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Speak of the Devil

Duke University

Life Without Rehearsal (2015)

3.3

May 24, 2016

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Morning Comes 3.3
2 Haven't Had Enough 3.0
3 Cruise 3.3
4 Country Girl 3.7
5 Proud Mary 3.3
6 Satellite Call 3.3
7 Take Me To Church 3.0
8 Born Sinner 3.7
9 Ubi Caritas / Prelude 3.7
10 Evo 4.0
11 U 4.0
12 Wonderful Everyday 3.3

Recorded 2014 – 2015
Total time: 44:05, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Morning Comes 4
2 Haven't Had Enough 3
3 Cruise 4
4 Country Girl 3
5 Proud Mary 4
6 Satellite Call 4
7 Take Me To Church 4
8 Born Sinner 4
9 Ubi Caritas / Prelude 4
10 Evo 4
11 U 4
12 Wonderful Everyday 4

Speak of the Devil released an enjoyable album with Life Without Rehearsal, a happiness-increasing collection with addictive jams and strong singing. 

There's great programming on Life Without Rehearsal, starting with powerful and uplifting Morning Comes. Consider this your go-to commuter tune. If this doesn't inspire your morning like a good sunrise can, Cruise certainly will. Offering a sophisticated arrangement, heaps of good-ol'-fun, and a decidedly fancy production soundscape (the only track with mixing credited to Ed Boyer), Speak of the Devil's Cruise is a great addition to your all-male a cappella playlist.

The programming offers depth and strength from the middle to the close of Life Without Rehearsal as well, with another punch of fun in arrangement-evolving Proud Mary. The final four tracks, which sound so complete in thought (from the Latin offering Ubi Caritas to the brotherhood sing-along finale Wonderful Everyday), could stand alone as an EP. We even get a flashy original with Evo. But for me, the real gem comes unexpectedly in oft-covered Take Me To Church, a very challenging, exposed interpretation from Ryan Anders that simply wouldn't be successful without great singers driving it home. Far from a cookie cutter arrangement, this creative chart ends on a haunting and unfinished "take me...".

Truly, it's the arrangements in Life Without Rehearsal that both elevate, and unfortunately pull some offerings down. Some pieces rely on block chords on a fallback "dot dot"/"dm dm" for long stretches (Haven't Had Enough and Country Girl show this issue the most prominently). That's a better choice than being too cluttered, but it still doesn't make the best use of these talented singers. Speak of the Devil has some really killer tenors (listen to Satellite Call) and at least one extra rumbly bass (popped out of the mix throughout), so designing for such talented voices in the arrangement would make sense, instead of fitting them into a standard container. After marveling over Take Me To Church, I'm confident the arranging talent is here to take these works next-level.

This is a solid offering from Speak of the Devil with hints of greater potential from the group. Find the song that sings to you on Life Without Rehearsal.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Morning Comes 3
2 Haven't Had Enough 3
3 Cruise 3
4 Country Girl 4
5 Proud Mary 3
6 Satellite Call 2
7 Take Me To Church 3
8 Born Sinner 2
9 Ubi Caritas / Prelude 4
10 Evo 4
11 U 4
12 Wonderful Everyday 3

At some point during childhood, we all came to our own personal solutions for illustrating the human nose. Right between the eyes and the mouth we would put something like an isosceles triangle, an "L", some dots for nostrils, or even just a big old button. They may not have been the most flattering depictions, but they did complete the face. Life Without Rehearsal has a nose like that. Speak of the Devil has drawn up the basics of a great album, but the group is missing the nuances that could bring its artwork to life.

When you read the track listing, you can instantly recognize the youthful, southern face of this male group from Duke University. Of the twelve songs, nine of them are by contemporary rock, pop, hip-hop, and country stars. Proud Mary is the token throwback, arranged to channel the soulfulness of Tina Turner rather than the straightforwardness of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Speak of the Devil got the shape right — these are crowd pleasers with catchy melodies, familiar chord changes, and some fun moments. To get more accurate than just the shape though, the group needs to tone down the peppy dial to make space for more dynamics and more complex arrangements.

