On April 26, 2014, Town Hall in New York, NY played host to the ICCA Finals. Before the review, a quick summary of the event.
The University of Michigan GMen, ICCA Great Lakes Champions
The Universitiy of California-Los Angeles ScatterTones, ICCA West Champions
Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped, ICCA Northeast Champions
King's College London All the King's Men, ICCA International Semifinal Champions
The New York University N'Harmonics, ICCA Mid-Atlantic Champions
University of Delaware Vocal Point, ICCA South Champions
The Belmont University Beltones, ICCA Wild Card Champions
The Saint Louis University Bare Naked Statues, ICCA Midwest Champions
The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices
Cheyenne Mountain High School Crimson
The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Belles
Emcee: Cooper Kitching
One more introductory note--I'd be remiss not acknowledge Liquid 5th's work on this show--particularly Carl Taylor, manning the sound booth. Simply immaculate sound for this show, befitting an event the caliber of ICCA Finals.
The ICCA Great Lakes Producer, Matt Shirer, introduced the first group of the evening, The G-Men!The guys wore their traditional blue and white jerseys and jeans. Slick off-stage hum as the first member took the stage alone and walked to the front to lead off Bon Iver's "Skinny Love." I really liked this artistic choice, exposing the vulnerability of the single voice with the group harmonizing off stage, then coming out behind him amid an awesome bass hum and taking staggered positions around stage. Really phenomenal solo and staging here and a unique, perfectly blended backing vocals behind him. Awesome facials from the group, particularly the soloist selling the emotion of the piece full-tilt. This was such an off-beat opener, and I loved the emotional verity and power. Awesome use of dynamics, too, to punch the big moments in a monster way. Nice subtle rearrangements in the staging that kept this one interesting without ever distracting and the soloist, who was one hundred percent in his element, operating at the fore as if the group weren't there and this were his personal soliloquy.
The group continued with Leona Lewis's "Bleeding Love" Really nice, warm transition there to a song with a more upbeat tempo but similar sense of desperation and heartbreak. Once again, the guys made use of fall out moments to really captivate the audience, and take the drama to the max. Awesome intensity fro the group for a really polished number. Awesome soaring vocals on the finish before the soloist got a second to sing unaccompanied. Great unison on the finish, further spotlighting the group's ability to sing as a unit and perhaps most importantly share the emotional load of the music. Beautiful soaring flourish on the finish.
Duel perc lead in to the closer, Kanye West's "Love Lockdown." Stunning heartbeat percussion. Awesome electrified effect on the "system overload" lyric. I really appreciated the reinvention of this song, making it perfectly musical rather than a rap, but spotlighting their bass and electronic effects to sell the spirit of the song. I was worried that the group was going to go into comedy mode when they started in with the hip thrusts, but that turned out to be the harbinger of a really fun dance breakdown, leading into a dubstep bit which was well done--one of the trickiest things to do in a competition is to find a way to spotlight everything your group has to offer, and that was a pretty brilliant application. Great fake out as the guys walked away then spun and challenged the front of the stage at full volume. Killer finish to an excellent set.
Next up, ICCA West Producer Lucy Jackson, introduced The ScatterTones. Traditional neon pink and black threads for the co-ed crew. They opened with a segment of Beyonce's "Deja Vu" with a beautiful unaccompanied three-part female lead on the intro, before the group transitioned to a slowed down, almost jazzy version of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" with a male lead. Nice bit with the guy following a female percussionist as he sang. They sped up on the chorus, and transitioned back to "Deja Vu." Nice sexy dance breakdown from the lead and her back up dancers. "Crazy in Love" filtered back in. Really cool arrangement here, sultry and fun in all the right places. Seamless transition between songs as they started to mash together. Excellent perc. Great leads all around here for a dynamite opener.
