On Saturday, February 8, Rutgers 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.
Rider University Acapocalypse
The Haverford college Outskirts
New York University Ani V'ata
The Monmouth University Sea Sharps
Wagner College Vocal Synergy
The Fordham University b-Sides
Rutgers University Casual Harmony
Ramapo College of New Jersey 4GotteN suitCase
The Rochester Institute of Technology Brick City Singers
The Fordham University F#s
Host Group: The Rutgers University Orphan Sporks
The Orphan Sporks kicked off the night with "When You Wish Upon a Star," which bled into The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams." Fun stuff, and very well executed, with a particularly keen low end. Andrew and Isabelle from The Sporks were our emcees for the night and proceeded with the standard announcements before introducing our first competing group.
Acapocalypse led things off. The co-ed group wore a good looking mix of black ,white and turquoise. They opened with Florence and the Machine's "Cosmic Love." Good solo on this one and tuning was on point. My main concern here was that visual performance felt pretty stilted and contrived, with members standing stock still then lunging into moments of synchronized bobbing, before they went still again. I get the feeling this group wasn't entirely comfortable with its own choreography and in cases like that, I feel groups are better served to move less or to settle into a more natural, individualized groove that can help the group look more at home with the performance.
Next up, the group started clustered in a tight pack then stepped out for the soloist to emerge from the center for Earth, Wind and Fire's "September." This guy's charisma was a breath of fresh air for this set as he looked so at home on the lead and the rest of the group loosened up a bit, too, both aurally and visually. Strange, abrupt cut off on the end of this one. Rider groups traditionally tend to squeeze four or five songs in a set--and this is a prime example of where something very good got clipped too short to save time for a higher volume of content.
The group carried on with two soloists up front on Maroon 5's "She Will Be Loved." I liked the arrangement and there were some really nice harmonies incorporated, but the tempo felt a little off here in the execution. Nice finish with the female lead operating alone and cutting off before the last "goodbye." That was a more provocative, creative finish that felt subversive rather than abrupt--I liked it.
Next up Bon Iver's "Woods," which transitioned to Kanye West's "Lost in the World." The "woods" fake out was fun, but on the collegiate competition scene, we've all heard it enough times that it no longer has the shock factor it once did. Fun bits of staging as the perc settled in and the group grooved in time and the movement had a clearer connection to the music. Good rap segment, and I think that the fun the group had with this performance and, to a greater extent, "September" highlighted that the group was at its best when singing fast and loose. I worry that, by wedging four songs in, Acapocalypse tried to be too many different groups at the same time, rather than developing a cohesive identity or really telling a story.
The Outskirts were second out of the chute. The group looked great in black and pink outfits ranging from dresses and scarves to blazers and blouses. They led of with Janelle Monae's "Q.U.E.E.N." The choreo was a little overly literal here but executed pretty slickly and with attitude, so I can live with that. Really good percussion. Nice power on the solo. Very good rap interlude here, and it was particularly badass as the tempo ground down to a slower pace. Solid opener.
The group made a seamless transition to Lorde's "Bravado." I really liked the timbre of the soloist, though I would have liked to have heard a little clearer diction from her. Really nice attitude from the group here--they let their personalities shine through in everything from the theatrics of the lead vocals, to the choreo, to their outfits, and it made it a lot easier to connect with this ensemble.
Next, we heard Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine." While the song choice is a little played, the group was putting out a really cool kind of forlorn, kind of sexy vibe and this song seemed to slip right into that. Fun little bit of stomp percussion. Nice intensity all around here and a really good solo. Really nice visual with hands outstretched on "sunshine" on the last chorus.
The group made another fluid transition to their closer, Florence and the Machine's "No Light, No Light" Near perfect song to continue the group's edgy, slick vibe. Awesome double solo here--the primary soloist ghostly and lovely, the backing one echoing and harmonizing and doubling up at all the right moments for a really cool effect. I would have liked to have heard the group to have heard something a little more interesting to do in the background. Tremendous build on the finish with the soloist singing an extended note as the group lined the front of the stage. I would have loved to have heard them really explode there, but still, the group demonstrated nice conviction on the finish. Really cool set from this group.
