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The Rice Philharmonics

Epoch (2010)

3.0

April 9, 2011

Tuning / Blend 3.0
Energy / Intensity 2.7
Innovation / Creativity 2.0
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 3.0
Repeat Listenability 2.3
Tracks
1 Sandcastle Disco 3.0
2 Time of the Season 2.0
3 Viva La Vida 3.3
4 Breathe 2.7
5 What Goes Around 3.3
6 Coleccionista de Canciones 3.0
7 Boys of Summer 2.7
8 No Air 3.7
9 Never Gonna Give You Up 2.7
10 Africa 2.3

Recorded 2008 – 2009
Total time: 41:02, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Sandcastle Disco 2
2 Time of the Season 2
3 Viva La Vida 3
4 Breathe 3
5 What Goes Around 4
6 Coleccionista de Canciones 3
7 Boys of Summer 3
8 No Air 4
9 Never Gonna Give You Up 3
10 Africa 2

Just looking at the track list for The Rice Philharmonics's new album Epoch instantly brings me back to old times. I was not surprised when listening to it made me think the same. Through song choice and old-school arrangements, The Phils certainly took their audience on a journey — to the '90s.

There are a few covers on Epoch that we would recognize, and those are the best tracks on the album. But with songs like Africa and Time of the Season, I found it impossible to look past the bad and old to see the good and new.

The last time I heard Africa on an a cappella group's album was the UNCG Spartones very first album which was released in early 2000. The Phils's song choice is overall very out of date, and their arrangement style matches that. I think they missed the memo when a cappella music moved on from "doo ba doo ba" syllables.

I will give it to The Phils that their contemporary tracks sit somewhere in the average to good range, but at the same time they still manage to miss the mark. What Goes Around is the best track on the album. The Phils open the track with a beautiful choral take on the song and then move into the funk-guitar intro, but once the first verse begins they go back to the old school arranging style. On the other hand, they offer fleeting moments of beautiful musicality throughout which makes the other arranging mistakes bearable. One thing that I can't bear is the length of the song; it definitely overstays its welcome, sitting a little over seven minutes long.

The definition of the word "epoch" is "a period of time marked by distinctive features". I understand what The Philharmonics were trying to do with their album title, but the only thing that is distinctive here is bad song choice and an old-school style which doesn't sit very well with the a cappella community these days (look at how everyone is trashing the old-school style on The Sing Off). Epoch isn't a bad album overall, but it's certainly no better than average. I hope that in future albums, The Philharmonics will take more contemporary songs and add their beautiful musicality. I heard this approach very sparingly on Epoch, but know they can do it.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Sandcastle Disco 4
2 Time of the Season 2
3 Viva La Vida 4
4 Breathe 2
5 What Goes Around 2
6 Coleccionista de Canciones 3
7 Boys of Summer 2
8 No Air 3
9 Never Gonna Give You Up 3
10 Africa 3

A better title for Epoch, the latest from Rice University's co-ed Philharmonics, might have been "Karaoke Night with the Phils". Questionable song choices, sub-par soloists and mundane arrangements that fade obligingly into the background all combine to create an experience like hearing your favorites belted out by amateurs in a smoky bar. Some songs inevitably end up sounding better than others, but even good karaoke is still karaoke, and the overall result is average.

Let's begin with the songs. As in karaoke, the philosophy of Epoch seems to be that it is sufficient for the Phils to sing these songs as best they can and let the audience fill in the blanks with their own memories of the original performances. Sometimes this works: Carmen Perez turns in a nuanced and earnest performance on the fun and bouncy Sandcastle Disco, Kyle Clark nails his take on the solidly executed (if somewhat redundant) Viva La Vida, and Payton Odom is smooth as butter on the Spanish-language Coleccionista de Canciones. But those are the exceptions. Gillian Kruse's take on Breathe tends toward a whiny tone, and she has trouble staying in tune; Erin Walsh and Raymond Yu are overly melodramatic on No Air; and Allie Janda sounds downright depressed on the otherwise up-tempo Boys of Summer.

As for the arrangements, they are decidedly imitative and straightforward yet also studded with small nuggets of creativity that made me wish for more. Ms. Janda's take on Boys of Summer, as inappropriately melancholy as it is here, would have been wonderful as the centerpiece of a slower, broodier and much more compelling take on this classic song. But the worst offender has to be What Goes Around, all seven laborious minutes of it. There is about a minute's worth of a much better arrangement at the beginning and the end, a gorgeous choral sketch that has the Phils channeling Sia by way of Off the Beat. But sadly, this group isn't nearly creative enough to do the whole song like this, and once the distorted faux-guitar comes in, it's business as usual. It is the aural equivalent of a sandwich made from bakery-fresh artisanal bread and Oscar Mayer bologna.

In short, Epoch is a so-so album that could have been so much better. Karaoke may be fun while you're doing it, but sometimes it's just not worth the hangover afterwards.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Sandcastle Disco 3
2 Time of the Season 2
3 Viva La Vida 3
4 Breathe 3
5 What Goes Around 4
6 Coleccionista de Canciones 3
7 Boys of Summer 3
8 No Air 4
9 Never Gonna Give You Up 2
10 Africa 2

The Rice Philharmonics' Epoch is another example of how the a cappella industry is raising its standards. If I had heard Epoch when I first started listening to a cappella (which wasn't too long ago), it would have been a revelation. Now, however, it's just another competent collegiate a cappella album in a field of many. I'd say the most glaring flaw when it comes to Epoch is that it comes off as being overproduced.

I'm not opposed to Auto-Tune, Melodyne, or whatever form of pitch correction one chooses to use. It is a very real and arguably essential part of the a cappella industry. Like any tool, however, it's prone to misuse and abuse. Epoch isn't the worst offender by any means, but it doesn't benefit from the heavy pitch correction that runs through the album. It is very difficult for me as a reviewer to assess this group's blend and pitch because almost every element of the album seems produced to hell and back — the use of pitch correction on soloists is particularly noticeable. I admit this is an issue of personal taste, and I will not dwell on it any longer.

The album has some very nice moments. The intro to What Goes Around sounds beautiful and got me really excited, so much so that even the corny vocal guitar that followed it brought a smile to my face. The soloists on Sandcastle Disco, Boys of Summer and Breathe sound great. No Air has killer energy and shows that the Philharmonics can really bring it if they need to. The talent of the group really shines through in these songs, and it is definitely felt throughout the album.

Epoch is dragged down to the average level by a pervasive lack of energy. Overly enthusiastic vocal percussion aside, Time of the Season never manages any real energy or sensuality (It is the time of season for loving, after all). Pop-rock covers like Boys of Summer and Viva La Vida float by, seemingly totally inconsequential. Song choice is also an issue for the group: the aforementioned Boys of Summer and Viva La Vida, Africa, Never Gonna Give You Up ... this is well-tread aca-territory. At this point, unless it's a particularly clever reinvention, I don't think I'm going to enjoy a version of Africa ever again (all apologies to the Porcaro family).

Epoch isn't bad, but it isn't very good either. It will make an amazing yearbook album for sure, but it's lacking anything to bring it up to the next level. With a creativity infusion and some better song choices, the Philharmonics could make an album that really grabs your attention.

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