HomeRecording Review: Rice Philharmonics' "Epoch"

Mnemosyne's picture

Upon receiving Epoch, I was skeptical.  After listening and reviewing, I was pleasantly surprised.  While I felt as if my initial concerns about a mostly dated track list were on target, the Philharmonics managed to surprise me with a few hidden gems.

General Reactions

I have to be honest, my first thought when I pulled Epoch out of the mailer sleeve was, "Oh no."  The Philharmonics have managed to put a track list together that balances overdone recent radio hits with equally overdone throwbacks from a few to twenty years ago.  Granted, this album was recorded almost two years ago, but many of my concerns were outside the recently released pop tunes on the album.

I got past my initial aversions and took listen-through without stopping.  The ten-track album runs 41 minutes, a perfectly respectable length, and probably about as much a cappella as the average listener can take.  When I was done, I found myself dm dm-ing along to the opening track's ubiquitous bass riff, and was ready to dive back in for a critical listen.

An Abbreviated Play-By-Play

I don't want to go into a long track-by-track review here, but certain tracks deserve mention for their various merits and problems.

“Sandcastle Disco,” the opener, has a fun groove, but it's one that repeats ad nauseum.  Soloist Carmen Perez has a wonderfully rich voice, but it seems limited by this rather boring lead melody that doesn't ever really go anywhere impressive.  It's not a glaringly bad song by any means, but I would have liked to have been introduced to the Philharmonics by something a little less static and a little more exciting.

“Time Of The Season” was kind of a puzzler, and definitely not a good choice for the second track.  While the first track on an album should be an attention-grabber, the second should be an attention-keeper.  This song is anything but, and its silly and oft-sampled groove saps all the energy that might have carried over from “Disco.”

As for “Viva La Vida” – I'm sorry that it's so late coming to me, but this song is dated, and anything interesting in the arrangement is completely buried in the mix.  It's too bad, too; for all I know, it might've been interesting, but I can't tell.

“What Goes Around” is simply too long.  The intro is a cool idea to be sure, but the lead doesn't enter until a minute and fifteen seconds into the song, and doesn't sing for the majority of the song.  If this was the Philharmonics' attempt to cover for having male soloists that aren't show-stopping, it was a good one, at least in concept.  Most of the (four?!) leads on this track seem to just be going through the motions and singing their notes.  The bridge offers a welcome new voice that I wish I had heard on the entire track!  Next time, instead of distributing parts of the lead to four different soloists who range from really good to borderline boring, the Philharmonics should take that one who rocks and showcase him for the whole thing!  With that one exception, the leads don't seem engaged or engaging the way one needs to be when singing a Justin Timberlake song.  I expect – nay, demand! –that singers covering Justin be oozing sex and sensuality.

But oh my… “Coleccionista de Canciones!”  Whoever decided to bury this gem in the middle of the album should be slapped.  The lead on this song is probably the most committed and emotionally engaging on the entire album, and it's not even in English!  Payton Odom's fantastic soul and connection to the song comes across beautifully, and while the female duet is mixed a bit too loud, it adds a nice touch of extra soul to the solo when it enters.  Of any song on the album, it also seems to have the best build, and the best natural dynamics.

”No Air” exemplifies the confusion that may have gone on in the production process.  Again, we have a mostly choral arrangement supporting a pair of adequate leads, some superbly sound-designed percussion, and a lack of artistic cohesion.  You'll hear a new idea, a new pad, or a new rhythm, and expect it to go somewhere, and it either disappears or stays exactly where it is.  That said, Raymond Yu, who sings the male lead on this song, needs more time in front of a microphone.  There are glimmers of impressiveness in his runs and high notes that seem limited and held back by Erin Walsh's repeated insistence on cutting off or backing off of her climactic notes.  You, sir, need to sing more by yourself.

Then there was “Africa.”  I must hold the Rice Philharmonics at fault for recording this song.  It has joined "For The Longest Time" in the annals of songs that are, for lack of a better term, done.  Certain things excuse the appearance of “Africa” on an album.  EIther you have a kickass soloist who can absolutely destroy the lead, you bring a completely new interpretation to the song, or you are Straight No Chaser.  Unfortunately, the Philharmonics have and have done none of these.  This made it an unfortunate choice to close the album.

Production and Sound

Aurally, this album checks all the boxes, if only in a cursory fashion.  Liquid 5th has done their perennially excellent job editing the Philharmonics' material.  Something doesn't quite click with a lot of these mixes, however.  A lot of the time, the backing parts and occasionally changing soloists don't come together to form a cohesive whole.  This can't be ascribed to Liquid 5th's production decisions entirely, but the Philharmonics' arrangement issues certainly weren't compensated for adequately.

The artistic idea isn't exactly cohesive on this album, which might lead a listener to feel as if everything isn't quite done.  As I mentioned above, a lot of attention seems to have been paid to percussion and lead vocals, while the backgrounds have often been left to their own devices.  With few exceptions, very little is applied to them other than the basic vocal treatment.  For some parts, that's enough.  For the most part, however, I sense a lot of thinness in the backs, mainly in the middle voices.  As a result, they don't fill up the space that they should.  There are some impressive incidences of blend and some nice bass moments, particularly on "Sandcastle Disco," but save those, moments of true fullness are few and far between.

I suspect the issue lies not in the treatment of the performance arrangement's parts, but the general lack of overdubs.  Every one of these arrangements sounds like they were, with very few exceptions, performed live exactly as they appear on the CD.  The Philharmonics have taken advantage of only a limited part of the enormous sonic palette that working in a studio offers and by doing so have limited the impact of their CD.

Closing Remarks

Having listened to the entire album a few times, I can't help but think that the Philharmonics may have chosen Epoch's track order by casting lots, reading tea leaves, or by haruspicy.  There are definitely good songs on this album.  Unfortunately, many of the better moments are in the second half of the tracklist.  A re-ordering of the tracks could have done the Philharmonics some good.  Artistry aside, you must front-stack your album with your best songs.  Even better might've been removing a few of the tracks from the album altogether.

This album, cut down, could have done very well as an EP, and is held back by the dead weight of some less than impressive songs and song choices.  This trimming may have also allowed more time to be spent on production of the better songs on the album, which I think had potential, but were overlooked.  More specifically, fewer tracks with more time focused on each could have led to a more cohesive artistic idea.  As it stands, the album is a collection of songs, not tied together by any theme or artistic decision in particular.  The Philharmonics have some good singers.  Now they just need to show them off.

http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~phils/news.html

About the author:
Alex Green is a recent graduate of Tufts University.  He sung with the Amalgamates for his entire college career, and served as Music Director for the 2009 calendar year.  He is currently serving as the Mates' album producer along with Alex Rodman and John Clark.  He recently began singing with Overboard, and runs Function-L Productions, an independent music recording and production company.  Please send him work. Please. He can be reached at atothegreen@gmail.com, or on Twitter at @atothegreen.