The third group was Ani V'ata. Cool look for the NYU crew, with the guys in white shirts, brown ties, and jeans, the women in black dresses. They led off with Pink's "God is a DJ." The group sounded fantastic on the opening, though I'm not sure I understood the choice to double up on the solo inconsistently on the first verse, which muddied the sound. The performance was most fun when the groove came in and the group seemed way more at home when this was fast and loose than they did on the mock-choral bit. Fun handing off of the solo on the second verse between three different group members--nice way to mix up the sound and the group looked good just dancing, repositioning as they went, but not over-choreographing the song.
The group followed with Justin Timberlake's "Mirrors." Nicely done perc here, and I liked the Hebrew lead in--a way of communicating the group's identity without being overbearing or alienating audience members who can't speak the same language. I actually think they could have stood to have done more of that on this song, as it grew a little stale the longer it went on. Nice backing lead bit as a male and female backing soloists stood on opposite sides of the stage singing against one another, backing the soloist. I wish the soloist had made a little more eye contact--he spent most of song with eyes closed or looking down--these little things can make a big difference in connecting with the audience and taking a solo from good to great.
Ani V'ata wrapped with Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive." Nice soft lead in, giving the song plenty of room to build as it went--I really liked that creative choice. Good use of shuffling around stage to sell the chaos the music was representing. Cool fall out bit leading into the second chorus. This was a really shrewd arrangement to mix things up and build to dramatic moments. Good use of dynamics to capitalize on that as the sound got big to make the ending feel genuinely epic. This song is sort of driven into the ground in a cappella at this point, but the group did enough unexpected variations on it to make it worth their while and a memorable closer.
The Sea Sharps were up next. The emcees revealed the all-female group only formed this year. They wore blue and white blouses and jeans. They opened with Lorde's "Royals." Relatively simple sound here, but I really admired the confidence of the sound here. Simple presentation all around, but the group looked one hundred percent comfortable, which I'll take over convoluted arrangement and awkward choreo any day. Good tuning. Yes, this song choice is a gamble for over-exposure, particularly with The AcaBelles' iconic version of the song that went viral this fall, but this was a solid enough opener.
Interesting staging as the women reconfigured to three leads with two clusters of five around the area mics next for a doo-wopped out take on Miley Cyrus's "We Can't Stop," approximately in the style of Postmodern Jukebox. This was such a fun, imaginative take on a song you'd otherwise expect to be pretty run of the mill. This kind of performance highlights what's awesome about a brand new competing group. There are times when such groups fall back on standards or just dont' know what they're doing. There are times when they bring something so fresh and different to the competition that you can't help smiling like an idiot while they sing. I loved this one.
The group followed with Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" Over-exposed song choices feel all the more awkward when they've already appeared that night. The good news is that this soft, slowed down version of the song sounded different than the earlier version from Ani V'ata. Really nice solo work here and the group showed wonderful control, particularly synching up slick sound execution with fluid movement--just enough to engage and surprise the crowd, and positively crisp to look at.
The Sea Sharps wrapped up with Blackstreet's "No Diggity." The obvious criticism is that this group picked songs that were either over-exposed in aca circles or had notable a cappella versions in the last couple years (in this case Pitch Perfect). I do feel that this was the weakest song choice of the set, but just the same, I appreciated the complete absence of pretension about this performance. A good trio of soloists worked their way through the song. Fun "We out" collectively on the finish. It goes such a long way for a group to actually look and sound like it's having fun and that made this set an unexpected treat to hear.
Vocal Synergy was up next--another all-female group, this one clad in purple and black. They opened with Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble." Fun brand of charisma from the lead with very tongue in cheek presentation and fun movement in the background, complete with robots and stop motion action. The song bled into Zed's "Clarity." Once again, we have an all-female group that wasn't afraid to move and have fun, and this ensemble did so with real power. Awesome energy on stage. Really good doubling up as the songs mashed together to round out an all-around excellent opener.
Fun perc intro and bit of Macklemore's "Same Love" to lead into Sara Bareilles's "Brave." It was a lot of fun to watch the group dance and be silly there. The soloist sounded a little too high for this one, though I really liked the timbre of her voice--I think she might have been really dynamite with a song that fit slightly more comfortably in her register, though she did nail the higher parts. Nice slow down and power movement on the bridge. Really fun breakdown on the finish with the instrumentation falling out altogether as the women got to clapping and singing in unison with the soloist belting over them (at which point she was truly sensational). The group circled back around to Macklemore on the finish. This one very much had the feeling of a closer so I was interested to hear where the group would head next.
