ICCA South Quarterfinal at Johns Hopkins University

Event Reviews

On Saturday, February 23, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, 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 Competitors:
University of Maryland Faux Paz
St. Mary’s College of Maryland Interchorus
Salisbury University Squawkappella
The University of Maryland-Baltimore County Cleftomaniacs
The Johns Hopkins University AllNighters
The Johns Hopkins University Vocal Chords
The Georgetown University Phantoms
University of Maryland-College Park DaCadence
The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes

Guest Groups:
The Johns Hopkins University Mental notes
Johns Hopkins University SLAM (hip hop dance group)

Photos of the event are available now on our Facebook page.

It was a packed house at Shriver Hall at Johns Hopkins University for the fourth ICCA South quarterfinal for 2013—yet another sell out. The Mental Notes, JHU’s comedy a cappella group kicked off the evening with a medley of classical songs, starting with Pachelbel’s Canon, singing “Your mom” over and over for their syllables. This group is always a lot of fun and helped to keep the mood light heading into the competition.

ICCA South Producer Lindsay Howerton took over from there for the standard announcements, then turned over emcee duties to Andy from The Mental Notes and Conor from Bates College.

Faux Paz kicked off the evening. The co-ed group wore red and black. Stunning unaccompanied lead on the intro as the group sampled The Beatles’ “Revolution” before segueing into Mumford and Sons’ “White Blank Page”“ Very good intensity and emotion from the group on this one, with lots of visual Easter eggs of group members emoting their butts off in the background. The addition of percussion in the late stages of the song added a layer of depth to the sound—great dramatic effect.

Very smooth seamless transition to “Let It Die” by The Foo Fighters. The solo was nicely understated on the opening, but the group sound swallowed his vocals a bit in the early going. Very nice bass here, and some really cool visuals with the groove creeping around the stage. The choreography may have been a little much, but it was all really interesting, staggered and complementary to what was happening aurally on stage—exactly what you want to see form the visual presentation.

Another seamless transition, returning to the “Revolution” hook. The group closed on Florence and the Machine’s ”No Light No Light.” Florence sits so cleanly in this group’s wheelhouse, highlighting what I’ve previously described as horror a cappella—intense, visually captivating, and consistently, artfully dark music and presentation. Great visual moments with the group clustered and reaching and the soloist appearing to pine for them, off on her own. Killer backing solo in the late going as the pair of young women double teamed the song’s money notes, before the “Harlem Shake”-like spread out and dance moment as the vocal percussionist led the charge. Excellent, intense way to close a strong set.

The second group was Interchorus.This coe-ed crew wore black with light blue accents. They opened with “Accidentally in Love” by Counting Crows. I’m a huge fan of Adam Duritz and co., but I’m afraid the time for this song passed about four or five years ago. Just the same, really good charisma from the soloist and good support from the back end, delivering an upbeat sound and lots of energy on the visuals to sell the pep of the song. The choreography would have benefited from a little more variation on this one, as, by the second verse, I had the sense we had sort of seen what this group was bringing to the table. All the same, a good opening number.

The group followed with “Fallin’” by Alicia Keys. Fun little effect with three group members standing off to the side to serve as backup singers to the soloist while the rest of the group grooved and provided the more standard instrumentation in a cluster at center stage. The backup singers allowed for some really nice builds of sound for the power moments of the song. Very nice work on the percussion. The soloist’s vocals came across a little thin at points but she handled herself really well on the biggest moments of the song. Nice visual transition, repositioning into a double arc to set up their last song.

Interchorus closed with “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns N Roses. Fun bit of staging with the men clustered in one group, the women in another, rising and falling throughout the first verse with some well-planned bits of choreography. Excellent stage presence from the soloist on this one. The group probably would have served itself a little better to have trimmed the instrumental and riffing portions of the song, or, better yet, sampled something more contemporary at those points to get the audience more squarely in their corner. I hate to harp too much on dated song selections, but I think the biggest opportunity for this group to better itself would have been embracing more original material—these are all songs we’ve heard for years, the first two reaching their expiration date about four years ago, the last of them played for even longer. Nonetheless, the group delivered a consistently strong sound and offered up plenty of fun visuals for an entertaining set.

