On Saturday, February 2, Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ played host to the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal. The event featured 10 competing groups. Before we get to the review, a quick summary:
The Villanova University Supernovas
The New York University N’Harmonics
Barnard College of Columbia University Bacchantae
New York University Ani V’ata
Rochester Institue of Technology Vocal Accent
The Drexel University TrebleMakers
Stockton College Stockapella
The College of New Jersey Trentones
Rider University Acapocalypse
The Fordham University Ramblers
Rutgers University Casual Harmony
Cherry Hill East High School Stay Tuned
Photos of the event are available now on our Facebook page.
Sold out crowd for the show in which Jersey met New York in an epic clash of Mid-Atlantic mainstays and new migrants, recently departed from the ICCA Northeast.
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Producer Holli Matze kicked off the show with the standard announcements, before handing things off to two members of Casual Harmony who served as emcees for the evening.
The Supernovas kicked off the night. The co-ed group was clad in black cocktail dresses for the ladies, white shirts and black vests and slacks for the gentlemen. They started out with ”Dog Days Are Over” by Florence and the Machine. The group clustered with their backs to the audience, behind the soloist for the intro, and did a nice job of building the drama with partial turns, and leans before assuming a more traditional formation. Nice idea to use body percussion with members slapping their chests, though I think they probably could have spread the motion to more group members or gone at harder since the percussion effect wasn’t really audible to the crowd. Lots of leaning, whole-body choreography, and while I’m ordinarily a fan of more movement if a group chooses to choreograph, this was pretty effective, particiularly given the size of the group and the relatively close quarters on the stage. Nice solo with a smooth, sultry timbre. Solid opener.
Apologies for a slightly less detailed report on these next couple songs—my computer crashed midway through, and I captured what notes I could. Next up was Britney Spears’ ”Toxic.” Nice solo work here, and some interesting choices to switch from a traditional lead to choral sound during the first verse. Again, the group implemented a number of full body leans in fine dramatic fashion, and the lighting choices also added a lot to the visual presentation with the red lights painting the sheer intensity of the song. Well done.
The group closed with Alex Clare’s ”Too Close.” This is a popular choice this year, and I don’t know that I’ve yet heard a group really capture the intensity of the piece for the duration of the song. Good effort from The Supernovas here. Nice solo, though I wish he had had a little more mmph to him. The choreography grew a little excessive on this one—while there were some really excellent moments, particularly when the group got to moving into new formations, there were also touch steps that didn’t add much to the piece. Choreography can’t be there for the sake of movement—it needs to do something to enhance or complement the music. Just the same a fine closer that came to a head as the backing vocalists mixed in lyrics from “Toxic” and “Dog Days Are Over” to add a nice sense of coherence and continuity to the set. Good finish.
Next up were The N’Harmonics. I loved the group’s look with semi-formal attire—lots of ties and blazers, dresses, and whatnot but not quite uniform, capturing a certain urban chic and individuality befitting an NYC group. They opened with ”Save Me” by Gotye. Very nice tenor solo on this one, though his sound got swallowed by the group a little in the early going—so much firepower on stage. This was a lot of fun to watch, not so much for choreography but a ton of natural, fun movement. Killer bass on the finish and double-clap percussion from the group.
The N’Harmonics followed up with Krystle Warren’s ”Central Park” through the keyhole you grow on this sicty has grown Very nice solo and very distinct sound on this one. I like that the group defied the standard fast-slow-fast set construction here, though I couldn’t help feeling this one was a little less compelling than the songs surrounding it. It’s a mixed bag when you pick a lesser-known song and artist. On the one hand, your sound is immediately distinctive, and you don’t risk repeating a song selection. On the other hand, it can be harder for the audience to get engaged with what you’re singing, and I think the group more or less “met in the middle” on the pros and cons of this song selection. Another point that I wasn’t wild about—this is a song The N’Harmonics brought to competition in 2011. There’s no rule against repeat song choices, I would advocate a repeat over a weaker song. Nonetheless, I also like to hear high-level competitors like The N’Harmonics innovate each year.
The group wrapped up with “Whipping Post” by The Allman Brothers. Sick, bold solo on this one, and so much swagger on stage. The group competed with this same song in 2008, so some of the same reservations from “Central Park” apply here, though at least enough time had passed on this one that there probably isn’t much if any overlap between that previous incarnation of the group and this one. The song itself was gripping and powerful. Out of this world solo. Such audacity from the background, all but screaming stand alone bits of the backing vocals, but never really losing the tuning, creating really distinctive, ugly, beautiful dramatic moments. Sick breakdown with two female leads on the bridge before the bass took things over. Awesome sample of Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” Sometimes a sheer contrast of moods can make a mix work and this is one of those cases where they reinvented “Moondance” from slick and jazzy to an intense, pleading song of its own. Stellar closer.
