Eric Soriano is a first-year medical student at the University of Rochester. He is an alum of the JHU Octopodes and a current member of the URSMD group On Call.
(Photos by Will Browar)
The weather may be cold, but the mics were hot in Rochester as Nazareth College hosted the last ICCA Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal of the 2013 season. The Linehan Chapel was buzzing with excitement as a sell-out crowd had gathered to watch the show. Nine groups, all hailing from New York State, competed for the final two spots at Semis. The competitors were:
The Cornell Chordials
RIT Eight Beat Measure
The Macaulay Honors College at CUNY Macaulay Triplets
Syracuse Main Squeeze
The Cornell Class Notes
The Syracuse Otto Tunes
The UB Buffalo Chips
The Syracuse Mandarins
Nazareth College Call4Backup
The night began with a welcome from the emcees for the evening, none other than Mike Chin and Mike Scalise, co-founders of The A Cappella Blog! You really have to hand it to these guys. For the past six years, the ACB has consistently been one of the most comprehensive and widely-accessible sources of a cappella content for the collegiate community, and it is due in large part to all of the hard work they have dedicated to the website. The Mikes handed the floor over to the host group, Nazareth College Call4Backup, who opened with a medley of Pat Benatar hits including “Shadows of the Night,” “We Belong,” “Heartbreaker,” “Love is a Battlefield,” and “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” ICCA Mid-Atlantic Producer Holli Matze came on next to greet us before yielding the floor to the competing groups.
With the show officially underway, The Chordials were the first to take the stage. The group wore red and black and led off with “Plain Gold Ring” as performed by Kimbra. The group began with a soft, subtle intro, before adding perc and an awesome clicking effect that produced a beautifully mystical atmosphere. The soloist was smooth, sultry, and full of an intensity that continued to build throughout the song. The group complemented her nicely with subtle, purposeful movements starting in a block formation, then moving into arc. As the group moved, the ensemble sound began to grow, the perc became more complex, and the soloist let loose on some killer riffs. Truly a stellar first song.
The Chordials transitioned into “Lies” by The Black Keys. The soloist began unaccompanied before adding the ensemble to back him up. This song really fed off of the haunting atmosphere that had been established with the first song with the group sound building beautifully between the verses. Exceptional solo on this one, teeming with intensity and showing off a great falsetto. The group matched the emotion of the song well, spreading across the entire stage before closing in to a mob, then finally ending in a V formation. Though The Chordials group bio noted that this was the group’s first ICCA appearance in nine years, it was very clear that they came ready to compete tonight. Also did I mention they only had eleven members? Yet, their sound was so rich, enshrouding the audience with each changing chord.
The third soloist stepped forward as they transitioned into the highly recognizable intro for Alex Clare’s ”Too Close.” The first time I heard this song on that Internet Explorer 9 commercial (which did wonders for promoting Alex Clare, I’m not so sure about IE9), I had a feeling it would be a popular choice at ICCAs this year. The Chordials were more than up to the task, starting with a rich sound on the synthesizer intro and moving into the verse by clapping to imitate the rhythmic effects on the original track. Unfortunately the clapping tended to cut through the group sound and washed out the group vocals. However, I thought that the clapping was a good decision overall, it filled out the sound and made up for the fact that the arrangement in the verses was relatively empty. Great energy from the group, especially as the chorus hit and added some powerful stomping. The bass and perc were awesome on this one as well and really propelled the song forward as they slid seamlessly into the second verse. The group dropped to the floor before exploding into the second chorus. The soloist more than held his own, who started out singing with a straight tone but became more raw and grungy as the song progressed. The Chordials really knocked it out of the park from start to finish, weaving an intricate and provocative set that truly established a high bar for the rest of the evening.
