On April 18, 2015, The Beacon Theatre in New York played host to the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) Finals. Before the review, here’s a quick summary of the show.
The ICCA Mid-Atlantic Champions, University of Maryland Faux Paz
The ICCA West Champions, The University of Southern California SoCal VoCals
The ICCA Midwest Champions, University of Chicago Voices In Your Head
The ICCA Great Lakes Champions, The University of Michigan G-Men
The ICCA Northeast Champions, The Vassar Devils
The ICCA South Champions, Baylor University VirtuOSO
The ICCA United Kingdom Champions, Kings College All The King’s Men
The ICCA Wild Card Champions, The Northeastern University Nor’easters
Guest Performers: The 2015 ICCA Champions and Top Runners Up Vocal Rush, Forte, and Falconize
Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching
Sound: Liquid 5th
Vocal Rush, who had won the ICHSA Finals the preceding night, opened the show. From there, emcees Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching took the reigns. I have to say that Jensen’s infectious energy, paired with Kitching’s polished showmanship made them a pretty dynamite pair that struck just the right balance of keeping the show entertaining between sets and keeping the night moving. It doesn’t hurt that they each had their own ICCA Finals creds as alumni of Brigham Young University Noteworthy and the University of Georgia Accidentals, respectively.
Faux Paz, a co-ed group wearing black formal attire, opened up the competition, making their ICCA Finals debut. Their first song was Kimbra’s “Come Into My Head.” Superb intensity all around on this song, and particularly from the female soloist who created tension throughout the song and demonstrated terrific power when she popped. Nice visual presentation that included a lot of the group packing into tight clusters and then popping out at irregular intervals to create a sense of kinetic energy and unpredictability. This felt edgy, dark, and positively captivating. Great way to start a set.
Next up, “La La La,” originally by Naughty Boy featuring Sam Smith. Great VP on display in this song. Very good male lead and an equally good second soloist who wove in and eventually doubled up on the solo. The group kept the visual story interesting on this song via reconfigurations, settling on a V-formation in the second verse. In addition to the group’s polished mechanics, one of the things that Faux Paz clearly gets that divides regional champions from groups that never cross the Finals barrier is that you need to mix up songs like this, adding and taking away aural and visual elements as you go to make the song continue to feel fresh and retain the audience’s full attention for the duration of the piece. Very strong middle song.
Faux Paz continued with Lianne La Havas’s “Gone.” I loved the transition into this song with the group spinning so their backs were all to the crowd, except for the new soloist who started unaccompanied, only for other group members to turn around as their vocal parts joined in. It was a simple, but distinctive way of letting the visual presentation complement what was going on in the music. Very good emotion from the lead and the group continued its strong visual work by scattering and wandering the stage to sell the confusion inherent in the piece.
The group closed with Hozier’s ”Take Me To Church.” In principle, I like this as an emotional climax to a power set. That said, my main knock on this song, and by extension the full set, is that every song felt so intense, such that, in juxtaposition with each other, no one song really stood out. I think that having at least one song that hit a really different emotional tone could have gone a long way toward helping the rest of the Faux Paz set stand out and flourish. Add onto the fact that The Vanderbilt Melodores set such a high and memorable bar for this song on The Sing-Off, and I’m wary of anyone bringing it to competition. Putting aside song selection, though, this was an objectively strong performance, staring with a traditional, spiritual sound before upping the tempo on the chorus. The VP was pretty terrific again, subtly growing into an increasingly military-style beat. Meanwhile, the solo grew more and more raw as the song went on, selling the emotion of the piece well. This was an emotionally rich performance to cap a fine set from this crew.
