Event Review: ICCA Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal at Penn State University

On Saturday, February 9, Penn State University in University Park, PA played host to the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal. The event featured 11 competing groups. Before we get to the review, a quick summary:

The Competitors:
Ithaca College Ithacappella
Elizabethtown College Phalanx
The Penn State Coda Conduct
Penn State None of the Above
The Dickinson College Infernos
University of Rochester After Hours
Rochester Institue of Technology Proof of Purchase
The Penn State Pennharmonics
The Lehigh University Melismatics
The Penn State Statesmen
Penn State Blue in the FACE

Guest Groups:
The Penn State Grace Notes
The Penn State Singing Lions

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

Packed house at Alumni Hall in the student union at Penn State! The Singing Lions kicked off the evening with a piano backing track. Is it odd that the sound of actual instrumentation takes me aback for a second when I go to a show? Nonetheless, excellent vocals from this crew, and a ice departure from the contemporary a cappella sound. Fine opening to the evening. ICCA Mid-Atlantic Producer Holli Matze took the mic from there to make the standard announcements. Ken, a Blue in the FACE alum, took over next.

The first competitors of the night were Ithacappella, the prodigal sons of the Mid-Atlantic, returning to the ICCAs after back to back semifinal wins in 2008 and 2009. Traditional blue blazers, khakis, shirts, and ties for the gentlemen. They led off their set with ”The Man Who Can’t Be Moved” by The Script. Lovely soft harmonies on the opening. Excellent, cool timbre from the soloist, selling the emotion of the piece. Strong use of dynamic variation to build the drama. Sick groove into vocal percussion land as they picked up the tempo. Such a slick, stellar performance, and I loved the offbeat, melancholy opener that grooved into something more exciting as it moved along.

The guys transitioned seamlessly into Alex Clare’s ”Too Close.” This song provide another platform for the percussion to take center stage. Excellent visual choices with the guys standing in place and turning in perfect unison with dramatic flair on the opening, building to some real drama when they moved onto more pronounced movement. Killer drama when the guys got to bobbing and stomping in the closing motions of the song. Part of what this song highlighted was how set order can make your song choices more impactful. Lots of groups are singing this song this year. Few have punched it quite like Ithacappella, and I think a big part of that was the effect of the transition from the mellower opener. Stellar middle song.

Another seamless transition to Jason Mraz’s ”I Won’t Give Up.” Such a warm, almost ominous hum from the group on the opening. Excellent drama as a pair of backing soloists joined the lead. Ballads can be boring, but unmitigated intensity can make them pop. The men of Ithacappella have truly mastered this art. Nice rotation of leads over the course of the song. Once again, excellent variation of dynamics, the soft core of the song allowing the power moments to positively pop. Brilliant boil down to just the one original lead on the finish. What can I say? This was a sensational set and set a high bar for the rest of the groups to follow.

Next up, Phalanx. As always, I love their look with different-colored cardigans and ties. They opened with Panic at the Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” The group didn’t offer up quite the level of fire power I’d want to hear on this one, particularly as an opener. Just the same, very good rapid fire perc and some really clever bits of movement, with the guys standing in place and grooving for the bulk of the song, and pushing the audio power moments by really exploding into motion. I loved that the guys made every moment of the song look like fun—a necessary step that lots of overchoreographing groups tend to lose sight of. Some really nice harmonies as the guys collapsed in on the soloist so he could explode in to the second chorus—nice dramatic moment.

The guys followed with ”Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap. 2007-2008 was the era of all-female groups rocking this one. It seems 2012-2013 is the era of dudes trying it on for size. The good news is these guys most certainly had the pure musical chops to pull off the complex harmonies and blend. Killer low end sound on this one, and quite good execution of the high parts considering there were only men on stage. The guys remained still at center stage for most of the song, but generated a nice moment of visual dynamism when they shuffled about on the “you don’t care a bit” close and took their positions for the closer. Very, very clean. Excellent control all around.

The guys closed with Neon Trees’ ”Everybody Talks.” Same soloist as the opener—that’s not necessarily bad thing, though I do feel it stands out and can call into question depth and range of the group. Lots of humorous choreography on this one, which worked for the most part because the guys were selling it. The key to funny a cappella is not playing it for irony, but rather just going for it. While I thought the hand drive stuff was a little much, the spirit of the song was right on point. Very fun crowd surfing moment as the guys passed around one of their smaller members. Fun closer all around.