The group formed an inward-facing circle to lead into John Mayer's "Stop This Train." The soloist walked from the back all the way through the circle to the front of the stage. I liked the choice to re-spin this song with a female lead. Very good perc again. Killer bassline as the piece sped up with a tremendous richness of sound from the group. The choreo got a little musical theatre-y for my tastes as the group walked in rows, executing it all brilliantly, but it still felt a little forced. Sensational solo here. Great moment as the group fell out and a four-part harmony covered the lyrics as the group filtered in bit by bit, then returned to full instrumentation for the finish. As a brief aside that I swear has a point: I've seen John Mayer like three times--two out of three were among the least enjoyable concert experiences I've had, largely because the guy was in slow jam mode and darn near bored me straight to sleep. I mention that because The ScatterTones put on an excellent demonstration of an a cappella group's potential to take something ho-hum and make it downright epic. Excellent second song.
The ScatterTones closed with "Garands" by Young the Giant. Sensational intensity of sound and another star solo. Nice bit of stomp and thigh slap percussion on the second chorus. Great dramatic moment as the cluster of the group spread the front of the stage to hit the audience with a wall of sound. Great emotion from the whole group to create a pretty profound, wonderfully complex sound for the finish there.
ICCA Northeast Producer Emily Flanders introduced Pitch Slapped. She revealed the interesting tidbit that the group has changed the songs for its set at each round of competition--pretty impressive, though I was interested to hear if that creative choice would pay dividends at this level of competition. Black and white duds for the mixed group.Fun opening with the first lead slouched at the front of the stage, emitting a radio static effect, and another group member coming out to turn him on like a radio and tuned the dial. Really fun interaction between the two, free-wheeling and dancing together at the fore. Transition to Esperanza Spalding's "Radio Song." Fun bit of instrumentation beneath a new lead there. The group was clearly having a blast with the music dancing and grooving to every moment of it, and I loved the undercurrent here of the value of music and how fun it is to make it as a unit. One more transition to "Ain't It Fun" by Paramore. Really fun staging as everyone moved and grooved. Fun box step pair up dancing at the front of the stage. No question about it: Pitch Slapped knows how to put on a show.
Seamless transition to Justin Timberlake's "Take Back the Night." Great charisma from the lead here who stormed the front of the stage with wonderful confidence and ease. This group has a near unparalleled presence about it. An other Easter egg was just how many group members got dance solos throughout these songs--everyone was a part of this party, both aurally and visually.
Seamless transition to "say Something" by A Great Big World. Cool en medias res take on it with the soloist keying right in, a great swell of harmonies beneath him, and a really cool doubling on the first chorus. They built beautifully to the "anywhere, I would have followed you" lyric, constructing a narrative of two sides of a love story that can feel the same emotion, opposite one another--a slice of life there, folks. Sick bass underneath this one and tremendous dynamic variation. Rich emotion from the leads up front. Smartly clipped version of this song, allowing the group to squeeze in one more piece.
Pitch Slapped grooved on into Christina Aguilera's "Come On Over (All I Want Is you)." Nice solo work and another very good visual presentation of the group revolving around her for a very dance intensive number that created a party atmosphere again. Transition to Sevyn Streeter's "Come On Over" (I see what you did there...). The group's moves may have grown a little overtly sexualized at this point, but I actually credit them for taking advantage of their assets there, capitalizing on what the group had to offer to serve up the most memorable performance possible. Transition back to the Aguilera song with some fun coupling of the solo there. I don't know that this song, or the set demonstrated quite the "will to win" I expect from a group this good on the Finals stage, but it was a lot of fun.