Next out of gate, The SoCal VoCals. This is the fourth time since 2008 that the group competed in the ICCAs. Each of the three preceding outings, they went on to win the tournament so, needless to say, expectations were high. The group wore black and white formal attire and started out their set kneeling on stage. They opened with “Crazy,” originally by Gnarls Barkley. Conventional wisdom would tell you that in the year 2015, this party anthem from 2006 is exactly the wrong choice for a group gunning for a world championship. Repeat after me: conventional logic does NOT apply to The SoCal VoCals. This take on “Crazy” was anything but standard, starting soft and slow, with brilliant variations in tempo, slowing way down on the “I remember when” lyric to sell the retrospective feel of this song selection, before pushing the tempo and creating a tidal wave of sound on the first chorus. From there, group was off and grooving. I loved the staging here as the group got to its feet and formed an arc in which the members were moving freely. So many groups want to sell a party atmosphere with wild choreography—nine times out of ten, a group looks more comfortable and more authentically fun when they give way to straight up dancing and this was a textbook case of that effect working to an ensemble’s fullest advantage. Plenty of smart reconfigurations from there, all of which looked effortless and perfectly fit the transitions in the music. Just stellar work on this first song.
On to Tori Kelly’s “Paper Hearts.” The pieces of this song that I suspect I’ll always remember best were dynamics and blend. With the possible exception of Pitch Slapped, I’ve never heard any scholastic a cappella group more consistently vary its sound without ever compromising its tuning like The SoCal VoCals. Impossibly huge and smooth crescendo on this one. The group revisited their old middle song trick of rotating soloists, previously seen at Finals in “Crazy Ever After” and “Poison and Wine.” To be frank, there’s a reason why this group goes to that well so many times, and a reason why so few other groups even try to imitate the effect. It’s because it’s so hard and no one else can pull it off like The SoCal VoCals, featuring such a deep collection of strong soloists and also having the fundamentals down so soundly to support constantly trading in and out voices on the backing parts. This was a straight up master class on every mechanical piece that a cappella champions should strive toward. Perfect conclusion to boot as the group dropped to such a soft, subtle place on the closing movements for a truly emotional close.
Last up, The SoCal VoCals launched a full-out assault on the stage with Jessie J’s “Bang Bang.” This isn’t a song most groups would want to be caught singing at this level of competition, but the group again demonstrated the ways in which pristine mechanics and irresistible energy can transform the most pedestrian of song choices into a truly epic performance. Killer use of dynamics again, excellent solo, and the transition to the Nicki Minaj rap was positively electric (not to mention that the rap itself was superb). Fun little sample of “All About That Bass” with, of course, a bass soloist. A battle cry of “Let’s go!” sent the VoCals storming the front of the stage for a power finish. One of the most stunning things about this group is that they’re performing at such a caliber that they not only deliver a tremendous performance, but also make it look effortless on stage. It’s the type of performance that makes you forget you’re watching a competition and soak up the show. Simply marvelous a cappella.
Next up, we heard from Voices In Your Head. This was the co-ed group from Chicago’s second Finals appearance, after a groundbreaking set in 2012 that I, personally, felt should have won them a Championship. Thus, despite time and inevitable and turnover, my expectations for this set were quite high. The group sported its traditional look with the men in black suits, white shirts and different-colored ties, the women in in black dresses and different-colored tights. At the risk of talking too much about clothing, I think this is a fantastic look for how much it says about the group’s personality—that they are a serious, professional unit, but that they also bring to the stage a brand of innovative, electric, eye-catching performance. The group opened with “Show Me How To Burlesque,” originally by Christina Aguilera. First things first, the solo for this song was darn near untouchable—emotionally rich, powerful, and vulnerable in all the right ways at all the right times. Very good percussion to boot. On top of all of that, there was the visual construction of this performance. There’s all manner of debate about the appropriate level of choreography, and more particularly dance in a cappella. Voices In Your Head went for the jugular with this performance, sending individual group members out of the pack to center stage to do nothing but complex, impressive dance moves for short stints on stage. In so doing, I felt the group made the choice to totally separate music from visuals for those instants, privileging people who really could dance while the rest of the singers focused on, well, singing. I felt both components worked well and the key to this performance choice proving successful was that the visuals matched the sound, creating huge moments of intensity in both realms at the same time. I did feel as though the group walked a razor’s edge—that any more full-on dance material in this set could have been a step too far, but that they landed on the right side of that balance for a performance that felt fresh and distinctly different from literally any other live a cappella I’ve ever seen. Kudos for this opener.
