On Saturday, February 1, Drexel University played host to an ICCA Mid-Atlantic quarterfinal. Photos from the show are available now on the ACB Facebook Page. Before the review, a quick summary of the show.
Drexel University 8 to the Bar
Lehigh University A Whole Step Up
The Lehigh University Melismatics
Lehigh University Off the Record
Richard Stockton College Stockapella
The Westminster Choir College Deaftones
The Lehigh Universtiy Echoes
The Villanova University Supernovas
The University of Pennsylvania Counterparts
The Drexel University Cleftomaniacs
Host Group: The Drexel University Treblemakers
The Treblemakers opened the evening with a fun cover of Olly Murs’s “Troublemaker.” From there, ICCA Mid-Atlantic Producer Holli Matze proceeded to make the standard announcements and present to us Christina and Joyce from The Treblemakers, who would serve as the emcees for the evening.
8 to the Bar was the first competing group. The guys took the stage in all black with royal blue vests and opened with “The Spark”" by Afrojack. This was a fun performance, particularly from a visual perspective with the guys sending three dancers to the fore after the third verse, and plenty of interesting reconfigurations in the background. Part of what really worked about the visual presentation here was that the guys recognized the opportunity for different guys to do different things, rather than trying to shoehorn everyone into matching choreography, which allowed them to circumnavigate the very real risk of coming off as cheesy or predictable. It felt like we were missing some of the low end here—it’s tough to tell if that was a microphone issue or a fault of the group. All the same, a good opening number.
The guys followed with Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks.” Really good percussion underlying this one. Mood wise, I appreciated this song choice, adding a sense of danger and edgy vibe rather than defaulting to a soft, romantic middle song. The second verse switched into Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" and the songs mashed together on the second chorus. Neat arrangement there, though I think they might have played with alternating songs more before havign them converge upon one another. Really nice finish with a whistling sound effect as the rest of the instrumentation died away around the soloists.
The guys closed with “Say (All I Need)” by OneRepublic. It was fun to hear the softer side of the group and, in principle, I liked the choice to put this song last after the more active material for an emotionally resonant finish. However, the group grew a little exposed as the song went on. The soloist had a good falsetto, but at the same time lost a lot of his vocal strength when he reached for those high notes. When I think of 8 to the Bar, I think of an all-male power group with comedic leanings—I don’t mean that as pejorative or complimentary, just as value-neutral statement of how I see them. That said, when you have just twelve minutes to make your case that you are one of the two most deserving groups out of a field of ten to move on to semifinals, I really think you’re best served to play to your strongest suits and to make sure your last impression on stage is emblematic of what you’re about and what you’re best at. This performance certainly wasn’t bad, but I feel the group departed from its wheelhouse in such a way that didn’t really pay dividends.
Next up, A Whole Step Up. Nice clean burst of sound on the opening to Queen’s "Fat-Bottomed Girls" with a member up front conducting in theatrical fashion. Fun bit of alternating between “Fat-Bottomed Girls” and Mika’s “Big Girl (You are Beautiful,” and particularly with the two opposing sides of the group dancing in the style of a Westside Story face off. Really excellent charisma from both of the soloists on this song. As clever as that aspect of the staging was, the actual movement and execution of it weren’t quite as polished—lots of traditional box stepping and turns without a great deal of rhyme or reason, and much of the group looked really self-conscious doing it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: choreography can be a wonderful complement to music, but when it’s excessive or awkward, you run a real risk of it being more distracting than useful for both the audience and the group itself, and thus a real detriment to a performance.
The guys continued their set with The Cure’s “Love Song.” Really good percussion on this one, and I particularly enjoyed the infusion of a cool robotic sound effect to help customize and modernize a classic song choice. This is what I’m talking about when I reference the need for groups to make songs their own and distinguish themselves. Excellent creative work b A Whole Step up there. Good choice to double up on the solo late in the game.
