On February 25, 2012, Johns Hopkins University played host to an International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) South quarterfinal. The event took place in the lovely and spacious Shriver Hall. Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the show.
The University of Maryland Treblemakers
The Johns Hopkins University Vocal Chords
University of Delaware Vocal Point
The University of Maryland Baltimore County Cleftomaniacs
The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes
University of Maryland PandemoniUM
College of William & Mary DoubleTake
Salisbury University Squawkappella
The Johns Hopkins University Mental Notes
The Mental Notes opened up the night, taking the stage in their trademark Hawaiin shirts. In their usual comedic style, they dissected a stereotypical ‘90s pseudo-R&B ballad. Fun stuff.
ICCA South Producer Lindsay Howerton made the standard announcements. Andy from The Mental Notes and Conor from The Bates College Deansmen had emcee duties for the evening.
The first competing group was The University of Maryland Treblemakers. The all-female group wore black power suits with white tops, and opened up their set with “Mouthwash” by Kate Nash. Fun, bouncing notes on the intro, and fun choreography to go with head turns and subtle pivots to match nicely with the music. The girls used transitions in the song (e.g., from verse to chorus) to rearrange themselves—nothing spectacular, but enough to keep visually engaging and relate what we were seeing to what we were hearing without distracting from the music—I wish more groups would embrace that understated approach. The soloist was really strong vocally, but I couldn’t help feeling this was the kind of lead that could have gone to the next level with a little more stage presence and performance. The percussion got to be a little overpowering at points in the song, but led the charge to the finish of the song at which point the group members rearranged themselves, nicely setting up the transition to the second song.
The ladies started in a crouch, then stood up so the soloist could step forward from the middle for Demi Lovato’s ”Skyscraper”--really nice visual to mirror what this song is all about, rising from the ashes. The marked the continuation of this group’s excellent transition work between songs. Interesting handling of the chorus on this one with the group singing long unisons rather than the more standard instrumentation of the verses. Nice stretch into a straight line on the “standing on my feet,” followed by a staggered rise and drops of hands—neat visual. Very good solo here, particularly when she got big. The group fell out so the soloist could operate unaccompanied for a few words on the last chorus—I probably would have given her an extra measure or two to really get the spotlight, but it’s a minor quibble. The percussion was quite good, but a little overpowering again at points. Really interesting call for the group to end the set with this song, rather than putting its slowest piece in the middle as popular convention would tell you to do. I liked the decision a lot, for the sheer emotional build of “Skyscraper”—it would have been really difficult for the group to follow this song (“Uncharted,” though quite good, would not have been up to the task) and so having this song close things out gave The Treblemakers a more natural build to a climax. Nice showing for the group overall.
The Johns Hopkins University Vocal Chords sang next. The co-ed group had its women in black cocktail dresses, the guys in white shirts, ties and suspenders. They opened with Janelle Monae’s ”Cold War.” Interesting call to invert the gender of the solo on this one, which gave the song a really different feel. For the most part, I liked that decision, both the because the solo was quite good and charismatic, and because it helped the group stand out from the start. Pounding percussion and nice, full sound from group. The choreography was a little silly here, including a bouncing fist motion that I think was meant to indicate something about fighting, but which was far too cutesy to convey aggression—just choreography for the sake of choreography. The soloist ripped loose on the ending and handled it really nicely.
The group followed with ”You and I” by Lady Gaga. Really nice, sultry solo here. The VP was great on this one. The group sounded full again, though the blend got a bit less clean when the sound grew bigger. I was OK with that for the sheer fact that it was clear every performer on stage was singing his or her heart out. The basses, in particular, sounded fantastic. Nice visual moment as a guy came forward to dance with the soloist and twirled her—it was relevant to the song, unique, and well-executed. I wish the group would have employed a nudge more of that kind of well-conceived movement and a whole lot less of the visual noise that the rest of the totally excessive choreography contributed. The group over-thought its movement to the point where it was just too much and detracted from what was otherwise a really strong middle song.