Third out of the chute was Coda Conduct, Penn State’s newest co-ed squad. The group wore black and neon pink, and led off with “Explode” by Patrick Stump. Nice instinct to start out fortissimo, though the sound was a little muddled in the early going. The group settled down quickly and found its footing. Good solo, pounding perc, nice use of staggered clapping to echo the “clap if you got a ticket to the end of the world” lyrics. Some fun bits of choreography as men and women paired up. I liked the song selection here, to use a song that wasn’t only up tempo, but had some real drama to it. Nice opener.

Next up, “Young Blood” by The Young and Famous. Nice soft female lead on this one, particularly in contrast to the power vocals on the song before. Fun second solo enter on the chorus. While this was mostly well executed, I couldn’t help feeling that by mid-way through the second verse I had already heard the full story of this song and there wasn’t much more to take in. Good effort on the visuals with some slick reconfigurations, but nonetheless, I just didn’t feel the drama the way I hoped to on this one.

Another explosion of sound to start song three: “Seven Devils” by Florence and the Machine. Very cool stomp and snap percussion to convey the intensity as the first verse progressed. It helped that the stage was all but built for this effect—we could every footstep folks were taking anyway with the mic’ing, so the stomps sounded out of this world. Very cool, distinct timbre on this solo. I loved that the group went for a really intense sound as a through line for the set, and something truly distinctive from what anyone else was bringing to the stage. Solid set.

Next up, None of the Above. I always dig the bright colors this group wears on top, over uniform black bottoms. Cool look. They opened with a mashup of Seether’s “Broken” and Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Elegant, lovely blend on the intro. Nice visual transition on the first chorus with the group gliding into motion. Very nice, full sound from the group. I appreciated the understated nature of the percussion, particularly with the cymbal effect. Nice selling of the facials all around. Very good percussion. Really good interplay between the male and female leads when they sung together. High drama on this opener, and it worked for the group.

The group followed up with “The Lights” by Ellie Goulding. Nice solo. One of my pet peeves from a visual perspective—when you can acheive a really cool visual effect by moving toward the front of the stage please don’t feel like you need to replicate it moving backward—the group advanced around the soloist in a straight line—killer. Then they backed away, with some visible effort and not nearly the fluidity of the motion before it, really breaking the visual story. Excellent swelling of sound leading up to the end game, after which the vocal percussionist got a moment to shine with his own little solo as the lead riffed. Nice finish.

None of the Above finished Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child.” Again, the group made nice use of dynamic transitions. This group is pretty sublime when the sound gets big. Cool visual move with the group members lowering to their knees in staggered movements. Excellent wall of sound on the finish for a strong finish to a good set.

The fifth competitors were The Infernos. They served up a similar look to the co-ed group before them with different-colored tops and black bottoms. They opened with Kings of Leon’s ”Use Somebody.” Nice job on the intro, but unfortunately there wasn’t a ton of complexity or intensity on display. Good stage presence from the soloist. The song could have benefited from a little more firepower. You only get one chance to make a first impression on the competition stage. Nice handling of the bridge with the group falling out and the soloist getting the chance to own the stage for a couple seconds. That said, the song never really felt as though it go off the blocks.

The group followed with Gotye’s ”Somebody That I Used To Know.” Between the first and second soloist, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the lead vocals were just a little too classical sounding to really capture the feel of either song. Nice patience on the group on the soft first verse, building to the moment when the perc entered, adding another dimension to the piece. Very nice second solo, and I thought the two leads played off one another pretty nicely.

The set was pretty even keel up to that point, so I felt like they really needed to pop their closer. As such, very nice choice with “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)”--soft opening giving way to an up-tempo song with some ‘tude. This song would have benefited from more sheer volume and a faster tempo. Nonetheless, the song selection was right. I really liked this soloist’s style, but I didn’t feel this was quite the song to showcase his talents. He had more of voice for something like Sublime or 311 to me. One of the challenges for groups can be finding the material that will serve the current group membership and I think this group will really benefit from taking more natural advantage of the talents at hand. Just the same, a fun close to a good set.

The final group before intermission was After Hours. Red and black duds for the mixed crew.
They opened with Alex Clare’s ”Too Close.” Cool, soft, off-beat take on the opening. Very slick solo. Monster percussion in the background. Solid groove into the chorus. Ironically, one week after I wrote that no groups were getting this song quite right, I heard two that were in the same night. Really cool effect with the high end waving their hands over their mouths on the second verse. Really interesting sound. Great visuals as always from this group with lots of big, dramatic moments. Really cool stutter out moment, then dubstep into the second verse. What a creative way of differentiating the second chorus! Awesome straight line, one-by-one turn in to the soloist on the finish. Stellar opening song.