The second group of the night was the all-male group RIT Eight Beat Measure. The guys wore black blazers and orange ties and started off with “Scream” by Usher. The group burst on to the stage with an infectious energy and stage presence that engaged the crowd right off the bat. Their choreo was fun and highly entertaining as the soloist threw his sunglasses into the crowd and commanded the stage with awesome stage presence and swagger. Killer sound from some of the guys singing in falsetto to sound like synthesizers. In the bridge, the group surrounded the soloist with a pulsating mob before he broke away while letting out a high pitched scream that got a good laugh from the crowd. Though I enjoyed the entertaining choreo and enthusiasm throughout the song, I think it began to detract from the group’s tuning and blend in some parts. Overall though, an excellent, high-energy opener.
The guys spread out across the stage as the next soloist stepped out to the front of the stage beyond the microphones to sing the beginning of “Men of Erin” by The Elders, a Celtic folk band from Kansas City. Certainly a unique song choice and a brave decision to perform it without mics. Many groups were plagued by reverb throughout the night, but this song was beautifully suited to be sung with the chapel’s acoustics. The original soloist stayed in the middle of the stage while the guys gradually added more group members to build the sound to produce a highly dramatic visual and musical narrative. The original soloist showed great emotion throughout the song. My only criticism here was that the intensity wasn’t quite matched by all of the group members. Nevertheless a strong second song and a great contrast to the opener.
The next soloist stepped forward and threw his blazer on the floor before getting in to the intro of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who. Very fun, high-octane performance by the entire group. Exceptional perc throughout the song and more entertaining choreo from the guys that looked like they were having the time of their lives up there on stage. Every performance by Eight Beat Measure really demonstrates their everlasting commitment to vocal entertainment and their love of the genre. It makes sense that this group would be home to the author of the blog “What Should A Cappella Call Me,” a site that so perfectly encapsulates the a cappella experience in a series of animated .gifs. A strong end to a highly effective set.
Next up was the all-female group RIT Encore. The ladies wore black dresses with aqua-colored belts. They started with “Brighter than the Sun” by Colbie Caillat. Nice energy from the whole group, fun choreo with nice sways, leans, and cute pantomimes of sunlight shining down from the sky. Sweet sound on the solo, it almost made me forget that the temperature outside was below freezing…almost. It was a fun song choice, but the arrangement was a bit stagnant and I would’ve liked to have seen more build. The first two groups did such a great job adding on layers to each song as it progressed whereas this performance stayed more or less at the same level. The group had a good ensemble sound, though the high parts tended to overpower the lower voices at times.
The ladies transitioned into “Mama Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening. Excellent soloist, she was very smooth and delivered this emotional song with poise and intensity. I would have liked to see the rest of the group match the emotional tone that she was projecting. Awesome breakdown towards the end that started with some foot stomping and led in to a powerful use of a quartet to sing the solo in four-part harmony to close out the song.
Three out of the four girls in the quartet dropped back to rejoin the group leaving the next soloist alone to transition into the final song, “Titanium” with a sampling of “Where Have You Been” by Rihanna. Unfortunately, the woman singing “Titanium” had a malfunctioning solo mic. We could still hear her fairly well even though she was unamplified, which is truly a testament to how beastly you have to be to sing “Titanium” in the first place. She did a great job overall, excellent tone and a strong sound. Entertaining choreo with the group splitting to opposite sides of the stage while having one group pretend to shoot the other. The soloist on the Rihanna song was strong as well, closing out the set with a highly spirited performance. Great song choice for an overall solid set.
The next group was The Macaulay Triplets, a co-ed group dressed in black and red. Remarkably, this group was formed only 10 months ago. Truly a commendable task to take on ICCAs as such a young group, and I have a great deal of respect for these guys. The group started in an arc around the soloist who started “21 Guns” by Green Day. Very nice solo with a nice pure tone and great delivery. The ensemble backed her up well as they entered the first chorus. The second verse had a nice groove to it, but I found the pounding perc a little distracting here. I noticed the beat boxer was cupping the perc mic, which gave the sound an undesirable tinny effect. The song did build into the last chorus, with a rocking audience clap at the end, but it left me wanting an even more epic breakdown with the full ensemble singing the lyrics. Overall though, it was a solid opening song.
