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Off the Beat

University of Pennsylvania

Horizon (2016)

4.7

April 6, 2017

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 5.0
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 Ain't No Sunshine 4.3
2 Hotline Bling 4.3
3 Failure 3.7
4 Ex's & Oh's 4.3
5 Pay Dearly 4.3
6 At the End of the Earth 4.7
7 Stone Cold 4.7
8 I Found 4.3
9 Look What We've Become 4.7
10 End of an Era 4.3

Recorded 2016
Total time: 33:00, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Ain't No Sunshine 5
2 Hotline Bling 5
3 Failure 4
4 Ex's & Oh's 5
5 Pay Dearly 4
6 At the End of the Earth 4
7 Stone Cold 4
8 I Found 5
9 Look What We've Become 5
10 End of an Era 4

In many ways, Horizon represents the Off the Beat you may already know and may already love. Quite worthy of its 2017 CARA nomination for Best Mixed Collegiate Album, this is the oft-imitated, less often equaled, in-your-face, guitar- and drums-driven intensity and passionate musicianship that fans have long come to demand from OTB. Creative and complicated — but effective — aca-syllables abound and the solos are all of the take-no-prisoners variety. Production by Peter Yang and The Vocal Company is first rate, and we're treated to a healthy dose of music that less frequently finds its way to collegiate a cappella (Breaking Benjamin, Johnnyswim, The Dear Hunter, et al).

In other, perhaps more subtle ways, Horizon feels like a bit of a departure for these UPenn icons who are coming up on a 30th anniverary very soon. Right from the top, the album opens with two titles I almost couldn't believe I was finding on an OTB release: the endlessly done Ain't No Sunshine and the surprisingly mainstream Hotline Bling. To the group's credit, what the opener lacks in novelty, it more than makes up for with a fresh, hip-hop infused approach and a truckload of energy. And while the heavy lifting for re-interpreting Hotline Bling with a sort of swing/blues feel has already been taken care of by the team behind Donna Missal's cover (which OTB is covering in turn, and which makes the CARA arranging nomnation a bit of a surprise), this too is an ear-catching take on a tune that many might find trite to hear in a more traditional, straight-ahead cover.

Hotline Bling is the first of several instances, though, where we hear artistic and/or performance choices that might be considered less "typical" for OTB, so while nothing is egregious by any means, they still warrant mention. To be clear, these are nitpicky criticisms for the most part, as evidenced by the scores above that reflect how terrific this material is even with my issues. But especially when groups are already consistently this good, the little things they do so well stand out on occasions when they are rendered less so.

To wit, in Hotline Bling, the soloist goes from zero to sixty so quickly that we're exhausted long before the song is even close to over. Don't get me wrong: Madeline Kleypas sings the crap out of it, as does Jasmine Barksdale on Look What We've Become, and so many groups would kill for someone with their pipes, but those vocal pyrotechnics have to be earned and built rather than shot out of a cannon (and though pop musicians clearly don't hold themsleves to this standard, I'd also like to understand the words).

To continue, while OTB is certainly well-known for its "wall of sound", with layer upon layer of rhythms in the backgrounds, I don't recall the vocal percussion on any releases being quite as conspicuous, and periodically distracting, as it is here. While I've long since made my peace with those who choose to assemble and utilize patterns and super-human fills from sampled vp sounds, the placement in the mix still matters and I don't want to be taken out of the musical moment by the complexity of the vp (as I was, for instance, towards the end of At the End of the Earth and also in Look What We've Become). Without meaning to stifle a re-interpretive choice — I also question the insertion of vp "moments" in places where I don't recall it in the original source material. Cases in point: the very pronounced backbeat near the end of Pay Dearly, and a Stone Cold rendition that is rocking out far more than would be my preference by the song's end.

Perhaps most shockingly, we even get a few borderline kitschy musical moments on this album and that's a word I never thought I'd associate with OTB in any way, shape, or form. Specifically, a Fix You interpolation at the tail end of Failure has me shaking my head at the "unnecessariness" of it all. Ditto for the arpeggiated chord at the emotional conclusion of I Found that takes me completely out of the moment. And for a group that is known for its raw emotion and grit, the bubble gum pop-iness take on Elle King's Ex's & Oh's is a headscratcher, even as it's still terrifically performed.

Lest it be misunderstood, none of the above is meant to damn this album with faint praise. My adulation and admiration for the work offered here is full-throated and I urge you check out Horizon. My words may be critical in part, but my scores should make it amply clear how excellent this album truly is.

 


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Ain't No Sunshine 5
2 Hotline Bling 5
3 Failure 4
4 Ex's & Oh's 4
5 Pay Dearly 5
6 At the End of the Earth 5
7 Stone Cold 5
8 I Found 4
9 Look What We've Become 5
10 End of an Era 5

Off the Beat is really the Yankees of a cappella: historically, quite difficult to overtake, but because of the club's particular brand, not everyone is a fan. Your likability of or dissatisfaction with Horizon is a totally subjective assessment, and I mean totally subjective, as the soloists don't get any better than this and the arrangements leave nothing to be desired. Like so much of life, it's all in the presentation.

