On Saturday, February 15, Penn State University played host to an ICCA Mid-Atlantic quarterfinal. Photos from the show are available now on The A Cappella Blog Facebook page. Before the review, a quick summary of the show.
The Penn State University Coda Conduct
Penn State University Blue in the FACE
Elizabethtown College Phalanx
The Stony Brook University High Cs
The Penn State, Abington College AbingTones
Binghamton University No Strings Attached
The Binghamton University Harpur Harpeggios
Elizabethtown College Vocalign
Rochester Institute of Technology Encore
Elizabethtown College Melica
Guest Performers: Kelsey Hendler and Alex Kershetsky
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Producer Holli Matze opened the night with the standard announcements and introduced Ken, an alum of the Penn State a cappella scene who served as emcee for the night.
The Coda Conduct was the first competing group. Nice look for the mixed crew in black and pink. Haunting, almost tribal unaccompanied intro from the soloist here, before the group keyed in with a ghostly repetition of "if you never" on the intro to Ellie Goulding's "Don't Say a Word" After the first verse, the group switched soloists and transitioned to Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain." Really good intensity from the group. I had mixed feelings about the arrangement as they cut short of the chorus, backtracking to "Don't Say a Word." On one hand I get building anticipation for the more familiar parts of well-known songs, but on the other hand, I tend to find it less satisfying for the audience not to hear what it’s hoping for at climactic moments of a song.
The Coda Conduct followed up with Mumford and Sons' "Hopeless Wanderer." I really liked the transition, almost seamless with a subtle hand off from one of the opening soloists to the next one. Good, soulful solo here. Fun moment as the percussion keyed in and the bass pounded, and the group transitioned to an arc. There was some choreo there, but I appreciate a group looking natural in it's performance, and thus think this was a good staging choice. Interesting bit with the male and female members crossing paths, touch hands and switching places in the arc. All in all, the piece had a sense of narrative direction and growth as it went along, and that served the group well.
Another seamless transition on the finish with two couples stepping to the fore holding hands and singing to each other on "Breath of Life" by Florence and the Machine. Power bit on the finish with the group clustered and stomping to reposition itself--a little more authority on those stomps could have gone a long way--they didn't really seem to be going all out until, literally, the final movement of the song. Nice crescendo in the end game, and a really good power solo, particularly when she ripped loose. The group did an nice job of playing with choral conventions and merging them with a more contemporary a cappella style to develop a unique, but cohesive sound for this set. Nicely done.
Next up Blue in the FACE. Sharp black, blue, and white duds for this mixed crew--doing a nice job of looking professional but not pigeonholing the men and women into quite the same look. They opened with Bastille's "Pompeii. Really slick backing sound and perc on the intro. I liked the bobbing motion on the chorus--enough to mix up the visuals without getting carried away. Nice bit of synched up movement with the group moving up and down as the soloist walked past on the "great clouds rolled over the hills" line. Cool four-part harmony behind the lead on the second chorus. This group did a nice job of mixing things up just enough to keep the overall presentation fresh from verse to verse.
The set continued with The Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Otherside." I'm not sure how I feel about this song choice. On one hand, I like the story they might have been weaving, moving back in time, literally, while still sort of modernizing the style of their sound by conventional standards--there's a pretty nuanced meta-narrative going on there. That said, there's also the reality that this song came out fifteen years ago, and has been subject to a lot of a cappella covers. I may sound like a broken record if you've been reading all of my ICCA and ICHSA reviews, but in these tournaments, you get twelve minutes to make your case why you deserve to move to the next round of competition. Each song choice needs to reflect something compelling about your group, right now, and this one song choice felt its age to me. Putting all of that aside, the group sound is quite good again, and the solo was nicely handled. I felt this one really would have benefited from a bigger climactic moment, though, that never really arrived.