The Triplets transitioned seamlessly into “Coming Home” by John Legend. Lovely solo by the female lead on this song. Such a pure, sweet performance as the group backed her up with soft chords before crescendoing nicely into the chorus. The arrangement was simple, but effective in providing the backdrop and the context for the soloist to tell a story to the audience. They let loose a little on the last chorus, filling the chapel with a rich ensemble sound. The song began to wind down and the soloist ended on a riff that was absolutely sublime.
The final song of the set was “Feeling Good” with another spectacular soloist. Very smooth and sultry with lots of attitude. She was suave and refined in the verses, but belted out some sick riffs towards the end. The group followed her with some powerful foot stomps during the last chorus. At the end she almost verged on sounding too shouty, but fell on the right side of the vocal spectrum, intense but not unpleasant. Personally, I always prefer that soloists try to go for those big moments and she definitely delivered on his one and brought down the house. A very strong closer for a great set.
The last group before intermission was Syracuse Main Squeeze. The ladies wore black tops and rainbow leggings. They started with “No Light No Light” by Florence and the Machine. I loved this song choice and it suited the group very well. Beautiful group sound that was rich and textured, building the dream-like atmosphere that Florence is known for. Awesome visuals as the group members circled the stage then froze in place, allowing the soloist to move around her groupmates as if she were wandering through a forest. Outstanding soloist, who transitioned seamlessly between her upper and lower registers. Killer vocal percussion that pounded beneath the melody to round out the group sound. Towards the end, the group closed in on the soloist, trapping her, before breaking out to an epic ending. A truly powerful start to the set.
Main Squeeze began their second song with a patient, tempered intro that led into “Wolf and I” by Oh Land. Stellar soloist who positively owned this song, commanding the stage with confidence and poise. The group sound built beautifully, continuing to weave the evocative, haunting atmosphere of the song. Excellent perc on this one as well that added great texture to the sound. Towards the end, the ladies stepped forward beyond the mics to the edge of the stage as the song slowly faded out. I thought this was a unique song choice and was among my favorites of the night.
The ladies walked back behind the mics to start their closer, “Stone Cold Sober” by Paloma Faith. Great solo, exuding an attitude and sassiness that was matched by the group members and enhanced by some awesome choreo formations. The soloist stood in the center of the stage while the group circled around her. Then let loose and punched the ending for an outstanding finale. I truly enjoyed watching this set. I felt like Main Squeeze presented a great package complete with soloists, great visuals, and killer vocal percussion that set the backdrop to a creative competition set.
First up after the intermission were The Class Notes. The co-ed group wore mixed black and white. The first song of the set was “I Feel the Earth Move” by Carol King. They started out with a trio that sang unaccompanied before adding the bass and the ensemble. A great way to start out the set as the trio faded back and rejoined the group and allowed the soloist to take the stage. She delivered the song with attitude and commanded the floor with a bold stage presence. She went in and grabbed one of the guy’s ties, dragging him across the stage before releasing him from her clutches. Outstanding perc on this one too that really pushed the song forward.
The Class Notes transitioned seamlessly into a choral introduction of their second song, before revealing the warm, rich texture of “Hold My Heart” by Sara Bareilles. A wonderfully tempered group sound that complemented the soloist. She sang the song sweetly, yet came through with a nice rich tone. Good emotion on this one, too--her delivery was genuine and sincere. Great use of dynamics as the second verse built and swelled beautifully into the chorus. The group chose not to move around too much in this song, which made the visuals a little stagnant even though they did a great job heightening the vocals as they reached the last chorus. Heavenly transition into the ending to close out the middle song.
The group began “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Miraz and like the first two songs, they began with their soloist singing unaccompanied for the majority of the first verse before adding the ensemble. At this point I would have opted to start the song differently, as they had already started the previous two songs in a similar fashion and had lost a lot of the dramatic effect. The arrangement was gradual and patient, but far too reserved for my taste to be the closer to the set, especially following a song like “Hold My Heart” that quite was similar in spirit and atmosphere. Nevertheless, the soloist sounded great and delivered the song well. I loved the added solo harmony in the second verse and the group moved from a more melancholy mood to one that was more hopeful and redemptive. The original song has a great gospel choir call and response segment in the end and I was really hoping to hear the group break out on the last chorus. It seemed like they did try to integrate some of that ensemble echo into the arrangement, but unfortunately it was a bit washed out. Overall a good ending to a very strong set, but the last song lacked the power to really leave a lasting impact.