A Whole step Up went choral to sample “It’s You” from The Music Man, before launching into Bastille’s “Pompeii.” I liked that juxtaposition, and admire the song choice, though I couldn’t help feeling that the sound was a little straight laced on this one to really capture the spirit of the original piece. The movement was much improved on this song—simpler and more oriented toward the group flowing to follow the music, culminating a the biggest power moment when the group went choral on the finish. While the overall piece wasn’t perfect, the closing moments of the song were very well rendered to leave an impression on the audience.
Third up, The Melismatics. Sharp look with the women all in black, the men sporting red ties." They opened with Florence and the Machine’s “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up).” Really nice, powerful lead and good intensity of sound from the group. Very fluid movement from the group. All around, The Melismatics benefited from a really polished composition, setting the tone for the set to follow.
Unaccomapnied, near-seamless transition to Animals’ "House of the Rising Sun." The soloist had really good control of the stage on this one, and I dug the sensual vibe the group imposed on this piece. Great warmth of sound from the group. It’s a gamble to use a song like this one in a modern-day competition for fear of it feeling too old fashioned or drawing the ire of more traditional listeners for making it your own, but I felt that gamble realy paid off for the group in a memorable, powerful middle song.
Again, a near seamless transition, this time to Rihanna’s “What Now.” I appreciated the visual continuity between songs and the fluid transitions—I’d actually encourage The Melismatics to take that one step further and not pause at all between pieces—seeing if they can hold the audience in their thrall for twelve minutes without a break. The group sounded very good here, particularly on an eerie transition to The Beatles' "Because"--a truly weird song, used to delightful effect to transition to John Legend’s “Made to Love.” It was a very cool bit with the group sagging, and only the bass standing tall and guiding the group up like puppets, swirling them around, and then bobbing them up and down in yo-yo fashion. Cool visual that accentuated the aural effect of the song. The pieces mashed together in the end game with soaring soprano lines, the hum of the bass and all points in between clicking together magnificently. Excellent finish to a stellar set.
Next on stage, we went Off the Record. Nice look with all black with green highlights. Fun opening with the group centered around the soloist and exploding out to all sides of her before stepping out and clapping their way into AWOLNATION’s “Sail.” The group did some really good, measured stomp percussion--right idea, but I would have loved it with a smidge more power. It was a similar story on the solo--wonderful timbre on this young woman's voice and great control, but I would have loved to have heard her rip a little looser. In any event, the group did a fine job of snagging the audience's attention with a solid opener.
Nice subtle transition to song two, Ingrid Michaelson’s “Keep Breathing”--taking no break in between with the first lead handing the mic to the new one and the group separating to two clusters on either side of the stage with the soloist standing alone before the group crossed paths around and in front of her--really interesting, powerful story told there of the soloist being alone and lost. I loved the sound of her voice--nuanced and individual. Really lovely doubling up on the solo on the second chorus. Wonderful, warm swell of sound on the repetition of "all we can do is keep breathing” as the group joined the party piece by piece with the harmonies building louder and adding new parts, offering more and more texture to the piece. This was a kind of tour de force when it comes to composing a soft, subtle piece of music to hold down the center of your set. Lovely choice.
Another seamless transition to Taylor Swift's "22" with a male lead. Great comedic shift there and it was fun to see the group bust loose on the choreo. There's a great deal of irony hearing this song from a bunch of people who probably aren't yet 22. Really fun return of the first soloist to mash things up into John Mayer’s “Your Body Is a Wonderland.” Really fun male-female interactions in be background for this one with members pairing off in dancing poses--given group composition, one guy ended up with two ladies and hammed it up to great comedic effect. This was a really offbeat closing composition--kind of playing for laughs but not losing any of the warm sincerity that had defined to the group up to that point. What an original closing number and the group really broke things down was they mashed the songs further on the final chorus. I'd kind of loved to have heard them go for the clap-along there because the crowd seemed to be eating out of the palm of their collective hands. That’s a minor quibble, though. Fun close to a fresh, surprising set.