Vocal Synergy wrapped up with a medley of Kanye West songs, including "Heartless," "Love Lockdown," and "Stronger." Really nice solo work here and excellent transitions. I think the coolest thing about this performance was that the women never rapped, but rather made the Kanye their own and it was very, very compelling. Really fun mashup bit late in the game. This one wasn't one hundred percent polished, but it was one hundred percent electric and I loved hearing the all-female groups of the Mid-Atlantic ascend at this show!
The b-Sides closed out the first half. The mixed group looked very nice in purple and black. The group opend with theirbacks to the stage and turned by degrees. "All of the Lights" by Kanye West featuring Rihanna. Nice power of sound here, and very smooth instrumentation Good lead and fun rap interlude. I liked the choice to lead off the set with a barnburner. Really fun sample of "Power." Nice use of varied tempo to build the drama here as the group slowed things down on the bridge before punching it way up on the last chorus. I feel like this group wasn't quite vocally intense enough to really make this song work for them--a little too clean, but it wasn't for lack of effort--no one can question their fire.
Nice seamless transition to Pentatonix's "Run To You" with very choreographed partner dancing, which bled into Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream." Neat reinvention of the song into a song that sounds more like a Disney-fied ballad than the original pop song. The group used dynamics well. I might have hammed up the choreo a little more as the group seemed to be playing for laughs with their facials and some of the movements, but were never overt enough for it to be clear. The beauty of an arrangement like this is that the audience is all but waiting for the tempo to pick up so when the perc does key in, it pretty effortlessly feels like a moment.
Another seamless transition to Zedd's "Stay the Night," mixed into"Clarity." Really good percussion gluing this one together. I worried the arrangement got a little unwieldy here as the songs mashed together and the group played with tempo--particularly when you're doing something creative, you need to be really careful about keeping the execution clean and clear so the audience can understand what you're doing, or your most complex parts start to sound like noise. I liked the choice to weave in bits of "Teenage Dream" again. This one never quite came all the way together for me, though i laud the creativity, effort, and energy the group brought to the competition.
After intermission, Casual Harmony opened the second half. The guys wore their traditional different colored collared shirts and jeans. They led off with Marianas Trench's "Stutter." Super fun clap and stomp lead in. This performance is so frigging fun and energetic, with unbelievable charisma from the full group. I loved the soloist's fire, though I thought he might have scaled back a little let his vocals shine a little more--parts of it bordered on shout-y. That's a semifinal-level concern, though--at this point, the guys were just so much more fiery than anyone else on stage (with the possible exception of Vocal Synergy) that I just couldn’t help smiling and bobbing along with them in the audience. Killer perc. Really fun stop-motion choreography here. Just an electric opener and a an excellent way to set the tone for the set. They went for the clap along for the first song which I usually worry about, but in front of your home school crowd and after a song like this you can afford it. super fun play dead moment by the soloist before the group called "clear" and used an air defibrillator to bring him back to life. What a show!
Next up was Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" choral start, soft and growing louder and louder into a lovely chord. Man that's a was stark contrast to the preceding song. As I have described over and over, groups need identity. The identity Casual Harmony established here was: we are elite, we can perform in any style and we will not be denied. Lovely. Sensational solo work. Killer use of percussion to dramatize the second verse and push the tempo a bit then fall out for a tremendouslyly emotionally rich moment on the verse to follow. There were moments when the tuning of the backing vocals could have used a little tweaking and tightening, but, again, I feel that's more of a semi-level concern given the caliber of this performance overall.
Casual Harmony closed with Adele's "I'll Be Waiting." Really nice transition here, building from the ballad to precede it, but with an undercurrent of grooving perc and hint of a big sound to follow. The transition to a new soloist for the second verse really nice creative choice as the guys were comparably talented but really distinctive from one another. Great visual performance again here. Excellent moment when the guys doubled up. I just love that there's so much activity in the backing vocals. Another clap-along on the fnish here. Things weren't quite as electric here as they were on the opener and I think that's something for the guys to think about as, as good as this was, it may felt like a bit of an anti-climax. I don't think reversing the order of the set is the answer, but I do think some tweaking is in order to take this set up one more notch for the guys to stake a claim for their first ICCA Finals berth.
