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PandemoniUM

University of Maryland

PandemoniUM (2008)

3.7

September 11, 2009

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Makes Me Wonder 3.3
2 S.O.S./Tainted Love 5.0
3 Breathe Me 4.7
4 Hemorrhage 3.3
5 Toxic 3.7
6 Cathedrals 3.7
7 You Thought Wrong 2.7
8 Roll To Me 3.0
9 Uninvited 3.0
10 Feeling Good 3.7

Recorded 2008
Total time: 36:54, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Makes Me Wonder 3
2 S.O.S./Tainted Love 5
3 Breathe Me 4
4 Hemorrhage 4
5 Toxic 4
6 Cathedrals 3
7 You Thought Wrong 3
8 Roll To Me 3
9 Uninvited 3
10 Feeling Good 4

PandemoniUM steps up to the plate. A hush falls over the crowd. The fielders move in. You can almost hear them calling, "Easssssy outttttt!" PandemoniUM cracks its collective neck, squints meaningfully and readies for the pitch. (The "pitch". Huh? Good, right?)

2003's Syncopated got royally panned. 2006's Music To Spoon To was rated a stunning 1.7 out of 5 for repeat listenability. Ouch. But this latest album, far from PandemoniUM's first, is an eponymous release. It carries with it the imprimatur of readiness, of arrival. Batter up! PandemoniUM swings! Going, going...

Solid double! (Hey, doubles are good!) By far their most ambitious and well-executed collection, PandemoniUM catapults the group from practically unlistenable into the average, good, and even excellent range. This one is for more than family and friends, and that has to feel good.

Finally embracing the technological necessities of autotune and cut and paste editing has (not unexpectedly) worked wonders for every aspect of this group's musicality. Blend, intonation, and even soloists are just miles above past recordings.

S.O.S./Tainted Love delivers leads with soulful, current tone colors and interesting vocal deliveries over a bed of vox electronica. It's the only excellent track and probably should have been programmed first. I also would have enjoyed some greater dynamics and a little more rhythmic pocket over the snap-to-grid sound, but the bottom line is that the song is a great listen. Other standouts: the alluring quality on Breathe Me; the rockin' suffering of Hemorrhage, and the deftly handled soul-lismas on Feeling Good (though this last lead has a tendency to sprinkle some strangely placed tone colors in the middle of some otherwise truly great singing).

For the first time, PandemoniUM's experimenting with inventive texture, like the opening chord of Roll To Me, the electronics of Toxic and S.O.S./Tainted Love, the organ sounds on Cathedrals, and the distant high notes in Uninvited. All thoroughly enjoyable.

PandemoniUM is ready to release that head-turning, wow-everybody album next. To get there, they must attend to issues like increased blend and balance (a little less soprano might be a good start). I'd like to see a reduction in distracting syllables, which, it should be noted, PandemoniUM already handles better than most collegiate groups. More attention should be spent arranging, and not just arranging well, as they do, but with originality and artistic vision. And finally, the golden rule: all the leads must be phenomenal.

PandemoniUM has proved themselves the dark horse, comeback kids of a cappella. Zero to hero. This is an album they should be extremely proud of and one well-deserving of the name PandemoniUM. Congrats, guys!


4
Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Makes Me Wonder 4
2 S.O.S./Tainted Love 5
3 Breathe Me 5
4 Hemorrhage 4
5 Toxic 5
6 Cathedrals 4
7 You Thought Wrong 3
8 Roll To Me 2
9 Uninvited 2
10 Feeling Good 3

The last time I heard the co-ed group PandemoniUM was with their 2006 album Music To Spoon To, which left a lot to be desired in terms of overall quality ... but gave the listener a lot of pizzazz and kitsch. Their latest release — an eponymous third album — is a much better product all around. It has better soloists, better arrangements, a better groove, and an overall sense of a better grasp on recording techniques. One similarity to the aforementioned disc is the fact that the first half ascends to the upper echelon of collegiate a cappella while the latter half slides that slippery slope into the mire of never-heard-from-again caverns.