Stockapella was up next. Cool look for the co-ed crew in black and yellow, with plenty of individualized threads. They opened with "The Cave" by Mumford and Sons. I’m lukewarm on that song choice for the band, and particularly this song being pretty well played out over the last couple years. That said, the group did a lot of things right. Phenomenal percussion, and, as a hallmark of this group, they demonstrated really good movement throughout it, incorporating lots of subtle material to really tell a story. I would have liked more variation between those first two verses, but the group ripped things open nicely in the second chorus, leaning in close then turning out to face the audience on a swell of sound. Good opener.
The group followed with a brilliantly arranged mashup of Rihanna’s "California King Bed" and fun.’s “Just Give Me a Reason.” I loved the simple mixture of lyrics from the midst of each songs to introduce the piece, leading up to a nice duet between the male and female leads. Soft, subtle opening, giving way to the perc keying in on the second verse to push the tempo and mix up things nicely. Excellent use of dynamics throughout this song, and I loved the choice to revisit the intro with scattered pieces of each song filtering through one another, with the refrain of “we’re not broken, just bent,” underscoring the scattered emotions of the songs. Very cool middle song.
Stockapella wrapped up with State Radio’s “Man in the Hall.” Really good visual presentation here again--the group members all commit, which means the group consistently looks great. I was hoping for a little more build into a climactic finish; unfortunately, this closer felt a bit tacked on to me, and, as well executed as it may have been, a little tacked on relative to the comprehensive drama of the mashup that preceded it. Nice bit with the soloist crouched and the group swarming him before he stood back up for the final chorus and good choice to return to that visual on the ending--selling their most memorable image. All in all, it was a good finish to a good set.
The Deaftones were last up before intermission. The co-ed crew wore its traditional black and green, featuring suspenders. Really nice soft open on Florence and the Machine's "No Light, No Light." with a really precise explosion of sound on the chorus. This group traditionally kicks it on musical precision and this opening was no exception to that expectation. I loved the choice to pick a song with a big sound to help break that mold early. Great percussion. Really neat visual for the group to turn its back to the crowd in a semicircle facing the soloist in the back on two men's shoulders, rising above them all for a cool moment that really accentuated the aural performance and was soundly enough executed to not interfere with the vocals. Awesome drop and slap the stage moment on the transition to the final chorus with the soloist ripping loose. When you’ve got an auditorium full of onlookers bobbing their heads right with you on a move like that, you know you’ve struck gold. Excellent opener.
The group continued with Emmy Rossum’s “Slow Me Down.” Nice soft solo, doubled up on at key moments with the group exploding in sound at key moments. This group is so good at using dynamics to dramatic effect. Nice use of tempo variance to say "slow me down" on the last iteration of the first chorus. Great use of visuals again, and I loved the mix of things, particularly on the second chorus, with the group in triangular formation and the front row with hands on the soloist's shoulders to slow her down. Great incorporation of aural quality, visual presentation, and lyrical content. A pretty spectacular middle song.
The Deaftones wrapped things up with "Pompeii" by Bastille. Great combination of precision with a sense of joy on this one, with the group finally cutting loose a bit (if not quite as much as I’d like) to celebrate on stage and let the crowd in. Wonderful control on the fast parts--maintaining the precision of phrasing, which can be so hard to do. Lovely slowed down choral bit on the finish. I wrote earlier about making a song your own and highlighting your identity, particularly at the climax of your set, in the last impression you're leaving on the audience and this was a perfect example of remixing a song to spotlight everything you've got. Really lovely subtle weave-in of "No Light, No Light" on the finish. Killer set!
The Echoes opened the second half. Nice look with black dresses, blue necklaces. They opened with KT Tunstall's "Suddenly I See." I admired the group’s confidence and stage presence, but the balance seemed to slip away from them pretty early in this song, and I never felt that they quite got under control for the duration. Nice visual moment on the bridge with the group clustered tight around the soloist then spreading out by degrees. The group went for a clap along that no one really bit on from the audience--one of the dangers of doing so in your first song.
