On Saturday, February 22, Johns Hopkins University played host to an ICCA South quarterfinal. Photos from the show are available now on The A Cappella Blog Facebook page. Before the review, a quick summary of the show.
Johns Hopkins University NINE
University of Maryland Faux Paz
St. Mary's College of Maryland Interchorus
The University of Delaware MelUDees
University of Maryland PandemoniUM
University of Maryland Anokha
The Johns Hopkins University Vocal Chords
University of Delaware Vocal Point
University of Maryland DaCadence A Cappella
Host Groups: The Johns Hopkins University Mental Notes and Octopodes
The Mental Notes opened the night, performing their traditional smorgasboard of classical pieces, singing "your mom" over and over again as syllables. This group is always a lot of fun to hear. ICCA South Producer Linday Howerton-Hastings proceeded with the usual announcements from there, with the addition of announcing the full performance order for the night, which I really appreciated as a way of setting audience expectations (and, selfishly, making it easier for me plan my blogging). From there, she brought out emcees Andy and Pauline.
NINE was the first competing group. Nice purple and black look for the co-ed crew. They stomped their way into "Army of Two" by Olly Murs. Really nice, silky smooth solo on this one. Great look for this group, dancing and grooving on stage with minimal choreo, just looking at ease and fun. The solo did an awesome job of busting loose on the finish. Heck of an opener all around there.
Slick handing of the mic from soloist one to soloist two, a female lead for Florence and the Machine's "Over the Love" The group stayed in a tight cluster to the side of the soloist and lurched to the opposite side of her on the first chorus. That motion looked a little stilted to me and I think this one may have been better served by a more simple arc behind her for most of this song. Nice swells of sound from the group--they had a great sense of how to use dynamic variation to punch the drama of their music and made good use of selective fall outs on the finish so it sounded like the group was falling apart to end up with just a select few voices lay bare.
Lovely single voice intro, then choral take on Bastille's "Flaws." For a group like this with so many star soloists, this sort of song is a pretty brilliant choice to spotlight different voices, and it's a real testament to the group's talent that they didn't lose their tuning at all on all of those transitions, with parts coming in and out as new soloists emerged.
Soft perc lead in from there to Cash Cash's "Take Me Home" This was a good lead when she was soft, fantastic as she busted loose on the choruses. Good continuity of sound from this group, keeping things on the light side, but consistently emphasizing their harmonies and using good dynamic variance to keep the crowd engaged. Lovely choral finish, before another woman got a snippet of lead hitting the money note on the close. Stellar set.
Next up, Faux Paz. All-black duds for the mixed group this year. Power stomp intro to Macklemore's "Can't Hold Us." Ably handled rap, though it went a little fast and I might have slowed things down a nudge to really let the audience drink in what was happening there. Really fun movement from the group, reconfiguring and making their moves with power. Fun bit of choral harmonizing to subvert expectations and mix up the arrangement for a second. Very dynamic opener--I liked it for the most part, though for a group if this musical caliber, I tend to feel a little dubious around rap solos, not showing off enough of the group's musicality from the get go.
They followed up with Bon Iver's "Skinny Love." Sweet unaccompanied solo on the opening before the cool, high harmonies came in beneath her, then the low end. I really admired the ambition of this piece, retaining the simplicity of the original song while taking it from more of an acoustic guitar lick to more of a hymn. Very artful. The soloist demonstrated fantastic range here, from soft and sweet to really tearing into it with fantastic emotion. Sensational dynamics. Very, very good middle song.
Faux Paz continued with Sara Bareilles's "Hercules." Really interesting arrangement here, starting en medias res, backing up to the chorus then picking up. Another star-making solo. The marching choreo, while appropriate, read a little cheesy to me there. This one seemed to end a little abruptly to me.
Last up, "Figure 8" by Ellie Goulding. Sick swell of bass on this one. Sensational emotion from the group, painting a really dark tapestry of a set, rich in emotion, and varied enough never to feel dull or redundant. Excellent stuff. Great dynamics again and very clean finish with the soloist getting the last note to herself. I really liked this set, though I think a stronger opener, and maybe either cutting clipped version of “Hercules” or expanding to a fuller cover might really elevate the whole set to a more definitive semifinal contender.
