Debut albums can go one of two ways: either the group can absolutely nail it, laying down a marker for any future projects and stamping their authority and identity on their genre; or, the album can fade away after the first few songs or, indeed never really take off at all. Fortunately, Imperial College’s The Techtonics fall resoundingly into the former category, with Groundbreaker more than living up to its name.
Before I continue this review, I will warn you that this album is heavily produced. As in, to the extent that some of the tracks don’t actually sound like human voices anymore. Whether or not this is a bad thing is up to the listener’s personal tastes, but I for one love it, for the most part. Indeed, I have become so obsessed with the final song on the album, Labrinth’s Earthquake, which is indubitably the furthest removed from what the original recording sounded like, that I have been overplaying it in my flat to the extent that it now tops my Top 25 Most Played on iTunes for the past two months. For a cappella, that’s pretty impressive.
There are two things I like about this album – the first is the running tectonic theme throughout. That may sound a little obvious, but featured on several tracks is an overt rumbling bass and an echoed nature to some of the solos which makes it feel as if the ground is actually shaking and the voices are bouncing around an eerie, empty, dark room. Such running motifs make me happy. Secondly, I love the fact that they cover songs that are very rarely touched by a cappella groups, with these gambles paying off, for the most part. There are a couple of curious songs that don’t quite work – 10cc’s Dreadlock Holiday is the weakest track on the album, as it doesn’t ever really bring anything new, apart from being a repetitive reggae track. It plods along nicely but fails to find a spark, and the fade out at the end is fitting for a cover that fades quickly from memory.
Thankfully, this song is lost within what in the majority is a really great album. The stand out track, as mentioned previously, is Earthquake, which grimily captures the dubstep elements and lays down some phat beats that boom about bombastically from any speakers which a decent sub-woofer. It’s perfect for parties, and so easy to rave to. Not words I imagined I would say about any a cappella record ever, but there you go. Orson’s No Tomorrow is one of my favourite tracks ever, and while this version isn’t that original, it definitely does the song justice and does maintain a small sense of originality, and the soloist, David Verhoeven, absolutely nails it, as he does on Jessie J’s Domino, popular one this year, and while it’s again not the most original track on the album, the unexpected key change, while a little too cheesy, does allow Verhoeven to show off his incredible skyscraping tenor range.
Most of the individuality of the group comes through in some of the less upbeat tracks on the album: The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun has a very funky opening and maintains an eeriness throughout, while the Local Natives’ Who Knows Who Cares has a delicious thunderous breakdown in the second verse, which fits aptly with the title of the album. U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday is similar to House of the Rising Sun, with an eerie blend to start before dropping into a catchy tempo. Even the Big Opener shows off the ample vocal talent of the boys.
One thing does strike me though, as I listen through the album for the umpteenth time – it doesn’t quite connect with an audience as a lot of other a cappella albums do, because that purity, that simplicity, that vulnerability that comes from the unadulterated human voice isn’t there on this record. The various editors, mixers and masterers, including Bill Hare, Dave Sperandio and Matt Chinery must be given huge credit, as this album is as much down to them as to the singers themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I love this album and several of the tracks on it, but I would be so curious to hear what it all sounded like pre-production. For now, enjoy the ground-shaking sound of a group that with this album, and their subsequent selection onto Sing 9, have taken a massive step forward.