Nice seamless transition, and a welcome switch to female lead for Blue in the FACE's closer, Duffy's "Mercy." Really good, charismatic solo here, and fun bit with the guys crouched by her side, followed by a neat transition when the rest of the ladies pushed the guys aside to stand in an arc around the soloist sending the guys to the back row. I felt like this would have been a great middle song for the group, though I understand the temptation to put this one last with the pipes on that soloist. Just the same, I thought this choice could have been pretty electric after "Pompeii" and set up a bigger climax on the finish.
Phalanx was up next. The guys sported their traditional cardigan, shirt, and tie look, which remains one of my favorite looks in collegiate a cappella. They opened with Bastille's "Pompeii." Yep, this is definitely one of the it songs of 2014. The guys threw a ton of choreo in this one--I'd argue it was excessive, but per their tradition, they executed with power and precision, so I was ready to forgive it. My biggest question about the movement was if the group really matched the style with the sound--doing a lot of swinging type moves and snapping jazzily on the second verse, behind a song with a really primal sound. On the positive side, this soloist was really good and the backing sound was really well rendered, particularly when it was at extremes--booming at the opening, and soft and subtle on the bridge, building to the final chorus.
Nice set up for the second song wit the first soloist handing off the mic to the next lead on the outro. The group entered a choral version of "Lullaby" as recorded by Josh Groban and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Clean sound on this one. We've heard this set structure from this group before, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a good one, subverting expectations by wedging something choral and beautiful to show off the group's musicianship between barn-burners. Excellent use of dynamics and excellent precision on this song.
The group exploded into its rap closer, Macklemore's "Can't Hold Us." the tempo seemed out of control to my ear--while the rap was valiantly fast, the vocal just wasn't strong enough to just it's place in a competition set. Lot of fun choreography and I loved the energy, but to me this was a prime example of a song that's fantastic for a campus show when you're performing for your fans and giving them a fun tag on to all of your more musically oriented stuff. But this one was not the kind of song you want to bring to competition. The guys took a shot at getting the crowd to sing along toward the finish, and at least got people clapping with them. Fun bit with individual guys getting the spotlight to riff, culminating in one of the shorter guys going up on two other guys' shoulders for his part. Phalanx got a big ovation and that's nice, but this group is talented enough that they had a very real shot at semis--I felt that last song choice shot them in the proverbial foot.
The High Cs sung next. Another all-male group, sporting black and red. The kicked off their set with Muse's "Undisclosed Desires" I liked the group's intensity of facials and overall air of severity. That said, their actual movement seemed kind of half-hearted and stagnant, and the sound didn't really go anywhere. Cool bit when they doubled up on the solo and transitioned to Aloe Blacc's "I Need a Dollar." Really nice timbre on this guy's voice, but I was still kind of awaiting more personality from this crew, but we never quite got there, and the choice to put these songs together it didn't make a ton of sense to me.
Seamless transition The Calling's "Wherever You Will Go." I have a real soft spot for this song. It was in vogue when I was around the age of most of the people on stage, though--so, personal attachments aside, this was a weird song choice for a competition in 2014. Really nice soulful solo that was well controlled and nice subtlety of instrumentation behind him, but the song didn't really seem to build anywhere. When you're going with vintage material, it becomes especially vital to make the song your own in some distinctive way and, as precisely executed as this song was, I wasn't feeling a unique flavor to this piece.
The guys wrapped up with Dispatch's "Here We Go," another dated choice, but at least a less mainstream one so the song felt like a more personalized choice. High-speed solo here, but the tempo from the group felt a little behind him. Nice bit of dynamic variation on the bridge. Fun stomp along in to finish. Pushing the tempo is fine and playing with rap-like solos can be cool, but if you don't decisively have the talents to pull it off, you're not doing yourself any favors bringing less purely musical "attraction" songs into the competition setting. All in all, I felt that this group has a lot of talent, and when they get a little more careful with song selection and playing with their own strengths, they could be an ensemble to watch out for in the Mid-Atlantic.
