On Saturday, February 11, 2012, Rutgers University played host to an International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) Mid-Atlantic quarterfinal. The show took place in front of a sizeable crowd in Hickman Hall.
Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the show:
Rider University Vocalmotion
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Stockapella
Rutgers University Shockwave
Rutgers University Deep Treble
Rider University ‘Til Further Notes
The College of New Jersey Trentones
The Lehigh University Melismatics
The Drexel University Treblemakers
Drexel University 8 to the Bar
Guest Group: The Rutgers University OrphanSporks
Photos from this show are now available on our Facebook page.
The Orphan Sporks kicked off the evening with a really fun version of Stevie Wonder’s ”Sir Duke”, featuring an excellent solo. ICCA Director David Rabizadeh took over for the standard announcements, after which a rotating crew of OrphanSporks members served as emcees for the evening.
Rider University Vocalmotion was the first competing group, taking the stage in their trademark purple and black. The group opened with Natasha Bedingfield’s ”Unwritten.” Lovely swell of sound on the beginning. The soloist demonstrated remarkable patience, keeping right on tempo and controlling her volume to pop the key moments of the chorus. Really nice call to creep into the second verse with the group all but falling out, only to add a melodic echo to the lyrics moving forward. Excellent way of keeping the sound from ever growing stagnant. Really smart arranging all around here, and a smart choice to cut to the finish early on this song.
The group followed with “Once Upon a Time” from All American. The women took the lead chorally, with a very nice bass sound backing them. Nice, subtle dramatic interpretation here that included one member pointing in the distance, and members dramatically gazing at the stars—not choreography per se, but visually engaging with the music. The overall sound of this one was a little too musical theatre for my tastes, but I respect the call to do something offbeat that showed off the group’s capabilities as a choir and spotlighted some really pretty harmonies.
The group clustered to one side for the start of Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” Cool wind sound effect from the perc guy, and it was sort of fun to hear the audience react by degrees as they recognized the song, culminating in the unmistakable chorus. Very well-synched up choreography in the background. The song would have benefited from a bit more firepower on the solo, but I think that speaks to a larger issue regarding song selection. If you’re going to cover Bieber at a collegiate show, you have the options of going all out and taking it as a serious piece of music, or making the song a complete and utter farce. While I appreciate the attempt to lighten the mood and modernize after “Once Upon a Time,” I couldn’t help feeling the group never fully committed to tongue-in-cheek or in-your-face-I-dare-you-to-laugh. They may have arrived at a more concrete place had it gone on a bit longer, but the group opted to clip this song a little short, too.
Next up was Jessie J’s ”Who You Are.” This was probably the strongest offering of all from Vocalmotion. First of all, it functioned as a showcase for the solo, which was controlled, able to get huge where necessary, and offered a combination of stage presence and dramatic facials to 100-percent own the stage. Equally important to the front man’s efforts, the percussionist really nailed this part, and the group pulled off some lovely harmonies to give the piece a feeling of fullness and polish.
Against all odds, Vocalmotion squeezed in a fifth song, turning in ”Seasons of Love” from Rent. I really liked the inclusion of vocal percussion on this one, which lent it a distinctive, contemporary a cappella feel—important for a song that otherwise could have come off a little cliché in this setting. The choreography was a little cheesy for my tastes, but I appreciate what the group was going for in their attempt to deliver a culminating performance that sprinkled in bits of everything to leave a lasting impression. Of course, more than anything else, this particular song was about the rotating soloists. The group has a ton of charisma and individuals who have no fear of making a statement. Plenty of really nice performances imbedded in this song, and though a couple pushed the boundaries and went a little over the top, I’d prefer that level of enthusiasm and attacking the music over coming off as timid on a song like this. All in all, this song served as a bit of microcosm for Vocalmotion’s full set. It had some profoundly good moments, pulled on the heartstrings, and engaged the audience. At the same time, the big moments almost felt a little too forced and coordinated—the audience wasn’t so much lost in the music as getting shepherded from high spot to high spot. I respect the Vocalmotion approach to set construction in trying to demonstrate the group’s range as widely as possible in 12-minute span, but similar to my qualms about their sets last year, I felt they tried to squeeze in too much, and would have been better served to have eliminated at least one song, and let the remaining pieces develop more fully and organically. On a positive note, I have to say that I loved that the group used its final positioning on stage for this song to flow right into a well-coordinated bow, leaving the stage on a very fluid and professional note.
