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Naturally 7

Hidden In Plain Sight: Vox Maximus Vol.1 (2015)

5.0

May 1, 2015

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 5.0
Innovation / Creativity 5.0
Soloists 5.0
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 Tempus Fugit (Motus I) 3.7
2 Keep The Customer Satisfied 5.0
3 Rhapsody of the Queen 5.0
4 Can't Take The Credit 4.3
5 Galileo (feat. Queen) 5.0
6 Moments (I've Been Loved) 5.0
7 Life Goes On (Let It Go) 5.0
8 Put You On To This 4.3
9 Fix You 4.7
10 Don't Go Changing 4.7
11 Need You With Me 4.7
12 Mahalia 5.0
13 Take It (Golden Gates) 5.0
14 Run Away 4.7
15 Eppur Si Muove (Motus V) 4.0
16 Soldier Down 4.7
17 Civil War 5.0
18 The Push 4.3
19 Rhapsody (Nonstrumental) 3.3

Recorded 2011 – 2014
Total time: 71:06, 19 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Tempus Fugit (Motus I) 3
2 Keep The Customer Satisfied 5
3 Rhapsody of the Queen 5
4 Can't Take The Credit 4
5 Galileo (feat. Queen) 5
6 Moments (I've Been Loved) 5
7 Life Goes On (Let It Go) 5
8 Put You On To This 5
9 Fix You 5
10 Don't Go Changing 5
11 Need You With Me 5
12 Mahalia 5
13 Take It (Golden Gates) 5
14 Run Away 5
15 Eppur Si Muove (Motus V) 5
16 Soldier Down 5
17 Civil War 5
18 The Push 5
19 Rhapsody (Nonstrumental) 3

Naturally 7 is one of the world's best a cappella groups, and Hidden In Plain Sight is the absolute cutting edge of artistic sampling in a cappella.

Sampling takes many forms, but essentially, it is the act of using a sound recording as if it were a musical instrument; or using a longer sound recording as the basis for creating a new musical work. Producer/engineers "play" these samples by using technology to alter the original recordings' tempo, formant, EQ, and other variables. In keeping with traditional hip-hop aesthetics, Naturally 7 fully embraces sampling on Hidden In Plain Sight: Vox Maximus Vol.1. Of sampling, Wikipedia informs that "those with a rockist outlook have expressed the belief all sampling is lacking in creativity, while others say sampling has been innovative and revolutionary." Where you find yourself in this cultural debate, especially in realm of a cappella, may strongly affect how you feel about Naturally 7's latest. My scores reflect full acceptance of the sampling aesthetic; my comments include a broader view.

Some part of sampling in composition is about borrowing the goodwill of another artist. But that can come at a cost. The listener gets to ask fairly if the borrower is just hitching a ride, or if they deserve to be there. Did the borrower add something, not merely creative, but equally inspiring to the mix? On the whole, Naturally 7 adds talent, creativity, and the magical elixirs of genre-hopping and enhanced production value. But listeners will differ on whether that's enough to stand with giants.

Nowhere is this crucible hotter than Galileo (feat. Queen). It's completely mind-bending and incredibly fun. Extensively sampled sections of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody are creatively interwoven with Naturally 7's original rap and R&B. The result is equal parts danceable and thought-provoking, with lyrics ostensibly inspired by Galileo's formulaic approach to understanding our world.

Another joint venture is Mahalia, which features extensive sampling of Mahalia Jackson singing Trouble of the World. Mahalia's instantly identifiable voice, like that of Freddie Mercury, adds an undeniable gravitas to what might otherwise be considered lighter fare. And as always, the driving beatbox and production immediately take the track to a new level.

Life Goes On (Let It Go) is another original based on existing material. The back-ups are Naturally 7's vocal version (not an actual sample) of George Michael's Everything She Wants (as performed by Wham!). The lyrics and melody are mostly original, however, and the lead here has some truly soaring moments.

Other album favorites include Keep The Customer Satisfied, which sounds a great deal like Justin Timberlake's Cry Me a River but with more harmonically interesting transitions; Take It (Golden Gates), a modernized throwback inspired by vocal groups of the '30s-'60s; and Need You With Me and Run Away, perhaps the two strongest of the album's original melodies.

The ubiquitous Fix You is the album's true cover. While it has all the elements of a power anthem and truly incredible soloing, it's still missing the crucial element of honest vulnerability. That said, the thrilling melismas and lush chords at the climax keep the track an impressive offering.

