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.
Westminster Choir College Deaftones
The Fordham University Ramblers
The University of Rochester YellowJackets
Elizabethtown College Vocalign
Rutgers University Casual Harmony
Wagner College Vocal Synergy
Ithaca College voicestream
Elizabethtown College Melica
The University of Pennsylvania Counterparts
The New York University N'Harmonics
Host Group: The Rutgers University Orphan Sporks
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Producer Holli Matze made the standard announcements, then brought out Andrew and Isabel from The Orphan Sporks to emcee the proceedings.
The Deaftones were the first competing group. They opened with Florence and the Machine's "No Light, No Light" Super clean, precise ominous hum beneath the soloist on the opening before a ghostly backing lead entered the picture. The perc keyed in and the group launched full-tilt into the first chorus. For as long as I've heard this group, they've always brought near-perfect fundamentals to the stage. It was great to hear them taking on an edgier sound this year and get more ambitious with their staging, including lifting the soloist up on two men's shoulders for the falsetto bridge. Really nice reach and power build en route to the final chorus before the group dropped to the stage and the soloist stormed back to the fore to close down the song. Excellent opener.
The group carried on with Zedd's "Clarity." I really liked the choice to mix things up, departing from their quarterfinal middle song, "Slow Me Down" in favor of bringing something different to this competition. Lovely harmonies throughout this one and a good paring of soloists on the first one. The group made the interesting choice to keep this song soft and slow, which I felt played nicely to their wheelhouse. Excellent addition of a third lead, a stunning tenor who added to some drama as the two men seemed to each be attached to her--the first guy crushed at the site of her with a different man for a bit of theatricality that was a little over the top for my tastes, but I appreciated the effort to engage the audience. A few of the movements looked a little clumsy--I don't mean to nitpick, but rather to point out the opportunity to sharpen that part of their presentation
The group closed with Demi Lovato’s “Neon Lights,” another departure from their quarterfinal set. It was definitely the right call to go with more of a party song after the middle song. The soloist was good throughout, but excellent when she went big. Another highlight embedded in this song were the exceptionally well controlled tempo changes--always under control and really interesting. Fun little per battle in the end game with a drum solo and a bit that threatened to merge into dubstep before a fake out finish, after which the group grooved back in for the ending. Stellar set, and I appreciated the ambition of only repeating one out of three songs from their quarterfinal set.
The Ramblers took the stage next in white shirts, black ties, and maroon pants. While I missed their distinctive pastel pants from last year, it was easier to take them seriously with this look--and this is a group more than worthy of being taken seriously. Nice spoken word dramatic lead in to Outkast's "Hey Ya." Lots of fun choreo to go with this one--not overly contrived, fun and energetic--all around, just right. Fun sample of "Poison" coming out of the first chorus. Good solo, and some really good choices for the soloist to sit out bits in favor of the backing leads singing the lyrics at times you wouldn't necessarily expect, but that landed quite nicely. From there, The Ramblers seemed to transition all the way over to "Poison," before settling back down to a slowed down groove on "shake it like a Polaroid picture."
The guys ooh-ed as the narrator came back to lead off the next song, Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning." While I loved the soloist's stage presence and choice to venture past the monitors, all the way to the front of the stage, it sounded as the part may have been a smidge too high for him as his voice cracked a few times on it. Transition to Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You” before looping back to "Sunday Morning." The guys kicked up the cheeseball choreo a notch on the finish, before a very brief sample of "Poison" yet again to reintroduce the narrator again, explaining that the story's protagonist was left looking for someone to love.
That was, of course, a segue to Queen's "Somebody to Love." Another really good soloist who also ventured up in front of the monitors and went so far as to kneel down and serenade some folks in the front row. Great showmanship and really good vocals from the guy. Great use of dynamics on the song. Cool bit of melodica-like instrumentation over samples of "Somebody to Love" and "Sunday Morning" as the sound built and built. Very interesting distinctive closer, and I wish the group had demonstrated more of this brand of musical innovation and experimentation sooner and more throughout the set. As it stood, it was a good set, but to me, it felt a bit tame and a bit played for a group of this high caliber.
The YellowJackets were up next. They opened with their Beach Boys medley, including "I Wish They All Could Be California Girls," "I Get Around," "Little Surfer Girl"
The bottom line is that these guys sounded like stars and looked great to boot on stage. To be honest, they sound more like a Sing-Off group than an ICCA act (appropriate since the group was on the show in 2011)--both for their degree of polish and proclivity for short snippets of songs. All that said, it was a stellar opening, though, knowing what this group is capable of, I kind of wish they'd done something more coherent for their opening song-just one song, and a choice more even than this. That said, it was still an excellent opener.