Third out of the chute was Bacchantae, the first all-female group of the evening. They kicked off their set with “Blinding” by Florence and the Machine. Nice, subtle, understated solo on this one. Very nice percussion. Good use of movement on the chorus to build the energy of the movement as the group also switched soloists for that segment. The group was at its best when the VP drove things, picking up the tempo. Would have liked a little more firepower from the group on the chorus as they were nailing the harmonies, but not showing a ton of personality or dynamic variation.
Next up, the group sang “You Give Me Something” by James Morrison. Nice, sweet solo, highlighting this song selection as a piece that really works for an all-female group. You need to pick material in your wheelhouse that other groups won’t be able to pull off, and this was a good example of using femininity and a soft touch to a group’s advantage. Nice swell of sound on the bridge, though, again, I thought the group could have really enhanced the piece with a little more volume and visible confidence. I wasn’t a fan of the closing choreography, for which each group member pulled her hands over her heart in time with the final “know my heart” lyric—just a little too cutesy.
The group closed with Beyonce’s ”Radio.” Nice punch on the first solo, with a backing solo on the chorus. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this was yet another point at which the group proved itself perfectly competent from a musical perspective, but lacked the intensity to really sell the piece. Fun moment as the group crowded in around the soloists on the bridge and seemed to be having fun—I wish the song had featured more pieces like that.
Next up was co-ed Jewish group Ani V’ata. Very nice power moment for the soloist on the lead in to Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’.” The low end grooved in after a few bars—really nice development and fullness of sound there. Excellent percussion. I didn’t love the song choice because it’s so played, but this was a good example of how enough sass and fire power can make a seemingly banal song selection feel pretty new again. Nice moment as the group echoed the soloist’s lyrics and grooved their whole bodies in circular motions to fit the music. Perfect use of choreography to complement, not tack something onto the vocals.
“Parparim Levanim” (that song title might not be quite right—my Hebrew skills are pretty non-existent) was up next. According to a group member, it’s an Israeli pop song about falling in love. I usually don’t love groups speaking between songs, but I like that the group opted to give the audience some contenxt to help the song feel more familiar. Smart choice. There’s some controversy over bringing foreign language songs to competition, and this is where I think it can work reasonably well, sharing your distinctive culture and doing a song no one else will do. Nice work on the solo here. Excellent percussion again. And once again a good, full, complex sound from the group. Very good backing soloist who played off the lead really well in the late stages of the song. The group fell out for a four-part lead, where the blend didn’t quite click for me—not atrocious but not quite as on point as the group’s work up to that point.
The group closed with ”S&M” by Rihanna. Nice attitude from the soloist and good visual as she operated alone and the group clustered on the far corner of the stage. Fun little lyric change to “matzah balls excite me.” I had mixed feelings on that—it was very funny and got a good reaction from the crowd, but the choice also sort of undermined the intense vibe the group had established leading up to that moment. A male soloist took over from there on Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” They quickly mashed the two together.
Next up was Vocal Accent, an all-female group. Nice pounding sound on ”Sun of Gun” by Oh Land. They started with staccato notes and sharp percussion. Very nice stage presence from the soloist on this one. The group snapped their way into the second verse, nice use of breath notes to add personality and depth to the song. There was a real sensuality to the group, and they proved you can harmonize effectively while still attacking the music. Nice slow down moment with the group crouching behind the soloist, arms waving. Cool visual. Nice visual with the group members raising their hands and finishing on hand guns pointed at the crowd. Cool.
Vocal Accent moved on to ”The World Ends” by Britney Spears. Really interesting lead off with one soloist, then tripling up on the lead. Nicely synched up, with soft group sound behind them sort of reinventing the sound of the song, retreating to a soft choral take on the first chorus. They clapped their way into second verse, and it was hard to tell if they were trying to get the crowd to clap with them or not. The blend came apart a little on the start of the second verse, before the group went back to the choral sound on the “oh-oh-oh”s. I probably would have mixed things up a little more there to chase away the hint of redundancy that marked that piece of song. Nice fall out for lone soloist on the finish.
The group closed with ”Cold War” by Janelle Monae. Again, a very nice, aggressive solo and good depth of group sound. Solid percussion. The soloist ripped into the lyrics but slipped into a little bit of a yell right before the bridge. All in all, it was a good closing song, if a little one-note. Interesting breakdown on the finish.
After intermission, The TrebleMakers opened the second half. This was another all-female group, and came clad in black, purple and blue. They opened with Emeli Sande’s “Next To Me.” Good solo. Very nice percussion. The sound and choreography were a little too girly for my tastes on this one, but pretty well executed. Nice second verse lead in as the women slowed things down and went softer before grooving into the original sound. Then they did it again on the lead into the third verse. When you arrive at a cool effect, it’s tempting to use it more than once, but when the effect is that distinctive it can feel predictable, and even redundant when it comes back—thus, I probably would have stuck to using it just once.
