A Cappella En Vogue

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

In honour of the good rep a cappella has been receiving through the popular success of hit film Pitch Perfect and its sequel which I recently watched, as well as the Grammy-award winning, trail-blazing it-group Pentatonix (whom I saw in concert for the second time last night), I am dedicating this post to the aca-complishments of this rising vocal phenomenon. 

What is 'a cappella'? The term has its roots in an Italian phrase meaning "in the manner of the chapel", which recalls a traditional style of unaccompanied singing in churches, as opposed to 'a cantata', which involves instrumental accompaniment. A cappella fell out of fashion with the introduction of musical instruments, but the style was never truly extinguished, and with a niche following among choral enthusiasts particularly at US collegiate level, these days have seen a meteoric Renaissance for purely vocal performances.

As someone who spent six years in a chorus bending my vocal chords to the will of pure human-produced harmonies, I am not surprisingly, a huge a cappella nerd. In the good 'ole days of high school, I naturally lived for all things choral, a large part of which, was the snazzy geekdom of a cappella. 

Now I know a lot of people have now jumped on the band wagon of a cappella, what which the high-flying shenanigans of Pitch Perfect, and that's a good thing. I'm not a vocal purist who shits on newer fans for not being as immersed into a cappella culture. In fact, I love that more people are recognising it and erasing the stigma of lame and campiness that has dogged it. Still, there is a pernicious danger in this type of imponderable appeal, namely that there is a lack of true understanding, and ergo appreciation, of a cappella. This precipitates a greater risk of it declining in favour with the changeable tastes of the popular masses. So for all those who are in it for the long term, here is a quick run-down of the who's who and the current affairs in the modern a cappella movement. 

And where better to kick things off than with my favourite squad, Pentatonix (PTX). This five-member group named after the pentatonic scale are the A-listers of the a cappella scene, having revolutionised its sound, arrangements and image. A major facet of their success stems from their commercial savvy, which saw the explosive growth of their online fan base to an astounding eight million YouTube subscribers, 530K Twitter followers by exploiting social media. With an aggregate of 930 million views across their videos, they are showing no signs of decelerating their exponential rise, and with a Grammy award now in the bag for their Daft Punk arrangement above, they are no doubt leading this resurging industry. Plus, they cameo-d on Pitch Perfect 2 and were invited to sing on Sesame Street, what else do they need?

PTX comprises firstly of Scott Hoying, a baritone who typically solos in most of their arrangements with his insane riffs and vocal runs, Kirstie Maldonado, a mezzo-soprano with a lilting voice that can grow into powerful belts and a maturity in dynamics control, and Mitch Grassi (who was on fire last night), a tenor whose thin frame belies a ridiculous range that can extend to a jaw-dropping G#5 in chest voice. The trio met in high school and performed together until learning about reality contest The Sing Off. Recruited were Avriel 'Avi' Kaplan, the sexiest Jewish bassist you will ever meet who can cause ovary implosion, and the hyper-talented Kevin Olusola, their beat-boxer/percussionist who happens to be a Yale graduate in East Asian Studies (his fluent Mandarin puts my ethnic Chinese ass to shame) and a skilled cellist who pioneered the multi-task element of "celloboxing" (beat-boxing to cello pieces, see video below). He also has a pretty decent tenor voice as evident in more recent videos featuring his vocals, making millions worldwide question what they are doing in life. Together, this motley crew stormed Season Three to take the crown, and the rest is history.

I'm proud to say that I've been a faithful Pentaholic since their inauguration to popular a cappella; I've supported them since their days on TSO, to their YouTube success, album releases, Grammy achievements and concerts. They thus occupy a very special place in my heart because it's very rare that something you choose to support from the beginning, especially if non-mainstream, makes it big internationally. It isn't just my soft spot for them that affirms my belief that they are currently the best a cappella group, nor their commercial popularity. To zoom in on the details, PTX is one of the most irreplaceable groups out there because their sound is so unique. While this can be attributed no less to their superb vocals, it is truly their musical arrangements that set them a cut above the rest. Here is my all-time favourite performance from TSO S3, which I have watched at least 300 times and never get bored of.

I love Florence + the Machine and the original, but this rendition took me to a sweet spot I never knew existed. It was so bloody epic words can't even describe urghh I'm still in a coma. Scott's lead was so intense, and Kirstie (who often doesn't get enough credit) provided solid backing, while Mitch's little surprise was executed to clinical perfection. The gentleness of that solo really set off the high-powered ear fest of most of the piece, which really illustrates the group's sensitivity to dynamics and speed. The way they built the song, especially with Kevin dialling it up with "choo choo train" effects and Avi's almost unnoticed overtone at the start (he has a sick overtone really) really helped to facilitate the surprise factor with more punch. 

To draw attention the judges assessments, it's almost prophetic how apt their comments were. Ben Fold's remark about their futuristic style and ability to pack unexpected moments really hit the nail on the head considering it is a mainstay of PTX's repertoire. Shawn Stockman's observation that their sound is absurdly huge and cohesive with only five individuals puts into perspective their talent when you consider the typical size of a cappella groups and Sara Bereilles prediction that they could be "competitive in the music world" has come to pass with their innovation and risk-taking giving them a huge edge.

To put an end to my raving, PTX is truly the best a cappella group, period. Each member is pretty much indispensable. If you need more persuasion, here are a couple of kickass covers and originals so knock yourself out.

Can I just say, the videography in this is pretty smart. That camera shake when the bass drops in the chorus is slick. Love this version more than the original - sorry Gotye.