Third out of the chute, we heard Interchorus. Yet more black and purple. They opened with Bastille's "Pompeii." Very clean sound on the opening. Nice high solo work there, and a great visual on the opening with the group dropping down for the soloist to stand tall with the group reaching out around him. The bass was really good but a little overstated on this one in terms of balance. The group made some nice choices around mixing up their position on stage and throwing in bits of spotlighted backing vocals to keep the verses differentiated for this song. Really good sound throughout, though I think the group had room to play around a bit more with dynamics and I would have loved to have seen them bust loose and dance more in the late stages of this song to make it feel like a celebration.
Interchorus continued its set with Usher's "Burn." They started in a tight cluster to the back left corner of the stage before the soloist stepped forward. Very nice solo from that young woman. Good perc to keep this one moving. The choreo looked a little roughshod here, with hand movements that weren't all that well aligned. Very nicely executed bit late on when the group fell out, leaving just the soloist and percussionist, before one female accompanist came back in, then the rest of the group. Nicely done.
Last up, Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball." I'm actually kind of shocked that, five shows in, this is the first time I've heard this song this competition season. Another very good solo and I liked the movement here, more about big movements at big moments in the music, particularly on the choruses. Very nice male backing lead for a bit of the bridge. Really cool use of dynamics in the end game, with the group falling out, then coming back in softly, then exploding. Very strong closer.
Next, The MelUDees. Black and--what's that orange? Baltimore Ravens aside, apparently there are colors other than purple available to complement black (though I suppose if you want to see that argument through you'd say the orange is representing the Orioles. I'm going to leave that one alone.). The group opened with "Undertow" by Sara Bareilles. Really nice slow jam and R&B style to this one. Very good solo work, particularly on the runs toward the end of the song. The group was nicely understated beneath her, though I will note I was hearing the high end and low end, but felt like I was missing some of the mid-range vocals on this one. A lot of movement, most of it good and I appreciated the impulse to find different ways to configure themselves and they looked good dancing while they were in motion--very natural.
"Poison and Wine" by The Civil Wars was next on the docket. Very, very good interlocking male and female leads going back and forth on this one and I liked the dynamic of them standing far apart for most of the song, the female lead sometimes singing to the male lead while he always kept his back to her. Really awesome high harmonies as the song built. Nice choice to add perc later on to push the tempo and lend this song more of a sense of build than it would otherwise have. The group probably would have been better off without the step-in, step-out choreo at the end which didn't add much and sort of made the performance feel less sincere for me.
The MelUDees wrapped up with a Maroon 5 medley, anchored in "Daylight." Good, if not quite fitting solo here. Interesting handling of the chorus as a female lead took over there and the male lead transitioned to samples of other Maroon 5 songs including "Sunday Morning" and "She Will Be Loved." The transitions were fast and furious in the second verse, changing songs line by line. The tempo slowed way down from there as the group reverted to "Daylight" with the original lead. Really nice dramatic moment as the group fell out, crouched and dropped for the second lead to take the final chorus. I liked the idea of this medley, but felt it was a little too heavily into one song and then vacillated too quickly between others to feel coherent to me. As such, it’s the mixed result of an ambitious, big closer that didn’t quite click.
PandemoniUM was up next. Black and white threads for this mixed crew. They started with the ladies crouched down, the men standing with their backs to the crowd. Nice dramatic build with a repetition of "I can see you want me too" for Cassie's "Me & U." The soloist wove in through the back and filtered through the group, then the they split in to male and female groupings on opposite sides of the stage. Nice, sultry solo work on this one. Good perc. The choreo wasn't bad but a little overdone on this one. The snap breakdown was a nice idea to mix things up, but it was a little subdued and I might have gone for the clap along there to create a little more energy on stage.
Seamless to transition to Kendrick Lamar's "Swimming Pools (Drank)" Good initial solo, soon joined by the soloist from the first song, then a fun little rap interlude. I liked the stage presentation in that there was a lot of stop and pose or reach and wave type motion that created compelling visuals without becoming a musical-theatre-style production--interesting to look at without overdoing the choreo. Moreover, this song fed into the identity the group was establishing, very sensual and a bit edgy.
