the set when I felt like the number of voices on stage could be a detriment as the backing harmonies were lovely but a bit overwhelming, and twenty-plus people singing pianissimo on a stage like this can still come across as a power vocal and threaten to overtake the lead—I’d love to have heard a similar take with about half the backing vocals left out to achieve a bit more intimacy and give TAG more room to build to moments later in the song. I did like the staging choice to keep this one largely stationary with the group in a double-arc to focus on the music. Very nice creative choices in the end game with an incremental addition of voices after a fall out moment before everyone was in again on the chorus, and a deft un-mic’ed breakdown, riffing on the word “stay.”

TAG closed its set with an original—a song written by alum Gabrielle Macafee called “Burn It Down.” We could have an entirely separate conversation about original music in a cappella and the value of bringing it to competition—I’ll briefly address that I think it’s a tremendous choice when a group has solid original music it can use, allowing them to ensure they’ll deliver a performance unlike any other that night (literally, no one will duplicate the song choice) and allowing a group to tap into its identity and strengths in ways that are difficult to replicate when you’re covering someone else’s music. The soloist on this one demonstrated excellent power and charisma, and the staging was dynamic and well-conceived, featuring a moment when the group lined the back of the stage then moved forward in a staggered formation to form a triangle with the soloist at the point closest to the audience. The group looked cohesive there and communicated a sense of standing behind that lead vocal. In the final stages of the song, the group went for a well-earned clap-along to close out the set in crowd-friendly fashion.

Enharmonic Fusion was up next, another group returning to the ICHSA Finals stage and that came across all the more prepared, polished, and altogether ready based on that institutional memory. They opened their set with "She Came to Give It To You" by Usher with sample of “Motown Philly” and other throwbacks as the set went on. This was an entertaining, high energy opener, though I would suggest that the faster transitions late in the song risked teetering out of thematic control and the group may have been better served to have pared down a bit there rather than expanding so aggressively.

The group transitioned fluidly into "One Love" by Marianas Trench. Terrific, mature solo sound on this one. I really liked the visual presentation as well, which included a segment of one group member reaching for another, only for that group member to slip away right before he or she was touched—a memorable visual that seemed to communicate a sense of people just missing or losing one another. The group fell out nicely at end for a soft finish on the solo to round out a solid middle song.

Enharmonic Fusion closed with Sia’s “Alive.” After another slick, seamless transition the group entered into its most dramatically intense performance. Really nice visual presentation on the “I’m still breathing” lyric with the group members sagging and then bobbing up and down, expanding and contracting. The solo work for this one was really excellent—well restrained early on to give it plenty of room to develop over the course of the song until the male and female leads delivered on their phenomenal chemistry all but belting as the sound really opened up in the late stages. This was a terrific off-beat closer that left a powerful last impression on the audience. Enharmonic Fusion demonstrated really impressive range and was quite arguably at its very best on this most emotional and, frankly, loudest of their songs.

Crimson hit the stage next—a group of six young women in red and black. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a variety of incarnations of this group over the year, including my very first two ICHSA Finals experiences in 2007 and 2008 (and on a recurring basis since then), back when the high school and college finals were rolled into the same night. Crimson is a group that, despite not winning the ICHSA Championship since 2005 or appearing on The Sing-Off, has more quietly built remarkable longevity as a top-tier high school group, and I was really pleased to get the chance to hear them again this year. They opened with “Confident” by Demi Lovato, a good song choice in part because it allowed them to head off some of what the audience might have been thinking about the first all-female group to the stage, and the smallest unit we would see all night—that they might be overwhelmed in the face of all of the squads with at least twice as many members. No—as the song title suggested—this group came across as confident. I was particularly impressed with their control of dynamics as they really varied their sound including some shrewdly placed fall out moments to go small before exploding later on.

Crimson continued with “Get Here (If You Can)” by Oleta Adams. One of the keys to succeeding at the upper levels of a cappella competition is making choices that fit a group’s individual identity. While this group could not hope to generate the flurry of motion or sheer volume of much larger groups, their limited number of group members and ability to harmonize afforded them much more potential to create an intimate, heartfelt performance and, for me, that’s exactly what this song accomplished, compelling the audience to lean in a little closer and listen while they told a quieter, emotionally earnest story.

The group wrapped up with "Locked Out of Heaven" by Bruno Mars, which was a showcase for a high-attitude solo and opportunity for the young women to cut loose and dance at the front of the stage. Another nice use of fall-outs here as the group faded out for the soloist and rhythm section to operate independently, before coming back in a staccato fashion that really built the electricity en route to a big finish. Really good song selection from Crimson here, and another in an increasingly long legacy of strong showings for them at Finals.