4GotteN suitCase was up next. Cool look for the mixed group with everyone in fedoras, collared shirts, suspenders, and black slacks, with sparkly gloves on their right hands; white shirts and black hats for the women, white hats, black shirts for the gentlemen. They opened with "Thriller." Really slick sound from the group on the opening. Very, very good perc. Fun bit with the group members lurching form either side of the stage like zombies. I think that could have been even cooler if they'd come from off stage to do that, though that's harder to plan for when you're vising from another school. Interesting transition into "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" I think transitioning soloists there would have been the way to go to make it clearer what was happening--the mashup was kind of cool but felt a little off. The movement to "Billie Jean" was a little cleaner a little abrupt. The group moved into "Beat It" right on the chorus, which I felt was a miscalculation--for songs as iconic as these ones, the audience hungers for the chorus, and you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't deliver. I will give the group credit for keeping up with the choreography pretty impressively, but I felt like there may have been a little too much going on here for the audience to really appreciate the effort and get the most bang for the group's dramatic buck. "Smooth Criminal" I will certainly credit this group for its depth of of soloists who can pull off Jackson reasonably well. When the group keyed into "Bad" I'm starting to wondering if they might actually go the full set with nothing but the Michael Jackson medley (spoiler alert: they did). The unsung hero of this thing was, no doubt, the VP guy who is cut a wicked pace for over ten minutes without so much as an applause break. Just as things seem to wind up, the group was actually winding down to the softer side of Michael with "Man in the Mirror." I might have worked that song in earlier, to vary the pace more and make things a little less choppy. Just as quickly, they were on to mashing it up with "I'll Be There."
Overall, the medley was a little too chopy to fully work for me, and I'm not sure all of those transitions in the arrangement really clicked--but I really admire the group's ambition to try and pull off one medley for the full set. One a less important side note, that I nonetheless feel is a good learning point for many groups--there was one guy who stood out from the rest for me as a bit more awkward dancer than the rest of the crew--telegraphing his movements and looking a little lost for bits. I'm not going to point him out any furhter, but just say that groups really need to think critcially and know their talents--if your set is going to be so visually oriented, you need to accentuate your positives and hide your liablities--in this case, that means putting the less certain dancers in the back row where they can contribute just as ably from a vocal perspective, but you can make sure they aren't distracting vomr the visual show.
The Brick City Singers were up next.The all-male crew sported black slacks, black ties, and diferent colored collared shirts. They opened with "Breezeblocks" by Alt-J.Nice diction from the solosit on a very fast part and nice control of the tempo from the group along a nicely variegated arrangement. Really good bass sound. Nice fall out moment when the bass got the spotlight as the group came in piece by piece on the repetition of "please dont go I love you so." The guys' ties were really loose which, at first, I didn't like, but it turned out to be a sublte, smart as they all tightened them on the finish of the song, setting up the more formal feel of the song to follow.
The guys moved on to Passenger's "Let Her Go." Lovely solo on this one and I loved the gradual build of the instrumentation here, building layered harmonies. Subtle clap percussion into Temper Trap's "Love Lost." The visual presentation was really compelling here, including some nice outstretched arm reaches to pop key moments.
The guys closed with Allen Stone's "Say So" Fun presentation here with the soloist working the stage and bobbing along, with upbeat instrumentation.Fun vocal trumpet and bass solo, then drum solo. I usually caution groups against long periods of instrumentation in competition--these breaks tend to bore the audience, but if you have specialists to highlight, you can make it worth your while, and are all the better for making your group stand out. I think this performance fell more in the latter category than the former. Nice closer.