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Stockapella took the stage second. The co-ed group wore black and bright yellow for a sharp contrast, and a really cool look for the competition stage. They opened with Matisyahu’s ”One Day.” I loved the way in which the lead and backing solos complemented one another and evolved their sound over the course of this song. Solid sound from the low end. Nice control of the choreography--restrained and progressive, including one point when the first row of girls started to bob in a circular motion, then the next row, then the whole group. Very good, clean backing solo on the second chorus. The bridge was excellently choreographed and arranged to synch up the movement with the bigger sounds of the music, particularly as the backing solo positively exploded. Two guys come out to lift her on their shoulders afterward for a cute moment that paid her her due, although it seemed a little oddly placed in the broader scheme of the visual presentation of the set. Nonetheless, this was a really strong opening number.
Stockapella progressed to a mashup of Adele’s “Someone Like You” and ”Secrets” by OneRepublic. At first, I was a little wary that the tempo of the piece undermined the core emotion of the Adele song, but once I recognized the mashing, I was on board. Really neat arrangement that fit both songs well, and demonstrated some real complexity of sound from the group. Very good female lead and I liked the chemistry between her and the male lead. The male solo was mostly good ,with the cadence right on point, though his vocals came off a little shout-y at points. Good percussion, but similar to the second solo, it overwhelmed the piece a little in terms of sheer volume at certain points (particularly when the group got soft). This was a tremendous concept for a song, and I think the group has exactly the right talent in place to pull it off—with a little more polish, this is the kind of song I wouldn’t be surprised to hear on a major a cappella compilation.
The group closed with Jem’s “Rules.” While Stockapella’s entire set was really strong, this piece in particular felt like a coming out party for the group. The soloist demonstrated a remarkable balance of delivering her part musically right on point while executing some really unique choreography to lead the group. The percussionists not only nailed their part, but worked in a lot of cool theatrical interactions between one another. The choreography was what sold this piece above all else, though, including lots of slow motion, stop motion and robotic movements, culminating in a hot false finish before the perc breakdown. A part of what made this so special is that I sincerely can’t remember hearing and seeing a song like this in collegiate a cappella (Acappology’s electronic-infused set at SoJam would be the closest match I can think of). Excellent innovation for a sensational finish.
Rutgers University ShockWave was third to compete. The women took the stage with black tops and dark jeans. They kicked off their set with Paramore’s ”Ignorance.” Holy percussion—really excellent beatboxing on this one! I really liked the sass on the solo, not to mention her breath control as she just kept pumping for the duration of the song. The group pulsed with energy and definitely attacked the music, demonstrating a ton of attitude. While I loved the energy, I would have liked to have heard it build or diversify more—any singular mood, even one of sheer intensity, is going to wear on the audience after the two-minute mark. A little more dynamic variation could have gone a long way in making this one more compelling. Nonetheless, a strong opener.
The women followed with a much softer opening to ”Colorblind” by Counting Crows. I liked the stark contrast between these first two songs. The solo, though well-exectued, was a little too high for my taste on this particular song. The group worked double-time to execute some really nice echoes of certain lyrics, including a haunting repetition of “I am ready.” The arrangement complexified nicely going into the second verse, with lyrics unfolding in the background in some really interesting ways. The perc was good and kept the song moving, though it got a touch overpowering when the rest of the group went small. Very nice breakout into a shimmering, unified falsetto chord before the group returned to the regular melody. Very pretty song.