The Dobbs 16 were up next. another group that has made it to the Finals stage a number of times, though a larger one with—as you might guess—sixteen members, all clad in black and red baseball tees. The opened with “The High Road” by Broken Bells. The group demonstrated a really good, full sound here and excellent vocal percussion. Strong solo work, too, to start the set with an all-around polished number.

Next, Ellie Goulding’s "Hanging On." This one was an excellent platform to show off a deft, and emotionally rich solo. I was particularly impressed with not only the vocal quality there, but the complex imagery the group established with the soloist apart from the group, pulling them in, pushing them out, being pulled in and sliding, creating a real sense of dramatic tension and striking at the heart of this song about trying to pull away from a destructive situation, and the sense that it was not an even tug of war, but one individual working with and against a much more substantial force. Nice middle song.

The Dobbs 16 closed with Coldplay’s "Princess of China." Another solid showing for the group, with particularly strong staging including a few moments of the group clustering and then spreading the stage in explosive fashion that really commanded the audience’s attention and enhanced what was going on musically. My only subtle knock here is that the sound seemed to suggest the group was selling this song as dark, brooding, and intense, and, indeed, most of the group members seemed to reflect that in their facial expressions and bodies, but there were a few group members who openly smiled and bobbed in a fashion directly at odds with that tone.  To be fair, I completely understand the rush of making it to Finals and of performing a set this well on the Finals stage, but it is little details like that that can <i>break the dream</i> so to speak, reminding the audience it’s a performance and that the pieces aren’t all pointing in quite the same direction at that moment. This minor criticism aside, this was a good, big closer that helped ensure audience members would remember The Dobbs 16.

And then, it was time for Highlands Voices, returning for their sixth consecutive ICHSA Finals appearance (including a tournament win in 2014). It’s a pretty remarkable feat given that six years is enough time for a high school to, necessarily, have a total and complete overhaul of its roster. The group also underwent a challenging experience with the Pitch Slapped TV show (well documented in other platforms for those who are not familiar), and was open about entering a “rebuilding year” after some significant turnover coming out of last year. In any event, arriving back at finals is a testament to the skill and care of their faculty leader Tom Paster, and all the more so the hard work of the current crop of students. On to the set itself, Highlands Voices led off with Bea Miller’s "Fire N Gold." The soloist had a really nice command of the stage, projecting her personality over the performance. Moreover, it was clear throughout this song that the group was actually having fun. While that dynamic isn’t appropriate for every song or context, on a song like this, I’d argue that it makes the presentation more entertaining and easy for the audience to connect with—there wasn’t a sense of nerves or militant precision, but rather an overwhelming sense that the group was, intrinsically, enjoying the experience of making music as a group of friends. Frankly, that’s the heart of what scholastic a cappella should be, and it was fun to watch.

Highland Voices continued with Bea Miller’s “Paper Doll--a stark shift to a soft, tender sound. Whereas the first song was a chance for this group to highlight itself as performers, this song gave them an opportunity to emote, and they really sold their facials while delivering a fundamentally sound aural performance.

Last up, Bea Miller’s "We’re Taking Over." While covering just one artist over the course of a set runs the risk of feeling one-note and not showing a range of what a group can do, I felt as though these selections lent a sense of continuity to the full set and fit the group’s pop-oriented sound, not to mention that the individual song picks did afford the group an opportunity to run the emotional gamut and create a consistently engaging stretch of music. This closer was particularly well-chosen as an epic message song, and one that lent itself brilliantly to this group’s sincere demeanor. I was particularly impressed with the creative choice on singing the “this is for the ones who took their lives” when the group took an informal beat of silence, in tribute, before carrying on. In the hands of a lesser group, or placed in a lesser moment, that could sound like pandering. In the case of Highlands Voices, it felt like an honest tribute and an organically emotional moment. This all paved the way to a very big sound on the finish and a fun clap-along moment with the audience to seal the deal on a set that was quite competitive for placement at the Finals level.