Last up: The F#s! The mixed group wore Fordham longsleeved t-shirts and jeans. Though I like the uniform look and representing where you're from, I'm partial to a marginally more formal look for competition contexts. The group led off with Destiny Child's "Say My Name" with the women standing up front and singing in unison. A little bit of a messy sound there. This was more fun as they narrowed to just one lead with the other woman taking prominent spots in the background. Good low end from the guys and good percussion, though I think a little more mid-range sound would have added depth here. They transitioned to a male lead on "Irreplaceable" then back to the first lead for "All the Single Ladies" Props for the guys going full-tilt dancing along with the ladies there--that level of commitment is vital to pulling off comedic a cappella. Back to the male lead for "countdown." While it wasn't flawless, on a night when so many groups tried to mash and medley-ize like they were the Barton Bellas, The F#s were one of the most successful arranging logical transitions and keeping their tuning check, while still having fun on stage for the duration of the song. Good opener.
Seamless transition to a new lead for "Rivers and Roads" by The Head and the Heart. Nice soft solo work there, and I liked the choice to double up on the lead on the second iteration of "I miss your face like hell." The group used dynamics and unisons to build to some really nice moments, though I wished the backing sound in general had been more complex there. The instrumental part on the bridge seemed to drag a little long, though I really liked the use of dynamics there again and it was pretty sublime when the female lead got the solo all on her own for a second there--nice emotional impact. Good unison on the finish.
Another seamless transition to the last song, with a female soloist emerging from the group and a second group member taking over in her place and shoving her back for Ke$ha's "C'mon" and "Die Young" Again, it was key that the guys were selling this all the way. Really nicely executed solo here, keeping tempo and demonstrating great stage presence. I was a little irked with the isolation of the soloist off to the side for the duration of the set--yes, there were moments of serious choreo that he didn't fit with, but by and large he could have been in the mix, and being half-obscured in the shadows made him kind of distracting. Speaking of dristacting, the gyrations of the lead got a little over the top for my tastes, culminagitng in a grind snadwich around her. A little too much there, but I will say that I appreciate the group's commitment to the song they were selling--overall, a fun closer.
While the judges deliberated, The Orphan Sporks entertained the crowd. Very good set, including "Pusher Love Girl, " "Feelin' Good," "sir Duke," "Tightrope," "Give Me Love," and "Bills, Bills, Bills," "sleep," and "Settle Down."
As The Orphan Sporks performed, I shored up my picks for the night. In the end, I felt Casual Harmony were the decisive victors for an all-around brilliant set that, with a little tightening, was the first Finals-level performance I felt I saw this year. Likewise, I felt Vocal Synergy was a pretty decisive runner up. At their best, they were the champions of the night--I just felt their overall product wasn't quite as polished as what Cas Harm brought to the stage. After that point, third place felt pretty tight. The Outskirts plotted their set so shrewdly and I loved the "No Lights, No Lights" solo work.. The F#s sandwiched some brilliant musicality between some really keen bits of fun (and funny) a cappella). The Brick City Singers and The Sea Sharps were similar in a sense for their completely unabashed, fun sets--The Brick City Singers certainly more complex and polished, though The Sea Sharps still felt really fresh to me. In the end, I had The Outskirts slotted for the three spot.
In the end, The Outskirts did indeed finished third, and I thought the right two groups moved on, though I was bit surprised to see Vocal Synergy snag first. Just the same, it was cool to see a ne group performing at such a high level in this region. Vocal Synergy and Casual Harmony should each be forces to reckon with at semis next month.
Vocal Synergy closed out the night with their encore, a fun rendition of "We Can't Stop."
Mike Chin's Picks for the Night
1. Casual Harmony
2. Vocal Synergy
3. The Outskirts
1. Casual Harmony for "I Can't Make You Love Me"
2. The Outskirts for "No Light, No Light"
3. The Brick City Singers for "Let Her Go"
1. Vocal Synergy for the Kanye West Medley
2. The Outskirts for "No Light, No Light"
3. Casual Harmony for "I Can't Make You Love Me"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Casual Harmony for the full set
2. 4GotteN suitCasefor the full set
3. The Outskirts for the full set
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Casual Harmony for the full set
2. Vocal Synergy for the full set
3. The Brick City Singers for the full set
Official ICCA Results
1. Vocal Synergy
2. Casual Harmony
3. The Outskirts
Outstanding Soloist: The Outskirts for "No Light, No Light"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Casual Harmony for the full set
Outstanding Choreography:Vocal Synergy for the full set