The group lined up straight for a choral take on Regina Spektor’s ”Samson”. Really cool addition of a pure soloist on the chorus as the group stalked into a new formation. I loved the transitions and the way this group made every moment feel different and important. Excellent blend, and full sound on this one. I’m not sure I understood the false finishes in the late stages, but they followed them nicely with a slow, steady progression of group members stepping forward to add one voice after another and complete the sound. Beautiful middle song.

Slow, soft start on David Guetta and Sia’s ”Titanium.” The tension was almost palpable to see where After Hours would take this one. Such slick movement in slow motion. The percussion owned all, breaking down the first chorus with a really neat robotic riff. A little more volume on the second verse. Stellar swell of sound and killer breath control on the soloist heading into the second chorus. This was a really interesting take on the song, and while I wanted it a little faster and a little bigger sooner, I kind of loved the instinct to strip the song bar, and reinterpret it as, truly, a song about survival. Really slick finish with the group collapsing, leaving the soloist standing tall. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing After Hours develop over the course of the last four years, and I have to say that their sound and their approach to performance has really matured. Truly excellent showing for the Rochester group and, in my estimation, the show very quickly became a two-group race between After Hours and Ithacappella at that moment.

Heading into intermission, we got an announcement that there were over 100 people waiting hoping to get in for the second half of the show. A cappella is alive and well at Penn State!

The second half kicked off with Proof of Purchase. Sharp electric blue and black attire for the co-ed group. They led off with Bon Iver’s ”Woods” into Kanye West’s ”Lost in the World.” Very off beat set opener, and I dug the artistic decision to highlight the group’s musicality and snag the audience’s attention right away by forcing them to really listen, particularly with unusual intro with just one man singing. Very nice groove when the percussion kicked in to transition to the Kanye segment. The blend came apart a little when the sound got biggest, but I credit the group for its intensity. Really nice low end sound. Stellar percussion on the outro.

The group followed with Simon and Garfunkel’s ”Sounds of Silence.” Two leads on the intro—really interesting by this group not to push traditional soloists, in favor of embracing the whole-group sound. Nice dramatic addition of the female vocals behind the original two leads on the first chorus. The sound complicated beautifully as the song progressed. This is typically a pretty blah song choice for competition, but the group did a really nice job of progressing the sound to keep the whole piece interesting. Props to the leads who harmonized nicely and kept tempo with one another perfectly for the duration of the piece, even in the near-complete absence of perc.

Proof of Purchase closed with Mumford and Sons’ ”Below My Feet.” Really nice simplicity of sound on this one, particularly heading into the chorus with a quartet of men harmonizing underneath the solo. I really liked the texture on the solo here, and it was especially pleasing to hear a solo voice after the choral sound that dominated the set up to this point. Nice stomp into the power vocals over the bridge. Really unique, emotional closer. A fine set.

On to the reigning regional champs, The Pennharmonics. All black with sparkling jacket collars for the ladies. Nice dramatic intro with the group members bent, at the waist before they raised with some soaring vocals on the opening to Ellie Goulding’s ”Figure 8”. Nice solo with a killer backing solo behind her before the group moved into a choral sound. Scintillating percussion. A new soloist from there. So much power on stage, anchored by the ominous bass hum—such a cool sound. Part of what was cool about the effect of this song was just how powerful everyone on stage came a cross--sheer intensity for the full length of the piece.

Seamless transition to Ed Sheeran’s “Give Me Love.” Positively haunting high echoes of the lyrics. Excellent visual with the group clustered in a corner behind the lead. Lots of reconfiguration throughout this song—the performance was just visually captivating. Something as simple as clustering in the opposite corner of the stage the next time was really effective—continuity while still giving the audience a sense that something different was happening. Really cool sliver of a backing solo on the second chorus as the group moved out of its chorus. Un-mic’ed low end syllables backing soloist—what a poignant effect! The Pennharmonics arrived at a sound all their own. This is a group that sings for the broken, lending voice to pure emotion. Sensational.