Voices continued with a mashup of Alesso’s “Heroes (We Could Be)” and David Guetta’s “Listen” (a mashup I learned later on they had dubbed “Heroes Listen”). A choral opening gave way to a four-part male lead. The group played with tempo aggressively throughout this number. One thing I’ll say about this a cappella group—I don’t know that anyone consistently reinvents music more aggressively, or much more successfully. The use of featured dancers continued. The bass was an absolute monster as the group settled more concretely into the “Listen” portion of the song.
Last up, “Bang My Head,” originally by David Guetta, featuring Sia. Same soloist as the first song and man did she bring it again. Some post-research revealed Shubha Vedula to be an American Idol alum from 2013. So there’s that. Nice sliding movement early on. Pounding bass countered with a whistling effect. There was just so much going on in this arrangement on stage, and I love that Voices has cemented its place as one of those rare groups in collegiate a cappella that really sounds like no other. Killer dubstep breakdown in the end game. Sure enough, Voices wound up delivering a set that was a very worthy follow up to their 2012 stunner. Top to bottom, this was an excellent set that would have to be in the conversation for best of the night.
Next up, making their third straight trip to the Finals stage, The G-Men. The guys wore their traditional jerseys and jeans and opened their set standing in a circle, half the members facing inward, half facing outward. They settled into a low hum on the intro to “Helplessness Blues” originally by Fleet Foxes. The lead rotated, the guys passing it around the circle with members facing back inward after they had finished singing their parts. This visual created a really unique, almost solemn effect, adding gravitas and an unforgettable image to the performance. Simply gorgeous harmonies, anchored by a sensational bass. The group sound fell out to leave an unaccompanied three-part lead. There’s often an impulse, particularly in all-male collegiate a cappella, to try to grab the audience’s attention with an explosive opening number, pulsing with energy and volume and I can hardly express how much I appreciated this choice to, instead, insist that the audience lean in close and listen carefully while something magical and distinctive unfurled. Killer opener.
After a brief interlude, the guys progressed to Alt-J’s “Fitzpleasure.”The group had started so soft and tender with “Helplessness Blues,” and this was really clever counterpoint to that—chanting and lurching across the stage, infusing static over the beat on the vocal percussion. There was something at once primal, and almost horrific about this performance—and I mean that in the best way possible. Excellent mix of dynamics and super slick hand offs of the mics in ways that appeared careful and calculated—every single piece of this performance, visually and aurally purposeful, nothing incidental. The guys exploded into a dubstep piece of the song and not long after exploded across the stage, creating drama through contrast before they ultimately settled back into a circle to lend the set a sense of symmetry. The G-Men had the poor luck of having to follow such tremendous sets from The SoCal VoCals and Voices In Your Head, but there’s a very real argument to be made that they were the only group that could successfully follow two so fully realized set because The G-Men were not only very, very good but offered the most distinctive and objectively memorable set of the night. Heck, while I’m hesitant to be too bold without more thorough review and reflection, I might go so far as to say this was the most distinctive, revolutionary set I’ve seen in nine straight years of attending the ICCA Finals.
The Vassar Devils were next out of the gate, a co-ed group wearing black and gray. They opened with Walk the Moon’s “Iscariot.” They started small then let the sound spread across the group into a magnificent swell. This mastery of dynamics really lent the group an edge and intensity from the get-go, and I liked the way in which they worked the stage, consistently rearranging themselves on the key transitions.
“Iscariot” fed seamlessly into “Cough Cough” by Everything Everything. The variations in dynamics continued to deliver killer moments for this group and they continued to spread the stage effectively. I really dug the complexity of sound here, particularly the higher harmonies layered in over the group sound.
Another seamless transition led into a Vassar Devils original, “Nothing.” As I wrote about coming out of the ICHSA Finals, original music remains a point of contention in scholastic competition. You run the risk of alienating an audience with a song they have a harder time latching onto, and you’re putting a lot of weight on and confidence in your group’s own writing and arranging. Just the same, singing an original means you will, necessarily, sound different than any other group for at least that song, and I’d argue that that gamble paid off for the Devils in an emotionally, ripping song featuring a star female lead. The group wisely separated from physically from the soloist to visually sell her isolation in the narrative of this performance. I further appreciated the ways in which the group members leaned their bodies into their crescendos, again letting the visual aspects of the performance enhance the music.