The two remaining tracks do just that. Ubi Caritas / Prelude is based on a Catholic hymn, sung in Latin and arranged in a mountain of chilling harmonies. It is a stark contrast from the rest of the album, and a perfect fanfare for Evo, a Speak of the Devil original composition. Evo is done in the style of pop or hip-hop, much like Born Sinner, but builds more suspense and has much more authentic energy than the covers on Life Without Rehearsal. Everything about Evo, from the title to the slick lyrics to the arpeggiator effect, is a bold statement about the creativity in modern a cappella. Pairing it with classical choral music is an ingenious choice that adds more of a distinctive expression to the face of Speak of the Devil.

To make a really convincing nose, you need to look past the shape and focus on the less obvious shading and contour lines. Part of that comes from the creative vision, the song choices, and the arrangements a group brings to the recording. Another part comes from the production. Life Without Rehearsal is a very blunt mix, with too many mid-frequencies and not enough reverb. It is a very dry, present sound reminiscent of what you get when you draw with a permanent marker. A paintbrush with softer edges and sophisticated undertones is much better suited to the task. Speak of the Devil draws a good enough nose to get you singing along, and with a more delicate approach to dynamics, they'll have a face fit for framing.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Morning Comes 3
2 Haven't Had Enough 3
3 Cruise 3
4 Country Girl 4
5 Proud Mary 3
6 Satellite Call 4
7 Take Me To Church 2
8 Born Sinner 5
9 Ubi Caritas / Prelude 3
10 Evo 4
11 U 4
12 Wonderful Everyday 3

Much of the opening half of Life Without Rehearsal is plagued by a lack of energy. It's curious, as the arrangements still look to have plenty of emotion within them, but it feels like the group is unable to tap into it. I'm an extreme advocate of counterpoint backgrounds. Differing background patterns do a lot to keep the interest of both the performers and the audience. Conversely, repetitive chords and rhythmic patterns that don't differ among the parts gets boring for everyone, and that's the curse that is plaguing Speak of the Devil. While the group is singing a collective "ah" vowel at a forte level, the energy feels similar to a mezzo-piano.

This comes up a lot in Morning Comes. The lyrics of the song are so passionate, and the group isn't matching suit. If this song is joyous praise to the morning, it feels like the group still needs a few cups of coffee. To me, it feels like the group doesn't get into the mood of the piece until the bridge, about two and a half minutes later than they should. By the point everyone finally has the energy to give the full presentation, the damage is already done. This problem of starting with sluggish energy creates a foul taste in my mouth. 

On the second half of the album, most tracks are just absolutely overflowing with energy for every second. Consider Born Sinner. One of the first things I noticed about this track was the use of the lyrics "living life without rehearsal". If the album title is based off of the lyrics of this song, I'm going to assume that this song means a lot to the group. From the first seconds of this track, it was made clear to me that the group really enjoys this track. There's so much to love about this number. There are chords with some awesome colors. The use of counterpoint backgrounds gives a tremendous musical experience. Ryan Gaylord outdid himself on this arrangement. On top of that, Keegan Cotton is spitting pure fire in the rap. It doesn't take a group of superstars to release the best tracks. All it takes is a group that plays to its strengths perfectly, and that's exactly what Speak of the Devil did with this track. Well done, guys.

The last tracks are what I would consider the risky portion of the album. First, Ubi Caritas is an original song based on a Catholic Latin hymn that is the prelude for Evo, another original track. These are followed by U, an originally EDM song, and finally Wonderful Everyday, a cover of Chance the Rapper's cover of the theme song to the '90s children's television show Arthur. It feels like the group ran out of album space, and just threw everything at the end, and that sentiment bleeds through to each of these tracks. Even though each song is interesting and merit-worthy, the number of ideas rolled together in each track creates a collective white noise, even if individual ideas are impressive. I would very much like to see some of these smaller ideas expanded. Speak of the Devil found sounds that really worked for them in these tracks, and expanding on these sounds could release some really cool music.

There's a lot of cool stuff here for Speak of the Devil to be proud of. Conversely, there's a lot to work on. It mostly comes down to energy. When the group has the energy, the tracks are driving forward and exciting. When the energy is gone, the group is average at best. By keeping that energy up, Speak of the Devil could have a tremendous presentation. Get these boys from Duke some coffee, and watch them take off.

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