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Case Western Reserve University

Dhamakapella: The 2022 Anthology (2022)


June 23, 2023

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.7
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 3.0
1 Light 'Em Up / Bhare Naina 3.0
2 Hold On 4.3
3 Masakali / Levitating 3.7

Recorded 2022
Total time: 9:58, 3 songs

Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Light 'Em Up / Bhare Naina 2
2 Hold On 5
3 Masakali / Levitating 4

In my last two reviews for this creative group, I talked about needing more fire from the vocals instead of hearing a "nearly stubborn mellowness" in delivery. Questions about "intensity" and "impact" are used in former reviews for Dhamakapella, and once again, we're still lacking in this foundational area.

It's particularly hard to enjoy The 2022 Anthology from the jump since the group opens with Light 'Em Up — directions for boldness are right in the song's title. But we get legato and lilting background voices that make the mashup unfold without the assertion needed to support the edgier leads. The complex arrangement and fusion layering is divine; the delivery is a let down.

Then, in a surprise twist, Hold On uncurls in our headphones absolutely beautifully. We're treated to a stunning intertwining of languages and styles, with a persistent mood of mystery and near-eeriness. It's not only compelling, it's groundbreaking for Dhamakapella. Live audiences must be captivated during this part of the competition set, marveling at both the difficulty and effectiveness of revamping the original 1994 Sarah McLachlan gem, as covered here by The Rescues. This one will really do a number on your heart.

If measuring potency, Masakali / Levitating fits between tracks one and two, though certainly belongs at the end of this release with its crisp arrangement and ringing final power chords. Soloist Divyam Agrawal gives it his best, and the group is finally leaning into measure-by-measure dynamic contrast for more sonic interest.

Three-track EPs are harder than they seem; each track needs to be equally conceived and unequivocally delivered or you've got a lopsided release. If you're a fan of contemporary a cappella, Dhamakapella is definitely its own subgenre; the group's imaginative arrangements and surprise hits aren't Top 40 a cappella fare and you'll delight in the fresh takes of this anthology. But I suspect you'll also be craving a more even and convincing musical ride.

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Light 'Em Up / Bhare Naina 4
2 Hold On 4
3 Masakali / Levitating 4

Fusion groups always fascinate me as a subgenre of contemporary a cappella. There's been a presence, but it's become more and more pronounced with the All-American Awaaz competition circuit as well as groups having success in the ICCA competitions. Case Western University's Dhamakapella is one of the groups at the forefront of this charge, seeing multiple Awaaz national championships and being a leading group in the midwest region of the ICCA competition for the past five years. The 2022 Anthology covers the 2022 competition season set. While a very competent set with a lot to unpack, there's a lack of overall musical impact at times that prevents me from loving this release more.

Let's start with the major success. The music is incredibly complex and aurally pleasing. Light 'Em Up / Bhare Naina features a number of little twists in the chord changes to keep the listener on edge, and a constant changing of language both in the background and the foreground makes the listener change their focus, too. Hold On features some delightfully colorful and complex cluster chords thrown in to make impacts apparent to the listener. Masakali / Levitating is a masterclass in utilizing a number of different rhythms to keep everything moving and driving forward. It all really shows how much effort was put into the arranging process, so hats off to group arrangers Anusha Mudigonda and Tara Dickson, and external arranger Shams Ahmed.

However, the main aspect that doesn't come across well from this release is the dynamics. The first notable issue is the lack of macro dynamics. Across each piece in The 2022 Anthology, there isn't a true moment that paints itself as the climax. There are moments that seem like the biggest, but little dynamically separating them and creating impact. On the other end of the spectrum, there are few truly soft moments. The album operates mostly in the middle of the dynamic range. There's also a relative lack of dynamics across the phrases; microdynamics can add an extra level of depth across songs.