Another seamless transition, this time to—yep, you guessed it, Alex Clare’s ”Too Close.” I can’t deny the song is in the group’s wheelhouse. Truly sick power moments on this one. Great lead. Monster percussion once again. Nice continuity with the very first two leads from the set taking the lead on this song. The group shifted to Jagga’s “Love Song.” So dark, so captivating. All of the movement was not only in synch but so sharp and powerful. Electric moment on the mashup of the two songs. Haunting finish with the first soloist all alone to sing “lovers hold onto anything” one last time. The second soloist stood alone, facing the crowd, watching that first soloist, then turned around to join the rest of the group with their backs to the crowd. The whole group stomped, turned, and bow in unison. You read that right. This group made its bow a part of the performance. Near-perfect, professional finish. All of a sudden there were three groups in serious contention to win the night (and I dare say any one of them would have a real shot at wining semis).

Next up, The Melismatics. Pastel look for the group this year, the guys in black and white with powder blue ties, the ladies in salmon-colored tops. They opened with ”The Call” by the Backstreet Boys. Very good percussion. Nice fast solo, and big, confident sound from the group. The instrumental bridge seemed to run a little long and I probably would have clipped it. Nice doubling up on the solo, adding some depth to the sound. While this was a really fun opener, I can’t escape the sense that groups that want to be taken seriously as competitors need to leave The Backstreet Boys behind. I’m sure some group, somewhere, will step up to provide an exception that rule, but just the same, starting a set silly doesn’t do a group favors—particularly when they have to follow an act like The Pennharmonics.

The Melismatics continued the set with Justin Timberlake’s ”Cry Me a River.” Nice, sultry solo. Nice narrative continuity going from a song about making the mistake of infidelity to one from the point of view of a jilted lover. The group generated a really clean sound throughout, with the basses working overtime. The overall song was a little one-note, though—a little more dramatic build could have gone a long way toward selling the audience on it.

The percussionist took over for “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” Really nice, emotional solo, that built over the course of the song, and this piece provided a nice contrast to the pop sensibilities of the preceding two songs, helping to convey the somber tone of this one. Excellent backing harmonies.

Nice transition to The Civil Wars’ ”Barton Hollow”--good down-home sound continuity. The harmonies between the male and female leads weren’t quite on point for me—I think having two of the women take on at least the opening “oohs” might have made it easier to bring that one together. Nice stomp percussion as the group challenged the front of the stage. I really could have done without the hand drive choreography on the chorus—just a little too silly, and it undercut the fine intensity and power of the vocals. The stomps seemed to fall a little out of synch in the end game. This song was a great idea, but I don’t think it quite came together for The Melismatics. I credit them for swinging for the fences for a power closer—the pieces are all there, and with a little more polish I think they’ll have something powerful.

The Statesmen were up next. Excellent energy taking the stage. The guys sang a little snippet of Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You,” which proved an overarching narrative thread for the set. This is high concept a cappella, and I dig it. We’ll come back to that. The guys transitioned quickly to “Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas, mixed with ”Don’t You Worry Child”. Incredible solo work there. Very clean sound, excellent power vocals—man do these guys have pipes! Lots of choreography and the guys sold it with such verve and perfect synchronization that it just plain worked. Excellent percussion. Really distinctive, powerful opener.

Seamless transition to Rascall Flatts’ ”Come Wake Me Up” High harmonies and powerful swells of sound behind the soloist, and make no mistake about . Awesome three-part lead on the chorus. These guys have such a wonderful raw edge, it’s impossible not to pay attention to them, and I love that they stripped this song of its country sentimentality in favor of its pained core. What a solo—so much emotional build and tremendous handling of the high part. Incredible power finish.

The guys made another seamless transition, this time to Mumford and Sons’ ”Below My Feet.” Awesome theatrical emotion on the lead here, from the facials to the vocal sound—really a total package performance. The soloist had handled VP for The Pennharmonics earlier in the evening, and I have to point out that this is an incredibly rare instance in which I would actually pick the same person for outstanding solo and outstanding solo in the same night—not to mention the fact that he pulled it off with two separate, very different groups. The guys sold every second of this song. I know this group came just one place shy of the ICCA Finals last year, but, to be frank, I didn’t really buy into them then. This year? A new all-male powerhouse has been born, folks. Superior explosion of sound going into the closing motions of the song. Hands down, this was the song of the night, to close a truly surprising, remarkable set.