The group closed with "Sun & Moon" by Above & Beyond. Really nice soulful solo work here, and the low end sounded fantastic. Stellar percussion once again. Some excellent high harmonies late in the song. This one was very much consistent with the tone of the set, but I was starting to tire a little of not getting the big dynamic moments or any change in pace at all--I appreciate the cohesion of this set, but couldn’t help feeling they would have been well served to have mixed things up a little more with one of these songs.
The last act before intermission was Anokha.Traditional South-Asian garb for the women, black suits and red t-shirts for the gentlemen. Nice clean sound on the opening of their first song. When groups are rooted in their ethnic culture, I'm all for trying to infuse elements of your language or distinct elements of your sound into your set, but lengthy foreign language passages also walk a fine line of alienating a general audience. That said, this intro gave way to a slicktransition to Muse's "Madness." Nice interplay between leads on the transitions. I'm not sure of the content of the first song, but the group made the tempos flow into one another with some elegance for a compelling opening number.
Another Hindi opening for the second song. Very nicely done high solo there, with well-executed soft harmonies behind her before a male lead took over. When you're not singing in English, it becomes all the more important for everything about your performance from the soloist's timbre, to the choreo, to the dynamics, to tell a story for a general American audience to have a sense of what's going on in the song, and I couldn't help the sensation that this performance, as much as it was mostly sound from a musical perspective, kind of left me in the dark.
Anokha wrapped up with Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Interesting en medias res opening before they backed up to the first verse. I loved the dramatic stomping step forward behind the lead. The first male lead had great facials and body language, but his vocal delivery came across as melodramatic to me, which really took me out of the performance. The group went through a female soloist and another male lead before it was done. The blend was variable for me here—the group nailed it at some points, but seemed to come off the rails on some of the transitions between leads. In the end, this group has a really interesting, engaging identity and I think they have the foundation to do some great things in the future as they find ways of infusing their culture into more accessible song choices and tackle even the songs with a more theatrical feel with the same sense of authenticity they brought to their middle piece.
The Vocal Chords welcomed us back from intermission. This mixed group had the women in all black, the men in white shirts, black slacks and red bowties and suspenders. They started with Rihanna's "What Now." Nice lead here. The choreo looked a little stilted here and unsure of itself--a lot of the right ideas to create movement at the fight moments of the song, but the natural feel just wasn't there. The perc was probably the highlight, steady, sure of itself. Good idea to double up on the solo for variation, but the execution didn't really do a lot for me. Nice dynamic moment as the sound swelled toward the end of that song.
Seamless transition to "This Time" by John Legend. Really nice lead for this one--wonderful timbre to his voice and sincerity on this vocal. Great moment of doubling up on the solo on the second chorus, though it would have been all the more impactful if the group hadn't doubled up on the lead in the previous song. These are the details groups need to think about on a set level when they enter a competition like this; you want to save your best dramatic shifts for the moments when you implement them best, and not water down the effect by overusing it. Great power notes from the soloist in the late stages of the song.
Another seamless transition into Sia's "Elastic Heart" I really liked this soloist. Slow motion robot-like choreography. The movement was just distracting for me. The sound was probably, overall at its best at this point, so it's really unfortunate the movement undercut it—this group was at its best when it kept the visuals simple and about posing or, for example, raising hands on a crescendo and dropping them--simple and directly complementary to the music. Yet another instance of doubling the solo, then tripling it with all three leads from the set coming together to close out the set. I like the idea of the symmetry, but, again, the effect grew a little played.
Vocal Point was the penultimate group. Based on the audience reaction, I'm guessing they brought some friends with them. What a pop! They opened with "I Had Me a Girl" by The Civil Wars. Scintillating male lead vocal here--intense and so easy to listen to. Nice depth of sound here. An almost N'Harmonics like sharp, cutting sound on this song, underscored by the repetition of a stomp into a snap that perfectly exemplified the severity and slickness combined in this song. Fantastic explosions of sound--this group most definitely came to play.
Vocal Point followed with "Dark Side" by Kelly Clarkson. Three-part solo on the start. Nice movement, reconfiguring from a pack in the middle of the stage to an arc behind the three, then just the one lead. Really elegant, intricate arrangement. Sensational explosions of sound on this one, though there came a point when they felt a little gratuitous to me--I think the group would be best served with a little less early on, and more later to help sell the drama to its maximum effect. There was great verity of emotion on this song with one exception: an explosion of sound, from which a group of the guys back pedaled, as if repelled by the volume. I don't think it was meant to be comedic, but came across that way for me and really didn't seem to fit the vibe of the song.