What we do have is a very slow-burning competition set — dynamics incredibly calculated overall, where they aren't perceptible unless the listener is cutting back and forth across the tracks. This achievement adds to the repeatability of the music and why I find this release intriguing. It makes for an interesting ten minutes of music, even though individually, each song falls a little flat.

The overall product is music I would happily use as a score study or to listen to live, but not one I might actively find myself listening to on heavy rotation. However, it's also possible that this could just be findings from such a small sampling of music. The only solution to that is to hope more music comes soon. Either way, I wouldn't mind seeing another release from Dhamakapella in my reviewer's queue in the near future.

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Light 'Em Up / Bhare Naina 3
2 Hold On 4
3 Masakali / Levitating 3

Dhamakapella: The 2022 Anthology is a strong trio of tracks living in an uncanny valley where their fully realized potential has been held back. The set was originally designed for a live environment, but recorded and mixed in a more modern a cappella fashion for posterity. While I do appreciate that these performances have been preserved, I also suspect that some of the strongest aspects of the original set were lost in the translation.

Light 'Em Up / Bhare Naina starts this anthology and is the first sign to me of this rocky adaptation. The track is intended to kick things off with a bang — it's a mashup of two powerful songs with strong, commanding solos from Anusha Mudigonda and Bhavya Mahesh. For some reason, however, the energy these songs demand is never fully met. Maybe that's because the arrangement works better for live voices, but when parts are more exposed there's actually a lot more empty space. Maybe harmonies are imbalanced or are in unfulfilling inversions. Maybe because the super impressive vocal percussion often feels disjointed in the fabric (it could be a production issue but I can't be too sure). Maybe because the big moments during the song are under-realized in energy from the singers. I'm not entirely sure of what may or may not be a culprit of the above theories, but the result is still a track that I could imagine myself loving in live performance but left me wanting more when listening as a more heavily produced track.

Many of these issues have a degree of improvement on the final track, Masakali / Levitating. Harmonies feel somewhat richer, and background vocals match the solos in energy levels much more frequently. However, there is a new feature that has been lost in translation: song structure. I can imagine why this his song caps the three-song competition set and it is perfectly paced for that job. It introduces elements of each individual song in the mashup quickly and seamlessly, briskly moves on, and finishes in a bit over three minutes. That being said, when listening as an at-home experience, I find myself preferring a more fully fleshed-out track. Instead, it moves too fast where every time a new musical idea is introduced, it feels over in a near instant.

Hold On, the middle track, strikes a nice balance of everything that I'm looking for in the other two. It doesn't hit the energy highs that I wished for out of the first or last track either, but it also doesn't expect itself to since it's not required given the song's position in the set. Hold On has its fair share of empty moments or imbalanced background voice parts too, but it compensates with some especially strong solos and added elements of flair such as beautifully shimmering extra-high soprano notes. There's a lot to dig here, even if it also leaves me wanting a more extended cut of the song by the end.

As an aside, I should emphasize the importance of crediting songwriters in the liner notes of your recording projects. Dhamakapella: The 2022 Anthology only credits the original performers of its songs, but not the songwriters by name. The former is not required but the latter absolute is.

Dhamakapella has several possible strategies for growth here. Some may involve simply honing the group's abilities even further, such as utilizing more nuanced dynamic range and arc over a song's progression, as well as better unifying the energy of soloists and background vocalists. It may also involve honing arrangements further, increasing attention to detail in fullness of sound and in the utilization of ranges of background parts. Other strategies may involve a transition to the recorded versions of these songs, which may mean adding to arrangements and part distribution during the production process for better balance. Another approach may be creating more extended arrangements of contest songs for recording/standalone performance purposes, so that they function better independently while maintaining strong pacing during a live contest set. These aren't the only strategies, of course, but they're potential starting points.

Regardless of the path taken to improvement, Dhamakapella has demonstrated a strong musical package core and some powerhouse vocalists. I'd love to see them continue to hone these in the future on the group's next project.

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Ordering Information

The 2022 Anthology streams on Spotify

  • Apple Music
  • Spotify