This album picks up right where the Amalgamates left off with Prime in 2008. The group maintains their identity while making noticeable improvements. Soloists are engaging, the production is excellent, and arrangements are consistently solid and for the most part sound full. This group knows who they are and how to showcase their strengths. They have a distinctive sound and arranging style that has been effectively captured here. Tremendous care has been given to this entire album, even extending to the attractive case and album art. They also included detailed information about each track, including not only the arranger and soloist, but the original songwriter and publisher.
Both the production and vocal percussion on this album are very well done. They are crisp, clear, clean, and contemporary. They add and never distract from the vocals.
But here’s the truth- this album wears me out. It’s just so heavy all the time. There is not a single genuinely chill song on the entire album. This weight or heaviness has nothing to do with song choice and everything to do with arranging style and execution. It’s a product of their love for syllables such as din, den, dun, jen, jeng, jung, gung, doon, ding, deng, and dung, to name a few.
All sound can be described by what is called a sound envelope. This is made up of three parts: attack, sustain, and decay. A pizzicato string and crash cymbals, for example, both have a fast attack, meaning their sound reaches its maximum intensity quickly, and a short sustain, meaning they are only at their maximum intensity for a short time. The string has a sudden drop in intensity during the decay because its reverberation is very soft. But a cymbal crash’s intensity diminishes gradually over a long decay because the cymbals continue to ring loudly for several seconds, and it takes a long time for the sound to stop completely.
All the syllables listed above have a similar sound envelope. They have a strong consonant attack, very short sustain, and an initial sudden drop in intensity during the long decay. This envelope creates a dramatic difference between the short peak of intensity and rest of the note, exaggerating the percussiveness of these sounds. This makes the album intense and high energy all the time. But the flipside of that is that there is nothing sensitive about this album. I really wanted to hear some simplicity, open vowels, or light attacks, but any potentially intimate moment is overrun by hard consonants, like in “Mama”. “Even When The Day Met The Night”, which starts with beautiful open chords that evoke a sunrise, has these abrasive “gung”s in the backs, followed by heavy “jen”s on every beat. The “jen”s are not an example of poor arranging but poor execution. If they were done lightly rather than with such strong attacks, it would work really well. Their backs are so rockin’ and badass that they are often competing with the solo for my attention, like in the opening track “The Chain”. There is just so much going on in this album. And all the tracks end pretty much the same way- with a chord on “ah” fading out. It is especially noticeable since they avoid openness and stillness in every other part of their arrangements.
It’s also a long album- thirteen tracks that average over four minutes a track. And there are parts that could be easily trimmed out, like the bass solo in “The Chain”. It doesn’t make a lick of sense in this context. And the full minute instrumental introduction to “Carry On My Wayward Son”. They are just following the form of the original without thinking about how to make it most effective for a cappella, and it makes the song a little bloated. The heaviness wouldn’t be as noticeable if the songs and album were shorter, but as it is, the weight of it really wore me out by the end. It’s hard to listen to the whole album in one sitting, and I found it much more enjoyable in small doses.
“Let It Die” is an amazing track. Its pacing is perfect, gradually building by layering ideas. And the song “Benjamin” is badass. A lot of the tracks, but this one especially, reminded me of Gabriel Mann and Oingo Boingo because of the quirky and percussive backs.
Hands Off the Mannequin! is a consistently excellent album. The Amalgamates know who they are and have developed and refined a distinctive style that plays to their strengths. Seriously, any one of these tracks could be selected for one of the many “Best of” a cappella CDs (and many of them have). Though I struggle with the album as a whole, I love each of the tracks individually.
About the author:
Patrick Hockberger is a diverse musician with interests in jazz, musical theatre, film scoring, and electronic music, as well as a cappella. He is in The Undertones of Northwestern University and is a double major in composition and voice, studying with Jay Alan Yim and Keven Keys, respectively. He has also studied trombone with Max Bonecutter, and is a self-taught pianist. In 2008, he and 8 other young composers attended the National High School Music Institute directed by Michael McBride, and in 2010, he returned as Michael’s assistant. He has acted in musicals, plays, and operas, and has performed with various university ensembles in venues such as Orchestra Hall in Symphony Center and Millennium Park. Patrick’s first a cappella experience was with the all-male Cloud 9 at Waubonsie Valley High School. This incredible experience led him to audition for his current group, The Undertones, where he is currently assistant music director and a frequent arranger. He hopes to pursue a career in which he can tell stories through music, whether it be through performance, composition, directing/producing, or music technology. Patrick currently works with choral composer and director Paul Caldwell at the Youth Choral Theatre in Chicago.