The final soloist angrily took the mic from the previous one and riffed his way into "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)" by Fall out Boy. Another sensational lead here, with great stage presence and awesome timbre to his vocal. That angry way in which he claimed the mic was just the beginning of some wonderful character work and it’s that kind of attention to detail that elevates a great solo to rarefied air. Great intensity from the whole group. Excellent choreo with the reaching back and bobbing toward the floor on the chorus. Cool effect with the group burying the soloist in the middle of them on the finish. You just can’t ask for much more out of a barn burning closer. Stellar, stellar set--far and away the best I've heard from this consistently solid group over the years, and decisively the best of the night.
Our final competing group for the night was DaCadence. This ensemble rounded out an all co-ed quarterfinal--in seven years of doing this, I don't know that I've seen that before. They opened with Linkin Park's "Numb." Good intensity of the visual presentation, though I was just hoping for more punch from both the vocals and the choreo. I liked the understated hint of the rap in the background, never letting it take over and thus keeping the song more musical.
They followed with "Demons" by Imagine Dragons, mashed up with Maroon 5's "She Will Be Loved." I'll be honest—from a narrative perspective, I didn’t like the way in which these songs were sewn together much at all. I’m pretty sure the group was going for a song about a young woman overcoming her demons, with the male lead coming in to affirm she will be loved, but the two pieces were mixed too early for either thread to really take hold or resonate with me. The group looked very good and the lead vocals were solid, but again, I felt the way the mashup was constructed robbed the song of most of its dramatic impact—in particular, there was a nice bit with the soloists weaving between the group members and it felt like it was building for an explosion on the "I can't escape this now unless you show me how" lyric. Instead they rushed right through this part song with hardly a discernible crescendo, much less the fall out moment that it deserved.
The group crouched down at the end of the mashup, then a new soloist rose from the back to lead off One Republic's "I Lived." I liked that imagery to sell this soloist as a harbinger of hope in teh narrative of this song. Very good lead vocal for this one, both for the vocal performance and the way he carried himself on stage--a weary optimist. The group constructed some nice harmonies beneath him. Interesting bit of call and response between the lead and the group. Good VP on this closer. All in all, this was a really good choice for a last song for this group, tying things up nicely and in dramatic fashion.
While the judges deliberated, The Mental Notes returned to the stage to entertain the crowd. Their set included "I've Got the Magic in Me," a skit about a man who suffered a head injury and spoke in over-exposed song lyrics, "I Knew You Were Trouble," a parody of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" about never getting over Taylor Swift, and a parody of "You Raise Me Up" about bombing finals.
As The Mental Notes performed, I made my picks for the night. In the end, I felt Vocal Point was the clear champion of the night. From there, Faux Paz and NINE both made compelling arguments to be included at semifinals, with PandemoniUM right behind them. In the end I had Faux Paz in second place, under the hope that with a couple tweaks and sharpening, they could make their full set as compelling as “Skinny Love” and turn some heads at semifinals.
Vocal Point did end up winning in addition to winning Outstanding Arrangement and choreography honors. They closed out the night with their encore, Demi Lovato's "Give Your Heart a Break." Faus Paz joined them in advancing to semifinals. Truth be told, this is probably the closest the judges and I have come to being aligned with one another all around in recent memory. Kudos to them for some fine picks, capping a fine night of a cappella.
Mike Chin's Picks for the Night
1. Vocal Point
2. Faux Paz
1. Faux Paz for "Skinny Love"
2. Vocal Point for "My Songs Know What you Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)"
3. Vocal Point for "I Had Me A Girl"
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Vocal Point for "My Songs Know What you Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)"
2. Faux Paz for the full set
1. Faux Paz for "Skinny Love"
2. Vocal Point for “Dark Side”
3. NINE for "Flaws"
Outstandign Vocal Percussion:
1. PandemoniUM for the full set
2. The Vocal chords for the full set
3. Vocal Point for the full set
ICCA Official Results
1. Vocal Point
2. Faux Paz
Outstanding Soloist: Faux Paz for “Skinny Love”
Outstanding Visual Presentation: Vocal Point for the full set
Outstanding Arrangement: Vocal Point for “Dark Side”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: PandemoniUM for the full set