The next competitors were Squawkappella. Another co-ed crew fresh off their first trip to semis last year. They wore black and gold. Excellent power start with four group members singing in unison on the intro to Delta Rae’s “Dance in the Graveyards” Really great, clean sound on the group, and fullness of sound. Very nice solo work here, and really compelling visuals in the background with the group in motion. Nice explosion of sound on the finish. The group showed a really great handle on how to use dynamic variation to their advantage, popping the key moments of the song. Superb opening song.

The group continued with Christina Aguilera’s “Just a Fool.” Really compelling emotion on the lead here, and a steady groove in the background, if a bit simple sound. Nice turn as the lead from the preceding song took the second verse and the two soloists teamed up from there. Real power and sensuality to this performance. Very good percussion. Really solid middle song.

Squawkappella wrapped up its set with “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. Some really cool visual moments with the group clustered around the soloist before he stepped forward. I liked the idea of this song, and to their credit the group brought the intensity again. Just the same, I couldn’t help feeling that this industrial sound didn’t quite fit the group’s sound or personality. The soloist fit absolutely, but the larger group seemed to be selling it more like a hip hop number than Imagine Dragons. That said, it was still a good finisher to a very strong set.

The Cleftomaniacs were up next. This co-ed ensemble wore black and white with light blue accents. Lovely choral opening on Rihanna’s “Diamonds (In the Sky)” I liked the idea of this, not so different from Voices in Your Head’s iconic take on “We Found Love” during their ICCA run last year. Very nice moment as the group split into two clusters for a soloist to step forth from the middle and provide a soft, vulnerable lead, before the group rejoined her. The bass keyed in to push the tempo. Great concept, very good tuning, but I felt this one ran a little long without enough happening. The perc was a very welcome addition when it arrived, getting the tempo in motion again to finish the song well.

Seamless transition to “Lightning” by The Wanted. Nice, fun solo here, and very good doubling on it for the chorus between a male and female lead. Really nice fall out bit as the soloist had the opportunity to run the show unaccompanied. Part of what really worked about this performance was that it really captured the feel of the song—a sense of innocent excitement and electricity.

The close the set, the group started with Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” which fed into Jessie J’s “Laserlight.” Nice dramatic moment as the group formed a line at the back of the stage and, in staggered formations, made a slow motion advance toward the front of the stage. All of the pieces were in place for this song—contemporary song selections, strong leads, good staging, but I couldn’t help feeling it was missing a little bit of the narrative coherence to tie it all together. That said, it was still a strong way to finish a solid set.

The AllNighters were next, strangely enough the only all-male group of the evening. The guys took the stage clad in different colored vests and ties over khakis. They led off with Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake.” Really good low end from these guys and great ability to really punch the sound. Strong soloist. Really fun dubstep moment, and some cool bass and almost robotic sound effects over the course of the song. Here’s what really worked about this performance—it was an unexpected song choice for the decision to cross the gender line, but, just the same, the guys took the song seriously—no winks at the audience, just hammering home a song that works just as well with male vocals as it does for their female counterparts. Strong opener.

The group transitioned seamlessly to Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child.” Ominous bass hum beneath a lovely, subtle lead. I loved the soft, careful approach to the sound—a subtler sound than I typically associate with this group in recent years. They kept the sound soft and slow going into the second verse. I sort of expected the perc to key in there. To the gorup’s credit they introduced more visual points of interest with group members crossing past each other to establish new formations, but the sound was starting to wear a little. The second chorus featured some big explosions of sound before the perc arrived at last. This brought to mind what Scott Hoying from Pentatonix said in an arranging panel at SoJam this past year about dropping the second verse to move the song a little more if you don’t have anything fresh to do with that portion. While this was a really nicely rendered piece of music, a little clipping could have gone a long way toward keeping it vital.

Really fun snap and jive motion on the lead into Beyonce’s “Love on Top” The soloist stripped away his khakis to reveal black khakis. This was a lot of fu ,but I worry it may have been a little too silly for the competition context. Tons of really fun choreography on this one and the guys sold it wonderfully--particularly the stop motion bits. Really fun bit as the soloist disappeared behind the group and came out wearing a new, sparkly gold vest. Very good call to go for the crowd clap along. The sololist fell into a full split on the finish as the guys wisely opted to clip the song off before it got to the key change. Again, wildly entertaining and the crowd ate it up with a spoon, but as a closing number, this one was kind of a musical let down—just not serious enough to do the group justice, as I thought they could have been in pretty serious contention to advance to semifinals.

