By Elie Landau | December 2, 2013
In her acceptance speech for the 2010 National Book Award (Nonfiction), rock musician Patti Smith implored the audience, “Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don't abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book."
The same can be said for a cappella and the live, human voice.
"But evolving technology is a part of our world," you say. "The latest technologies are widely employed in most other styles of contemporary music. Why shouldn't a cappella avail itself of the same?"
You're 100% correct. A cappella absolutely should take advantage of all of the latest gizmos and gadgets that can enhance and expand our musical tastes and palettes and push the boundaries of how we define contemporary a cappella.
The trick, of course, is in the doing.
Enter the four charming, talented men from Suade, "Australia's undisputed #1 male a cappella group, with a huge vocal sound, an energetic stage performance and a downright wicked sense of humour," as per their website. With their DVD release Vocaltronics: Live at Revolt 2013, it's clear that all of those assertions are true — albeit to varying degrees.
Judging from the crowd on hand at the taping, as well as independent research, it's not at all hard to imagine that these guys are at the top of the Australian a cappella heap. Even with the laudable, herculean efforts of Amelia Alder and the team at Vocal Australia, contemporary a cappella is still somewhat new down under and there isn't quite the same volume of competition as one finds in the US, Europe and elsewhere. But to be fair, Suade would be a solid a cappella group pretty much anywhere in the world. Individually, they are all gifted soloists; collectively, they have a lovely and sonorous blend. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious, and quite simply, they put on a pleasant, enjoyable, smile-inducing show.
What's missing, then? Well, for a show that uses multi-microphone live looping and effects to a degree (they believe) that has never been done before (though I think groups like Fork and ARORA may disagree), there's a sizable hole where the "wow factor" should be. And this is where the question of technology and its application comes into play.
When live looping is utilized by a single a cappella performer, its necessity to create a layered tapestry of sound is unmistakable and therefore instantly forgiven by the listener. For an ensemble, however, the standard is higher. Four and five-person a cappella groups abound and many of them succeed in covering the same material covered by Suade without the benefit of sophisticated looping technology. Thus Suade's challenge in the dominant theme of "Vocaltronics" — indeed the name of the concert itself intended to showcase the technology — is to find a way to use the technology in a compelling and thrilling fashion. It is here where the guys come up a bit short.
On the plus side, the opening thirty seconds of nearly every selection is intriguing if only to see how the guys will build the foundational sound for the song to come using the looping technology. Songs such as The Way You Make Me Feel, Superstition, and All Night Long, with their signature opening instrumental motifs, fair best in this regard. But what happens far too often in the subsequent four minutes is that while we certainly get a complexity of sampled vocal sounds, we rarely get the "huge" sound we've been promised. Instead, the technology slowly takes over almost every song. So much so, that there are multiple instances where the soloist is the only one singing — the other fellows do not even have the mics at their mouths — and yet we hear full four-part (or more) harmony in the background vocals! How depressing, especially at an a cappella concert. Sure, we'll forgive a rock band for using all kinds of effects, so why not a cappella? We'll even sometimes forgive them when playing along to pre-recorded tracks, so why not a cappella? But would we forgive a rock band for putting down their instruments entirely and essentially having us listen to karaoke periodically during a given song?
This is where the gentlemen of Suade need to refine and develop their use of this terrific technology. They've mastered the art of manipulating the sound, but they need to craft better arrangements that first feature compelling live vocals — both in the solos and the backs — and then seamlessly fuse that with the looped moments they need the computer to provide, rather than so often showcasing a soloist against basic word echoes or unison horn riffs in the backs, with rudimentary bass and vocal percussion supplied by the never-tiring laptop at stage left. Superstition and Fix You — perhaps not coincidentally both arranged by the group’s newest and youngest member, the 22-year old wunderkind countertenor with perfect pitch (damn him) Luke Stevenson — would be great places for them to start for inspiration. These are the two best realized songs featured here, thanks to invention and creativity in the arrangement of the background vocals and virtually non-stop singing by the group on stage that truly builds and intensifies the computerized foundation, rather than merely ornamenting it.
As for Suade's energy and sense of humor — or "humour" — the former is palpable while the latter is hit and miss. Energy they have in spades and while the choreography shades a bit towards the cheesy, it is likely purposely so and the group does everything with a wink and a smile such that it's easy to forgive them a certain amount of goofiness. As for bringing the funny, the group could perhaps use a bit of help. Much of the patter between songs is met with barely a titter from an audience that is clearly comprised of many friends, family and alumni of the group, so that should tell the guys something. For starters, perhaps not everything needs to devolve into sexual innuendo or explicit genitalia jokes. It gets old. Fast.
Tech credits for the DVD are quite good across the board. Sound is clean and crisp and — on the basis of a few small vocal hiccups and miscues not unusual for live performance — would seem to be undoctored as the liner notes represent. Seven camera angles do a solid job of providing varying perspectives on the performance so that the visuals are never static for too long. One bit of patter between songs and a few visual cues suggest that the concert may have been filmed more than once and/or there may have been re-shoots, with visuals from one performance matched with vocals from another, but such practice is pretty common and not at all bothersome (if it is the case at all).
With the paucity of a cappella concert films out there, it's always exciting to have a talented group like Suade create a new one. But there are reasons why a cappella concert films are rare. And while the most dominant ones are probably financial/business-related — costs of creation, means of distribution, limited sales — there is something about a cappella, even more than theatre, dance, instrumental performance or even accompanied voice that is lost in translation on a video screen. For a cappella, you don't just want to hear how they sound, you want to be there when they do it. You want to see the magic happen in front of you and the lack of immediacy, of spontaneity, of living the moment, diminishes the impact of the performance no matter how nifty it may be. With Vocaltronics, that's doubly true because the entire concept is to experience the marriage of live performance and recorded sound and that already split personality of sorts is further fragmented on film. As such, Vocaltronics may make for a wonderful concert, but on DVD, it just isn't as captivating as one might want it to be. Still, it should make for a helluva EPK for Suade that will hopefully reap them plenty of performance opportunities both in Australia and internationally, where hopefully you (and I) can see them live and be a part of the vocal — and technological — magic first hand.
Vocaltronics: Live at Revolt 2013 is available for purchase at the group's website.