The Vocal Chords wrapped up their set with Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.” Another complex, well-rendered arrangement and another power solo. The lead’s voice sounded a little raw late in the song, but she landed just on the right side of the line—intense, but not unpleasant. Nice breakdown on the close with a soaring soprano line. Cool, sizzling percussion effect. There were a couple really cool visual moments for this song, like when the group members moved their torsos in a circular motion on the first chorus and when they moved in a rotating circle with their arms waving. Again, though, these truly great visual moments almost got lost in the group’s decision to (almost literally) choreograph every lyric of the song. The Vocal Chords had a full, complex sound, three star soloists, and consistently strong percussion. The overabundance of choreography got really distracting, though, and kept the group from being as great as it probably should have been.
University of Delaware Vocal Point hit the stage next. The co-ed group had the men in black and gray, the women in black dresses. The group brought a remarkably large and raucous group of fans for the show—cool to see. Vocal Point opened with ”Swimming” by Florence and the Machine. Without question, the highlight of this one was the solo--really precise, but nicely textured in the early going, and absolutely huge on the power parts of the song. Incredible showing from this young woman. Cool circular visual effect with the group members bending their knees to move in an alternating circular pattern between rows. Really strong opener.
Vocal Point followed with a mashup of Simple Plan’s ”Perfect” and Everclear’s ”Father of Mine.” On paper, this sounds like a horrible idea—how do you make Simple Plan and Everclear relevant or remotely palatable in 2012? Fortunately, the Delaware crew had an answer ready—you create a killer arrangement, hand the song off to star soloist, and go for the jugular in every aspect of your performance. Inspired mashup here, chock full of just enough surprises and just enough integration to really click as an entertaining and fluid piece. The emotion on the solo was palpable throughout. One of the coolest things about this performance was that, despite it being an emotionally-wrought song, the tempo stayed upbeat, changing up the emotional tenor of the set without ever risking losing the audience in the drudgery of a conventional ballad. Really cool middle song.
The group closed with a medley of explosive songs, anchored in Katy Perry’s ”Firework” and Bruno Mars’s ”Grenade,” with a small taste of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite.” There were parts of this piece that worked—the group found some common melodic and rhythmic threads to tie these songs together, the solo was mostly good, and some of the choreography, including a cool exploding firework effect, was really strong. Unfortunately, this piece on the whole was just not well-conceived. Medleys and mashups are all about the fluidity of transitions and the feeling that you’re building a story. By constantly and abruptly switching back and forth between “Firework” and “Grenade,” this felt less like a coherent narrative, and more like a child with zero attention span trying to tell you about everything he did today. Worst of all, the group repeatedly denied the audience the biggest moments of each song, building to a climax only to switch to another piece. I’m all for subverting expectations, but there’s also a point at which there’s nothing wrong with giving the audience what it wants to hear. Furthermore, despite the obvious talent of the soloist, sticking with just one lead throughout the entire piece added to the scatter-brained feel of the song. Prior to this closer, I had more or less considered Vocal Point a lock for semifinals, and I’ll credit them for having the talent to pull off this really difficult song. Unfortunately, the artistic decisions on this one were so incoherent that it left a bad taste in my mouth for the full set.
Next up were The University of Maryland Baltimore County Cleftomaniacs. The co-ed group wore black, blue and white. Very nice percussion on the opening of Jordin Sparks’s ”Battlefield.” Really strong solo on this one, who showed impressive range from the relatively subdued verses to exploding on the late choruses. Some nice choreography all around. The group sound was mostly really strong, handled with subtlety and precision, including a nice moment at which the group fell out for the soloist to sing with only the percussion behind her. The high harmony on the bridge sounded a little sharp, and a little too loud. The song itself started to feel a little long—I probably would have clipped out one of the early verses for pacing purposes, but it’s a minor quibble. All in all, a very good opener.
Nice, seamless transition to ”What Can I Say” by Carrie Underwood. Same soloist from the first song, and while she was really good and showed good range going from Sparks to Underwood, I was pretty surprised they didn’t give her voice a rest and mix things up more with a second lead here—particularly because the highest notes seemed just out of her reach. Really nice male backing solo—very smooth. I dug the interaction between the two leads. I couldn’t help feeling the song in gernal dragged a little. The effect may have been amplified by the first song dragging before it, or the decision to retain the same lead. Nonetheless, this felt pretty static until the very late stages, when the group executed a big crescendo to bring the audience back to life. Excellent visuals on the finish with the two leads singing face to face for a period, then ending up back to back. This not only communicated the narrative of the song, but set up a seamless transition to the group’s final piece.