The final group before intermission was The Vocal Chords. The co-ed group wore black and white with cranberry-colored highlights. They opened with “Everybody Talks” by Neon Trees. Really good charisma from the soloist as he worked the stage and nice visual performance from the group as they were in near-constant motion behind him. Solid percussion. Good, fun, high energy opener that played really well for the group in follow up to The AllNighters’ closer—no easy task. Very good little mashup sample of Taylor Swift’s ”Trouble” as the women clustered behind the female lead. I definitely agreed with the call to mix in another song to keep the song fresh and moving, but just the same, it wasn’t a particularly coherent choice and felt a little thrown in.

Next up, ”Who You Are” by Jessie J Nice soft, warm sound on the opening, anchored with pounding, recurring percussion. Nice, clean ,solo. Well-planned slow, subtle movement to keep from growing stagnant on stage without ever really distracting from the music. Good dynamic control with some really nice swells of sound to help punch the drama of the song.

The percussion led the way into the closer, Marc Broussard’s “Lucky.” One thing I’ll say for this group’s soloists—they all demonstrated really good stage presence and charisma, besides their solid vocals. Nice bit as the group transitioned to the bridge with an explosion of sound and the group dancing a bit. They could have taken that further to really go for the party on-stage feel, but the sentiment was there nonetheless. Good song choice for a closer.

The Phantoms opened the second half. Yet another group from the co-ed masses of the Baltimore-DC area, this crew clad in black, white and gold. They opened with Beyonce’s “Love on Top.” Good control early on from the lead, giving herself plenty of room to build, though she grew a bit shout-y by the end of the song. Lots of fun moments on the choreography for this one, as to be expected. It’s an unconventional choice for an opener because the song has so much latent energy, but I can understand the logic--to really attack the stage by kicking off with it. Amiable effort on the first key change; they didn’t really try for the second. Very fun moment as the soloist said “everything stops” and the stage went still for a moment. Fun opener.

The Phantoms continued with Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up.” Nice, soft solo on this one, and full, warm sound from the group. Nice doubling on the solo in the second verse, and very good pop of sound from the lead and the group en route to the bridge. Strange little bit of choreography as the men and women paired off and seemed to shake hands and rotate around each other as they sang to one another. I like when co-ed groups take advantage of the male-female dynamic for some subtle theatrics, but this one felt a little aimless. All of that said, the soloist was clearly the star of this performance, and it was a stellar showcase for his talents.

The group closed with Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.” Killer bass backing solo, lurking beneath the lead who offered a really nice dose of soul in her own right. Fun coutn off into the groove of this song as the group moved from a straight line to a cluster. Tons of really fun choreography on this one as you’d expect, featuring some electric transistions as the group members ran into new formations. Fun, high energy closer, but I couldn’t help feeling I wanted to hear another side of this group—each song featured an explosive soloist; the first and last were big dance breaks.

DaCadence performed next, the women in black dresses with different colored belts, them men in black slacks and ties with different colored shirts. The group opend with Coldplay’s “Princess of China.” They led off with a soft buzzing sound, before the hum of the bass and the high-end syllables entered. Solid percussion. Some really fun bits of chorepgraphy with the group bending and slumping in rounds, another interesting bit with a second lead joining in while the original soloist pantomimed an interaction with one of the women from the group. The sound grew a little muddled as this one went on, and I couldn’t help thinking the piece overall would have benefited from just a little more fire power from everyone on stage.

The group moved on to a medley of “Here Without You” and ”Kryptonite” by Three Doors Down. A bit of odd song selection, and an unconventional choice to maintain the same female lead on each of these songs. There’s nothing inherently wrong about crossing the gender line with your soloists (and in some cases it can make for a really interesting performance) but here the firepower thing was an issue again and the lead vocals seemed as though they would sit much more easily and more authentically in the male sound. Good energy on stage, and I appreciate that the group experimented with some offbeat creative decisions, but this song didn’t quite click for me.

