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Vital Signs

Elon University

Flatline (2023)

3.7

July 9, 2024

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.3
Tracks
1 Boomerang 4.0
2 Erase Me 3.3
3 Holding Out for a Hero 3.3
4 Ceilings 3.3
5 Music for a Sushi Restaurant 5.0
6 Jason's Song (Live Version) 3.3

Recorded 2023
Total time: 20:25, 6 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Boomerang 4
2 Erase Me 3
3 Holding Out for a Hero 3
4 Ceilings 4
5 Music for a Sushi Restaurant 5
6 Jason's Song (Live Version) 3

This is my first experience listening to Vital Signs. Due to the peaks and valleys presented here, I'm going to need a second course from this Elon University group.

Flatline flies by quickly and the uneven finished product — in arrangement styles, clarity of production work, and a lack of unifying themes/styles on this jukebox release — makes it hard to get a sense of the group's capabilities. Can we start with the peak? What business does a cover of Music for a Sushi Restaurant have sounding so damned good? The energy is palpable — a legit bounce from the group tapping our speakers within the playful soundscape. This song absolutely soars, and it ends on a sonic fist pump. I'd like to hold this one as a single and never let it go.

The rest of the release isn't as straightforwardly awesome. Vital Signs opens with Boomerang, which is tight and rhythmic with dark lyrics from a smoky lead. If we're setting the tone, it's only for that number. Erase Me drags a bit, has balance issues between the lead and the percussion causing sonic disparities, but feels like it belongs in this chosen lineup more than kitschy Holding Out for a Hero. There's some choppy moments in the arrangement for Hero that hinder the song, too. And speaking of disparities, I'm not sure what to make of Ceilings. The leads have masterful control of their instruments with sophistication to spare, completely enchanting the listener. But the arrangement is rather plain, not serving and framing those lead voices as well as it could.

Your best chance of evaluating the skill and vibe of this group probably comes from the last piece, a live recording of Jason's Song. If history is our guide, it's risky to give RARB a live track to evaluate; we either applaud the stage joy or hate the sound quality degradation on an otherwise studio release. The sound here actually holds up well; it's not distracting, and the audience sounds even add a little flair. Though the arrangement gets clunky at the end with quick jaunty runs that aren't holding together well on stage. That's definitely a critical remark on Flatline; more attention is needed on arrangement difficulty and elegance.

Definitely add the Harry Styles cover to your playlist, and keep your ear tipped for future Vital Signs projects to see how they land.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Boomerang 4
2 Erase Me 3
3 Holding Out for a Hero 4
4 Ceilings 3
5 Music for a Sushi Restaurant 5
6 Jason's Song (Live Version) 3

On the surface, Elon University's Vital Signs latest release, Flatline, is anything but what the name of the album would suggest. It's full of high energy, great soloists, and a stellar track list ranging from Lizzy McAlpine (x2) to Bonnie Tyler that would bring in all types of music lovers. But, as the doctor may say, the vital signs of this album may indicate some "trouble spots" that are worth paying attention to in the following release.

The standout on the album is most definitely the Harry Styles Music for a Sushi Restaurant cover, which seems to have more edge and energy than even what Harry brings to the table. It certainly works as Campy Rodriguez delivers a tremendous solo from start to finish, showing off both a bit of a rock edge in the first chorus coupled with a beautiful falsetto at the end to cap it all off. The background vocals do a good job supporting Rodriguez throughout, particularly in the bridge where they "got out of the way" in bringing the dynamics down to let the lead have their moment in the spotlight prior to that final chorus. My only criticism would be that it ends somewhat abruptly; it could have used an additional fifteen seconds or so to end the track and wind down.

As for the other tracks, there are plenty of good to excellent moments throughout, particularly when it comes to the soloists on the EP. It's very clear that everyone in Vital Signs is incredibly talented, and that is showcased from Abbey Ruark's dynamo solo on Jason's Song where they hold nothing back to Maecy Bischoff and their fantastic solo on Boomerang, where I was really impressed with the "sirens" in the chorus in showing off their range. That said, the background vocals aren't always meeting the soloists at the same level.