Naturally 7 has long been known for its hip-hop style; powerful, melismatic soloists; and Take-6-ish jazz chords. Though the group loves technological effects, there isn't much the musicians can't just simply sing the hell out of. Aca-purists might therefore find the use of what sounds like sampled classical voices (Put You On To This, Run Away, Fix You, and to a lesser degree, Eppur Si Muove (Motus V), Rhapsody (Nonstrumental) and Rhapsody of the Queen), off-puttingly un-natural on an a cappella album. Many groups use vocal samples, but they almost universally try to hide it. Why expose the "fakery" here when the group is so talented? One explanation is that of the snake eating its own tail. For decades, hip-hop artists used samples when "fresh" tracks weren't a practical or affordable option. But after so much repetition, the genre has become partially defined by it. As Naturally 7 explores its own version of a cappella hip-hop, the group deliberately imitates a sound no longer borne of necessity.

R&B fans, too often the second citizens of an overwhelmingly pop-oriented a cappella culture, will truly adore this album. The voices are incredible. The beats are ridiculous. The production, while not natural sounding, is perfect for R&B.

And best of all, Hidden In Plain Sight has about twice as much material as your standard release. Maximus, indeed.


5
Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Tempus Fugit (Motus I) 4
2 Keep The Customer Satisfied 5
3 Rhapsody of the Queen 5
4 Can't Take The Credit 4
5 Galileo (feat. Queen) 5
6 Moments (I've Been Loved) 5
7 Life Goes On (Let It Go) 5
8 Put You On To This 3
9 Fix You 4
10 Don't Go Changing 4
11 Need You With Me 4
12 Mahalia 5
13 Take It (Golden Gates) 5
14 Run Away 4
15 Eppur Si Muove (Motus V) 2
16 Soldier Down 4
17 Civil War 5
18 The Push 3
19 Rhapsody (Nonstrumental) 2

It's hard to deny the spirituality of Naturally 7, as the group mixes the sacred with the secular. Even if these musicians are singing straightforward pop/hip-hop songs, it is still a religious experience. And that's definitely true on the group's first full-length recording —  Hidden In Plain Sight: Vox Maximus Vol.1  — since their 2011 album Naturally 7 — Live. Everything that you expect from a Naturally 7 album is here: outstanding solos, catchy melodies, captivating vocal play, and heart-wrenching melodies.

Moving and invigorating music is the highlight of the album. My gosh, the innovation of the song-making is dizzying. For any of you not paying attention, I'm a huge Wham!/George Michael fan. So hearing the opening to Everything She Wants had my jaw on the floor and a tear in my eye. (Naturally 7 covering Wham!? Whaaat?) The group creates a spectacular anthem of moving on after life has given you some trouble in Life Goes On (Let It Go). Other songs like Mahalia, Moments (I've Been Loved), and Galileo (feat. Queen) also effortlessly incorporate other artists' work with masterful technique and creative brilliance. Even the slight hint of Justin Timberlake's Cry Me a River during the introduction of Rhapsody of the Queen hits just the right amount of intrigue.

And in a definitive move, the infusion of the sacred into the secular is key to the success of Take It (Golden Gates). The song starts off in an engaging revival atmosphere calling for the opening of those golden gates of Heaven — reminiscent of many versions of Bottom of the River ... just that downhome, crunchy feel. It transitions into a purely pop chorus that signifies the "take it" theme of the song before bridging the two with a half-time soul-release. It's like the break the preacher has to take before really bringing on the blessings. Many of the other songs are crafted from this same type of creativity and energy. It's intoxicating.

Now for the harsh part.

The sound and production is a little buzzy for me in general, especially if you listen to the entire nineteen(!)-track album in one sitting. At times it has a metallic and mechanical air. It's not a bad sound at all and really captures a sort of eclecticism that permeates the album. But I miss the warmth of listening to the guys live — that sense of naturalism as you have it. Occasionally, that missed quality pokes through, most notably in Soldier Down. It's a breath of fresh air, but arrives a little too late for me.

And that quality of sound along with the quantity of music present effects my overall enjoyment of the album, hence my average repeat-listenability score. This is a lot of music. The album is only about 70-ish minutes long, but it feels so much longer. I wouldn't call it plodding, but when you get to the middle of the album after Fix You there is a need for a break, and not ten more tracks. Generally, I'm all for excessive pleasure, but listening became a bit mind-numbing and same-y.