Rhythmix opened things up after intermission. I had the pleasure of catching this group at their semifinal in the Northwest, and was pleased to get to hear them again in New York. One of the pieces that most stood out to me was their approach to the contemporary a cappella style—largely going choral, and doing so impeccably, rather than going straight to soloists in the style that most groups use at this point. It helps the group stand out and compels the audience to hear the mechanics of the larger group as opposed to the soloist overshadowing them. The group opened with a mashup of Imagine Dragons’ “Roots” and Cage the Elephant’s “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” Very sharp choreography and, again, the choice to take this one choral, and inflecting it with a jazzy style really helped the group deliver a divergent sound from the rest of the night’s competitors.

Rhythmix carried on with Kelly Clarkson’s "Dark Side." They opened this one chorally, too, before transitioning to a single soloist—a move that really helped that lead stand out when she came to the fore. A part of what I appreciated about this handling of this song is the way in which everyone singing the lyrics at points and the many points at which the group physically clustered on stage mirrored the content of the song—a communal sense that <i>everybody</i> has a dark side that struck through to the core of the lyrics

Panic! At the Disco's "This Is Gospel!" Similar to the preceding song, everyone was on the lyrics early on before the soloist popped out. She got a couple of really nice visual moments, first walking forth out of the pack and to the front of the stage, and later stepping literally upward, onto the bent knees of two group members to rise above them—a good way of differentiating and escalating these big moments in the song. In the end, this was an entertaining number, particularly well-chosen to finish the set for its inherently epic sound and the group delivering nicely on that promise by cutting a little looser and going all out at the finish.

Key of She was up next, making their debut at ICHSA Finals after making waves as first runners up at the National A Cappella Convention competition last month. They were one of only two all-female groups, and led off with our first dose of Taylor Swift for the evening--"Shake It Off." I really enjoyed the slowed down groove on this song before the vocal percussionist keyed in to push the tempo on the first chorus. All in all, this was a fun opener—high energy and engaging, not to mention that these women selected a song uniquely suited to them. Competition at this level is all about picking songs that play to a group’s strengths and personalities and this was very good opener for those purposes, and particularly to lure in the audience with a current radio hit before going less mainstream.

Key of She made a seamless transition to “It’s A Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown. Terrific all around sound on this one, and I particularly appreciated that the group was so unapologetically strong and raw on this one, really punching their sound. Above all else, though, this piece was a showcase for its strong soloist who steered the ship on this power number with power and conviction—easily one of the best leads of the night. By the time a group makes it to Finals, its incumbent on them to deliver a performance that is not only technically on point but that will be memorable to judges and the crowd by the end of a very long night of a cappella. Taking chances is key to thriving at that level and this song—which also continued a theme of empowered women—nailed that dynamic.

Last up, Naughty Boy’s “Runnin’ (Lose It All).” This one carried on with the power vocals, and the group did an excellent job of rotating between soloists to create some pretty electric transitions, not to mention highlighting the depth of talented vocalists at their disposal. And then there was the end of the set. Regular readers will know that I’ve called out groups in the past who look uncertain of themselves—bowing in a disorganized fashion or awkwardly waving to the crowd because they clearly haven’t thought about how they’re exiting the stage which is< part of the group’s presentation of their set. I loved the choice for this group to not pause, not bow, but rather march in powerful fashion out of sight, leaving the last image that the audience had as one of defiance and strength—a perfectly fitting ending to an excellent set.

The penultimate competing group and, like so many others on this night one with both a tradition of excellence at ICHSA Finals and a long list of other accolades. I’m talking about Limited Edition. On what may seem like a frivolous note, let me start by addressing the fact that the group looked fantastic—polished in a relatively formal, mostly blue outfits, dominated by a powder blue color. Particularly at the high school level, there’s a tendency to see groups dress completely uniformly and, particularly when dressing up, for them to look uncomfortable in clothes that are a little too big or too small. Again, this is a complete aside from the music, but this group looked professional from the get-go which invited the audience to take them seriously before they sang a note. Fortunately, when they started singing, the act only grew better, starting with “Passion Flower” by Jon Gomm. They started with an ominous deep hum, standing in a circle within a circle, before emitting a powerful harmonizing note over that hum. This opening was unique and grabbing—compelling everyone in the crowd to pay close attention before the group spread the stage into an arc. They gave way to a truly superb soloist who demonstrated terrific vocal control and poise on stage, backed by a recurring killer bass sound and sensational visuals from the group. This was a simply arresting opening number that really drew in an audience that’s attention easily could have begun to waver at this late stage of the evening.

The group continued with “Human” by Christina Perri. Really nice vulnerability from the group, and particularly the soloist here, and a real polish to the sound and the visual presentation yet again. I particularly appreciated the way in which the group let down its guard a bit and grew more intense in the late stages of this song for a big finish.