ICCA and ICHSA Finals Producer Sara Yood introduced All the King's Men.Traditional blue collared shirts and black slacks for the Englishmen. Great low end on the opening to lead into "Living on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi. Good combination of sincerity and charm from the lead here. The group grooved on into the first chorus. Nice percussion. Great energy and stage presence from the group. They're showmen and have a well-earned repuation as a premiere group, though I'm not sure a straight take on a song like this is really ideal for this caliber of competition in 2014. Fun transition to "Billie Jean" instrumentation with one member doing a pelvic thrust, then moon walking into a cluster with the rest of the group while the soloist carried on into the second verse of "Living on a Prayer." They resumed the regular instrumentation on the next verse. While I appreciated the instinct to differentiate verses, I'm not sure I really understood the Michael Jackson sample given that they never really revisited the theme. Nonetheless, fun bit of jump choreo before the guys hit the chorus full force. Long instrumental build up to the final chorus. Nice explosion of sound and interesting reinvention of the sound there, taking it a little lower. The guys demonstrated tremendous energy for sure and great tuning.
Soft, cool intro to Alicia Keys "If I Ain't Got You." Nice, simple, restrained take on the song. Great charisma from this lead as well. Lovely harmonies underlying this one, including some really impressive high harmonies for an all-male group. Nice addition of percussion to keep the second verse fresh. Cool three-part take on the "three dozen roses" lyric. Lovely simple, understated delivery here, and really nice money note from the soloist coming out of the bridge.
The group started its closer with the lead seated cross-legged on the stage, the rest of the group members with their backs to the audience. He sang "Itsy Bitsy Spider" before group members turned around with jazzy, brassy instrumentation and lifted him to his feet to lead into a the Spiderman theme. Really fun, charming presentation that capitalized on one of the inherent talents of this group--no other group could get away with this sort of song on this stage but the guys pulled it off with aplomb. Fun bit of staging with the group clustered, pointing in different directions trying to spot Spiderman before grooving into a new verse. The group crouched down leaving one proud, then abashed member standing alone, who took the lead from there. Very fun presentation all around, if a little silly for this caliber of competition. Fun bit of the guys noting that they were not singing about different super heroes--Iron Man, The X-Men, and finally "not Jacke Chan," courtesy of an Asian group member. Cute finish to an entertaining set.
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Producer Holli Matze was out next to introduce The N'Harmonics. They gave their note on the melodica. Yep. Some groups are just cooler. The group led off the set with some thigh slapping body perc to key into Laura Mvula's "Green Garden." Killer solo here--such ridiculous charisma, range, and a true star presence from this young woman. Very swank backup dancers for her on the second chorus. Wonderful complexity of sound from the group and killer perc. Shrewd staging to move from an arc to a diagonal line cutting the stage for the lead to walk along on the bridge. Really fun breakdown section on the "dance in the garden like we used to" section, with two dancers jiving in bohemian style at the fore as the sound slipped away to a finish. The N'Harmonics may not be everyone's cup of tea, but when it comes to delivering a creative and fundamentally different performance than any of the competition, very few groups can hold a candle to them.
Next up, "Stillness is the Move." by The Dirty Projectors. Very cool effect with two backing leads up front alongside the soloist, delivering a staccato, breathy harmony right under her in a way that reinvented the original instrumentation of the song. Great charisma from the lead again. This group offered up such a unique brand of presence and assault of sound on the stage. No group in the world sounds like this but The N'Harmonics, and it's such a cool piece of music, executed with an unparalleled combination of precision and seeming reckless abandon, like it just might fall of the rails at any second, but never did. Cool fall out moment for a three-part unison before the group turned around and keyed in with percussion and the full groove for the finish. Sensational bit of hand rubbing into the mic body perc--everything this group did was about creativity and attitude--so cool.
The melodica proved not only distinctive, but a really cool ice breaker to keep the group loose and having fun. They finished with "Roundabout" by Yes. Really fun party sound there and the group looked just right for that vibe for the duration of this song. I also loved the choice to stick with female leads throughout this set. Competition isn't about equal opportunity. It's about picking the best material you have to bring to the stage, that flows and tells a story. The group captured all of that near perfectly. This group captured a different vibe from most others--not desperation, but not care free, just delivering sensational music that attacked the senses and dared anyone not to give them their full attention. Fun handling of the bridge with the group at the front of the stage with a high riff carrying them forward to the finish, hitting the audience with one last wall of sound before it petered out.
