On Saturday, February 4, The University of Southern California played host to an ICCA West quarterfinal. ACB correspondent Keith Tripler was there to review the show.
There were some really memorable performances all around, but there were a couple of things that struck me across the board for almost, if not all of the groups.
First, microphone placement. Many of the groups’ basses and VP (even soloists at times) couldn’t be heard simply because the mic was a foot from their faces and/or off to the side too much. It makes a BIG difference when you do this right. The groups that had the best mic technique? The SoCal Vocals and The TroyTones. Huh. Funny how that is….
Second, matching the solo to the group. Several groups suffered because of a disconnect between their soloist and the ensemble. This mainly affected tuning, but general blend/feel as well.
Third, do your research. Research collegiate a cappella, past ICCA winners, who’s singing what, etc. Many of these judges have heard songs like “Fix You” and “Rolling in the Deep” more times than years you’ve been alive, so unless you have a great different version….it might not be a good idea to bring these songs to competition. Also, doing a song that previous winners did/have done is setting yourself up for a very tough comparison. For example, “Love On Top” is a song Pitch Slapped has become known for (winning Sojam with it, after the group won ICCAs) and they are arguably the best mixed group in the country --tough to try to outdo, better to find your group’s song.
Fourth, breakdowns are awesome (if done well, of course). Many of the groups had amazingly cool remixed, tempo changing breakdowns that really added spice to a popular song that was uniquely their own. This is really great to include, especially in ICCAs, as it showcases your group’s uniqueness and flavor, while still being in context of a song everyone knows. It makes the performance more memorable overall.
Now on to the sets themselves:
The Beat from UC San Diego – Very professional-looking group, obviously were well prepared for competition. This group’s strength was their chords and blend and, as a result, their softer, gentler sounding numbers were beautifully executed. “Hallelujah” (despite being a generally overdone song) was one of my highlights of the evening. Unfortunately, their quieter set and lack of dynamic contrast (both in song choice and within songs) were their downfalls.
Simply Vocale from Chapman University – These ladies fell victim to the first two points I mentioned above, and needed more sound and confidence in their singing. I liked their slowed-down version of ”Dancing Queen”, but as with the other numbers, I found the staging/choreo to be awkward. I don’t believe they mic’d their bass either – usually a good idea, at least for competition, especially when you have as many voices as these ladies did.
Men of Harmony from Chapman University – I didn’t catch these guys’ names at first, and in my notes they are labeled as “flatbrims and jerseys” – you can guess why. Though their attire may not have been the most traditional, it made them stand out/remember-able (yes that should be a word). Serious props for choreo to these bros--at least one of them is definitely a hip-hop dancer and a good teacher. These guys had original stuff, and executed it well. However, they sang a pet peeve song of many a cappella fanatics “Fix You.” This is a toughie--it has come to the point where unless you do something different with this song, it can hurt you. But in these guys’ defense, they sold it (emotion/feeling wise) and executed it well. Good set all around.
Khoir Practice from USC – This was the smallest group of the night with only eight people. These guys really surprised me with their big sound and confidence. They had great choreo for their size, and you could tell that everyone was singing their butts off despite them almost all really having solo parts. I’m a sucker for Bon Iver songs well sung, not just for taste but also the complexity and precision blend they require – which they nailed in “Woods.” I was a bit disappointed to hear “Rolling in the Deep” (definitely in the “Fix You” category) especially with mic placement issues with the solo, but their breakdown in the middle was really awesome.
Frequency from UC San Diego – This all male group started off with a bang, with great coordinated Sing-Off style outfits and an awesome R & B take on “Rude Boy” that had the crowd laughing and in awe. Their choreo was okay up until they chose to go over the top with the innuendos and….well lets just leave it at that. In my opinion, they took it a bit too far, overdoing it and eventually just becoming tasteless. It would be one thing if the vocals throughout really were spot on and then a few moves to get the ladies going--but they quite frequently achieved the opposite effect. They had trouble staying in tune, specifically with my 2nd point, matching the soloist and vice-versa. Overall, they have some great potential, but get the fundamental singing stuff down before and after the choreo.
The Troy Tones from USC – This mixed group came out firing on all cylinders. Sharp, original look; amazing full, bright sound; great soloists and they were visibly giving 120% to their performance. The Tones also had great breakdown sections, crisp syllables and jusssst the right amount of well-executed choreography. Their only drawbacks were a result of mic placement, yet again. They lacked on the bottom end a bit (bass mic not close to the bass’s mouth) and the VP wasn’t consistently audible (same placement issue). What set this group apart for me, though, was their song selection, swells within the music, their 120% effort and originality. A really phenomenal competition set overall. I was sitting two rows behind the judges, and halfway through ”The Circle of Life” they were all just watching and nodding their heads--a pretty good testament to the performance.
The SoCal Vocals from USC – This is consistently one of the top groups from the West, and repeat winners of ICCAs, not to mention that members and alumni have appeared in various configurations for The Sing-Off. I had high expectations for this group going in--and I wasn’t disappointed. They came out flying, show choir style, with flashy dresses and black ties/vests. It was very apparent that the group had done this before. Their mic placement was spot on, resulting in a great bass sound and winning the VP award. Aside from their bright sound, spot on blend they also had stellar soloists, and they knew it. Their set showcased multiple soloists, culminating in their best solo-award-winning finale of “Tightrope.” One of my favorite moments of the set was their group-riffs, a really cool/original sound and very impressive to hear. However, I wasn’t crazy about their song choice or their sometimes-melodramatic choreo. Perhaps that’s my origins in East Coast a cappella talking, but the choreo still didn’t do it for me at times.
The Medleys from UCLA – The Medleys were in a difficult spot as the third mixed group in a row, and singing directly after the two-time champs. They made some really interesting choices in their set, some of which worked, others not as much. For example, they did the stomp/clap choreo for one of their songs. Sometimes (in moderation) this can create a cool effect, but if your claps aren’t all perfectly in time and the right volume, they will ultimately distract from the soloist and background vocals, which is what happened here. When there weren’t claps etc., they had fantastic complex chords a very cohesive group sound in their first two indie-style songs. They also chose to do “Love On Top” (see overall point #3), and arranged it way too high for their soloist, while also speeding up throughout the song. Overall I think the Medleys had some good fundamentals, but kind of dug their own graves at times that could have been avoided.
Keith Tripler’s Picks for the Night
1. The Troy Tones
2. The SoCal Vocals
3. Khoir Practice
4. Men of Harmony
5. The Beat
ICCA Official Results
1. The SoCal Vocals
2. The Troy Tones
3. Men of Harmony
Outstanding Soloist:The SoCal Vocals for “Tightrope”
Outstanding Arrangement: The SoCal Vocals
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: The SoCal Vocals
Outstanding Choreography: Men of Harmony