The ladies followed up with "Fix You" by Coldplay. Nice soft opening on this one and nice accompanying visual with the group shifting from a cluster to a V-formation then subtly re-arranging itself. I liked the choice to double up on the solo for the chorus. Really good solo work in general here, but I would have loved more complexity in the backing vocals and the group would have benefited to have trimmed the instrumental bridge which never really grew in complexity or intensity. Cool choice to go to a four-part solo leading up to the final chorus and nice restraint on the simple finish. I just wish the sound had gotten bigger to really make that simple closing pop.
The Echoes finished with a Spice Girls medley that included "Wannabe," “Stop,” and “Spice Up Your Life.” This was a fun enough comedy piece, and featured a fun beatbox interlude. I probably would have milked that for a bit longer, since the percussionist was solid and the audience seemed most engaged at that point in the song. All in all, it was fun closer, but it more or less embodied my key complaint about this set—it felt as though the whole thing was set in 2007 or 2008 when the first two songs were still fairly fresh, and nineties pop throwback idea was relatively novel. This is a good a cappella group and I thought they sold themselves short by not venturing into more ambitious, creative territory.
The Supernovas were up next. Good look for the co-ed group in very individualized semi-formal wear. They opened with OneRepublic's "Counting Stars." Really nice warm opening with the group sound popping as the perc keyed in and the tempo picked up. Nice, distinctive solo work here. Fun bit of staging with three distinct arcs in place and the soloist working his way between them. Really good stage presence from the group in general. Really fun fall out b it as the group clapped along for the soloist to sing the bridge before the low end started swelling beneath him, then the group keyed in behind him, only to drop off sharply again leading up to hot finish. Nice opener.
Interesting opening to the second song, with a four-part, splintered lead on Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love” Really nice solo work on this one, showing emotion, working the stage effectively, and maintaining a consistent vocal, even nailing the falsetto segment. Great facials from the group in general to make this one feel really authentic and irresistibly intense.
The Supernovas wrapped up with “The One That Got Away” by The Civil Wars. Really good doubling on the solo between a male and female lead. Interesting visual choice for the group members to circle around the soloists in two separate groups. That can work really well, but the segment lasted a little long for me and the sheer function of the soloists being shorter than most of their groupmates kind of made them seem lost—less in a narratively effective way, more in the sense that I found it a little harder to connect with them. Cool bit late in the song with the group lining up for a wall of sound spot. A fine closer to a very effective set.
Next up, The Counterparts. Another co-ed group wearing stylish threads without anything uniform--sticking with white, black, and red. They opened with “Big White Room” by Jessie J. You can’t talk about this song without referencing the solo—simply sublime stuff here from a young woman who managed to balance emotional richness and vulnerability with an innate understanding of drama and the importance of building to make the song more dramatic as it went. Great swell of bass sound on the opening and recurring throughout the piece. Killer dynamic shifts, particularly on the transition to the end game at which point the soloist ripped loose and the group was right there with her. Strong, off-beat opening song.
The set continued with “The Lady Is a Tramp.” Fun cld school swing sound on this one, with dueling male soloists, paired with cute bits of staged dancing at the fore of the stage between the soloists and ladies from the group. Fun bit of scat on the bridge. Nice sound from the group all around. On one hand, I admired the change in tempo and feel from the opener, but a sterilized song like this was sort of a letdown after such a bold introduction to the group. I couldn’t help feeling the group did itself a disservice by mellowing out—as entertaining as the piece was in a vacuum, and as objectively well-done as the music was, it felt like an awkward fit for this competition set.
Soft, measured, offbeat opening to Radiohead's "Creep" I really liked the female lead on this one and the choice of an offbeat tempo and representation of the instrumentation here. Really shrewd choice to add a second soloist to echo the first on the second verse, differentiating the sound and adding a sense of community in loneliness, which, on a meta-level, is kind of what this song is really all about. Nice swell of sound on the close and great work from the soloist. Sweet, soft finish on the ending as the group softened then fell away so the soloist could own it, wrapping up with the two leads singing as one. Just a brilliant piece of music and an exceptional, imaginative closer. Looking at the set as a whole, I'd love for that middle song to have been something more serious to have told a more cohesive story throughout the set. As it stands, I feel The Counterparts have a solid semifinal-level act, but if their middle song could be more of an event, I dare say this might have been an ICCA Finals-level set.