After intermission, ICCA South Producer Lindsay Howerton introduced Vocal Point. The mixed group wore black and yellow. They started posed sternly on stage. High harmony lead off to The Civil Wars' "I Had me a Girl." Each group member made eye contact with a partner. Great authenticity of emotion there. Killer male solo which gave way to a very slick transition to a female lead, with her and the original soloist harmonizing together before she took control. Killer intensity all around on sound and movement, implementing power swivels and stomps right in time with the music in perfect sync. Great, sensual transition as the female contingent separated from the male group members. Killer use of dynamics to pop the sound and sell the drama here before slipping back to more mellow harmonies on the finish.
Shake of the head from the first soloist as he handed things off to a female lead for Kelly Clarkson's "Dark Side." Three part harmony then the whole group keyed in. Stellar visual performance from every group member, selling the facials and performing with a very real intensity--as I've commented more than once in the past, one of the differences between champions and also-rans is sheer intensity and refusal to be ignored--this song was a very good example of taking a soft ballad and using verity of emotion to tell a story. Awesome bit with the percussion pounding to build to a money unison from the group.Lovely fall out finish with the soloist singing, and the group echoing her unison, then humming softly on the close. It takes something special to give me chills at ICCA Finals point--but Vocal Point made it there.
Power transition to Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)." Simply electric solo on this one and the group did a killer job of capturing the fire and electricity of the song. Great use of dramatic build, using fall out moments, tempo variation, and dynamics all to their advantage--expert patience, build and exploding when the moment arrived. Sometimes, some groups just want it more and I'd argue that Vocal Point not so much sung as fought their way into the conversation of international champions with this performance. Brilliant staging as the group pressed down on the soloist, burying him at their center on the finish, then stared at the audience with fire. Sensational set.
ICHSA Midwest Producer Mark Chen introduced The Beltones. Black and white duds for them with silver body paint on more than a few members. I loved that choice for look--pushing the envelope, making themselves instantly unforgettable. They opened with Laura Mvula's "Green Garden." This was a tricky spot to be singing the same song as one of The N'harmonics' finest on the New York stage, but the Nashville crew held its own. Nice pulsing perc. Really nice soaring harmony as the sound grew to its biggest point. Lovely, clean sound here.
Seamless transition to Kimbra's "Cameo Lover." Fun bit of staging with the group stepping forward as their parts came to fruition--areally smart way to use dynamic visual presentation to complement the music, which is what the visual presentation should be all about in competitive a cappella. Very polished presentation here, but I was sort of craving a smidge more grit on each of these first two songs.Really nice build to the finish, as the arrangement grew more staccato and the soloist and lead backing vocals took things up a notch.
Seamless transition again, this time to "Gone" by Lianne La Havas Good interaction between male and female leads here again and the tuning and blend were pretty superb.
Another seamless transition, this time to "Unconditionally" by Katy Perry.Nice sincerity from the soloist, and a really nice bit of doubling on the lead. While I love it when a group can offer complete control of it's emotion, there's also a lot to be said for a group that allows itself to be so overcome by the emotion of the moment and you could see more than one occasion in which this groups' members smiled at the audience or one another, pretty clearly overcome with what they were accomplishing. Really nice build on the finish--very clean crescendo, never letting the tuning falter one bit. Excellent final build with three soloists rotating through and the sound growing and growing to the money note--a pretty epic finish for The Beltones.
ICCA Midwwest Producer Leah Gastman introduced The Bare Naked Statues to close the competition. The gentlemen took the stage in blue sweaters, over white collared shirts and jeans. Up-tempo lead in to Little Feat's "Let It Roll." Fun bit of clustering with the soloist in the middle, driving the vehicle. Really crisp choreo all around from the group. The soloist demonstrated sensational charisma, and this whole pie was very a really high octane all the way. Fun jazzy instrumental breakdown on the bridge, into a scat solo. Sometimes groups come to Finals with pure intensity--sometimes they come one hundred percent themselves, laying their souls bare, and I feel that's exactly what we had in this instant with a group having a ridiculous amount of fun entertaining the audience. Exceptionally fun opener.