Seamless transition to a mashup of "Such Great Heights" in the style of Iron and Wine and A Great Big World's "Say Something." Positively scintillating, emotionally ripping solo for this masterpiece and really polished tuning on the backing harmonies. Particularly artful use of the "Say Something" lyrics over the "Such Great Heights" backing vocals. It's really awe-inspiring how well these guys made these two songs fit together, telling a really compelling story of the heights of love and the desperation of losing it. Excellent performance.
The guys closed with one more seamless transition to Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up." A ballad like this is all about tapping into the emotional core of the song. The audience needs to believe the group is feeling what it is singing. A top-notch soloist gave way to a truly sublime counterpart for a simply phenomenal performance. Great use of simple effects like the group turning suddenly on the first "the stars they burn" and a brief period of stomp percussion. It's unusual for a group to close an ICCA set with something so slow and emotional, and all the less common for me to cheer on a group for picking a song this widely covered, but, what can I say, you simply don't get much better than that phenomenal closer to a sensational set.
Vocalign had the unenviable task of following The YellowJackets. The co-ed crew opened with "Demons" by Imagine Dragons. Really nice percussion. Good solo work here. A second soloist joined to sing lyrics from the "The Scientist" over the chorus, leading up to a verse of that song in a choice that I felt came across as muddled and didn’t do justice to either song. Better bit as the instrumentation of the two songs mashed together moments later, but I think this all would have been much better if the group had been a bit more patient and waited another verse before bringing the songs together--as it stood, the pieces didn't feel as though they were working together as often as they were butting up against each other. The group is clearly full of talented singers and they know how to assemble an arrangement--I feel a little more thought to how the pieces go together is going to help the group really take the next step in their evolution as a new group.
Next up the group sang Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You." Nice, subtle, cymbal perc and a really good soulful solo. Nice bit of three-part harmony on "the three dozen roses" lyric, and I wish the group had done a little more of that, complicating and building upon the sound at strategic moment. As it was, the range of dynamics was good and the group wove in some good visual moments with partners dancing and spinning out from each other, and a recurring bit of snap percussion, but the performance never quite elevated to a show-stopping level, which sort of where I feel like a song like this needs to go at the semifinal level.
Last up, the group sang, Paramore's "Still Into You" I really liked the saccharine tone of this soloist--both because she sounded good and because she committed to her part so completely. The group wove a few compelling bits of choreography in, but there was way too much half-hearted simple movement like a self-conscious fist pump to make this one really hit home, and the backing vocals mostly seemed to be biding time, not entirely engaged, and not to be blamed for the lack of much interesting to do, excluding the bridge when things grew a little fuller, faster and had a build. Huge missed opportunity when the group sagged and leapt up--with about as little conviction as they could muster. Right idea, the execution just wasn't there to the extent I wish it had been. Ton of potential here, and I hope this wasn't the last the semifinal audience sees of them.
Casual Harmony was next out of the chute. The guys opened with Adele's "I'll Be Waiting." I commented on the group's need to account for starting with it's most explosive song and ending with the runner up at quarterfinals, and was really pleased to see them come to the same conclusion and open with their previous closer. It also gave the group more room to start slow and let this song breathe, getting bigger and faster as it went and letting the soloist open up on the chorus, before handing things off to the second lead. Really good arrangement beneath the lead and the performance looked fantastic with the guys so sharp and exploding into movement at all the right moments to one hundred percent sell the drama of the song. The group went for the clap-along which was natural to the song but a little awkward on an opener, though they could get away with it in front of a home crowd. Solid opener.
From there, the guys sang Muse's "Madness." Interesting choive to cut "I Can't Make You Love Me" from the quarterfinals set, which had a few tuning imperfections but featured a star soloist. Good solo work on this one, too with rich personality, but not quite the vocal acrobatics of the previous lead. The song choice itself was kind of a fun call back to the group's roots. Eight years ago, in its second run at ICCAs, this group was the first I heard sing Muse a cappella, taking on "Time Is Running Out" in an iconic performance. This worked as a middle song energy-wise, and the guys executed it with really nice precision and some good dynamics, including a monster crescendo on the finish. Just the same, the overall performance was a little vanilla relative to what I've come to expect from this group and I was a little let down with the choice.
Casual Harmony closed with the very right song, "Stutter" by Marianas Trench. Stomp clap intro with the soloist otherwise operating unaccompanied before he exploded into the first chorus with the group behind him. Excellent stop motion choreo and the movement all around was top notch. Fun clap-along bit leading into an air-defibrillator from the group to revive the soloist on the "bring me back to life" lyric. Excellent closer, though it may have been even better as an opener for how unexpectedly electric it was at that stage--I know, I know, I'm impossible to please.