The group crouched down behind the second soloist on the lead in to ”Climax” by Usher. The group employed more movement on the choreography to this one—a nice choice to get more dynamic, and totally defy the typical middle song ballad. Another good solo, with a little more edge, and she sold the facials well. Odd song choice, though. For an all-female group to take on a song like this, they need to reinvent it or tackle the sound to really own it. This came across a little too soft, prim and proper given the original material. The sound grew a little bigger on the bridge, but, aside from that, the song didn’t really felt as though it built.
Nice visual to start to “Little Bit of Feel Good” by Jamie Lidell, with the soloist coming up from the back of four rows to take the mic from the previous soloist. Fun little vocal orchestra with the group playing assorted string instruments on the bridge, for a cute moment. Good charisma from this soloist. The group implemented a neat dramatic lean toward soloist while an air violinist accompanied her up front. Good visual, though I found though the violin was a little more distracting than helpful there. Too much on the hand drive choreography—this was another case where I thought less could have been more. Nonetheless, a good song choice to finish the set.
Next out was co-ed Stockapella. The group wore black, gray, and yellow and started by taking mics in hand and moving the mic stands off the stage, building a little anticipation and drama for the audience. They led off their set with Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” which quickly transitioned to Macy Gray’s ”I Try.” Really interesting mix. The sultry sounds led right into one another. Nice subtle percussion joined in on the Gray part. Good three-part lead. I like this as an off-beat, cool mood setter. The perc kicked into gear and the tempo picked up on the second verse of “I Try.” This is a rare case in which I felt like touch-step choreography worked just fine, to fit the jazzy, cool mood of the song. Nice little background samples of “Let’s Get It On” again on the bridge. Really fun reggae remix in the late stages. I kind of loved that. This group continues to be one of the most inventive up-and-coming groups of the Mid-Atlantic.
Stockapella followed up with a mashup of Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You” and “My Immortal” by Evanescence. Nice, sensitive lead on “My Immortal, and interesting stage formation, with the group members staggered on stage. Very nice second solo, though the transition to her was a little abrupt. Just the same, beautiful sound on the chorus. The group slowly wandering around, communicating a wandering , lost mind. Really nice power moment as the soloists receded into the group and the group worked its way around in a circle. Really nice groove into the fast part with a dueling “you, you, you” alternating from the leads. I really liked the reinvention of the music here. The song ended with the group a similar staggered formation to how they started the song—nice symmetry.
The group started it’s next song with backs to the crowd for Gavin DeGraw’s “In Love with a Girl.” Really smart call for Stockapella to build its set the way that they did—starting offbeat, going slow, and giving themselves plenty of latitude to explode on the finish. I love that group members challenged the front of the stage, breaking down the fourth wall. Excellent percussion. The pelvic thrusts may have been a little much for a family-friendly ICCA show, though, just the same, I liked that they were committed to the sensuality of the song. Strong close to a solid set.
Next up, The Trentones. The co-ed group wore black and royal blue. They kicked off their set with a mashup of Fun.’s ”Some Nights” and Simon and Garfunkel’s ”Cecilia.” They opened with a male and female group member pantomiming a disagreement—a little strange. Strangely soft lead off to “Some Nights” before the bass came pounding in. Very nice dramatic presentation from the soloist as he emerged from the center of the group, loud, clear and un-mic’ed. Good stage presence from the soloist and good, fitting movement in the background with the group marching in place on the first verse. Choral take on the chorus with a few odd insertions from the soloist—a little messy. I wasn’t so sure about the coherency of the transition into “Cecilia.” The songs sounded great fit together, but I felt as the group was reaching for a narrative arc that wasn’t really there (or at least wasn’t immediately accessible). At least this leg of the song made the pantomimed intro make a little more sense, with the same players coming back to fight again as the new lead narrated. The mashing point of the two songs culminated in the two guys in a tug of war over the female lead, who had a nice dramatic moment in shoving off both men, with the whole group falling down behind them. I like the idea of this brand of storytelling, but it just felt a little forced here—particularly with the hand shake between the competing men on the finish.
The group moved on to “Slow Me Down” by Emmy Rossum with the female lead from the previous mashup on the solo here. Nice little bit of slow shuffling on the transition into the second verse. Good vocals on the lead. The background sound came a cross a little simplistic here, but well-executed. Nice little slow motion slide move in the background. Fine soft, choral piece on the finish.