The album opens with a fairly solid and sexy take on Maroon 5's Makes Me Wonder. The sparse arrangement by Tevis Tsai and Alex Brown is the perfect playpen in which Warren Zentz's lyrical tenor can bounce and bop. The reason it doesn't get a 5 is because the auto-tuning is supremely annoying. But then we have the gloriousness that is the first of the two dance tracks on the album. S.O.S./Tainted Love is amazing. It is light and breezy where it needs to be and crunchy and dirty when the time calls for it. Here the autotune is actually beneficial. The electronic sampling adds to the pop deliciousness.

And then there is Toxic. Can I just shout that out 1500 times? I love it even though it isn't the best track on the album. It makes me giddy and sometimes that's all you need.

The best track on the album is yet another rendition of Sia's Breathe Me, but man this one is stellar. Amanda McCarty brings an earthiness to the recording that punctures this old jaded heart of mine. I understand her pain.

Where the group falters is in attempting to do too much character work instead of creating a unique voice for the soloist. A perfect example is Zentz's propensity to massacre the word "good" at the opening of Feeling Good. The affection is bloodcurdlingly awful. And this boy can sing! Argh, my fists still clench thinking about what I heard. It's almost worse than hearing someone sing or say the letter "t" in "often".

Roll To Me is a horrible song. Singing and recording it wonderfully still won't erase the fact that it's a horrible song. Under-performing on it does not help the case. There is a pitchiness and forced nasality in Vinnie Smith's delivery that detracts and distracts. The same can be said for Amanda Greene's just-this-smidgen-of-flatness throughout Uninvited. Here, Greene seems to put more emphasis on mimicking Morissette's tonality than just singing the song well. She squeezes through the upper notes which simply causes her to create uncomfortably screechy lyrical lines.

For the casual fan of a cappella, the latest disc by PandemoniUM is worth getting. There is a lot of good music on here and the problem areas are really just my nit-picking proclivities. These guys and gals should be proud of their album.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Makes Me Wonder 3
2 S.O.S./Tainted Love 5
3 Breathe Me 5
4 Hemorrhage 2
5 Toxic 2
6 Cathedrals 4
7 You Thought Wrong 2
8 Roll To Me 4
9 Uninvited 4
10 Feeling Good 4

Once a college group has narrowed its repertoire to contemporary pop/rock covers (or any genre, really), it faces a second set of decisions: how to select songs that complement the singers in the group. It's not as trivial a choice as it might sound: no matter how large the group, there's no guarantee that it contains a voice that will perfectly fit any song in question.

That's the primary issue that the University of Maryland's PandemoniUM needs to overcome in coming years. There are several songs on PandemoniUM where the backing parts sound better than average, but the soloist just doesn't jibe. For example, the soloist on Hemorrhage compellingly channels his inner Fuel right up until the chorus ("Don't fall away...."), where his voice suddenly loses its growl and almost floats away with an airy, choral feel. The issue is not that it doesn't sound like Fuel, it's that the verses and choruses sound like two totally different songs. Similarly, Toxic's vocalist sounds too pretty for the bite of the song, and You Thought Wrong is way too high for the soloists' ranges and should have been transposed down a couple of steps. The four soloists in question all have lovely solo voices; they've just been paired with the wrong song.

By the same token, though, when PandemoniUM matches the right person with the right song, the result is outstanding: Breathe Me is one of the best versions of this song that I've heard (and there are many!), and the soloist truly captures the frailty and emotion of the original. The same thing goes for Cathedrals and Uninvited.

PandemoniUM shows a lot of promise — but also a lot of room to grow. There are some mixing issues (the soloist on Makes Me Wonder should have been boosted a bit so he doesn't have to compete with the backing parts), but there are also glimmers of creativity: they took the obvious Tainted Love sample from Rihanna's S.O.S. and turned it into a mash-up that works exceptionally well. The challenge for PandemoniUM going forward is to hone that vision across a full album — and to accept nothing less.


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