During Erase Me, the lead in from the first chorus to the second verse as a vocal run in the background doesn't quite hit with the accuracy that is needed. What should have been a precise downward run comes across muddled and incomplete, and leaves me wanting something more out of that moment. Those vocal intricacies are crucial to any song that is originally performed by or with Jacob Collier, and that absence of vocal precision is left lacking on this track. Next, while I think Ceilings is generally sung well, it starts too loudly and therefore doesn't give the group anywhere to grow but ever louder throughout the track. In the next release, I challenge the group to pay more attention to the dynamics that they choose in the recording booth to make sure that the emotional meaning of the tracks does not get lost. The blend and balance aren't ideal in the second verse either, as Rodriguez's harmony becomes the more prominent focal point than Bischoff's melody.

Then there's Jason's Song, which was a live performance placed onto the record. Now, I have been quite critical of groups adding live tracks onto records in the past, as you simply don't have the controls that you have when you are recording in a studio. And while I will say that this is certainly one of the better live versions that I have heard on an album in a while, there are moments where recording in a studio would have helped. First, similarly to the moment I highlighted inĀ Erase Me, the bridge is all jumbled together in the background vocals. It is very hard to focus and identify one specific voice part. A larger issue is the balance of the track — Ruark's solo and the bass are very prominent throughout, and those two parts cause me to lose the middle vocals at different points throughout the track. Now, I don't doubt that it's very fun to sing live and I think it would sound more balanced if I was in the room/venue, but that doesn't come across on a recording well. Vital Signs, in my opinion, would have been far better off recording this track in the studio with the other five tracks than tacking this live performance at the end.

Overall, there's plenty of aspects to like from Flatline, but it does leave me wanting more and I hope that the next release stresses more of the details. If the musicians are able to do that, then they are well on their way to becoming a force in the collegiate a cappella scene.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Boomerang 4
2 Erase Me 4
3 Holding Out for a Hero 3
4 Ceilings 3
5 Music for a Sushi Restaurant 5
6 Jason's Song (Live Version) 4

Well, this is a fun little release. I've seen many albums from different groups at Elon University pass through both RARB and my personal playlists, but this is the first chance I've had to take an in-depth look at Vital Signs. The mixed ensemble gives an EP-esque view into the group and showcases some very well-executed simplicity.

Let's start at the top with Boomerang. This piece centers around the bassline and percussion groove, which is just really cooking. From there, we add Maecy Bischoff's raw power on lead vocals. This core really sets the stage for the tone of the piece, and many of the other pieces are just playing off of it with simple rhythms and harmonies. The bridge is a cool musical pointillism of small repeating patterns all lying on top of each other. It's really well done, as it's very challenging to find where one pattern begins and the other ends. Arranger Prabh Saini does a good job of simplifying the track to make it accessible for listeners while still keeping some complexities for interest. The layers are all playing off of each other incredibly cleanly. There's no bookmarking features, such as well-placed color chords or anything to make it feel more like a group original instead of a cover, but I happily listen to this.

We continue this style in Music for a Sushi Restaurant. This production adds a little bit of an audio process, to where the voices are more digital sounding, but I really like the vibe. Again, it's just incredibly clean and hits all the same marks as the original. The drop into the chorus is a wall of sound that I absolutely love. Campy Rodriguez's solo is all sorts of fun, bouncing between a full chest voice and sliding into a blindingly high falsetto when it needs to — perfect as the focal point of the piece. This track shines in all the best ways, and is my favorite on the album.

Jason's Song (Live Version) highlights the best and worst of the group in one shot. I think it showcases the group best. Abbey Ruark's solo isn't trying to copy the Ariana Grande original, instead letting it be their own voice. The bassline continues to cook, bouncing around with surprising grace that is really impressive and the percussion works well to create the whole rhythm section. When we get to the bridge, we start to see where the group falls apart. The rhythms between the background parts are too complicated, such that each part isn't quite matching itself, especially in the little riffs and runs. As a result, you can hear where the group stops feeling the groove and starts focusing on listening and matching each other. You can hear the gears moving in the individual members' heads. The group pulled an Icarus, flying too close to their technical limit and starting to fall back to earth. The track still ends strong, but it doesn't have the same impact as the first half of the performance.

That last track shows the promise of the group. This is a group that is willing to take risks and experiment to find the best sound for the group, whether it's strong and dense chords, complicated rhythms, or shared elements of both. Regardless of the group, Vital Signs shows that they're willing to take those risks, challenge themselves, and push themselves out of their comfort zone. Do I still enjoy the simpler yet well-executed stuff? Absolutely. However, there's a promise of the group growing to be stronger musicians and create a more complex musical product, and I can't wait to hear that.

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