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Fundamentally Sound

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Sound the Alarm (2012)

4.3

June 28, 2013

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Smooth Criminal 3.7
2 Another Again 4.0
3 DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love 4.0
4 Delicate 4.0
5 Gimme Shelter 4.7
6 All the Above 4.7
7 Lovesong 3.7
8 Break Your Heart 3.3
9 I (Who Have Nothing) 5.0
10 B.O.B 4.3

Recorded 2011 – 2012
Total time: 39:16, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Smooth Criminal 3
2 Another Again 3
3 DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love 5
4 Delicate 4
5 Gimme Shelter 4
6 All the Above 4
7 Lovesong 3
8 Break Your Heart 3
9 I (Who Have Nothing) 5
10 B.O.B 5

Fundamentally Sound's Sound the Alarm is hit and miss. When it hits, it's out of the park: DJ Got Us Fallin in Love, All the Above, B.O.B and even I (Who Have Nothing). But when the arranging gets tripped up on inane syllables, it's a miss by a mile. You can't focus on the leads or the production. You hear a precisely enunciated, cartoonish language that seems hell bent on ruining the song in which it finds itself. Change that one element and all scores would shoot up to the good range and possibly even beyond.

Sound the Alarm has a highly processed, electronic sheen, even by today's already shiny standards. When the songs themselves seem to call for that slick, robotic energy, the match is a delight. The dance and rap originals are as fake as a Los Angeles bikini contest, so covers in that vein sound deliberate and appropriate and even more human than the originals. The touching ballads like Delicate, Break Your Heart and the opening of I (Who Have Nothing) sound like they'd be tremendous live, but the production (which falls in part to the editing work of Plaid Productions), makes them sound emotionally disconnected. It takes an unearthly, Led Zeppelin-esque explosion on the latter before rangey, impassioned lead Joe Wenninger can truly break through to the listener. (Although he leaves quite the lasting impression when he does!)

Programming is part of the problem. Smooth Criminal and Another Again make the weakest overall impression by a long shot. Those are songs one and two. Ed Boyer's mix on DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love, especially its take-no-prisoners dubstep ending, is a moment of pure hotness. Starting with strength is the better approach.

Liner Notes start strong with a thrilling, mid-air jump photo by Michael Trevis. It's the perfect snapshot of youthful abandon. Thankfully the photographer is credited. Tragically, none of the composers get a mention. A review of proper liner notes will prevent this omission from making its way to future releases, and hopefully inspire fixes to this album's digital files and the group's website.

There's so much greatness in this group, and a lot of it makes it to Sound the Alarm. For listeners who can compartmentalize, ignore or embrace the backs and artificiality, and every track is a winner. For those who can't, there are still enough great moments to make this one worth checking out.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Smooth Criminal 5
2 Another Again 5
3 DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love 5
4 Delicate 4
5 Gimme Shelter 5
6 All the Above 5
7 Lovesong 5
8 Break Your Heart 4
9 I (Who Have Nothing) 5
10 B.O.B 4

Sound the Alarm is a killer album and if you like male collegiate a cappella, then it's definitely worth purchasing. It's certainly one of the top male collegiate a cappella albums from the past year.

I'll just take you through some of the highlights of the album for me. First, the album starts off with a Michael Jackson classic in Smooth Criminal. It's an interesting arrangement, with lots of moving parts and a good soloist. They take it fast, and employ the same driving bass line from the original in order to keep things flowing. At 2:50, a new soloist busts up an octave with repetitive "I don't know!" lines and Michael Jackson-like "Ooh" cries. The upper register part to close this song is effective, but not as effective as it is in two other songs later in the album: Gimme Shelter and I (Who Have Nothing). In those songs the soloists employ more of a Steven Tyler style than a Michael Jackson style. Soloist Joe Wenninger does some amazing glissandos and hits some amazingly high notes, completely in tune with no hint of autotuning. He won the Best Male Collegiate Solo CARA for I (Who Have Nothing), but Gimmie Shelter with soloist Michael Trevis is nearly as impressive. And actually, the two sound surprisingly similar — I had to double check the liner notes to verify they were different soloists. This might be an appropriate spot to also mention that I (Who Have Nothing) was also the runner-up for the Best Male Collegiate Song and Best Male Collegiate Arrangement CARAs (with group member Danny Mulligan as arranger).