The group closed with Ingrid Michaelson’s “Time Machine.” This is a great choice for a set closer—big, bold, infectiously catchy, and while they aren’t the only a cappella group singing it, neither could I fairly label it an over-exposed song choice. Scintillating solo work on this one. Great visual with the group creeping up from behind the soloist which I read as an interpretation of her past catching up with her. I would have liked to have heard a little more power on the vocal brass section because that hook is such a signature piece of this song. Very good stomp percussion toward the end to set the tone on a powerful finish. In closing, each of the preceding soloists re-entered the mix with key lines from their respective songs earlier in the set, mashing all of the pieces together in a moment of brilliant arrangement, and lending a real sense of cohesion to their performance. A very strong finish to an excellent set.
Next up and making their Finals debut, VirtuOSO! They were a co-ed crew and opened up with “Best Day of My Life,” originally by American Authors. Cool lullaby-like sounds on the intro, followed by a bird tweeting effect before they segued to the meat of the song. I liked the sleep into waking entry point in the sense that they weren’t sticking to literal interpretations of the music at hand, but establishing a scene and—if you were to read far enough into it—perhaps suggesting the audience was asleep and VirtuOSO was there to rouse them back to the waking world. In any event, the group delivered with a ripping solo and nice, big sound. The group spread across the stage effectively and implemented a really nice tempo change on the bridge to slow things down and render a Gospel-like sound. It’s always impressive when a group takes what is, superficially, a forgettable Top 40 song and makes it something special. The group nailed that dynamic.
They continued with Ariana Grande’s “Honeymoon Avenue.” The soloist worked overtime on this one, selling a range of emotions and growing positively huge at key points of the song. The visual presentation wasn’t as appealing to me on this go-round—a bit more literal and stationary, more oriented toward synchronized motions in place than creating movement in space.
VirtuOSO carried on with “I’m Not The Only One,” originally by Sam Smith. Very good, deep solo for this one and they created a nice moment toward the end when they doubled up on that lead. Nice visual effect on the finish as the group members turned their backs to the crowd, with the exception of one singer in the middle—our final soloist from this group.
And it was time for “Uptown Funk,” originally by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars. Very slick, sexy execution in an interpretation that captured so much of the swagger and fun of the original song. This group clearly established a contemporary pop sensibility and within that context, this was a great selection to cut loose on the finish. My only real knock on this performance is that he choreography came off as cheesy to me—if there was one real visual lesson from the night, I think it was that using visuals to tell original, thought-provoking stories and create memorable images can elevate a song to new heights, whereas choreography that doesn’t feel as organic can be a distraction. That said, the sound for this song was great and I dug the end game in which the group sagged en route to a dub step remix. Fun finish to a very good set.
All The King’s Men were up next. The guys from the UK entered in black blazers, white shirts, and blue jeans. Killer heartbeat perc on the intro to Ed Sheeran’s “Bloodstream.” I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this group multiple times before, but I don’t know that I’ve ever found their group sound so rich and complex—more gritty than charming. Just palpable emotional energy from the whole group. Furthermore, I love it when a group can channel the spirit of a particular segment of a song. In this case offering up a ghostly echo of the lyrics “all the voices in my mind, calling out across the line” felt like such an authentic representation of hearing words over and over again in one’s mind, and created a truly captivating moment.
The guys continued with “Leave a Light On,” originally by Coldplay. Simply lovely harmonies and outstanding blend on the choral handling of this song. The UK groups that have performed at ICCA Finals have so often exhibited near-perfect mechanics, and this was a sterling example of a group taking pristine fundamentals and using them in a way that was both more complicated and engaging for an audience to come out sounding simply sensational. The impeccable choral handling made it even more powerful when a soloist did break out for a few key lines. Stellar middle song.