The Cleftomaniacs closed the competition.The co-ed group wore black and teal. Fun clap stomp intro to Queen's "We Will Rock You." It's easy to question this song choice as kind of played and kind of low brow, but given the group's position in this competition--performing so late in the show that the crowd is fatigued, after all nine other groups, and particularly after an act as electric as The Counterparts, you want to make a big impression, thus it really played in their favor. Transition to Amy Winehouse’s “You Know That I’m No Good” for a solid enough opening number, featuring a strong solo.
Next up, the group sang “Walk Humbly, Son” by Eddie from Ohio. A nice choral rendering here—very clean sound, impeccable tuning, and I really liked the ambition to deviate from conventional pop music and show off the group’s blend and harmonies. My only real quarrel here is that I wish they could have pulled off this song without conducting on stage, at least after the opening. I won’t condemn conducting as thoroughly or outright as some other folks, but I do have to a gree with the conventional thinking that it sticks out, takes the audience out of the performance, and suggests the group can’t keep it together on their own. "
The Cleftomaniacs wrapped up with a mashup of Lady Gaga’s “Aura” and “Applause.” Good percussion here and great enthusiasm from the lead, particularly when she ripped into her part. Fun stomp routine and clap percussion at the chorus. Nice little break dance move from the percussionist on the finish. This song was quite good overall, but also felt a little scattered brained to me--parts of it bad ass, parts just kind of cheesy. It’s certainly the right idea for a closer, but a little more focus and direction when it comes to the story the group was trying to tell really might have pulled this one together and made for a stronger finish.
As the judges deliberated, The Treblemakers entertained the crowd with a fine set including "I Choose You," a mashup "Love Somebody," “When I’m Gune (Cups)," and "Some Nights," "Valerie," "Hide and Seek," and "Rumor Has It." Afterward, the emcees called upon a volunteer to give him a personal, public beatboxing lesson, focusing on "boots and cats." Something tells me the subject of the lessons was a plant, a ringer--or an incredibly fast learner.
Meanwhile, I made my selections for the evening. In the end, I felt that either The Counterparts or The Deaftones were the night’s winners. The Deaftones were more consistently solid and creative, and a tad more musically precise. The Counterparts featured two truly dynamite solos, stunned me with their arrangement of “Creep,” and I felt were one creative choice away from being truly dynamite. In the end, I had The Counterparts edging out the win. I thought there was a really tight race for third, with The Melismatics, Off the Record, Stockapella, and The Supernovas all very much in the mix. In the end, I just barely sided with Off the Record for the most surprising and consequently memorable of the sets.
Ultimately, the judges flipped my first and second place finishers and put The Supernovas at first. No serious complaints there—particularly because I felt the right two groups are moving forward to semis. The Deaftones closed out the night with an encore performance of Florence and the Machine’s “No Light, No Light.”
Mike Chin's Picks
1. The Counterparts
2, The Deaftones
3. Off the Record
1. The Counterparts for “Big White Room”
2. Off the Record for “Keep Breathing”
3. The Melismatics for “House of the Rising Sun”
Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. The Deaftones for "No Light, No Light"
2. Stockapella for the full set
3. The Melismatics for “House of the Rising Sun”
1. The Counterparts for "Creep"
2. Stockapella for "California King Bed"/"Just Give Me a Reason"
3. The Deaftones for "Pompeii"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion
1. Stockapella for "The Cave"
2. The Counterparts for the full set
3. The Deaftones for the full set
Official ICCA Results
1. The Deaftones
2. The Counterparts
3. The Villanova Supernovas
Outstanding Soloist: The Counterparts for “Big White Room”
Outstanding Arrangement: The Supernovas for the full set
Outstanding Choreography: The Counterparts for the full set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Stockapella for the full set