I had to listen to tracks eleven and twelve on separate occasions just to make sure I was grading them on their own merit instead of as kneejerk reactions to the additional music. Easily, this is could be released as two albums with supreme punches. I mean, this is just volume one! It's like if Prince had decided to open his back vault and release an album of over thirty tracks! (Oh wait...) Sure, there are multiple tracks that you will have on repeat, that is without a doubt, but the ability to space out and forget that you are listening to individual songs will happen. And that's a shame, because there are some really great songs on the back nine. And did the group really need to add a karaoke version of Rhapsody as the ending track?

Yet without a doubt, this is a fantastic album. It all comes down to whether too much of a good thing is a detriment to your ability to enjoy and appreciate the Deluxe Edition of Hidden In Plain Sight.

*End note: I gave Fix You a "4" for the album version versus a "5" when I reviewed the single, not because the song has changed at all, but because each of the other songs I ranked higher could have gotten 6's on a different scale. I want to give this audience some perspective on how truly incredible this album is. 


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Tempus Fugit (Motus I) 4
2 Keep The Customer Satisfied 5
3 Rhapsody of the Queen 5
4 Can't Take The Credit 5
5 Galileo (feat. Queen) 5
6 Moments (I've Been Loved) 5
7 Life Goes On (Let It Go) 5
8 Put You On To This 5
9 Fix You 5
10 Don't Go Changing 5
11 Need You With Me 5
12 Mahalia 5
13 Take It (Golden Gates) 5
14 Run Away 5
15 Eppur Si Muove (Motus V) 5
16 Soldier Down 5
17 Civil War 5
18 The Push 5
19 Rhapsody (Nonstrumental) 5

Trailblazing the musical world with its fusion of many styles, Naturally 7 has enjoyed noted success for the greater part of the 21st century. Its newest studio album, Hidden In Plain Sight: Vox Maximus Vol. 1, does not fall short of the group's ever-rising expectations of excellence in terms of quality and innovation.

Some of the group's most effective work arises from its adaptation of well-loved stylings of the past. One of the first tracks to especially stand out to me was the high-energy Galileo, which samples snippets and phrases from Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody that weave in and out of new melodies to create something unique. In addition to Bohemian Rhapsody, Mahalia Jackson's rendition of the spiritual Trouble of the World is quoted in a track attributed to her in name. Similar projects with samples from deceased artists tend to strike me as morbid, but Galileo and Mahalia are tasteful and innovative, certainly honoring the memory of the original artists. The group's bass, Armand "Hops" Hutton, effectively captures the essence of Barry White with his spoken interjections in a few early tracks, most notably Can't Take The Credit.

As a matter of taste, for an album employing the term "Vox Maximus" (a Latin cognate for "maximum voice"), I was somewhat overwhelmed with the studio effects of the very first track, but then, the balance between studio magic and raw vocals is quickly evened out, or at least becomes negligible to the ear. Similar effects are used later, but are never quite so jarring. The "Motus" passages serve as excellent palate-cleansers or introductions, making this album one to listen to completely as a whole. But while transitions between songs are all very smooth, through my listens I was not always certain that there was an arc to the album or its individual sections. Splitting hairs, I wish there had been more consistency in labeling them, as I attempted to read too much into Tempus Fugit (Motus I) and Eppur Si Muove (Motus V) being divided into individual tracks while II-IV were embedded within other tracks. It was no surprise to me to read in the liner notes that Fix You was not originally intended to be part of this project, as it remains the album's sole pure cover, but the versatility and quality of the track would make it welcome anywhere.

From one listener to another, I strongly recommend purchasing the Deluxe Edition, as the bonus tracks are some of the most poignant. The standard edition ends with Eppur Si Muove (Motus V), but after about twenty seconds of silence, what I've surmised to be the war- and conflict-themed section begins, featuring a tender, honest delivery from Garfield Buckley as the soloist on Soldier Down and Civil War. In addition to being a powerful duet, Civil War has its own special story as per the liner notes, serving to preserve the impassioned vocals of female duettist Tabitha Houston, who tragically passed away soon after recording the demo. The last unique track included, The Push, boasts an engaging syncopated ostinato figure, and the Deluxe Edition closes with a karaoke version of Rhapsody of the Queen, which reveals some complexities in the background vocals that may be lost with the lead in place, taking the listener on a different journey.

From top to bottom, Hidden In Plain Sight: Vox Maximus Vol. 1 is a solid, comprehensive project from Naturally 7 that continues to push the boundaries of a cappella in its unity of various styles and establishment of a powerful, unique identity. If this is only Vol. 1, I look forward to how exceptional Vol. 2 will be.

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