There are many other good arrangements on the album. One in particular that makes me smile is DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love, where the last 35 seconds are a Pentantonix-style break-it-down section with abrupt rhythmic and melodic shifts through to the end. That's the type of "sit up and pay attention" moment that makes the difference between a good album and a great album. Lovesong is another one that combines great arranging with great singing. It contains perhaps my very favorite moment of the entire album, a 20-second section two minutes into the song where the soloist drops out and the backgrounds continue. A rising set of "aah"s emerges from the background and gets more and more pronounced as it rises higher and higher, culminating in a (presumably digitally enhanced) E6. Cool stuff, and I am almost disappointed when the soloist comes back in.

This album is full of high notes, both figuratively as well as literally, and I agree with the CARA voters who named it one of the best albums of the year. Highly recommended.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Smooth Criminal 3
2 Another Again 4
3 DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love 2
4 Delicate 4
5 Gimme Shelter 5
6 All the Above 5
7 Lovesong 3
8 Break Your Heart 3
9 I (Who Have Nothing) 5
10 B.O.B 4

Sound the Alarm, the latest release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's all-male group Fundamentally Sound receives mixed reactions from me. The album sounds fantastic. The songs, while not connected in any way, still flow smoothly from one to the next. The performances are wonderfully energetic and sensitive. And yet, there are some aspects that sour my listening experience. About half of the album features nonsense syllables in the arrangements. This not only doesn't fit the music, but also distracts from the solos. And the solos aren't the greatest in the world, but there are a few surprises in here...

Sound the Alarm starts off with the Michael Jackson classic, Smooth Criminal. While it feels a little choir boy-like, it's a fun tune. But the "jenna jo jin" treatment of the iconic bass line makes me cringe right away. Delicate and Another Again also feature this distracting arranging style but, to the group's credit, are performed with appropriate reverence to the respective musical styles. The voicing and creative musical choices also keep these songs from getting boring.

DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love is the most disappointing track of the lot for me. The production and distortion are great and the Ke$ha breakdown is well-placed. The problem lies in three areas. The solo, while technically accurate, doesn't lock with the R&B feel of the song. The arrangement begins to become stale, as many dance tracks can do, especially in a cappella. The stagnation ends when it switches suddenly into dub-step. It is random, jarring and unnecessary. It doesn't fit anything else in the track or the rest of the album. I appreciate the effort, but this one falls short for me.

These guys really shine when they use actual lyrics in their backgrounds. Gimme Shelter, All the Above and I (Who Have Nothing) are prime examples. The soloists in both Gimme Shelter and I (Who Have Nothing) also surprised me with an Aerosmith-esque rock falsetto. Break Your Heart is slow to energize, but the spoken feel to the lead line is beautifully subdued. Lovesong starts with some distracting syllables, but it quickly finds its momentum and turns into a beautifully arranged and performed piece. It's an easy track to overlook, but worth experiencing.

Another talent Fundamentally Sound demonstrates in more than one track is the group's ability to rap. B.O.B and All the Above sound legit. The whole album uses dynamics and vowels the way they are meant to be used.

Despite my issues with the arranging on parts of this album, there are plenty of memorable moments to enjoy. The energy never lags from start to finish. Fundamentally Sound has recorded a solid release. If you enjoy the creative syllables that collegiate a cappella is so well known for, you will adore Sound the Alarm. It's a worthwhile buy in any case, and I look forward to hearing more from this group. Though next time, I hope Fundamentally Sound credits the original composers, not just the original performers — they deserve acknowledgement, too, for a future album can't exist without them.


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Ordering Information

To order a physical CD copy of Sound the Alarm, contact Fundamentally Sound at fsacappella@gmail.com with your request.

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