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Sympathetic Vibrations

Georgia Institute of Technology

Seriously. (2012)

3.7

March 1, 2013

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 3.3
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.3
Tracks
1 Sweet Disposition 4.0
2 Chicago 4.0
3 Hero 2.7
4 Armistice 3.7
5 Grenade 3.0
6 We Cry 3.3
7 Sure Thing 4.0
8 Someone Like You 4.0
9 Amsterdam 3.0
10 Lost in the Power 3.7

Recorded 2011 – 2012
Total time: 40:06, 10 songs


4
Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Sweet Disposition 5
2 Chicago 5
3 Hero 3
4 Armistice 4
5 Grenade 3
6 We Cry 3
7 Sure Thing 5
8 Someone Like You 5
9 Amsterdam 3
10 Lost in the Power 4

Sometimes an album's title is so spot on that's it's pretty frightening. 

Seriously. Let's ponder that for a moment. Yep, that pretty much sums up the first thought that went through my head when I popped the latest album from these guys at Georgia Institute of Technology into my player and got to experience a surprisingly well-nuanced recording. Seriously, the Sympathetic Vibrations have released an album that is mature, moving and musically leaps and bounds beyond anything that I'd heard from them previously. And is has been a long thirteen years of listening to them progress musically. Seriously, there are several tracks that you have to have in your collection. Find them on iTunes!

It's hard to say that an album opens up with a bang when the song is an engaging but atmospheric ballad like Sweet Disposition. But man does it grab you from the first note, enveloping the senses as the group progresses through the song. Grayson Baum has an angelic tenor voice that effortlessly soars over the pulsating rhythm section.

The Symp Vibes really come into their own on tracks that allow them to create environmental soundscapes that are more airy than earthy. Their musicality shines on supported open vowels like "ah". Songs like the aforementioned Sweet Disposition, along with Chicago and Sure Thing, really play off this strength of the individual performers with excellent blend, solid intonation and dynamic variety. This particular quality of their singing allows the tracks to hit an emotional chord with the listener.

On the other hand, open vowels proceeded by "y" and more rounded sounds give the group some trouble. The "yeah, yeah, yeah"s in Grenade are not not not. But the problem is never more apparent than in We Cry. The group has a bit of intonation problem on the "oo" sound, especially in the first tenors having too strident an "eu" sound so that it doesn't quite gel with the smoother "oo" in the lower voices. It's distracting and a real shame here when compared to the glorious sounds on the other tracks, especially since it's the only song where it is such a prominent problem — the very next song Sure Thing sees the vowel matching completely eradicated.

The production values are inconsistent with a bit of sound wavering. The opening tracks are bright and nicely buzzy and then all of sudden, starting with the cover of Mutemath's Armistice, the sound becomes a bit muted. It's almost like thin gauze wraps the notes and make the whole song all cloudy. I thought for a minute that my equalizer was on the fritz because the sound became fuzzy with the upper treble so compressed that it was almost nonexistent. That quality lasts until until Someone Like You, where inexplicably the rest of the album becomes re-energized and electric.

The arrangements are hit or miss. Whereas, they are always creative, they aren't always effective. Fanye Abbey is the primary arranger on this album, but the Symp Vibes style is very much a group effort as four other guys provide arrangements or partner with Abbey to create the their repertoire. And it's a unified concept throughout.

Abbey's arrangements are really strong, though sometimes he puts too much into them, or emphasizes the wrong aspect of the song. We Cry is a fun listen, but eventually it leaves you thinking that "da da dey yah" is the most important part of the song, even overpowering the soloist at times. He fares better with the simplified soul of Sure Thing. The arrangement is breathtakingly effortless, cushioning Shawn Skolky's achingly seductive solo so serenely.

But the intelligence behind Someone Like You is jaw dropping. The "5" rating is for the creativity and not the execution in this instance. Splitting the melody among a myriad of soloists, duettists, trios and group singing exposes a depth of subtext with an emotional charge that is enraging, cathartic, frustrating, defeated and empowering all in the span of a few measures. I got to workshop the song with the guys at SoJam X, and each guy brought a backstory to the song that coalesced completely with Abbey's concept. Seriously, it is one of the best arrangements that I've heard in years.

Seriously, guys, I need to hear more music like this from you in the future. Keep working on arrangements that are interesting but aren't overbearing. Stay away from tracks that are too jarring between the A and B sections (Amsterdam), too earthy to the point that they become a bit comical (Hero), are a bit one dimensional like Grenade, or are as out of tune as Someone Like You — unless you have a superfantastic arrangement — and you'll have one fantastic album. Seriously.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Sweet Disposition 3
2 Chicago 3
3 Hero 2
4 Armistice 3
5 Grenade 3
6 We Cry 3
7 Sure Thing 3
8 Someone Like You 4
9 Amsterdam 3
10 Lost in the Power 3

The guys from Georgia Tech sent over an album featuring a polished man in a nice gray suit on the cover. Unfortunately, Seriously. isn't quite so hip.