Limited Edition closed with “Hurricane by Misterwives. The group managed a killer seamless transition into this one, as the surrounding members dropped down and the final soloist emerged for yet another star-making performance out of this group. The transitions between verses here were exceptionally smooth and the group built so well to a monster finish, seeming to really sing for all they were worth and create an epic moment at that point. In a night full of really exceptional high school performances, Limited Edition shone for their all-around polish and command of the stage.

PFC closed out the competition. This group won the ICHSA Championship in 2011 and returned to Finals in 2012. It was great to see today’s incarnation of the group make another go of it in New York. I particularly appreciated the way this group kicked off, running onto stage and launching directly into Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” The sheer immediacy of that intro immediately commanded the audience’s attention and set a tone that this group would be fast-paced and unpredictable. True to form, after executing the early stages of the song in excellent fashion, they slowed things way down for the spoken word bit of the song as two group members waltzed at center stage, before speeding back up into the chanting bridge before the final chorus. This was a really fun, engaging opener.

The group continued with “Run, Run, Run” by Celeste Buckingham. This was a well-selected spotlight song for its soloist who proved particularly adept at breath control and precision on what was a very challenging part from a rhythmic perspective. Nice build in the background, which started out subtle and quiet before settling into a groove. I particularly appreciated the contrast between these first two songs, each extremely impressive in very different ways.

PFC shut it down with “Let It Be” by The Beatles. They started with a haunting, chilling intro, which the soloist sang over with a really pristine vocal quality. The VP entered the mix and the tempo picked up after the first verse, and I was really impressed with how effectively the group channeled so much emotion into this off-beat closer—less a barn-burner than an almost-spiritual experience. Toward the finish we got a big exhale and a final unaccompanied “let it be” from the soloist for a powerful finish to a consistently surprisingly, and strikingly well-executed set.

While the judges faced the unenviable task of picking a winner and award recipients, professional group VXN entertained the crowd. Their set included a particularly impressive take on “Natalie” by Bruno Mars that featured some extraordinary seamless transitions between soloists, “Chains,” “Settle Down,” and “I’m With You.” I love hearing professional groups perform at shows like this, both because they tend to deliver a different character from high school groups that helps differentiate the listening experience for the audience, and because they tend to give high school groups a set of role models to look up to—not only for their quality of sound, but for having continued to make a cappella part of their lives beyond the scholastic setting. VXN made a stellar showing to cap an extraordinary night of a cappella.

While VXN performed, I made my picks for the night. There were, naturally, no real weak points in the slate of competitors. I really appreciated Rhythmix’s unique style that focused on the group sound, Crimson’s ability to command the stage and play to its strengths with such a small group, and The Dobbs 16’s fullness of sound and strong soloists.

I felt that the race for third place was particularly tight. While all of the aforementioned groups were certainly in the mix, I had narrowed my field to a choice few. Enharmonic Fusion for their sheer emotional intensity, particularly on “Alive,” Highlands Voices for their sincerity and commitment to delivering an engaging performance, and PFC for their range and particularly pronounced personalities of their leads. In the end, though, I kept coming back to the group that, out of this cluster felt the most well-defined in terms of personality and most ready to <i>attack</i> the stage at this level of competition—the inimitable Key of She.

I had Limited Edition placed squarely in second place. In a lesser year, a group performing with this level of polish and precision would have a cakewalk to a championship, delivering one unforgettable, grabbing performance after another with three extraordinary soloists.

But then there was Forte. Always a bridesmaid never a bride after a number of appearances at Finals. This was the year when I felt everything really came together for this group with scintillating leads, unbridled emotion, and that positively unforgettable new take on “Barton Hollow” to cap their set in truly unique fashion. In an increasingly competitive world of high school a cappella, 2016 will go down as the year when Forte stepped out from the pack to deliver a clean and captivating performance like no other group, truly arriving as champions of the world.

Lo and behold, the judges and I were on point for placement this evening, and largely in agreement on superlatives as well. It was joy to see Forte and their fans look <i>so</i> excited for their well-deserved accomplishment and close out the night with one last song.

That’s a wrap for the ICHSA Finals. Check back in the next few days for my thoughts on the ICCA Finals!

​Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night

Overall Placement:
1. Forte
2. Limited Edition
3. Key of She

Outstanding Soloist:
1. Forte for “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked”
2. Enharmonic Fusion for “Alive”
3. Limited Edition for “Passion Flower”

Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Forte for the full set
2. Key of She for the full set
3. Rhythmix for the full set

Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Forte for the full set
2. Limited Edition for the full set
3. The A Cappella Group for the full set

Outstanding Arrangement:
1. Forte for “Barton Hollow”
2. Enharmonic Fusion for “One Love”
3. Crimson for “Confident”

The Official ICHSA Results

Overall Placement:
1. Forte
2. Limited Edition
3. Key of She

Outstanding Soloist: Enharmonic Fusion for “Alive” and Limited Edition for “Passion Flower”

Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Forte for the full set

Outstanding Choreography: Forte for the full set

Outstanding Arrangement: Crimson for “Confident”

ICCA Northwest Semifinal at George Fox University

Event Reviews

On Saturday, March 19, Bauman Auditorium at George Fox University played host to the 2016 ICCA Northwest Semifinal. You can check out over two hundred photos from the show on The A Cappella Blog Facebook page. Before the review, here’s a quick summary of the event.

The Competing Groups:
The UC Davis Spokes
Central Washington University Nada Cantata
University of Utah Infrared
University of Washington Furmata A Cappella
Oregon State University Outspoken
Brigham Young University Beyond Measure
University of Oregon Divisi
The UC Santa Cruz Hightones

Emcee: Courtney Jensen

Host Group: George Fox University Quakers and Notes

The ever-effervescent Courtney Jensen opened the evening with the standard announcements.

The first competing group was The Spokes. The All-female crew took the stage in all black with neon pink accents and opened with Ariana Grande’s ”Focus.” Nice, sassy attitude on the opener, and a good low end on this one. Really good breakdown bit as the group fell out and shrank down for one, and then another group member to join in again before the group launched in again on the whole. Well-executed choreo here though, it was a little excessive for my tastes and risked undercutting the bravado the group otherwise projected.

Img 2430 Article

The set continued with Marian Hill’s “One Time.” Nice attitude again. I liked the identity the group was cultivating—a slick, confident, urban sound, though I was starting to grow a little concerned that this second song had a little too similar over-arching song to the one before it, which ran the risk of losing the audience’s attention. The soloists demonstrated good personality on stage and, the background instrumentation was solid. Nice reiteration of “one time” in the syllables, and some good little dynamic variation on the bridge.

The Spokes closed with Beyonce’s “Diva.” Really good vocals from the soloist though—on a nitpicky note—I noticed her break character to crack up more than once. I can totally appreciate that that’s the natural upshot of performing a song like this, but it also breaks the illusion of the performance, reminding the crowd it is a performance, and that is one of those small details that separate a very good from a truly great set. Good sound all around on this number and it was a nice way to tie up the set from a thematic perspective—escalating to a bit bigger sound and a bit more sass, while sticking with the style the group had established prior to that point. Nice jazzed up slow down bit to close a good set.

Next up, Nada Cantata, a mixed group clad in black and maroon. They kicked off their set with Britney Spears’s "Circus." Fun perc break down, culminating in the guy inserting “surfboard,” before a seamless transition to Beyonce’s ”Drunk In Love.” Really nice stage presence from the second soloist and good, measured quality to that vocal. The group lined up across stage with arms moving down like the hands on an analog clock, before splitting and leaving space for the soloist to walk from the back up through the line. The vocals got a little shout-y on the finish, but putting that aside it was a good, strong opener.

Img 2445 Article

Next up, “All The Things You Are.” The group started this one chorally, in an arc. I can appreciate the impulse to do a song like this to show off musical chops and this one was very well rendered with a really nice balance, but that went on a little long before upping the tempo, and going jazzy as the group split into clusters of three. In the one, this one felt a little show tune-ish for my tastes, without quite stunning enough harmonies to justify the song selection and execution for the context of an ICCA semifinal.

The set continued with Estelle’s "American Boy."  Cheesy bit of putting on sunglasses on the next verse. I appreciated the impulse to mix up the presentation as the song went on to keep it interesting and the group sold it well. I really liked the choice to insert another brief VP showcase—the vocal percussion was one of the most unique and pronounced talents the group brought ot the stage and it was wise to call attention to it.

Nada Cantata closed with "Hold My Hand" by Jess Glynne.  Good opening, and the group mixed things up, switching to a second soloist. The song skewed a little sharp on the whole. I liked the choice to go for a clap-along with the crowd in the late stages of this song, bolstering the sense that this was an epic closer. Nice soft, subtle, staccato build behind the soloist as she really shined to deliver a memorable closer and the strongest leg of a good set.