The Cleftomaniacs wrapped up their set with a medley anchored in The Black-Eyed Peas’ “Just Can’t Get Enough” Nice female lead on the transition and a really nice hip hop solo to follow on Usher’s ”More”—awesome breath control on that guy. Fun, staccato syllable work from the background. Electric transition to Adele’s ”Rolling in the Deep,” which the group probably should have milked a little longer before heading to ”Edge of Glory” with a male lead. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the lack of male leads on Gaga songs this ICCA season, but I was actually fine with this performance—this is how you can make guys going Gaga relevant and interesting again—take the music seriously and sing it not as a gag, but as a valid musical piece. Nice. Really good percussion on this leg of the medley. The sampling of Neon Trees’ “Animal” came across a little too clipped, and it was at this point in the medley that I first felt the group was really going overboard with the kitchen sink route. Every medley should have a level of coherence and intentionality to it. While this wasn’t totally egregious, it was a bit excessive. OK closer to a good set.
The Octopodes from Johns Hopkins University closed out the first half of the show. Huge reaction from the crowd for this home group that won the quarterfinal at Hopkins last year. Ladies in black, guys in black and blue. Really clean choral sound on the opening of Muse’s ”MK Ultra” Booming, complex sound with a sick bass line on the opening. The solo on this one was very, very good, particularly so when he got big. The group incorporated a lot of big, slow, dramatic movements that fit the music just right—this is exactly how you can choreograph with a purpose, fitting the style of the music and using the visuals to build anticipation. Pounding perc and bass as the song progressed. Such a cool, aggressive, industrial sound from the group for an excellent opener.
Everyone froze as the second-song soloist took the mic out of the first soloist’s hands. She sang the intro to Demi Lovato’s ”Skyscraper” completely unaccompanied—a really bold decision you can only make when you have complete confidence in your solo (and, so we’re clear, no one should ever doubt this soloist for a second--just stunning stuff). A male solo joined her, then another woman, before the group keyed in with the more traditional instrumentation. This was an excellent example of how a group can think ahead and innovate on the arrangement of what’s likely to be a popular song choice. The percussion entered on the second verse. This was just beautiful—measured and patient. I’ve been listening to The Octopodes on a somewhat regular basis for the last four years and I couldn’t help thinking to myself that this was exactly the sound, the presentation and the overall performance they’ve always been grasping for—all that potential realized in the span of these three minutes. The group never let the tempo get away from them. When the sound got bigger, the lead stepped away from the mic stand, one step closer to crowd, building the intimacy before she receded back into the group for them to lift her up on their shoulders on the final iteration of the “skyscraper” lyric. Simply sublime. You can take this song to any stage, any level of competition, and it will hold up—you simply don’t get much better than this performance.
The Octopodes closed with Parachute’s ”Something to Believe In.” Sensational charisma on the lead here. This song was all about fun and breaking things down, which was very much the right call following “Skyscraper.” They weren’t going to top the musicality or sheer drama of the middle song, so they needed to keep connecting with the audience in a visceral way, but on a different level. This was the perfect ‘bring the house down’ song to achieve that purpose. I think my favorite moments of all for this song came when the soloist shared the lead with two backing solos on the choruses, in each case stepping back for a moment to let to the other two guys have the spotlight while he smiled and danced along. This is what teamwork, trust, and loving what you do all look like on stage. Positively sick bass and perc breakdown as the group receded to opposite sides of the stage for a freestyle dance break before they slid back into the chorus with a literal side move. Just as I was writing in my notes that the group ought to a go for a clap along because the crowd was eating out of their hands, they did go for it. What can I say folks, The ‘Podes had it all covered. The ICCA South is incredibly stiff this year, with no less than three different semifinal groups that have competed in the ICCA Finals in the last two years. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking this masterpiece of a set has a legitimate shot at taking the group all the way to New York this April. Transcendent, awe-inspiring stuff.