ShockWave closed with Kelly Clarkson’s “Never Again.” I loved this song selection in terms of building set continuity—the first song communicated that this was a bold, strong women’s group; the second song, while softer, remained lyrically intense and never outright girly. This is one of a handful of Clarkson songs that undercuts the pop star’s cookie cutter image, communicating that she is not a lady to be trifled with, and so was a great way to bring the set back full circle. The soft sound on the opening of this song gave the group plenty of room to let the intensity and the sheer volume build. Great stage presence, energy and confidence from the group, with the soloist attacking the lead vocal. My only knock there wass that parts of the chorus seemed a touch too high for her, so that she slipped into her head voice when she should have been throwing down loudest of all. Despite that issue, this was really smart set construction and further established ShockWave’s identity. Solid set.
The fourth group out was Rutgers University Deep Treble. Really sharp black and red look for this mixed group who took the stage and immediately formed three straight lines. They opened with a mashup of ”Price Tag” by Jessie J and The Black-Eyed Peas’ ”Where Is the Love”. There’s some real irony at play here, because I reviewed another group’s mashup of the very same two songs at last weekend’s ICCA show at Boston University. Last week, I commented the group had a tremendous idea but hadn’t arranged quite critically enough or paid close enough attention to their own talent base to make the song work. I’m pleased to say that Deep Treble put on a clinic for exactly how these two songs could be put together. Impressive range on the first soloist, who started out with a bit of a pristine sound but incorporated some neat riffs at the end of the first verse, before evolving her sound into pure urban swagger on the chorus. Then came The Black-Eyed Peas part, complete with a rap. Not only did the rapper nail his part, but the group arranged intelligently enough to avoid overexposing the rap part. My only qualm about this song was its placement as an opener, as I think it is enough of a rabble-rouser to fit more naturally at the end of a set. Just the same, it made an excellent first impression.
The next song was Glen Hansard’s ”Falling Slowly.” Really soulful, patient solo work. The backing solo from one of the women was excellent too, and all the more powerful when the two leads converged on the first chorus. While a lot of groups have fallen into the trap of overchoreographing ballads in recent years, I found Deep Treble’s handling of this one just about right, with lots of slow turns and reaching to keep the stage from falling too static, while the movements remained understated enough not to distract from the music. Beautiful sound and presentation on this one.
Deep Treble finished its set with Rufus Wainwright’s ”Beautiful Child.” Very theatrical tone to the soloist, but man, oh man could that dude sing—such a beautiful voice. Nicely coordinated, if a little stilted movement in the background—like the group was just waiting for its spots, as opposed to the motions organically following the music. Nice VP. Excellent intensity from the group as a whole for this unconventional but compelling closer. I can certainly understand why the group wanted to close on this particular soloist, but I maintain that the set might have felt more sequential if it had closed on the mashup, and I’d go so far as to say that I would have outright flipped the order of the songs. The good news is that that I’m making this argument about three truly stellar, and truly memorable performances. Excellent set.
Rider University ‘Til Further Notes wrapped up the first half. Nice red and black look for the group, with the guys sporting suspenders. They started with Kansas’s "Carry On My Wayward Son." Huge sound on that opening. Nice perc. Excellent texture to the solo. I kind of wish it was a more innovative song choice, but the group did a fine job of making a classic their own via the the arrangement, including a nice breakdown moment with different vocal parts taking on different lyrics and repeating them with progressively swelling volume, en route to a big wall of sound moment. Cool visual effects, including the group circling around the soloist, then swelling in on her as she sang about the waves of the ocean. I would have liked to have heard this get a little bit bigger on the finish to truly bring the song full circle, but that’s a really minor qualm. All in all this was a stellar opening number.
The group continued its set with spiritual ”Come Unto Me.” The group handled this one chorally. Deceptively complex arrangement, with lots of Easter eggs of sound imbedded in it. Very clean, precise delivery from the group. I didn’t love the song selection or its placement in the set—I felt like the time was ripe for the group to score with something more contemporary. Nonetheless, more objectively speaking, this was a really strong performance.