Infrared took the stage next in black cloaks over their black and red duds. Suitably epic explosion of sound to follow on the lead in to Taylor Swift’s "Bad Blood" They really went for it on the rap here--not the greatest rap I’ve heard, mind you, but I have to give to a group like this for one hundred percent emotionally investing, in its opener and attacking the stage. Nice interaction between the leads here. The sound was a little shout-y and sharp, but stage presence alone made it immediately memorable and entertaining in a way few songs had been up to that point. Again, let’s talk identity—from the sparkly tops on the women, to the explosion of sound from the group, to the choice to lead off with the most visceral of T-Swift songs, the group was making a statement from the start. My one small criticism on the visual presentation, in fact, came on the finish, when the soloists exchanged a quick smile. While I’ll take “breaking character” after the song is done over mid-song any day, every moment the group spends on stage is still part of the performance, and I’d loved to have seen them maintain their façade rather than conceding it was an act in these “breaks” between numbers.

Img 2470 Article

They followed up with “Lay Me Down” by Sam Smith. It seemed like tempo got a little head of soloist here. Nice crescendo into the first chorus. Good facials from the group, selling the intensity of this number. Nice moment as the soloists doubled up, singing at one another with tremendous intensity. I particularly liked the choice for two guys to take on a song that’s ostensibly about two men in love and their loss. Interesting visual with the guys on opposite ends of the stage and the group bobbing in a cluster between them. I like this from the perspective of telling the story of things coming in between them, but wish there were something a little more interesting or coherent going on in that cluster to facilitate telling that story of sadness and separation.

Nice pop of sound, exploding into party mode for the closer, Marc Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk.” Fun attitude here, before a transition to Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” I really dug the way the group built this one to withhold the chorus of “Bad”—switching back to “Uptown Funk”--for an extra minute before exploding into the payoff.  Fun bit on the “Julio, get the stretch” line, with the guys inching forward like they were in that car. Really fun closer here to do something original and wildly entertaining with song choices that might not have seemed like the most original on paper. Nice power closer.

Furmata A Cappella took the stage next, a co-ed group in black duds. They opened with Alessia Cara’s “Here.” Fantastic attitude and breath control from this soloist for an opening that commanded attention from the get-go. Then there was the male soloist, transitioning to Justin Bieber’s “Roller Coaster.” Nice interaction between the two, and a really slick sound all around here. Compelling visual presentation—a lot of movement on stage, it all felt intentional but not contrived. Nice opener all around. Cool fall out into a swirling sound from the VP guy before the group exploded into the closing motions of the song.

Img 2499 Article

Nice transition from the group’s staggered position on stage into “Alive” by Sia. The mic was cutting out on the soloist in the early moments here, but very much to her credit, the soloist kept her composure nicely. Terrific solo work to follow, backed by really good variation of dynamics in the background. This was such a story and grew enormous midway through. Killer interaction between the soloist and a second lead as the song grew. As I took in this performance, my only concern was that this song got so big, it would be difficult for the group to follow itself for its closing number.

Furmata had a sterling transition to Nick Jonas’s "Chains." It turned out the group had a secret weapon, with a new soloist walking out from backstage at this point. It was a great dramatic moment, if a bit of a gambit to sacrifice his voice earlier on; of course, he was also performing in some sort of leg brace, so maybe this is an issue of physical limitations. The group transitioned to a mash up, with a slowed down groove on Kanye West’s “Power.” Terrific attitude on the build to this transition, particularly from the rap lead. Just a really fun way to wrap this one up. I particularly appreciated that the group sold this performance as deathly serious and kept a slow, melodic sound beneath it. The group lined up at the front of the stage in the late stages before finishing with just two voices for a sensational finish to a stellar set.

Outspoken closed out the first half of the show. Great reaction from the guys’ supporters in the audience. Really nice, full sound on the opening to Journey’s "Separate Ways." The staging was really artful for this song, with a lot of movement, none of it wasted, all engaging, contributing to the build. Good first solo, and nice build to the second lead taking over with a different vocal quality. This one felt a little long, but nonetheless featured good dynamic variation and visuals to keep it vibrant. Nice intensity on the interaction between the soloists on the “if he ever hurts you” line, and tremendous sincerity throughout—definitely the right call over playing this song for laughs, which is too often the temptation for a song like this. Great start to the set.