The production is more restrained than the usual over-processed collegiate fare, which is both a plus and a minus depending on the song. The Symps have again tapped (now former) group member Prem Midha for the job, and overall, he succeeds. It's great to really hear all parts instead of having big swaths compressed away into merely tones — for example, everyone will enjoy all the intricacies of the arrangement for Chicago, heard here loud and clear. We also get to hear the slick bass and vp work on Armistice without a heavy studio mask. But man, without a little electrification boost, I'm not buying this Hero business, which is presented here as more of a gentle waltz than an amped-up rock piece (with a soloist who is trying way too hard to capture his inner Chad Kroeger).

If the album suffers from one main crux, it's the sleepy, too-laid-back feel present throughout Seriously.. It's hard to find much punch, much crispness, much of anything with a confidently assertive delivery, and this weighs the music down to a slow crawl as the tracks roll on. The line shaping frequently feels weak and unsupported, too — the backs on We Cry showcase this problem clearly. You can also hear that even with some added effects and a vp boost on Lost in the Power, it can't compensate for the soft vocal background that should be red hot, loud, crazy-party-time vocals. The last rapper is killing it, and all the support he gets is some shy-sounding action behind him? This is an ensemble song if I ever heard one, and it comes up short of its potential.

The shining star of Seriously. is the group's take on Someone Like You. The two common pitfalls of collegiate a cappella arrangements are redundancy (sing verse, sing chorus, sing next verse exactly the same, sing next chorus exactly the same, surely no one will notice) and too-literal transcriptions (I'm going to be the original artist!). You won't hear either issue on Someone Like You, which emotively slides between a kind of gospel and R&B in a haunting, hard-to-forget kind of way. Even though the blend could be tighter, I love it; it all feels right, and it's clear the guys are really into it.

Seriously. is lacking the vocal intensity to really reward listeners, but you might want to hear the creativity on display for Someone Like You


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Sweet Disposition 4
2 Chicago 4
3 Hero 3
4 Armistice 4
5 Grenade 3
6 We Cry 4
7 Sure Thing 4
8 Someone Like You 3
9 Amsterdam 3
10 Lost in the Power 4

On Seriously., the new album from Georgia Tech's Sympathetic Vibrations ("Symp Vibes"), there is a curious dynamic at work. Sometimes, the guys offer beautifully textured arrangements that grow and evolve from point A to point B. Other times, they offer bland, static versions of songs that have been covered ad nauseum in the a cappella community. I suppose the best thing I can say about the overall impact of this album is that nearly every song offers at least one hook that is worth the ride, and very little on the album sounds bad.

As might be expected with an album featuring tracks arranged by numerous group members, there is a maddening inconsistency from track to track. John Zelek's arrangement of Sweet Disposition is layered to great effect, providing momentum and drive which are matched nicely by the juicy but natural sounding vp. Sporadic bursts of instruments or other sounds are unexpected perks that keep this entertaining for multiple listens. Sufjan Stevens' Chicago, arranged here by Matt LeVine, is similarly textured, though perhaps with slightly less impact. However, it grows nicely in the second verse and features other intriguing instrument sounds including trumpet (flugelhorn?) and keyboard. Lost in the Power is an effective, if a tad overproduced, mashup of Kanye West's Lost in the World and Power. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Grenade and Amsterdam offer nothing different or exciting from the originals, much less the countless other covers of each song slowly working their way out of the bowels of the collegtiate a cappella ecosystem.

I mentioned that many of the songs have "hooks" that keep the listener engaged, and I won't expound on the value of such tools here. For the purposes of this review, let me just give a few concrete examples. The syncopated drum riff that opens We Cry, an otherwise repetitive song, jumps out on each play. The busy and grooving bassline on the cover of Mutemath's Armistice is an ear worm which only exits my head because I simply can't sing it even after many listens. The Symp Vibes are pretty good at making sure there is (at least) one hook in most songs here, and this makes it easy to press repeat on more than half of the album.

There are, of course, exceptions. If a hook is something that draws me in and draws me back to a song, then the ill-advised attempt to reproduce Chad Kroeger's throaty growling on Hero is an anti-hook. Each time I heard this song, I had two thoughts: "Wow, he really tried to sound like the original" and "Wow, he really needs a throat lozenge." Sometimes (some would argue oftentimes), it simply isn't a good idea to try and mimic an original soloist.

The production on this album is inconsistent, though not in a bad way. At times, voices are completely transformed to instruments, keyboards, and various beeps and blips. Other times, they are touchingly and tastefully natural. It isn't clear whether the group intended to swerve back and forth between these two extremes, but group alum Prem Midha (who apparently, despite not being officially credited, recorded and "produced") walked this line nicely and there were no sonic deficiencies or offenses.

This does, however, bring up two major presentation flaws with Seriously.. First, the group relies upon the old and still improper habit of offering only "Originally performed by" for each song rather than crediting the composer. In similarly lax fashion, the group fails to officially credit anyone (presumably Mr. Midha) for recording, editing, mixing, and mastering the album. On their next album, such credits would be welcomed both by the listener and the person who labored to capture the group's singing. Seriously.

The Symp Vibes have put together an album with a few inspired song choices (Armistice, Sure Thing, Lost in the Power), and a few tired song selections (Chicago, Amsterdam, Someone Like You). There is no discernable signature style for this version of the group, jumping from indie rock to pop to hip-hop, but the group does have a smart sensibility for drawing the listener in. It's hard to say who the target audience for this album would be (other than Symp Vibe groupies), but it's fair to say that most anyone who listens will enjoy more than a few moments.


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