All The King’s Men closed with Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.” In the past, I’ve felt that European groups at Finals have been too quick to rely on old classics, but after their first two songs sounded so fresh, I felt the group had earned themselves a throwback. Moreover, they approached this song with a wonderful sense of dramatic tension and build, starting slow and clean before they exploded. Fantastic showmanship from the soloist. Nice falsetto moment. Moreover, in a Finals that celebrated so few canonical song selections, this song felt just right at this point in the evening to remind us of the tradition that these groups follow in, not to mention appealing to the older demographics in the audience.
And, at last, we were down the 2013 ICCA Champions, and 2015 Wild Chard Champs, The Nor’easters. One of the more striking things about this set from the beginning was that the emcees announced the fact that The Nor’easters had lost a member, and that they had elected to save his spot for him on stage. I found this to be a really touching gesture on a personal level for the group, still mourning the loss of Kevin Mayer. Moreover, I appreciated the decision for the group to announce this to the crowd before their set. Note: I’m not saying that the group in anyway used this tragedy for their own selfish gains. On the contrary, I appreciate when any group can bring us into their story. The fact is that in attending an a cappella competition, it’s all too easy for fans, judges, and critics to forget that these are real people we’re watching, and moreover that they aren’t professional performers but, in this case, college students who have sacrificed time from their studies and their personal lives to refine their craft and to travel to New York to take their shot at creating something special on scholastic a cappella’s biggest stage. Letting us in on the reality of what this group has had to go through over the last month helped me remember who The Nor’easters really are and appreciate their art on that much more of a personal level.
But on the set itself. The Nor’easters opened with “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You,” originally by James Arthur. One of the defining qualities of this group, which really shone through in this performance, was the sheer desperation with which they perform—always singing their hearts out with emotion that fits the song at hand. Brilliant use of dynamics here, too, as the group shrank back with precision before exploding back into sound. Good solo work. Great VP. This group’s intensity shone through in every movement of this opener.
They carried on with “Say You Love Me,” originally by Jessie Ware. Great emotion here, and I dug the choice to transition to a song that felt more subdued and featured the contrast of such a soft, pristine solo. As I’ve written before, sometimes the best way to make a big number pop or to make a more quiet number really emote is to put them in juxtaposition with each other, and let them inform how the audience receives each. This was a masterstroke of set construction.
Seamless move to Beyonce’s “Mine.” Really good female lead on this one, and some really innovative use of VP to facilitate the transition between songs. It’s an emotional song and I love the way in which the group just went for jugular with a really raw sound to put the audience into direct contact with the heart of the song.
The Nor’easters sounded as though they were sampling “Billy Jean” en route to settling on their closer, Sia’s “Elastic Heart.” Positively chilling sound on this one and some phenomenal solo work. Huge sound as the group lined the perimeter of the stage. They collapsed into two lines, singing at each other, selling the fight at the heart of this song, before assuming a diagonal formation that the soloist stood apart from. Everything about the staging and sound in this song felt so purposeful and forceful in this song, which is so vital when picking a piece that has been heavily covered this year and making it feel individual and organic to the group before us. I don’t know that any group in the world conjures adrenaline and feeling quite like The Nor’easters, and their abilities were in full effect on this night. Excellent closer to a very strong set.
The ICHSA top runners up, Falconize and Forte each took the stage to reprise pieces of their set from the night before, and then the high school champs, Vocal Rush performed two thirds of their set—the profoundly affecting “Brave” with their #BLACKLIVESMATTER social commentary at the end, followed by “Awake My Soul.” You can read my more detailed thoughts on all of the high school performances in my ICHSA Finals review.
After these groups performed, Varsity Vocals Executive Director Amanda Newman introduced a trailer for the Sing It On ICCA docu-series that will air on PopTV staring in May, followed by a brief video message from producer (and ICCA Finals alumnus) John Legend. From there, the ICCA competitors performed a big group number together, arranged by Ben Bram.