The third song was Jon McLaughlin’s “So Close.” Really sensational solo on this one—not for bringing down the house, but rather the guy's richness of texture and control. Such a clean sound from the group behind him yet again. The dynamic control was really precise and well diversified. Excellent call to slip into just a few short bars of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” before flowing right back into the original song. The group lined the stage toward the end for a great moment of staring the crowd, leading up to the excellent choice for the group to fall out so the soloist could operate unaccompanied in the final measures. Exceptional song.
The group wrapped up with David Guetta’s ”Without You.” The pulsing percussion established the groove nicely for this one . The sound swelled as the first verse evolved—great patience and control, leading up to a fleeting moment in which the group fell to silence before exploding into the chorus. This is what happens when great musicians execute the heck out of an exceptional arrangement. Great, fun freestyle dance breakdown behind the soloist en route to the transition to a second soloist. I loved the movement from the group on this song—it looked more like a party than choreography. I could have done with out the choral finish, which came across a little random, but that’s a pretty minor complaint. At the end of the day, this was an excellent song to wrap up a series of four strong performances. It’s tough to put a finger on it, but I did still feel as though a little something was missing from ‘Til Further Notes’ overall set presentation, and I think it comes down to set structure. While the individual pieces were each excellent, I sensed a certain absence of flow, transition, or coherence between songs. This is the kind of criticism I won’t bother to bring up with weaker groups, but for as good as this ensemble was, I felt it was that lack of a sense of a directional, narrative thread that spelled the difference between this being a surefire bet for semifinals and a set that really could go all to the ICCA Finals this year. The scary part (for other groups) is that ‘Til Further Notes is a first-year group, and now they have a month and a half to refine their act. They’re going to be dangerous at semis for sure (but I’m getting ahead of myself…).
After intermission, The College of New Jersey Trentones hit the stage. The co-ed group wore dark blue and black. The opened with ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Some really fun theatrics at play here, like a guy running up and running place for a humorous moment. The percussion was handled well. Impressive range on the soloist, who slipped from a falsetto to a deep baritone—a little comical, but that’s kind of the tone of this piece. There was nothing particularly innovative to speak of for this song, but it seemed the group was aiming more toward harmless good fun than anything else, and they succeeded at that.
The basses positively pulsed on the intro to Peter Gabriel’s ”In Your Eyes.” This is the kind of song choice that comes up so often that, if you hope to succeed with it in competition, you need to either innovate or deliver a performance that you can unequivocally claim is among the best in the world. While this rendering actually was quite good, and I appreciated the effort to keep it upbeat and fun, rather than getting caught in the potential melodramatic gulag of the song, it still wasn’t quite exceptional enough to justify the pick. Very good solo nonetheless, and perc guy worked over time between his audio and visual effects, synthesizing many of his instrumental choices. In short, it was a very capable handling of an uninspired song choice.
The Trentones kicked off their third song with their backs to the stage, allowing for some dramatic half-turns and leans throughout the opening of Bonnie Tyler’s ”Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Interesting song choice.The group made the entertaining and wise calls to treat this as a comedy piece, putting on sunglasses and adding a techno beat on the second verse. While I agree with the decision to handle this piece with a light hand—it’s near impossible to make this song entirely serious in a contemporary setting—I worry the group hadn’t quite earned its way to a light-hearted finisher, on account of the relatively light-impact songs that preceded it. Strangely subdued doubling up moment with a backing solo complementing the lead—I really felt like they should have gone for the jugular there. All in all, The Trentones were entertaining and hard not to like, but didn’t deliver quite the gravity of performance to contend with the groups that sang ahead of them.
The Lehigh University Melismatics hit the stage next. The mixed group had its guys in white shirts, black ties and vests, and ladies in sparkly silver tops and jeans for a good mixed look. Excellent perc and a nice, full sound on the opening of Foreigner’s ”Feels Like the First Time.” Excellent power solo on this song and the group’s energy simply pulsed for the duration of the song. It’s moments like this when you can really tell a group’s level of experience—The Melismatics have competed for years and you don’t hear or see nerves when they come out to perform. Instead, you experience a group performing what they’re well aware are 12 of their most important minutes on stage this year. Nice breakdown section when the group got soft and slow bass groove took over while the soloist riffed. My only real knock on this performance was that I found the choreography a little excessive, particularly on the beginning. The group made up for it nicely with a more free-wheeling approach to movement on the ending breakdown to tie up a really solid opener.