The Bare Naked statues continued their set with a slowed down interpretation of "When You Were Young" by The Killers. Really interesting choral re-imagining of this song. I loved the choice to go to something really soft and measured after that raging opener. Lovely harmonies, showcasing an utterly different dimension to this group's personality and capabilities. Brilliant burst of sound toward the close with perfect staging as the group stretched outward on their biggest sound. Really artfully done.
"Oh"s on the opening to next song, starting with just one, then graduating to near the whole group, before the soloist moved forward for Beyonce's "Crazy in Love". I really liked the intensity of the sell on this song. There's intrinsic humor to the song selection, but the group didn't linger on that, instead letting the piece's intrinsic sensuality speak for itself an up-tempo, explosion of sound which is exactly what I feel a serious group should do at this level of competition. Yes, the choreographed dancing was a little silly for my tastes,but from the beginning, these guys had established themselves as a group of showmen, so it didn't feel as though it was coming out of nowhere, which is the mistake I feel far too many groups make with closers like this one. High energy performance, top to bottom. Slow motion, strained breathing, gyrating and rubbing into the bridge--a nice comedic way of covering the instrumental section, though I probably would have cut it shorter. Nice, power finish to a really fun set.
While the judges deliberated the top groups from the previous night's ICHSA Finals performed. You can check out a full review of that show here. The Highlands Belles, the fourth place finishers took the stage first to perform "It's a Man's Man's world." Awesome stage presence for the young ladies and a star solo. Though the situation has improved over time, I always crave more power from all-female groups at any level of a cappella, and it's pretty phenomenal to see a group like this bringing fire and attitude of this caliber at this young age. Phenomenal stuff leading up to a seamless transition to a pretty electric rendition of Florence and the Machine's "Cosmic Love."
Speaking of young all-female power groups Cheyenne Mountain High School Crimson was up next, after a third place finish at ICHSA Finals. I dig that Crimson attacks the stage with a shave less spite and a shave more professional polish than a group like The Belles. They reprised "Chain of Fools" with a killer solo and startling fullness of sound, and followed up with Adele's "Rumor Has It." Awesome attitude on this one. Superb mic technique by the soloist here in addition to a stellar vocal.
The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices were up next. They reprised "We Own the Night," a scintillating mashup of "Demons" and "Secrets," and "Ain't It Fun," before welcoming all of the night's competitors back on stage with Pharrell's "Happy." This was The Highlands Voices fourth consecutive trip to ICHSA Finals and first championship win. Since they come from the region I've called home the last seven years, I've had the pleasure of watching them move from semifinals to finals each time, and it has been a pretty remarkable journey to watch them grow and realize their dream of true excellence, not to mention, the highest tier recognition a high school group can get. They're an inspiration not just to other high school musicians, but, I sincerely hope, to fans of all ages (I, for one, know that they inspire me). The group was remarkably accomplished and told an irresistible story. My hat's off to them--the high school champions of the world.
As the high school groups entertained the crowd, I made my picks for the night. Make no mistake about it--this was as tough of a Finals to call as I can remember. If you wanted to side with all around showmanship, how could you deny The Bare Naked Statues? The Beltones offered up a palpably real sense of emotion on their set. The N'Harmonics were just so distinctive and so perpetually fresh. All the King's Men added their unique sense of charm to the proceedings. Pitch Slapped was just so at ease, and so talented on the Finals stage. And, as their three consecutive Finals appearances out of the ultra-competitive ICCA West will attest, The ScatterTones may well be the most consistently spectacular college group singing today. There were two more groups, and I'll get to them in a moment.