The co-ed AbingTones were up next, wearing black and electric blue. They started in a tight, inward facing huddle for American Authors' "Best Day of My Life." Really fun execution on this one with the women on one side, the men on the other, very choreographed, but a ton of fun, very unpretentious. Good sound all around and I liked the recurring lean in/lean out choreography on the "oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh"s. All in all, this one felt like organized chaos to me, and as such I thought it worked well for a high energy opener.
Nice power intro to "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King. Cool enough visual with everyone on their knees, encircling the soloist. Then they transitioned to "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid. Then--yep, it's "A whole New World" from Aladdin. "Hakuna Matata" and "When You Wish Upon a Star" closed out the medley. The group employed a lot of nice theatrics, really hamming it up at points to make the performance somewhat tongue in cheek, for example forming a physical approximation of the Disney castle as a closing visual. When it comes to song selection, groups need to be really conscious of the images they're projecting to a crowd. While there are exceptions to this rule, if you're bringing Disney songs to a collegiate competition, you need to really knock them out of the park or do something wildly original with your interpretation to completely stave off the risk as coming off as immature. As such, I felt the choice to sing these songs actually detracted from the considerable vocal talents on stage.
The group closed with Muse's "Madness." I thought it was a rather strange choice for the soloists to be hidden in the middle of the pack somewhere throughout the verses. I was expecting some sort of physical explosion to justify that staging choice, but if it ever came, I missed it. The voicing was a little on the blunt side here. Part of the challenge of bring a song like "Madness" to competition is that you know scores of other groups have had the same idea, and so you need to both stand out and execute, execute, execute to avoid poor comparisons. Unfortunately, I felt this performance lacked a lot of the nuance of better renderings, missing the sexy and cool pieces intrinsic to the original track. To the group's credit, they did end strongly, with a pretty spectacular visual explosion coming out of the last verse and a bit more fire on the vocals as things opened up.
No Strings Attached was up next. Another mixed group, this one clad in a very nice black and purple combo. They kicked off their set with "Whasername" from Green Day's American Idiot. I thought this was a good song choice for an opener, for starting soft and slow and swelling to a more rocking sound. I dug the air string bass heading into the second verse. Nice differentiation on the second verse with two backing leads, and the group demonstrated good gusto if not quite enough punch to their sound as the rock part came in. In the end, this song felt pretty long to me and I thought they might have benefited from cutting a verse to streamline things.
Next up, "Mamma Mia." The soloist was really likeable to me, but I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop on this song, and we never made it there--I never felt the umph factor really showed up to elevate the song from a fun cover to an re-invention worthy of the competition stage. The choreography was well executed, if a little overly literal at times.
The group closed with "One Day More" from Les Miserables I did like the choice for the air bass player from "Whasername" to take the first piece of the solo as Jean Val Jean--he seemed like a main attraction for this group and handing him the spotlight at a culminating moment makes a lot of sense--not unlike the way The Vanderbilt Melodores used to employ Seth Johnson. Unfortunately, as we all recalled soon after, Jean Val Jean doesn't actually have a very extended part in this song. Just the same, there's something appealing about a lot of different people getting featured over the course of a closing song. I appreciate the ambition of doing an all musical theatre set, but the thing is, when you make bold choices that buck competition convention like that, you have to realize you're under a microscope. This set, while fun and visually appealing, didn't have the polish, finesse or power to really work for me. As such, I would have to encourage this group to start with the basics, refine its craft and build toward doing more material of this ilk if that's where their creative intentions lean.
The Harpur Harpeggios opened the second half. Nice black duds for the all-female group. They opened with Christina Aguilera's "Come On Over" Nice sass and confidence of sound from the group, and a really nice, grooving bass line under this one. Good, restrained solo. It's easy to not take a song like this seriously, and this was a good example of how a group can make the audience take them seriously (and forget how dated the song choice is) by performing with confidence and serious execution. Lot's of fun, provocative choreography here. Really nice riffs from the soloist on the bridge. I loved the stop motion positioning bit en route to the last chorus.