The group followed with “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. Bold call for the soloist to start out completely unaccompanied. Really sweet, county-twinged backing solo behind her to make the song feel a little more Dixie than Stevie (all the more so when the third lead joined in). Nice, subtle, emotional rendering from the group here. I appreciated the call for the group to keep it relatively simple and soft while the three-part lead ran the show. The group spaced out, spanning the stage for the last chorus, just as they broke down the vocals into distinct, separate parts. That’s what visual presentation should be all about on a song like this—communicating and complementing what’s going on in the music. Stellar song.
The Melismatics wrapped up their set with ”… Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears. I didn’t love the song choice, but did admire the call to do something off-beat and musically sound in the form of splitting the lead between a deep male solo, and a more conventional female solo. Nice execution of the song as the group was very soft and slow on the opening, building the anticipation for their inevitable explosion of sound and dance on the chorus. Fun call and answer effect from the leads to the group. The arrangement and execution of this song were complex and funny enough to sort of justify its place in a competition set, but I would still maintain this is more of a campus show number than a competition song. A group the caliber of The Melismatics should be holding each of its competition songs up to the litmus test of whether it would be good enough to bring to the ICCA Finals stage in New York (because I do think this group is talented enough to be eying that possibility). The first two songs passed the test. As entertaining as the closer was, I don’t think it lived up to the group’s potential.
The next group out was The Drexel University Treblemakers. The all-female group wore blazers and jeans for a chic look. They opened with Hall & Oates’s ”You Make My Dreams.” Really nice tone on the solo, but from the lead to the backing vocals, I just never felt the sound got big enough to really sell the sound. Ton of choreography at play here, and it was well planned, but I would have liked to have seen the group grow more aggressive in selling it. Some nice swells of sound at the end. All considered, this was a good, straight forward handling of a classic.
The Treblemakers followed with ”ET” by Katy Perry. I really liked the idea of this song and its placement in the set, particularly in how it drew a contrast to the more traditional sound of the first number. It was really nice to see the group spread the stage more on this song—nine times out of ten, sheer movement is exponentially more powerful than stationary choreography, which made this performance instantly more engaging than the one before it. Good solo work. The main drawback to this song was that, in a piece that’s largely about attitude, the women remained a bit too subdued—switching to their head voices when this could have gotten big and selling arm movements from the elbow.
The Treblemakers closed with Kanye West’s ”Lost In the World.” At first, I thought they were singing a straight take on "Woods” by Bon Iver. My initial reaction, therefore, was that it was a really shrewd song choice for a group more comfortable with precision and harmonies than power. Indeed, many elements of the song clicked in the early going, from the gradual build of sound (moving from one voice to many), to the really interesting physical presentation, including a lot of still images that really did conjure up mental pictures of bare trees. Then, The Treblemakers completely subverted my expectations when it turned out they were really covering the Kanye song. Based on what we had heard so far, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the rap—but, wow, did the rapper ever pull it off! It was as though the group got an attitude infusion for this particular song. Strong closer, and easily the most compelling part of this set—I’d love to hear this group build from the foundation of this last song and come back next year with that kind of creativity and fire for all 12 minutes.
Next up was Drexel University 8 to the Bar, an all-male group that took the stage in blue shirts, black slacks, and fedoras. Very old school swinging sound on the opening of ”All of Me.” Fun bass sound. Fun moves. Really cool visual moment as the guys formed rows and removed their hats in rhythm while the soloist worked his way down the middle. The guys worked in some nice harmonies. I worried that the fedoras became a bit of a crutch for the visual presentation—you could see guys holding onto them at various points, just waiting for their next theatrical moves. Nonetheless, I appreciate the willingness to think differently on this opening song and put together a piece that may not have set the world on fire, but was distinctive enough to stand out.