Vocal Synergy took the stage next. Soft sample of Zedd's en route to "I Knew You Were Trouble" by Taylor Swift. So much energy and attitude from this group. Great personality on the solos, the women moved really fluidly. While I don't feel they're yet at the level of a group like The Acabelles two or three years ago, or Noteworthy or Divisi before them, Vocal Synergy did sing with a fire and refusal to take a backseat to anyone that puts them in the same conversation as those top-tier women’s groups and points toward a bright future for them. Nice sample of "Clarity" in teh second verse, before they merged back mostly to Taylor Swift, more sprinklings of Zedd. Awesome interplay between the leads for a great power opener.
Next up a mashup of "Same Love" by Macklemore, with "Brave" by Sara Bareilles. The group reiterated a really cool technique of sampling a notable part of one song on the opening to hint at what’s coming before going into the verse of the other. Really good choreo throughout this song, with the women constantly in motion but in meaningful ways, repositioning, doing something big in time with the music, or simply grooving in such a way that they looked perfectly at home on stage. Excellent solo work here, stronger than I recall it from quarterfinals, culminating in a sublime moment of the two singing together before the whole group challenged the front of stage for a wall of sound and clap along. Cool repetition of "love is patient, love is kind" with other girls singing bits of the songs over it in a lovely round. Sensational close.
Vocal Synergy wrapped up with its Kanye West Medley including "Heartless," "Love Lockdown," and "Stronger." I simply loved that the group made every bit of this so musical, so much their own, while still representing the attitude and swagger of the original music, but choosing to sing rather than rap. Particularly monster entrance for the "I See You in My Nightmares" soloist. It sounded like the "Stronger" soloist’s mic might not have been on when she entered, which was a real shame. Just the same, a really electric showing for a group on the rise.
Voicestream welcomed us back from intermission, opeinng with "Iscariot" by Walk the Moon. Near-perfect tuning for the soft opening, which was largely choral with the group harmonizing beautifully behind the lead. Brilliant build in the intensity of this number, leading to a stomp moment before the perc at last arrived and the soloist ripped into the vocals. Excellent offbeat opener.
The intensity just kept coming with "Home" by Marc Broussard. I just loved the spiritual undertone of this set. Another very good solo and killer use of dynamics to let this one unfold. Excellent stomp routine sample. This group has such a killer sense of how to build the drama and create moments with their music, and keeping the moments going just long enough to rock the stage without any of them overstaying their welcome or risking becoming gimmicky. Excellent middle song.
Seamless, perc-driven transition to Lady Gaga's "You and I." Really nice soft opening with the soloist already hinting at her power while the group kept it under wraps, then started a subtle bit of body perc. Make no mistake about it, though, regardless of how good this performance was from the group, not one ear in the house was tuned to anything but this star soloist. Perfect continuation of the down-home theme, building to a moment of sheer intensity. Really cool bit of windmill choreo with the group pivoting around the soloist leading into the end game. Awesome close to a superb set.
Melica was up next. They opened with Katy Perry's "Dark Horse." Really good attitude from the group with every move they made--the choreo was really strong. Good solo. Good backing sound. Good use of stomps to punctuate the late stages of the song.
Next up, Little Big Town's "Boondocks." Another power outing for this group, and I appreciated their continuation of that vibe. I felt strongly it was this group's confidence and stage presence that sealed the deal on them advancing out of the Penn State quarterfinal, and the ladies stuck with that. The choreo got a little cutesy on this one but the group still sold it well--even the line dance routine. I'm a proponent of staging like that less for the product, more for the fact that that must have been a ton of fun for the group to put together and it's the kind of experience that brings groups closer together. Aurally, I wish this one had grown a bit further, as it got feeling a little old before the group got to their bit of singing in a round ,which mixed things up nicely, though the blend was a little rough at that stage. Still a good middle song.
Melica wrapped up with "Slow Down" by Selena Gomez. The song fit the group's identity perfect—contemporary, fun, and allowing them to put their attitude on display. Very good opening solo and really nice slowing down on the “slow don” lyric. Good use of body percussion from thigh slaps to stomps to claps in the end game for a solid, engaging finish to a good set.
The Counterparts were up next. They opened with "Big White Room" by Jessie J. Wonderful, warm sound on the opening. Simply stellar solo work, and the group did a wonderful job of operating around her raw emotion, their sound never daring to overpower her but swelling right underneath her, then pulling back for her to operate all but unaccompanied at her most emotionally vulnerable. Nice explosion of sound on finish as the group clustered close, then spread across the stage.
The group followed up with "The Lady Is a Tramp." I didn't like this song choice at quarterfinals, and felt it was a real mistake to keep it in. Sure, it's a fun old school piece for a campus show, but in the absence of anything particularly innovative about the rendering of this song, it felt strangely anachronistic relative to the rest of the set, and though I think the group meant to play with the faux paz, it none the less felt like it could have been a little chauvinistic. That said, fun enough choreography all around, and good showmanship from the leads.