The final competitors for the night were Blue in the FACE. Black, white and blue threads for the group. They sang a quick sample of Muse’s “Sing for Absolution” chorally, en route to grooving into Muse’s ”Madness.” Nice contrast between singing very seriously, hands folded in front of them, to a series of dramatic reaches. Good, patient take on this song, capturing the essence of the piece, with excellent precision from the background on the “m-m-m-m”s. Neat humor moments with the guys taking on the high harmonies, which was well-executed enough not to be pure humor, which would have really undercut the song. The percussionist stood off the side of the stage, which I ordinarily don’t like, but it became clear this was part of the group’s visual presentation as a female backing lead stepped out to stand by him, and both of them converged with the group in the end game. Really cool, well-thought-out visuals throughout this song.

The group followed with ”The Other Side” by Bruno Mars. Really captivating visuals again with so much movement. Solid percussion. Really fun female rap break down, underscored with a soft choral take on “this sure ain’t Narnia” line. Very fun.

The group closed with “Defying Gravity” from Wicked.Very nice lead on this one. I appreciated the grou’s patience to build the sound of this song. There are some any opportunities to pop the sound imbedded in it, but the group was wise to hold off for the big finish. Really nice slow down and breakdown part on the bridge, with different group members getting snippets of the lead. I dug that the soloist made this song her own, dropping a few lyrics and mixing up the delivery here and there in ways that sounded perfectly natural in her own voice. Super fun sample of “Ridin’ Solo” in the background on the “if I’m flying solo” lyric. Very nice closing visual with group members lifting the soloist in the air while the rest of the group crouched around her. Solid closer to a strong set.

The Penn State Grace Notes entertained the crowd as the judges deliberated. Their songs included “Shine Down,” “When the Rain Comes,” “Shackles (Praise You),” a “He”/”Name” mashup, and “Going Home.” The Singing Lions were back next with “King of Anything,” “Haven’t Met You Yet,” a fun medley of contemporary pop songs, “Santa Fe,” The Penn State fight song, and a medley of songs from yesteryear. While not all of the songs we heard over the deliberation period were necessarily in line with my personal aesthetic, it’s kind of cool that Penn State has such a large, diverse vocal community to deliver this range of performances (besides the stellar performers from the competition portion of the evening).

As the judges deliberated, I made my picks for the night. I have to say that I can’t remember a tighter four-way race at a quarterfinal, which sadly meant that at least two groups that were amply deserving a berth into the semifinals weren’t doing to make the cut. While the night offered up many stellar performances, I felt it was a dead heat between Ithacappella, After hours, The Pennharmonics, and The Statesmen. Pressed to choose, I had ultimately give the nod to The Statesmen for delivering so many impactful moments. I had The Pennharmonics in a close second for sheer intensity, with Ithacappella and After Hours right behind them.

In the end After Hours took home the victory. While I didn’t agree with the verdict, nonetheless, the victory could have not come to a nicer or harder working a cappella group, and I’m still happy to see them return to semifinals. Their encore was “Bottom of the River.”

The scores posted at Varsity Vocals reinforce how close this one was, with only one point between first and second place and a margin of just 12 points between first and third.

Another great night of a cappella competition. For those in the area, be sure to swing by Nazareth College this coming Saturday, where A Cappella Blog co-founders Mike Chin and Mike Scalise will team up with Call4BackUp to host the fourth and final ICCA Mid-Atlantic quarterfinal in Rochester, New York!

ACB Picks:
Overall Placement
1. The Statesmen
2. The Pennharmonics
3. Ithacappella
4. After hours

Outstanding Soloists:
1. The Statesmen for “Below My Feet”
2. The Statesmen for “Come Wake Me Up”
3. Ithacappella for “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved”

Outstanding Vocal Percussion
1. The Pennharmonics for the full set
2. After Hours for the full set
3. None of the Above for the full set

Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. The Pennharmonics for the full set
2. After Hours for “Too Close”
3. Blue in the Face for “Defying Gravity”

Official ICCA Results
Overall Placement:
1. After hours
2. The Statesmen
3. The Pennharmonics

Outstanding Soloists: The Statesmen for “Carry On My Wayward Son” and “Come Wake Me Up”

Outstanding Vocal Percussion: None of the Above for the full set

Outstanding Arrangements: After Hours for the full set

Outstanding Choreography: The Pennharmonics for the full set

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Mike Chin

Mike Chin co-founded The A Cappella Blog in 2007. He continues to share leadership responsibility for the site, overseeing columns, reviews and features as the content manager. He currently lives in Baltimore, MD.