The guys followed with a more conventional contemporary a cappella sound on Gabriel Mann’s “When We Are One.” I really dug the solo here—personable, steady and even. Really cool visual with the guys sliding in an elliptical orbit around the soloist. The background sound came across a bit static—it could have benefited from some more dynamic variation, though, to the guys’ credit, there were some nice unisons. Very nice crescendo on the finish when a backing solo joined in and the guys lined up to face the crowd.
The guys closed with a medley of hip hop songs including “Beautiful People,” “This Is How We Do It,” “Sweet Girl (Dollar Bill), and “Whoomp! (There It Is).” Pounding bass and perc at the start of this one, and some really fun robotized movements. Good vocals all around, and the guys were astute about when and how to incorporate movement, reaching a climax with full-on somersaults. The rapping all worked well enough and the guys pulled this one off based on sheer energy and confidence. Monster sound and visuals on the Tag Team finish. While I still don’t love comedy songs in a competition setting, the guys executed this medley with just enough fire power to nudge it into the positive column in my book. Bold, brash finish to a solid set.
While the judges delibearated, The OrphanSporks entertained the crowd. Songs included “Please, Please Me” with a brilliant sampling of “Sex on Fire,” “Chicago,” “Disturbia,” “Precious Things,” “Time of the Season,” “If You’re Out There,” and a really fun medley of recent top 40 hits. When you can get the crowd screaming and clapping along for the deliberation group you know you’ve got some magic. Excellent set.
As The ‘Sporks performed, I made my personal calls for overall placement. I’ve rarely come across a quarterfinal quite this competitive. In my mind, it was two horse race for first place. ‘Til Further Notes had achieved the most profound musical moments of the night, but I felt Deep Treble achieved similar impact with a set that was more consistently polished and well designed. In the end, I just barely gave the nod to ‘Til Further Notes for all of the group’s potential to continue growing en route to semifinals. After the top two places, I had Stockapella, The Melismatics and Vocalmotion in a dead heat for third, with 8 to the Bar and ShockWave nipping at their heels. Only only big surprise from the official results for me, which was 8 to the Bar’s finish at second place, and consequent progression to semifinals. I don’t mean to sell the guys short—they sung their hearts out and put together a really compelling set. I've seen plenty of quarterfinals this group would have won with room to spare, but I just didn’t quite see them topping some of the other upper echelon groups at this show. It was a bit disappointing, too, to see Stockapella go home without any formal recognition—I really saw them as the breakthrough performers of the night and hope they can keep it up in the years ahead. Til Further Notes closed out the night with an encore performance of “Wayward Son.”
Mike Chin’s Picks for The Night
1. ‘Til Further Notes
2. Deep Treble
4. The Melismatics
1. Deep Treble for “Beautiful Child”
2. Vocalmotion for “Who You Are”
3. Til Further Notes for “So Close”
4. The Melismatics “Feels Like the First Time”
5. Deep Treble for “Falling Slowly”
Best Visual Presentation:
1. 8 to the bar for their hip-hop medley
2. Stockapella for “Rules”
3. The Melismatics for “Baby One More Time”
1. ‘Til Further Notes for “Without you”
2. Stockapella for the “Someone Like You”-“Secrets mashup
3. Deep Treble for the “Price Tag”-“Where Is the Love” mashup
Best Vocal Percussion:
1. Shockwave for “Ignorance”
2. The Melismatics for “Feels Like the First Time
3. The Trentones for “In Your Eyes”
ICCA Official Results
1. 'Til Further Notes
2. 8 to the Bar
3. The Melismatics
Outstanding Soloist: Deep Treble for “Beautiful Child”
Outstanding Vocal Vercussion: Shockwave
Outstanding Choreography: ‘Til Further Notes
Outstanding Arrangement: ‘Til Further notes