If you've never seen this, I don't know where you've been. This arrangement is difficult and they make it seem like the most effortless thing ever.

Some incentive to buy their Christmas albums - their arrangements of Christmas carols solves that age-old conundrum in Pitch Perfect 2 of how to make them updated and fresh.

Their slower covers never fail to mesmerise me. One of the few covers that has Kirstie in the lead and shows off her underrated abilities, their tight harmonies and Kevin's celloboxing.

And finally, my personal favourite. Run To You is proof that PTX doesn't just make incredible covers but that they are capable of stunning creation. Between the haunting chord progressions, enigmatic message, emotional vocals and Kevin singing, this is beauty unadulterated.

Really have to stop myself from embedding all their videos, but if I could, I would, so just go and watch them all and subscribe. I promise you hours of sheer eargasm.

PTX are a tough act to follow but the buck doesn't stop with them. If pop isn't your cup of tea, country may be right up your alley. Specifically speaking, PTX's successors on The Sing Off Season Four, Home Free.

Home Free is a supremely gifted all-male quintet, all of whom musically trained (that's quality assurance there) and and testosterone-oozing to a tee (giggles). What sets this group apart is the conscious decision to style themselves as a country a cappella group, which helped earn them a place in the competition as niche groups are uncommon. Their Ultimate Sing Off with The Filharmonics was so damn good, I can't even (unable to embed, so please watch it on your own, its wicked).

The group consists of Austin Brown, a floppy-haired, baby-faced tenor who makes ladies swoon, Rob Lundquist the other magnificently adorable tenor, Chris and Adam Rupp, a baritone and the percussionist respectively who are also multi-instrumentalists, as well as Tim Faust, a bass who can rival Avi and make your lady parts sing. Rob and the Rupp brothers also have a BA in music so they are no pushovers.

By virtue of their formal musical education and experienced musicianship, I actually think that they had a cleaner sound on TSO than PTX had when they were on the show. Of course, it could be that their maturity gave them a bit more polish as compared to the youthful PTX, whose layering has since become very tight. But I personally am not inclined to think about this because I don't want to dull the credit of Home Free, who are absolutely sensational in their own right.

Home Free is one of those groups that I can watch with a huge grin plastered on my face so much that it strains my facial muscles. Take their cover of Megan Trainor's All About That Bass (this song is the brunt of vocal puns, I swear), which made me smile so hard my jaw hurt.

Countrified in excelsis and 1000 times better than the original in my opinion. You can really here the really tight barbershop layers here. Chills.

So much bass omg. Plus it has Avi from PTX, and I love inter-group love. On that note, I'm sick of people comparing who the better bass is or which group is better. No. Just, no. They are both amazing, deserved winners, and we can appreciate all their talents. Yes, PTX is my favourite group. But I love Home Free and I won't stand for people crapping on either of them. And who cares who can sing lower? Tim Foust's bass notes are a gift from God and so are Avi's.

Now, I also must mention another oldie but goodie group. If you've been around in the a cappella scene long enough, Straight No Chaser needs no introduction. Their claim to fame is being the one group we all knew and started off on, the first generation of the YouTube a cappella community. This classic ten-men group is the so-called originals, and their clean, old-school style make them the a cappella godfathers of sorts.

What I adore about them? They are completely crackers. They marry the traditional a cappella style with amusing touches that make them highly entertaining. If you want good clean fun, hit up their videos. Notable performances by this hilarious bunch include:

This mash-up is life. Because Fun. songs = fun covers right?

This stuff is from waaaay back, when I was a really green choir kid. You won't meet anyone from that time who didn't know this since we all whet our vocal appetites watching this.

Let's face it: it's an a cappella thing. I won't be surprised if every male chorus has covered this, but this is light-years ahead. There are so many choral inside jokes, and the humorous flavour with the traditional singing make this a joy to watch. Brownie points for Chris' intro.

This nugget of gold here is from 1998, and even after 18 million views, it never gets old or fails to crack you up. This is some really funny stuff that made me cry, cry, cry because the arrangement was so on point. Seriously, this is utterly brilliant, and if you don't like Christmas or Africa or Toto, I cannot have a conversation with you.

Okay, this post has gotten unbearably long so I don't think I can feature another group. I guess I just talk briefly on the barbershop style quartets, which I love. A barbershop contains one melody voice, harmonised with three other voices, typically a tenor stacking a higher harmony, a baritone below with a lower harmony, and a bass at the bottom, together forming a four-part consonant chord. The tenors and baritones may take the lead melody interchangeably. If you observe the structure of Home Free above, you will discover that they take this form and you can discern each note of the chord. I also particularly enjoy the doo-wop genre because its four-part harmonies are reminiscent of the barbershop style.

What I enjoy about barbershop is the simplicity and purity of it, while maintaining a sense of neatness and timelessness. It doesn't require much by way of gimmicks, largely due to this phenomenon called the barbershop seventh or ringing chord. This functions like an overtone above the blend when reinforced by specific frequencies of sound, and can be heard only in certain chords. In dummy definition it's that tingle you get that put's you in seventh heaven.

For some barbershop ear candy, you can check out this YouTube user called A Capella Trudbol.

Yes, I'm almost done. There's really so much I can say about a cappella that I can't fit in one blog post without being verbose. Maybe I'll do a part II? Who knows. Anyway, I shall end by commissioning you to embark on an overnight marathon of YouTube a cappella videos. 


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