First, an expanded word on Pitch Slapped. Three sentences ago, I lauded The ScatterTones as consistently great, and there's no question that Pitch Slapped occupies the same rarefied air, and they're arguably an even stronger group. Heck, I'll take that proclamation one step further and argue that Pitch Slapped was very possibly the best a cappella group to sing at Finals this year, and perhaps even the single greatest collegiate a cappella group singing in the world today. Putting all of that aside, the way the ICCA competition is set up, each group has twelve minutes to make its case that it deserves to move on to the next round of competition and, by the time they reach Finals, eight groups have that same twelve minutes to make their case that they deserve the title of champion. With all due respect to Pitch slapped as a truly great group, I felt they made a real misstep by scrapping their semifinal set in favor of a different collection of music at Finals. Relative to the competition, I didn't feel the set offered a cohesive story, a moment that truly dropped my jaw, or an overall package that's going to stand out to me when I look back on the 2014 Finals a few years from now. Thus, in my mind, they were not the winners. Clearly, based on the results of the night and the point differential (Pitch Slapped topped the closest runner up by forty-eight points), five judges who are far more qualified than me disagreed with my opinion. That's OK. I don't harbor any ill will toward Pitch Slapped, and congratulate them on their victory. That said, this is my blog and here--if only here--I can offer up a dissenting opinion.
In my mind, the 2014 ICCA Finals came down to two groups. There was Vocal Point--first-time ICCA Finalists who frankly wanted it more than any other group that night. They tore into their set with vulnerability, ferocity, and unapologetic gusto. I believed them when they sang that they had a woman that taught them to pray; I believed them when they begged me not to run away, and I sure as hell pumped my fist in agreement when they proclaimed to the world that they were on fire. I very nearly gave Vocal Point first place, but on this particular night, the champions to my ears and eyes were The G-Men.
The guys from Michigan had me from their strikingly sincere take on "Bleeding Love" to their amazingly creative and fun group sound and the percussion showcase of "Love Lockdown." But then it comes down to moments. In "Skinny Love," The G-Men not only presented the single most emotionally affecting a cappella performance I've heard in 2014, but also the most powerful visual of soloist Apoorv Dhir standing alone and vulnerable, exposing his soul to a sold out crowd in New York, on the biggest stage in collegiate a cappella. Varsity Vocals crowned its champions and that's well and good. In my mind, 2014 was the year The G-Men ascended to the world's elite as the number one group in the International Championship of A Cappella.
All that said, Pitch Slapped did emerge with the ICCA crown. The group closed out the night with their encore, a masterfully remixed rendition of Beyonce's "All the Single Ladies," mashed up with Hanson's "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'."
That's a wrap for The A Cappella Blog's coverage if the 2014 Varsity Vocals competition season. Thanks so much to all of you shared some time with us throughout this journey. I'm confident we didn't agree on everything, but I hope the other reviewers and I were able to capture a special moment or two for you, and you had half as much as fun as we did along the way.
Mike Chin's Picks for the Night
1. The G-Men
2. Vocal Point
3. The N'Harmonics
1. The G-Men for "Skinny Love"
2. The N'Harmonics for "Green Garden"
3. Vocal Point for "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. The G-Men for the full set
2. Pitch Slapped for the full set
2. The N'Harmonics for the full set and The ScatterTones for the full set
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. The Bare Naked Statues for the full set
2. Pitch Slapped for the full set
3. Vocal Point for the full set
1. The N'Harmonics for the full set
2. Vocal Point for the full set
3. The Beltones for "Unconditionally"
ICCA Official Results
1. Pitch Slapped
2. The ScatterTones
3. Vocal Point
Outstanding Solo: The N'Harmonics for "Green Garden" and Pitch Slapped for "Take Back the Night"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: The G-Men and Pitch Slapped
Outstanding Choreography: Pitch Slapped
Outstanding Arrangement: Vocal Point