Nice visual transition with the soloist dropping her head and the final soloist coming to reassure her on Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out.” Good, subtle perc here. This song is a great idea for a closer, though I thought the group may have exploited its raw energy and shift in mood by spotlighting a more traditional ballad in the preceding song, to underscore the contrast. Nice high riffing from the soloist in the end game to finish the set strong.

The final competitors from the evening held the interesting distinction of also, quite arguably, being the most anticipated act of the night, the reigning two-times champions of this particular quarterfinal, The Octopodes. They started off with an unaccompanied lead on ”Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars. Then they transitioned to a three-part lead on it. Sensation sound, demanding that everyone in the audience take notice. From there, the group moved into the more traditional instrumentation. Nice dramatic build en route to the perc keying in. Impressive side note—one of the group members fit right into the mix of the choreography despite taking the stage on crutches. There’s some dedication! Cool fall out moment as the low end vanished and the ladies took the lead chorally. Nice full sound on this one, and dramatic selling from the group. My only complaint is that the performance seemed to go a little long in the late stages.

Jessie J’s ”Who You Are” was up next. I loved the little hint of bass and percussion early on, foreshadowing big things to follow for this song. The soloist exploded on the chorus—what vocals! The group did a magnificent job of building to dramatic moments with monster crescendos. Nice, subtle, steady percussion.

The Octopodes closed with Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out” I can’t help feeling the group ran into some bad luck on this one for DaCadence singing the same song and robbing it a little of its dramatic verve. Just the same, the impact was quite different from the earlier performance, with such a rich, full sound, and a truly spectacular soloist. Great bit as the un-miced women in the group led the charge on the chorus, lending this song the sort of communal feeling I think it demands. Some neat arrangement decisions for the group to fall out for the soloist to sing alone. Wonderful emotion on this solo. Great visual coming out of the bridge as the group broke loose to free-style dance as they sang to “shake it out” and made the perfectly correct decision to go for the clap along on the finish. Very clean finish to an excellent set.

As the judges deliberated, SLAM, JHU’s hip-hop dance team, performed. As much as I love a cappella, I have to say that, particularly given the length of these quarterfinals, it was a pretty welcome change of pace to entertain the crowd with something truly different during deliberations. After SLAM’s performance, The Mental Notes took over again with a set that included original songs about a girl who is “kind of pretty but [who has] got a weird face,” being “a little bit awkward,” a girl who’s “so mean, but she’s so hot” and the group’s signature “One Semester of Spanish Spanish Love Song.” All of that, plus an uncharacteristically serious take on “Bottom of the River.”

In the meantime, I made my picks for the night. It was certainly a competitive quarterfinal. I thought The Octopodes were the clear choice for first place, but that there was a tight race for the runner up spot (and so, the additional spot at semis) between Squawkappella, Faux Paz, and The AllNighters, with The Cleftomaniacs not far behind. At their best Squawkappella delivered some of the most dramatic moments of the night. Faux Paz was probably the most consistent and solid group of the night, besides The Octopodes. The AllNighters had a really rich sound and world of potential, but I didn’t love their creative choices for the competition setting. In the end, I had Squawkappella just edging out Faux Paz for second place.

In the end, The Octopodes did indeed win the night, with Faux Paz finishing in second. The ‘Podes finished off the evening with their encore, Ke$ha’s “Animal.”

Be sure to check back next week, when I’ll be reviewing the Aca-Idol competition from SingStrong DC!

ACB Picks:

Overall Placement
1. The Octopodes
2. Squawkappella
3. Faux Paz
4. The AllNighters
5. The Cleftomaniacs

Outstanding Soloists:
1. Squawkappella for “Just a Fool”
2. The Octopodes for “Who You Are”
3. The Octopodes for “Shake It Out”
4. The Phantoms for “I Won’t Give Up”
5. The Octopodes for "Locked Out of Heaven"

Outstanding Vocal Percussion
1. The AllNighters for the full set
2. The Octopodes for the full set

Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. The AllNighters for “Love on Top”
2. Faux Paz for the full set
3. The Octopodes for “Shake It Out”

Official ICCA Results
Overall Placement:
1. The Octopodes
2. Faux Paz
3. The AllNighters

Outstanding Soloist: The Octopodes for “Who You Are”

Outstanding Arrangement: Peter Yang of The Octopodes for “Locked Out of Heaven”

Outstanding Choreography: The AllNighters for the full set