Next up were The Otto Tunes, an all-male group dressed in different combinations of blue, grey, and white. The guys led off their set with a choral intro, a very popular technique for a lot of the groups that night, before transitioning into “Show You How to Love” a Pentatonix original. The soloist had a killer upper register and moved effortlessly between the upper and lower sections of his range. Lots of entertaining choreo and a sick dubstep breakdown that was carried by the outstanding bass and perc. The group added some foot stomps to add to the effect, which helped fill out the overall sound. The soloist ended the song with a vocal glissando that seemed to pierce the stratosphere.
The next song was “Til Kingdom Come” by Coldplay. I thought the most notable aspect of this performance was the wicked bass sound that really provided the scaffolding for the group’s sound. The solo was shared by two guys, both sounded great with a clarity of tone and delivered the song with a lot of conviction. The group changed keys seamlessly to end the song before transitioning into position for the closer.
The last soloist stood stoically in the middle of the stage, while the other group members paced in circles around him for a very interesting, tribal introduction. The group went in to an awesome rendition of “Oh! Darling” originally by the Beatles, but they had a very creative artistic take on the song. The group began to creep towards the soloist before he was able to break free. Great sound on the solo, his voice reminded me of Bono at times, and he complemented the performance nicely with a well-controlled falsetto. The group ended on some deliciously crunchy jazz chords. Overall a very strong set with lots of energy, superb soloists, and one of the strongest basses the audience had heard all night.
To introduce the next group, Mike Chin took the stage and announced that he would be telling us about The Buffalo Chips in rap form. He then soulfully delivered the group bio to the beat of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. Truly a priceless moment for all of us who grew up in the 90s. The Buffalo Chips came wearing blue shirts, black vests, and white ties. The soloist emerged from the group to start off “Rebel Beat” by the Goo Goo Dolls. The song started gentle and refined but unleashed on the chorus. Very engaging choreo complete with swaying and bobbing to the beat, then reaching out towards to audience. This song definitely had many great moments, but I felt that this rendition was a little too mellow. I would have liked to have seen the guys loosen up even more, but overall this was a strong start to the set.
The Chips spread out across the stage for “No Fire” by John Peter Lewis. They began with their backs turned away from the soloist, who stood alone at center stage. Gradually, each group member turned around towards the center adding additional layers as the song progressed. The soloist was brilliant on the highs, which were right in his wheelhouse. He also showed of a wicked falsetto, but he bottomed out just a little on some of the lows in the song. This was a strong performance, but I couldn’t help but feel like The Chips were still playing it too safe with the arrangement.
To close the set, The Chips chose “Daylight” by Maroon 5. The guys had great blend throughout the set, but it was especially apparent here. The song built nicely, but to contrast the first two song I was really hoping to see them bring down the house with the finale. This song was pleasant, but didn’t showcase as much vocal diversity as I would have liked. Overall, I thought the Chips have a lot of potential with their current group members and certainly had several great moments throughout their performance. However, in a highly competitive quarterfinal like this one, I would have liked to see them take more risks with their song choices and arrangements. I have no doubt that these guys will continue to produce at a high level and certainly hope they continue to compete in future tournaments.
The final performers of the evening were The Mandarins. The ladies wore black tops and jeans and started with a very cool sounding mashup of “Without You” by David Guetta ft. Usher and “Sweet Disposition” by The Temper Trap. Very interesting choreo as the girls starting shaking back and forth at the beginning, eventually moving into sways that seemed much more natural. Amazing alto sound that added such a warm and rich tone to the lower end of the ensemble sound. I appreciated The Mandarins’ creativity with this arrangement. In many ways, “Without You” is a song that’s made to be in a mashup because the chorus doesn’t have much going on other than “ohs,” so it lends itself nicely to be paired with another song. My favorite part was definitely the ending when the two soloists sang together and the two songs truly merged into one.