Cool steady, heartbeat percussion, accompanied by stomps on the intro to “Bottom of the River” by Delta Rae. The presentation was, again, a little overdramatic with one of the men forcing the soloist to the front of the stage like a prisoner. Nonetheless, good intensity on the solo and from the group. Very nice build on the lead, giving her room to be soft and intense in the early going and rip in when it came time to. Fun little patting ground percussion and rapid fire claps from the background. The facials were really good, selling the severity of the song quite well. Interesting, different take on overall set construction here—building in intensity.
Next up: Acapocalypse. Nice rich sound on the intro, with some killer perc and bass on “Sweet Dreams” by The Eurythmics. Good solo and very slick stop-motion choreography in the background—high drama on the stage. Fun robot dance on the front beside the soloist with the percussionist on the other side of her to make it symmetrical. Pounding sound into the second chorus. Irresistible groove. My only real knock on this opener was that it cut off pretty abruptly—a habit of the Rider University groups the last few years.
Acapocalypse’s second song was “Feelin’ Good.” Haunting soft harmonies behind the slick solo on the opening. Some slick partner choreography with co-ed partners. The group did a nice job of calibrating the movement to match the vibe of the song. While it’s a very different piece from the opener, the group retained a dark edge, which added continuity to the set. The choreography got a little excessive as the song went on. Despite the excess, it was well executed and the sound remained very clean.
Next up, we got “Under Pressure” by Queen, with samples inserted from Karmin’s “Brokenhearted.” A bit of an uneven solo—remarkably strong on the high parts, but I couldn’t escape the sense that he was trying a little too hard to channel Freddie Mercury elsewhere. Good intensity on the stage all around ,stellar female rap solos, and the VP was off the charts once again.
Acapocalypse closed with ”End of Time” by Beyonce. Hyper speed dance breakdown, behind a three-part female lead. The women were more than up to task up front on this song, and I loved that the whole group was selling every second of this piece both vocally and visually. Killer energy. Hint of dubstep on the finish. This was a very crisp, electric closer.
The final competitors of the night were The Ramblers, an all-male group in white collared shirts and a range of different colored. They started with ”Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys. Booming sound, complemented by a giddy flourish of movement. Pristine solo. This was just so interesting and fun. I loved the choreography with the group moseying around stage, selling the vibe of the song, keeping it interesting to watch. Great humor moment in suggesting that they guys were going to kiss while lined up in rows on the “I wish that every kiss was never ending.” So much fun and so different from any other group’s performance up to that point. Great opener.
The Ramblers’ pounding perc led the way into ”Love Lockdown” by Kanye West. Nice power on the lead here. Another really non-traditional take on set construction, going from so flowery to so intense. While they didn’t have coherent storytelling of some of the other groups, the contrast between the songs amplified what each song was all about and sold the range of what this group could do. Again, a lot of good dramatic movement, and again it really fit, though this is where a gimmick like funny pants can take away from the presentation a little, as it was hard to take the guys as hardened when I’m looking at a row of pastel green, yellow and pink pants. Excellent percussion on this one, particularly on the close as the guys established a new formation in slow motion.
The Ramblers wrapped up with ”Remade Horizon” by The Dirty Projectors. Lovely timbre on the lead. Real cool vocals from the group on this one, producing an incredibly complex sound with rapid fire fluctuations. The percussion was the anchor again, always there, slowing things down and building the drama in the transitions between chorsuses and verse. Really cool moment on the bridge, with an absurdly high-pitched three-part instrumental breakdown. So cool, so unique. Excellent fire on the lead at the finish, ripping loose.
While the judges deliberated, ICHSA Mid-Atlantic first runners up Stay Tuned entertained the crowd with their competition set from last weekend, singing their innovative take on “Sounds of Silence,” “I Won’t Give Up,” and “Titanium.” Casual Harmony took the stage form there, singing “Beggin’,” “Zephyr,” “Madness,” “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before,” “Hurricane,” and “Give a Little More.”
The Ramblers did, indeed, win the night. Oddly, no encore performance on this night.
Another great night of a cappella. Be sure to check back next week, when we’ll review the ICCA quarterfinal at Penn State.
1. The N’Harmonics
2. The Ramblers
1. The N’Harmonics for “Whipping Post”
2. The Trentones for “Bottom of the River”
3. The Ramblers for “Remade Horizon””
Outstanding Vocal Percussion
1. Acapocalypse for the full set
2. The Ramblers for the full set
3. Stockapella for the full set
1. The N’Harmonics for “Whipping Post”
2. Stockapella for “I Try”
Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. The N’Harmonics for “Save Me”
2. The Ramblers for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
3. Stockapella for the full set
Official ICCA Results
1. The Ramblers
2. The Trentones
Outstanding Soloists: The N’Harmonics for “Central Park”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Acapocalypse and Stockapella for their full sets
Outstanding Arrangements: The Ramblers
Outstanding Choreography: Stockapella for the full set