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The Vassar Devils

Vassar College

Words Unsaid (2020)

5.0

March 12, 2021

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 5.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.7
Soloists 5.0
Sound / Production 5.0
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 Shatter 5.0
2 Keep Lying 5.0
3 Alps 4.7
4 Human 4.7
5 She Ain't Me 4.7
6 The End of All Things 4.7
7 Million Eyes 5.0
8 Heart of Gold 4.0
9 I Am. 5.0
10 still feel. 4.7

Recorded 2018 – 2019
Total time: 38:23, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Shatter 5
2 Keep Lying 5
3 Alps 4
4 Human 4
5 She Ain't Me 5
6 The End of All Things 5
7 Million Eyes 5
8 Heart of Gold 4
9 I Am. 5
10 still feel. 4

Words Unsaid packs a wallop of a vocal punch as the music freely, emphatically, and captivatingly flows through the Vassar Devils. The group's artistry and craft are purely intentional, methodically letting each track seep into the consciousness of the listener and fill us with a multitude of emotions. This is not only some of the Devils's finest work, but some of the best a cappella music released in recent memory.

While original tracks are becoming more commonplace in collegiate a cappella, covers still rule the land. That being said, on an album mostly full of covers, opening with an original song is a bold move. And yet, the Devils's opening song is an extremely strong one that is undeniably a smash hit! Shatter is the type of original that I could see having a great deal of appeal outside of the a cappella community, with its dark pop feel, heavy tones and arresting lead vocal performance. There are times when Susanna Monroe's range seems limitless as she delivers an immaculate solo that's simply chilling. The song is furthered by a strong collective performance from the backing singers whose vocal clarity is only matched by their momentous-feeling sound.

And the momentum doesn't end with this original as the covers on Words Unsaid act as a vessel for some of the most expressive art performed by a young group of artists.

Keep Lying is a mystifying and tormenting dive into the other side of what can only be described as beautiful vocals. The song's pacing is phenomenal, allowing the listener to digest all of the song's various musical facets which include warmth, power, and raging dynamics. By the song's end you cannot help but to feel utterly shook by the journey the track has just taken you on.

As you progress through Words Unsaid, you're exposed to the many gears that the Vassar Devils can shift into. The group hits the gas with She Ain't Me, unleashing an infectious display of passion and flare all wrapped into a scintillating groove. The rhythm section is front and center, generating heat at every turn, which allows the group's powerhouse lead to let loose. The End of All Things allows a temporary respite as the Devils showcase remarkable musicianship through epic choral-styled singing and ethereal ambience.

Perhaps the crowning moment of the album is I Am. The only thing more flooring than the grand vocals, which sound infinitely inspiring, is the way in which the group weaves in the song's empowering message of "I am beautiful" into every crevice of the performance. The song's message and vocals continue to resonate with you long after the music has ended.

Simply put, Words Unsaid is the embodiment of all pieces of the whole working in glorious harmony, from the production to the jaw-dropping soloists. It is an album that would make a great addition to any music lovers' collection.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Shatter 5
2 Keep Lying 5
3 Alps 5
4 Human 5
5 She Ain't Me 5
6 The End of All Things 4
7 Million Eyes 5
8 Heart of Gold 4
9 I Am. 5
10 still feel. 5

I may be reviewing this album in 2021, but Words Unsaid was one of the 2020 releases I was most looking forward to hearing. This Vassar College group had a meteoric rise in the mid-2010s, resulting in an ICCA Finals appearance, a winning BOSS performance, and the birth of an a cappella arranging phenom in Matt Goldstein. Words Unsaid is the follow-up release that seeks to answer one question: "What's next?" The answer is a group trying to reinvent itself without always knowing what direction the musicians want to go, or abandoning what they used to be.

Let's start with the centerpieces of the new face of the Vassar Devils. Shatter is absolutely stunning. This original piece written by members Lily Carmichael and Sophia Calder consistently grows and develops to introduce the new dark and edgy sound of the Devils. The sound is multifaceted and complex without sacrificing an ounce of power or emotion. Human is arranged by Carmichael and She Ain't Me is arranged by Daniel Rosen. These pieces are powerful, but accessible to the listener. They never feel frantic, allowing the soloists to deliver. These songs highlight the newest version of the group — the song selections are moving away from the more pop-selections of the past and becoming more unique and reflective of the group's sound. 