The Counterparts finished their set with "Creep" by Radiohead. Yes, this song has been covered a lot, but this was a prime example of a nice, subtle arrangement and impeccable musicianship can elevate a song to something special--so very special (see what I did there?). Nice build as the percussion came in on the first chorus. Lovely addition of a backing soloist on the second verse to both keep things interesting and add a dimension of narrative depth for the echoing of the soloist's lonesome experience in others. And don't we all feel alone sometimes? Man, Radiohead does it to me every time. In any event, pristine explosion of sound coming out of the bridge before coming full circle for an understated finish. Excellent, unconventionally dark closing number.
The N'Harmonics closed the semi. While I tend to favor groups dressing with some level of uniformity for competition, I actually really like the recurring choice for this group to keep things casual, trusting their own sense of urban chic. Wait--did the group just get its note from a melodica? What can I say, some groups are just cooler. Captivating opening with a swell of bass, clap percussion, and electric hum to lead off "Green Garden" by Laura Mvula. Really sensational solo work for this song. Charismatic, tremendous stage presence, and man did she have a set of pipes on her. On to the dubstep. I kind of love a good kitchen sink opener that gives you everything the group's got. Killer bit with two back up dancers behind the soloist on the finish.
The group followed with "Stillness is the Move" by Dirty Projectors. The staccato lead backing vocals were a cool idea but overpowered the lead throughout the first verse, which I felt diminished what probably would have been a really cool effect. The swirl of the bass sound underscored everything the group sang. I really loved the feel of this song. You want a group at this level to present a set that sounds like it all fits right together, and this number was right in the group's wheelhouse. Really cool bit of body perc with the group members rubbing their hands together vigorously to add an interesting shuffling bit of sound.
The N'Harmonics wrapped up with "Roundabout" by YES. While not as severe as the preceding song, again, it was a little difficult to hear the lead over the group sound. Fun recurrence of two backing leads coming to join the soloist up front. I'll address a fact that probably shouldn't need addressing --that the group stuck with three female leads. I think too often groups feel the need for balancing the gender at the fore, and I feel that's completely unnecessary--go with your strongest songs with your strongest leads, and let the chips fall where they may. Stellar, distinctive showing for The N'Harmonics this year.
While the judges deliberated, The Orphan Sporks entertained the crowd with a set that included "Settle Down," "I Wasn't Prepared," "Lightweight," "Sleep," "Sweet Dreams," "Usher Love Girl," "Thinkin' 'Bout You,"
In the meantime, I made my picks for the night. I can't remember the last time I attended a Mid-Atlantic semifinal at which I felt more than half of the groups could pretty reasonably represent the region at Finals. Ultimately, I felt The YellowJackets and The N'Harmonics were the top two groups--The N'Harmonics for near-sheer force of will and having such a cool identity, The YellowJackets for all around polish and sensational solo work and tuning. I didn't want to penalize The N'Harmonics for what may have been more technical issues than a shortcoming on the part of the group (in the group sound overwhelming solos), but just the same, for what I heard from where I sat, I couldn't escape the sense that The YellowJackets put on the best show I heard on this night, and so deserved to advance—by a hair. I had Voicestream, Vocal Synergy and Casual Harmony duking it out for third, with The Counterparts and Deaftones a shave behind them. I told you--it was a deep semi!
In the end, The N'Harmonics. While I didn’t have the same pick, it was awfully close between them and The YellowJackets, and I can’t really fault the judges for that pick. Only one group could advance, and I have the feeling either one of them could make a heck of a show in the wild card running. In any event, The N’Harmonics wrapped up the night with their encore, "Whipping Post" with a sample of "Moondance."
Mike Chin's Picks for the Night
1. The YellowJackets
2. The N'Harmonics
1. The YellowJackets for "Such Great Heights"/"Say Something"
2. The N'Harmonics for "Green Garden”
3. Voicestream for "You and I"
4. The YellowJackets for "I Won't Give Up"
5. The Counterparts for "Big White Room"
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Casual Harmony for the full set
2. Vocal Synergy for the full set
3. The Ramblers for the full set
1. The YellowJackets for the full set
2. The Ramlbers for "Somebody to Love"
3. The Deaftones for the full set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Casual Harmony for the full set
2. The N'Harmonics for the full set
2. The Deaftones for the full set
ICCA Official Results
1. The N'Harmonics
3. Casual Harmony
Outstanding Solo: Casual Harmony for "Madness" and N'Harmonics for "Green Garden"
Outstanding Choreography: The YellowJackets
Outstanding Arrangement: The YellowJackets
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Casual Harmony