The group followed with Sara Bareilles's "Gravity." I was willing to give 'Pegs a pass on the first, dated song choice for fun's sake, but to go from a late nineties pop song to one of the most over-exposed songs of the last five years felt like a misstep, at a point when the group had an opportunity to distinguish itself. Plus, I had to question the choice to conduct this whole thing on stage. By the time a group brings a song like this to competition, I would hope that they'd be past that point. The silver lining for this song--which was substantial--was that if you closed your eyes there was a pretty phenomenal solo and some really nice, warm harmonies beneath her--thus, I sort of felt as though, as a track, this was much more successful than as a stage performance in competition. Heart breaking soft finish from the solo.
The women marched their way into their closing number, a Ke$ha medley that started with "Die Young." Fun stomp percussion to punctuate this one, and transition to "Your Love is My Drug." I really liked the idea to use body percussion to complement that transition, but the women weren't beating their chests hard enough to be audible, which sort of undercut the movement. They progressed to "C'mon" then "Blow." I really liked the undercurrent of "this place about to blow" vocalized in the background there. Fun mashup bit on the finish. All in all, The Harpur Harpeggios were one of the more polished aural acts of the night, and I feel like a few more innovative song choices and some more attention to staging could easily elevate them to a solid semifinal act.
Vocalign was up next. The co-ed group took the stage in black blazers, white shirts, and blue jeans. They opened with "Demons" by Imagine Dragons. Nice group sound on the opening, though the blend felt off on the chorus to me. Interesting transition to "The Scientist" by Coldplay coming out of the first chorus. Probably the best part here was the sopranos and altos harmonizing on "it's where my demons hide" beneath the solo there. The doubled up solo comes across much better on "The Scientist" fortunately than it had on "Demons." The pieces didn't really seem to fit together exactly here. Some nice bits of staging with stomps into the group reaching out toward the crowd. Some nice harmonies on the finish there.
The group continued with "If I Ain't Got You" by Alicia Keys. Nice, subtle cymbal percussion on the verses and very good solo work. I'm a bit tired of this song choice in competition, but on a night when so many groups were "going there" this was hardly the worst offender. Nice enough staging on the finish with percussionist and soloist arm in arm.
Vocalign closed with Paramore's "Still Into You." Really nice charisma on this solo and fun choreo behind her. This was a fun closer and a fitting add on to the close of the set, ripping a little bit looser for something non-serious, and spotlighting their best lead. Let it all hang out party song.
Next up we get an all-female group out of RIT, Encore. They wore black dresses with electric blue belts. Cool hum opening with pounding perc pulsing beneath it as the higher parts filtered in for "The Lion The Beast The Beast" by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Really nice, intense solo here. The sound was just so compelling here, commanding the attention of the audience with poise and a real current of electricity. The perc sped up into the second verse. Wonderful stage presence from this group, solid, dark opener. The group did a really nice job of mixing up the tempo to keep this one feeling fresh. The high parts seemed a little beyond hte lead's range, but she made a valiant effort, and it's only a minor knock against an otherwise solid opener.
Next up, "Long Time Traveler" by The Wailin' Jennys. Lovely lead in with just the first soloist, and then the rest of the group gradually joining in piece by piece. It was a nice idea for the leads for the next song to walk to the front, from the back, though the spacing was off between group members so they had to turn a little to maneuver past their group-mates. That's the sort of detail a group needs to iron out before semifinals--I'd love to see this group attain that level of polish to accomplish everything else they were doing correctly. Very good use of dynamics.