Fortunately for all of the rest of the evening’s performers, intermission occurred right after The Octopodes set, giving the crowd some time to settle down, besides creating some temporal distance.
University of Maryland PandemoniUM opened the second half. The co-ed group wore black and gold. The members started in two diagonal lines at opposite sides of stage before the girls clustered in the middle and the solo launched into Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Really good solo here, bold and strong. The choreography looked good—particularly the slow reaches and the leans on the chorus. Really good percussion . Nice complex sound from the group. Haunting sound on a quiet “bye bye bye bye don’t you cry when I say goodbye” from the sopranos on the fade-out finish. Nice opener.
Next up was The Fray’s ”Look After You.” Really nice, smooth solo, with great control and tone. Some nice interaction between the male and female members, dancing together at points in the piece. Nice percussion again. Nice soft finish from the group. The soloist wrapped up the piece pleading to a particular female group member as they reached toward one another. The lead very abruplty broke off after that, putting the mic on the stand and retreating to the group to leave the woman alone as the next soloist. I really liked the idea of that transition, but it would have been a lot slicker had the guy been a little more subtle and patient, rather than breaking the fictive dream of what we were seeing on stage so suddenly.
PandemoniUM closed with a mashup of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and David Guetta’s “When Love Takes Over,“ with samplings of “All Night Long” to facilitate the early transitions between songs. Lots of cute, fun decisions in this piece, including a moment when the group members all stopped and posed in unison for the lyric “we’re all superstars.” While they executed moments like that quite well, and the “All Night Long” samples were fun, there does come a point when a group needs to decide if wants to be funny or it wants to be great. PandemoniUM exhibited all of the talent and dramatic flair to be among the night’s elite, but I couldn’t help feeling that they were selling themselves short by too often settling for cute on this song. Nonetheless, when they zeroed in on the main two leads belting their respective parts concurrently, I thought this really kicked into high gear. Really good closer that probably should have been all the better with a little more gravity and intensity.
The penultimate group was DoubleTake from The College of William and Mary. The co-ed group wore red and black duds. They opened on a choral sampling of Michael Buble’s ”I Just Haven’t Met You Yet” before snapping their way into the more traditional sound of the song, with a soloist who exhibited great charisma. Some nice dynamics here, particularly on a very jazzy breakdown. I don’t like to belabor the point of stage attire too much, but I couldn’t help feeling that the soloist’s wardrobe choices really took away from this performance. While most of the group dressed relatively formally, the lead wore a zip up hoody and t-shirt which just did not jive with the classy aura of a Buble song and made the performance feel like more of a dress rehearsal than a polished, competition piece. Anyway, it was a cute arrangement with lots of fall outs and unisons, and tempo changes that were smooth and fun. The group definitely could have trimmed this down, as the song felt really long. Nonetheless, they executed it well. The song finished with a cute bit as individual members sung and paired off with opposite gender partners.
The group followed with Fleetwood Mac’s ”The Chain.” The group made the unconventional choice to have a three-way lead on this song. I liked the idea in theory, to mirror the original and do something different, but the trio’s blend was pretty hit or miss and got a big grating at points. They probably should have had different combinations of one or two of them singing, and built to all three on the song’s climax or the choruses. The group put a lot of stock in their low end and rhythm section for the instrumentation of this one, and while these parts were good, I don’t think they were exceptional to warrant this level of showcasing at such a pivotal point in the set.
The percussionist led the way into the choral opening of ”He Lives In You” from The Lion King.The movement was a bit uninspired here—while I credit them for not choreographing gratuitously, when all a group employs are gentle sways from side to side, the return is going to be about equal to the effort. The group arrived at a nice moment at which different vocal parts started echoing the lyrics, and keyed into a nice hand wave motion that brought more life to the stage. Cool four part lead toward the end and the group finished in perfect unison. The group demonstrated some good potential in this set, with a little more polish and critical thought about the performance elements of their competition sets, I think they have every chance of being quarterfinal contenders in the years ahead.
