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 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
Centerville High School Forte
Port Washington High School Limited Edition
Cypress Lake High School The A Cappella Group
Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching
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.