In the interim, I made my picks for the night, and wow was this an excellent and super-competitive Finals show. No group felt out of place in this competition, and none would be out of place in the annals of ICCA world champs. We witnessed Faux Paz’s tension and shrewd staging, The Vassar Devils’ intensity and immaculate set cohesion, All The King’s Men’s newly found complex and contemporary sound in juxtaposition to their traditional charm and impeccable tuning, and Virtuoso’s unabashed embrace and polished execution of popular music to create something genuinely electric.
For me, the toughest call of the night was the race for third place. On one hand, there were The G-Men whose boldly unconventional approach to an ICCA set blended sensitivity, precision and dark core for one of the most haunting sets in Finals lore. In the opposite corner stood the emotionally captivating Nor’easters with their distinctive sound and trademark refusal to give anything less than one hundred percent for every moment they performed on stage. Fortunately, I was not a judge for this show and, I’m taking advantage of that unofficial status to cop out and call this one a third-place tie.
I felt that first and second place was a tight race between Voices In Your Head and The SoCal VoCals. Like The G-Men, Voices In Your Head assembled a performance that was altogether unforgettable and fundamentally different from anything else we heard that night. Their bold infusion of isolated dancers and wise call to spotlight the heck out of the night’s finest soloist resulted in one of the most objectively captivating and entertaining sets of the night to boot.
But in the end, I did have The SoCal VoCals eking out yet another ICCA tournament victory. There’s a part of me that loves gritty, effortful a cappella. To use some basketball analogies, this is the same side of me that always has a soft spot for the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons, and the early 1990s New York Knicks. Teams that would outrebound, out-dive, and basically out-heart most any teams they played against. Just the same, there’s no denying the sheer excellence of more polished clubs like the “Showtime” LA Lakers or the late 1990s Chicago Bulls squads that consistently dominated the regular season and rarely seemed in real jeopardy in The Playoffs. There’s a sense in which such teams are easy to hate because they make everything look so easy. The inconvenient truth that we spectators too often forget is that play that good depends on drilling fundamentals, busting ass in practice, carefully strategizing, and growing as unit that transcends the sum of its parts.
You can knock The SoCal VoCals for winning and winning and winning and winning, if you’re so inclined. But you can’t knock their talent and you can’t knock their work ethic. This is, bar none, the smartest organization in collegiate a cappella that builds around its strengths and rehearses any weaknesses into oblivion by the time they reach ICCA Finals. They work behind the scenes to the point at which they can make it look easy on the big stage. And make no mistake about it, year in and year out there are no better big stage performers in the ICCAs than The SoCal VoCals. I felt Voices In Your Head gave the USC crew a run for its money this year, but still, The SoCal VoCals stood tall as premier competing group in the world.
Lo and behold, the judges and I were on the same page, with The G-Men taking third, Voices in a (painfully close) second, and The SoCal VoCals winning their fourth championship in as many tries since 2008. The champs finished out the night with an encore medley from Footloose, that included “Let’s Hear It For The Boy,” “Almost Paradise,” “Holding Out For A Hero,” and, of course, the title song.
So comes to a close a very special Finals show at the end of another great Varsity Vocals season. Congratulations to the Varsity Vocals team, all of the regional champions, and everyone otherwise involved in competitive a cappella this year. I, for one, can’t wait until 2016!
Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night
1. The SoCal VoCals
2. Voices In Your Head
3. TIE: The G-Men and The Nor’easters
1. Voices In Your Head for “Show Me How To Burlesque” and “Bang My Head”
2. The G-Men for “Helplessness Blues”
3. The Vassar Devils for “Nothing”
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. The SoCal VoCals for the full set
2. Voices In Your Head for the full set
3. The G-Men for the full set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. The Nor’easters
2. The G-Men
3. Voices In Your Head
1. Voices In Your Head for the full set
2. The G-Men for the full set
3. The SoCal VoCals for the full set
Official ICCA Results
1. The SoCal VoCals
2. Voices In Your Head
3. The G-Men
Voices In Your Head’s Shubha Vedula for “Show Me How To Burlesque” and “Bang My Head”
The SoCal VoCals for the full set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
The G-Men’s Brett Burian and Lawrence Young for the full set
The G-Men’s Marty Gray for the full set