Img 2523 Article

Nice, smooth transition to The Lone Bellow’s “You Never Need Nobody.” Really good emotional vigor on this solo and subdued sound from the guys to give this song plenty of room to grow as it went on. Nice soft, broken sound as one of the guys in the background echoed the soloist on the second chorus. Nice push of the tempo on the bridge. Again, this song felt a little long, but I was torn between the sensation of wanting the guys to clip it and appreciating their patience in letting the music enjoy a slow, steady build. Great emotional intensity, particularly from the lead.

Tiny sample of of “Airplanes” en route to Outspoken’s closer, Paramore’s "Brick By Boring Brick." Good solo here and especially good choreography on this one—so much motion, executed so precisely.  Good, big sound from the guys here for a really nice closing number to leave things on an authentically upbeat note. The guys demonstrated excellent sincerity and power in this outing, an even stronger and more polished performance than what they brought to the stage at quarterfinals. Terrific money note on the finish to close a very good set that immediately put the group in a dead heat with Furmata A Cappella for top performers of the night up to that point.

Very cool off-beat opening for Beyond Measure, kicking things off post inter-mission with just a few members on stage and leading things off with some body perc as the rest of the group filed in on Shawn Mendes’s “Stitches.” Really nice, full sound from the group. Killer transition on the “needle and a thread” interlude to another soloist and revisitation on the body perc theme. While I think the group would have benefited from a song with a bit more punch to lead off, or to have clipped this song a little, it was nonetheless a good opener.

Img 2546 Article

Choral opening on Christina Perri’s “Only Human” before the transition to a positively sensational female lead.  Really nice tone and terrific control on this lead, who was just perfectly suited to bring this song to life. Good, warm harmony work here and a really polished visual presentation with the group crisply reconfiguring. Great emotion, as this set really clicked into its next gear on this exceptional song.

Beyond Measure wrapped up with Owl City’s “Verge.” Another tremendous solo here, and I have to praise the heck out of this group for their excellent execution of some really complex choreo on this song while maintaining such a full sound. It was a polished performance top to bottom, featuring a sensational VP interlude. In the latter stages of this set, the group really clicked into professional grade and may have just elbowed their way ahead of Outspoken and Furmata A Cappella from the first half.

Divisi was the penultimate competing group. The ladies wore black and white with bright red ties. Lovely jazzy take on Jet’s "Are You Gonna Be My Girl." It was the kind of sultry, slow opening that demands the audience lean in a little closer to listen up, and the sound came across as a nudge cleaner here than it had at quarterfinals. Terrific, off-beat creative choice. Some really good punch on the transition to the upbeat section of the song. This one clicked nicely, and best of all it was like no other opener this night. Terrific solo work. I might have clipped the slow jazzy outro here, though it did provide a fluid visual transition to the staging for their next song.

Img 2558 Article

Next up, Sarah Bareilles’s "Manhattan." the group formed the approximate shape of the Manhattan skyline with their bodies on the intro as the lead maneuvered her way past and around them. This was such a visually compelling piece as the group went on to form an arc with the soloist standing to the side rather than the conventional spot in the middle, which further emphasized her lonesomeness in the narrative of the song. Just beautiful storytelling there. Tremendous control on the solo, impeccable intonation. Lovely double up on solo en route to the bridge. Great emotional earnestness all around for a stellar ballad.

Divisi wrapped up with “Start A Riot” by Jetta. Great sound here, including tremendous heartbeat perc on the heartbeat lyric, and revisited throughout, pulsing with energy. I loved it when the soloist opened up in late in the song sounding more raw and power-driven than at quarterfinals—nice adjustment there for the group on the whole to turn up the volume and really pay off all of the subtlety and care of the set leading up to this point. Terrific explosion of sound in the end game. This was an excellent end to a decisively Finals-caliber set.

The Hightones closed out the competition. This was another all-female group, in sharp black and green attire. They started out with Kimbra’s "Settle Down." Nice soft sound in the early going, giving plenty of room for a soft steady build. They transitioned to a second soloist. Polished song here,  but a little subdued for an opener at this level of competition. I liked the little sample of Beyonce’s “Mine” in the background late in the song. Nice explosion across stage late. They wrapped up the song with a slow outro, which they probably ought to have clipped to keep the set moving.

Img 2578 Article

Next up, Delta Rae’s "Bottom of the River." Good intensity and power here, especially on the solo. Nice use of the stomp throughout as a driving force, though it seemed to slip just a little out of synch at certain points. While this was a solid rendering of a very good song, in terms of song selection, I struggle to see this one, even performed at the highest level, cracking Finals level in 2016—it’s just been so widely covered and interpreted in the last few years. Little bit of Alison Krauss’s “Down To The River To Pray” buried in the background—and I liked that recurring device of just hinting at other songs, which I hoped was building toward something later in the set.