By now, you know Off the Beat's recognizable brand: an extremely loud, wild hair rock affair. You have front row seats to the group's show with Horizon, one where the engineering is again so dominating that it's really the extra person in this vocal band. We get an abbreviated-in-length version of Ain't No Sunshine to kick off this concert, but it's certainly not trimmed in impact, and includes backgrounds that are absolutely engineered into new musical forms that could not exist without the help of machines. Here's the Yankees connection, because you'll like this or not like this, but it doesn't change the fact that OTB still kicks a lot of ass. As for me, I enjoy it, and am drawn to the vocal vixen-ness of Hotline Bling, too. I'm less connected to Failure. Occasionally I bring up the concept of the "demon bass" — a bass so fiddled with and octavized that it sounds like the doors of Hell swung open and Satan's choir escaped to play. Couple this with forceful digitized drum patterns that grab your head and relentlessly whip it around and it's difficult to hear the vocal music straining to pop through, and it's all the more appreciated when it does: the legato passes on "bury the sunlight" inject beauty into this dark soundscape, and aural contrasts remain so very important in hard rock music. If you're hard all the time, people tune out. If you pull them back in with a few unexpected doses of "bury the sunlight" beauty, they keep actively listening. 

If you wail and wail and wail, demonstrating restrained sophistication is also a nice complement, and we get a three-pack of this on Horizon. Pay Dearly is impressive, featuring an out-of-this-world power duet with dazzling harmonies, riffs, and color tones that can only be successfully recorded by a super elite group — you can't fake it and still make it on a chart as brutally challenging as Pay Dearly. The sophistication continues by exposing us to more raw, humanly constructed chords on At the End of the Earth — it's good to hear flashes of the group's "on campus sound" versus the recorded art product. Lastly, wow, what a vulnerable solo in Stone Cold from Anna Kanter; this is also more of a campus performance than a studio release, where the soloist hits a note so high it may not be legal stateside before sighing out her conclusion. It's a wild, brilliant ride. Like any good rock show, the intensity then starts its escalation to send us home on an epic piece, End of an Era.

Truly, I love this work. But, I'd definitely take even more contrasts; some in volume, certainly, but mix the anger and the joy within pieces, too. Make us really think about song and arrangement construction. Also, in an a cappella period where top-tier groups are writing creative, original seamless transitions to segue between tracks — not just to mark the spilling of track one into track two, but also to shift the mood for the listener — this tactic could help give Off the Beat an even bigger playground to romp in. There is room for a new storyline here — if the soloists are always insane and the group always gives the go-ahead for sonic construction, where do we go from here? What's really different between albums? Off the Beat should start exploring the cracks for new growth. But grandiose visioning aside, Horizon is awesome OTB material. 


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Ain't No Sunshine 3
2 Hotline Bling 3
3 Failure 3
4 Ex's & Oh's 4
5 Pay Dearly 4
6 At the End of the Earth 5
7 Stone Cold 5
8 I Found 4
9 Look What We've Become 4
10 End of an Era 4

When I first competed in the ICCA, one of the first things I did was pick up a copy of BOCA 2007, featuring UPenn's Off the Beat singing Sugar, We're Goin' Down. If nostalgia weren't enough, to see the group consistently produce quality recordings is a pleasure to me as a reviewer and aca-person. But, for a number of reasons ranging from track order to arrangements, Horizon is certainly not the strongest offering from this particular group, even when compared with its last EP release, AUDIOEDEN. However, with a decidedly consistent style, there is much to appreciate in Off the Beat's full album.

The album begins in an underwhelming way with tracks that sound perhaps too similar, or accomplish similar goals. You may not believe that an Ain't No Sunshine and Hotline Bling could be accused of such a thing. But both the classic soul tune from the '70s and the R&B song of recent memory are treated with a sort of cannibalism that overlays Off the Beat's style on them, causing them to bleed into each other and lose their uniqueness. The result is that the album doesn't seem to progress until the next third of the tracks begin, as Failure fails to shine or produce a new feel.

Once the next third begins, however, some of the group's innovation becomes its strength. Both Ex's & Oh's and Pay Dearly have engaging and unique introductions. While both tracks step back immediately after the intro, I can appreciate the build far more because my attention is grabbed from the beginning. Strong solo work, especially in the refrains of both songs, are a trademark of the heart of this album. The two gems of Horizon, At the End of the Earth and Stone Cold, feature some truly exceptional solos from an emotional standpoint as well as nothing short of vocal gymnastics. Not only that, the arrangements feature a tension-and-release journey that is patently absent in the first few tracks. Under no circumstances should these tracks be missed. The last third of the album features some of the most energetic background vocal work on the album.

In this reviewer's opinion, where these selections succeed and the others do not is in their musicality. In the case of Ain't No Sunshine, the listener is pounded with a climactic refrain within 30 seconds, created almost entirely out of studio effects, and no chance for a journey in its remainder. In other cases, such as in Failure, Ex's & Oh's, and Pay Dearly, the backgrounds manage to sound substantially empty (despite there being quite a bit of sound) due to syllable selection, chord structure, and excessive studio filter choices. The compression does the group no favors where fullness and breadth of sound are concerned.

The name "Off the Beat" is still synonymous with strong recorded a cappella. The tracks in the middle alone are worth the price of admission, but there is much to enjoy in Horizon. A cappella fans are advised to give this a listen.


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