Encore wrapped up with Little Mix's "Wings." A number of groups at this show tried to bust loose with a faster tempo or more attitude on their finales, and I thought this was an example of how to approach that kind of closer the right way--not necessarily busting loose on a rap or trying to run and jump across stage whilst singing, but just ramping up the 'tude and cutting a little looser for a fun song. I thought the group may have been a little better served to have given more time to individual solos as opposed to doubling or tripling up for so much of it, though I like the concept of small groupings standing together to represent the universal women's experience embodied in this song. Nice movement throughout this one and I loved the sass on the finish.
Melica took us home for the night. Another all-female group, sporting black and blue. They opened with "Dark Horse" by Katy Perry. Pulsing energy from the group here and the choreo was popping. Great attitude on the solo, and I was all on board for the provocative finish with the soloist blowing a kiss into the audience.
The women followed with Little Big Town's "Boondocks" Cool unaccompanied solo to start before the group stomped its way into the backing vocals. Though I felt this was a little over-choereographed, again, I admired the energy and commitment to the movement. Cool thread of almost paying homage to the soloists through this set--empowering and building up the soloists as stars through the choreography and style of the accompaniment. Cool clap-and-stomp perc. Fun, if random bit of line dancing choreo--while it was well executed, I probably would have left that out for undercutting the power of the song. Good sound all around here, though I wish the group had found more ways to differentiate it as they went--they lost me a little bit by the end for sheer repetition. I did like finish, with the group singing in a round.
Melica closed out its set with Selena Gomez's "Slow Down" This was where the surplus of choreography caught up to the group--not because their movement wasn't still good and fun to watch, but because we'd had so much similarly oriented movement up to this point, that none of it felt like a moment. Holding back more earlier on could have made this closer pop all the more powerfully. Nice money note from the soloist to set up the soft bridge and the song finished nicely to close out the set well.
As the judges deliberated, Penn State's Kelsey Hendler and Alex Kershetsky entertained the crowd with a keyboard and vocals act. As much as it's cool for an a cappella group to get some extra exposure, it's actually kind of a nice change of pace to hear some non-aca during the deliberation period. Their set included a jazzy take on "Stutter," "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room," a piano-only performance of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," a lovely duet on "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You," "She (For Liz)," "ET," and a piano finale of "Samson." After their performance, nine of the vocal percussionists reassembled on stage for individual beatboxing performances. I appreciated that the "perc off" portion of their performance was pretty well contained. There's a tendency for these affairs to get a little unwieldy, but whether the performers showed good discretion or event organizers gave good instructions, the performances were all bite sized enough to remain comfortable and a lot of fun. From there the percussionists combined for a joint performance that was a lot of fun.
During the deliberation period, I made my picks for the night. All in all, I felt it was a tough night to peg. I felt there was a disparity between the groups with the highest of highs that didn't quite deliver a complete set, versus those that delivered more solid overall sets, if not quite as spectacular individual moments. I tend to favor groups that deliver at a relatively high level for the full twelve minutes. As such, I ultimately had Encore and Melica moving on to the second round with Coda Conduct edging out Vocalign and Blue in the FACE for the third place slot.
Melica ended up winning the quarterfinal, with Vocalign joining them in progressing to semifinals. Melica closed the evening with their encore, "Survivor."
Mike chin's Picks for the Night
3. The Coda conduct
1. Blue in the FACE for "Mercy"
2. The High Cs for "Wherever You will Go"
3. Tie: The Harpur Harpeggios for "Gravity" and Vocalign for "If I Ain't Got You"
1. Phalanx for "Lullaby"
2. Encore for "The Lion The Beast The Beast"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Blue in the FACE for the full set
2. Encore for the full set
3. The Coda Conduct for the full set
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Phalanx for the full set
2. Melica for the full set
3. Encore for the full set
ICCA Official Results
3. The coda conduct
Outstanding Soloist: The High Cs for "Wherever You Will Go" and Melica for "If I Ain't Got You"
Outstanding Arrangement: Encore for the full set
Outstanding Choreography: Melica for the full set