The Hightones wrapped up with Laura Mvula’s “She.” Nice sincerity on this solo. Interesting bit of soloist weaving between rows of group members, touching shoulders, only for each group member to turn away from her, ultimately clumping apart from her, to leave her alone. Really nice perc pick up and increased tempo toward the end, making the energy spike late into the unaccompanied finish. I didn’t notice a hidden sample on this one, or the other samples coming back which was a bit of a let down from a continuity stand point, but that’s minor complaint for a solid closer.

As the judges deliberated, Quakers and Notes entertained the crowd with a fun set that included “Shut Up and Dance,” “Just Dance,” “Staying Alive,” a fun version of “Watch Me (Whip Nae Nae),” “The Cupid Shuffle,” epic original “Hold On,” “Feel It,” with a spoken word interjection of “Lose Yourself,” “You Have More Friends Than You Know,” “Africa,” and “September.” While this group isn’t entirely polished (and could hardly be expected to be after first coming together just this past fall, their showmanship was on point and the group’s leader, in particular, demonstrated a terrific sense of humor and delivery to make for really entertaining deliberation period.

While the judges deliberated, I made my picks for the evening. In the end, I felt there were four groups in contention. Outspoken continued to polish their set and featured emotionally rich solo work. Furmata Nowhere demonstrated terrific heart and intensity on their off-beat set. Beyond Measure’s final two songs were quite arguably the most polished performances of the night, though their first two weren’t quite as well-conceived. And then there’s Divisi. While I did feel that this show wound up a tight race, I also felt as though Divisi delivered a combination of professional performance, star soloists, shrewd staging, and interesting story structure to set them a nudge ahead of the pack, and the region’s champions.

As it turned out, the judges agreed and Divisi took first place. It was a very good semifinal, and terrific to both see the Divisi franchise return to the Finals once again, and to see a number of new faces knocking on the door.

That’s a wrap for my regional coverage of the 2016 ICCAs. I’m looking forwarding to heading to New York next month to cover ICHSA and ICCA Finals.

Mike Chin's Picks for the Night

Overall Placement:
1. Divisi
2. Beyond Measure
3. TIE: Outspoken and Furmata A Cappella

Outstanding Soloist:
1. Beyond Measure for “Human”
2. Furmata A Cappella for middle song
3. Divisi for “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”

Outstanding Arrangement:
1. Divisi for “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
2. Beyond Measure for "Human"
3. Infrared for “Uptown Funk”/”Bad

Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Beyond Measure for the full set
2. Nada Cantata for the full set

Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Divisi for the full set
2. Beyond Measure for the full set
3. Infrared for the full set

Official ICCA Results

Overall Placement:
1. Divisi
2. Outspoken 
3. Beyond Measure

Outstanding Soloist: Divisi for “Manhattan”

Outstanding Arrangement: Beyond Measure for “Human”

Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Beyond Masure

Outstanding Choreography: Nada Cantata

Next Page
ICCA Finals 2017
ICHSA Finals 2017
Ireland’s A Cappella Competition
ICCA Finals 2016
Event Review: ICHSA Finals 2016
ICCA Northwest Semifinal at George Fox University
ICCA Northwest Quarterfinal at Rolling Hills Community Church
ICHSA Northwest Semifinal at Rolling Hills Community Church
The 2015 ICCA Finals
The 2015 ICHSA Finals
ICCA Northeast Semifinal at Symphony Hall
ICCA Northeast Quarterfinal at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
ICCA West Quarterfinal at Rolling Hills Church
ICHSA Northwest Semifinal at Rolling Hills Church
The 2014 ICCA Finals
The 2014 ICHSA Finals
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Semifinal at Rutgers University
ICCA South Semifinal at Vanderbilt University
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal at Syracuse University
ICCA South Quarterfinal at Johns Hopkins University
SingStrong DC Aca-Idol 2014
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal at Penn State University
ICCA South Quarterfinal at University of Tennessee Knoxville
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal at Rutgers University
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal at Drexel University
The ICHSA Mid-Atlantic Semifinal at Northern Highlands Regional High School
A Cappella Showdown 2013 at the Turning Stone Resort
ACappellaFest Showcase 2013
The 2013 ICCA Finals
The 2013 ICHSA Finals