What makes the rest of Words Unsaid interesting is that Matt Goldstein is now an alumnus of the group while still arranging the majority of the album. Groups have relied on alumni to consistently contribute to the repertoire, but this can be a very dangerous double-edged sword. The group is either pigeonholed to the strengths of the arranger or the arranger is tasked with relearning the group they are arranging for. The Devils chose the latter, and it comes with mixed results. Alps and The End of All Things can at times feel like they are lacking direction, and Heart of Gold is a piece that exists more as an appendix to the previous track than a standalone number. Don't be mistaken, there are some absolutely gorgeous moments that make me believe Goldstein to be some form of wizard, but the group just seems to be missing direction in these pieces. This is juxtaposed by I Am., which is beautifully rich and complex. Olivia Keane delivers an absolutely jaw-dropping performance that is dripping with emotion. This track is everything that the Vassar Devils are striving to be. Goldstein's strengths are fully on display to help a new generation of the group, and it is in many ways a track that I would consider to be perfect.

The perfection of the penultimate track is the reason I have so much trouble stomaching still feel. This track feels like the Vassar Devils of yesteryear. There are many hintings back to the previous iteration of the group with recurring motifs of "coming alive, happening now" in the backgrounds and an ending chord progression that is torn straight from the previous album. Words Unsaid spent nine tracks creating a cohesive story, complete with an opening piece to hint at the coming tracks, only to give a sendoff with a song that feels more like a bonus track. As a standalone, it is one of my favorite pieces. There is no dropoff in the quality of this number relative to all others; it just feels so independent of everything that has been previously stated. 

Despite what I have written, I have no qualms about giving Words Unsaid a high score. There may be hesitation from the group to always commit to the newer darker sound, but the pieces where the group fully commits are incredibly satisfying to listen to. I'm really excited to see how the group grows and evolves in the future. There are hintings that the Devils are continuing to pass along a tradition of excellence, and the sky's the limit.

 


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Shatter 5
2 Keep Lying 5
3 Alps 5
4 Human 5
5 She Ain't Me 4
6 The End of All Things 5
7 Million Eyes 5
8 Heart of Gold 4
9 I Am. 5
10 still feel. 5

Words Unsaid, an apt name for an intense sound-driven album that's proving challenging to write about and best to experience for yourself. 

The swirly soundscape that opens Words Unsaid is otherworldly. With its shifts in tempos and thickness, cutting tension chords, and highly decorative individual lines, Shatter sounds more like the score to a blockbuster apocalypse film than standard a cappella fare. But wait ... it's an original! Songwriters Lily Carmichael and Sophia Calder penned a sophisticated, captivating piece that not only demonstrates their creative and technical abilities, but sets the tone for more risk-taking from this era of the Devils. Where do we possibly go from here?

If you listened to the group's last release Coming Alive (some of you still listen regularly, I know), you'll recall that the imaginative arrangements were the point of study and a source of delirious joy. Is Matt Goldstein back as an alum? Yes. Goldstein offers seven of the ten arrangements here, each meticulously crafted and considered for maximum impact. Our reunion starts with Keep Lying, composed as one long slow-burn emotional release for skilled soloist Jorden Schreeder to work through. It's therapy for the lead and the audience. Goldstein showcases another side of his work with The End of All Things, an approach that's curiously choral for him, but sets the stage perfectly for authentic tenderness, the real ache found by staying the course in real love, giving the musicians the space to make the most of each measure to tell this story. The effect is orchestral, and shows that Goldstein understands the power of darkness, light, and the complicated gray of in-between. I cannot categorize this as a "sad song" or a "happy song"; this is something else, an emotion you walk up to, trying to process, but just can't. Despite the many and sustained gorgeous musical interludes on this release where the singers have no lyrics to sing, this is where Words Unsaid takes a stand for its name.

Two more Devils, Carmichael and Daniel Rosen, are no squares to making a splash on the charts, either. Carmichael gives popular Human so much weight and sizzle that the Devils sing until they're audibly raw, proving that solid source material is important but fresh touches can seal the deal on energetic expression, especially true for fired-up lead Rosen. She Ain't Me, arranged by Rosen, also puts weight on the popular original, giving us a more sassy and bold song to appreciate. Rest assured, the Devils continue to wow through their inventive arrangements. 

Also needing credit, the masterful production that's a standalone artist on Words Unsaid. If you're going to paint a dramatic soundscape with the full colorwheel, your listeners will lean forward to examine your craft. Many worked in delicate balance here to give presence to adjectives like "empowerment" and "urgency", heard so clearly and cleanly on the final two tracks. I Am. couples the singers and production perfectly, with both leaning on each other to make a stronger whole, driven by a richly mesmerizing vocal performance from Olivia Keane. And how about the booming fireworks-in-the-sky closer, still feel.? Did you need more adrenaline for your day, because these engineers are stacking it up by the case. Congratulations to Archie Gopal, Peter Yang, Jill Clark, Connor Martin, Nick Lyons and Dave Sperandio. This is a significant sound achievement. 

Top to bottom, there's a lot to admire on Words Unsaid, an album you might never be done with because it resonates a little differently with each new listen. 

 

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