Salisbury University Squawkappella polished off the competition portion of the evening. The mixed group wore black and gold. They opened on “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars. Such a cool song selection—the piece has an immediate earthy, down-home feel that gave the group a unique identity from the get-go. Memorable two-part lead on this one with a pair of women who harmonized beautifully together and demonstrated some real performance chemistry. Sick bass and percussion. The sopranos were a little overpowering on their high notes, but the problem only showed in quick spurts. Nice slow motion march move from the group on the “running for miles and miles” lyric, which I thought could have been all the more dramatic had they actually moved forward on the lyric. Nonetheless, this was a really strong, distinctive first song.
The group followed with ”Homeless” by Leona Lewis. Nice soulful solo and understated instrumentation in the background on this one. Some really nice swells of sound from the group as this moved along. I was really impressed with the soloist’s restraint as she ripped into the late stages of this song, pacing herself, building, and demonstrating wonderful breath control. Great interaction between her and a male backing solo toward the end. My only real qualm about this performance came from the choreography. The women executed a nice little move in which they crossed their arms over their waists and swiveled their hips, which looked sensual and cool. Then I noticed that the guys were doing the very same thing and they just looked absurd. You really need to differentiate moves like that one to avoid creating inadvertent comedy in what should be a serious piece. Putting that quibble aside, this was a really strong middle song.
Squawkappella started in on the clap-stomp percussion to the intro of Kanye West’s “Power,” before revealing it was all a fake out and they were really singing Maroon 5’s “Harder To Breathe.” As I’ve stated before, I really like it when groups subvert the listener’s expectations, but they need to have a reason for doing so. I kept expecting the group to circle back around to Kanye, and while they did return to that instrumentation at several points in the piece, no one ever picked up the solo, which ended up feeling a little like false advertising. Putting all of that aside, the performance of the Maroon 5 song was quite good. Stellar, slick solo, especially at the point when the group sound fell out to leave just the bass and the lead, then just the percussion and the lead. Very cool staccato, synchronized exhale from the group on the close—befitting the song and distinctive. Great attitude all around. Though the Kanye fake out was just kind of weird, this did turn out to be a really strong performance in its own right, assuring Squawkappella a place among the top groups of the night.
While the judges deliberated, pro group Transit delivered a stellar set. It’s always astonishing to me how pro groups of this ilk can deliver such a full, complex sound with just five voices. Their set included “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Come Together,” easily the best of the many a cappella versions I’ve heard of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” a sensational percussion solo, “Jar of Hearts,” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”
While the judges deliberated, I made my picks for the night. The Octopodes were as close to a sure thing as you’re likely to find at an ICCA quarterfinal. Squawkappella, PandemoniUM and Vocal Point all made strong cases to join them at semifinals, though each, in their own way had suffered from some funky artistic choices on their closers. Despite quite arguably delivering the best moments out of the three, I felt Vocal Point had also fallen the furthest on its closing song, so I had them in fourth. Squawkappella just seemed a shave more serious in its approach than PandemoniUM so I had them eking their way into semis. With placement out of the way, the biggest question was who would take home the superlative awards, and most particularly outstanding solo given the depth of that pool. I had each of the Octopodes soloists in the running, but thought the truest duel would be between The ‘Podes’ “Skyscraper” lead and Vocal Point’s soloist for “Swimming.”
No huge surprises in the official results (the complete listing appears below). The Octopodes finished up the night with their encore performance, singing Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory”--quite the befitting song as the group looks ahead to semifinals, and perhaps beyond.
Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night
1. The Octopodes
4. Vocal Point
5. The Vocal Chords
1. (TIE) The Octopodes for “Skyscraper” and Vocal Point for “Swimming”
2. The Vocal Chords for “You and I”
3. PandemoniUM for "Cold War"
4. The Octopodes for “Something to Believe In”
Best Choreography: The Octopodes
1. The Octopodes for "Skyscraper"
2. Vocal Point for “Perfect”/”Father of Mine”
Best Vocal Percussion:
1. The Octopodes
ICCA Official Results
1. The Octopodes
3. Vocal Point
Outstanding Soloist: The Octopodes for “Skyscraper”
Outstanding Choreography: The Octopodes