Next up was “Gravity” by John Mayer. The ladies performed the song with the solo up an octave, making this a lovely piece for the soloist to show of her sweet, honey-like soprano register. The arrangement for the group sound was simple, but effectively complemented the soloist as she took some risks going for more complex riffs towards the end of the song. While the soloist did a great job building the emotional and vocal intensity throughout the piece, I would have liked to have heard the group’s sound go there with her.
The closer for the night’s competition was “Beautiful Life” by Ace of Base. Very fun number with great choreo as the ladies shimmied throughout the intro. Very strong soloist who exuded just the right attitude for a song about celebrating life. Again, awesome alto on this one as well that truly enhanced the sound and acted as the foundation for the higher voice parts. At the end of the song, the ladies got the audience moving with a rocking “stomp, stomp, clap” that was reminiscent of “We Will Rock You.”
Call4Backup returned to perform while the judges deliberated. Their songs included “Brighter than the Sun,” the Kim Possible theme song, “Hallelujah,” and “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz. On this one, the girls invited everyone to participate and it was so much fun to see all of the competing groups spontaneously run up towards the stage to dance and sing along. It was a beautiful sight, and it truly captures what a cappella is all about. All of the voices joined together to celebrate music and to just appreciate being at quarterfinals surrounded by so many talented young artists. It is the kind of moment that makes you forget about that exam or research paper you have to do next week and just for a few minutes, revel in the present.
As the judges deliberated, I began to work on my picks for the evening. I thought that The Chordials clearly stood out from the other groups. It is always challenging to perform first in the order, but this group from Cornell really impressed me, and I thought it was highly likely that they would take home first place. Figuring out who I thought should join them down at Rutgers for semi-finals was a daunting task, and I certainly did not envy the judges who had to make this decision. I narrowed it down to a three-way race between The Otto Tunes, Eight Beat Measure, and Main Squeeze, who I thought all showed up with brilliant performances. It was a very close decision, but I ultimately chose Main Squeeze to take second, with Eight Beat Measure a close third, and Otto Tunes right behind them.
Holli Matze returned and called all of the groups back to the stage for the awards ceremony. The tension in the room was palpable, and I could so clearly remember what it’s like to stand on that stage, surrounded by members of your group, anticipating the announcement of the competition results. In the end, The Chordials took home first place and will be joined by Eight Beat Measure at semifinals. The Chordials ended the night with “Nothing But the Water” by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals for an in-your-face, rocking performance to close out the show. Seriously, this song could have easily been in their competition set, it was one of the best, most dynamic ICCA encores I have seen.
I know that Upstate New York will be very well represented at Rutgers in March for what has shaped up to be an incredibly competitive Mid-Atlantic semifinal. It was truly a privilege to watch this Quarterfinal and it was an experience I’ll never forget. Congratulations to all of the competing groups! You are all incredibly talented and you made me feel so proud to be a member of the greater a cappella community and a lifelong fan of a cappella music.
1. The Chordials
2. Main Squeeze
3. Eight Beat Measure
4. The Otto Tunes
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Main Squeeze for the full set
2. Eight Beat Measure for “Won’t get Fooled Again”
3. The Class Notes for “I Feel the Earth Move”
Outstanding Bass or Alto:
1. The Otto Tunes for full set
2. The Chordials for full set
3. The Mandarins for full set
1. The Chordials for “Plain Gold Ring” and “Lies”
2. Main Squeeze for “Wolf and I”
3. The Otto Tunes for “Oh! Darling”
1. Eight Beat Measure for the full set
2. Main Squeeze for the full set
3. The Otto Tunes for full set
ICCA Official Results:
1. The Chordials
2. Eight Beat Measure
3. The Otto Tunes
Outstanding Soloists: The Chordials for “Lies” and The Macaulay Triplets for “Feelin’ Good”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Main Squeeze and Eight Beat Measure