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PTX—Pitch-Perfect in Every Way
By Mark Mussari
Posted: March 6, 2014.
Intricate harmonies buzz in a way not heard since the Manhattan Transfer’s heyday. The band moves deftly among dubstep, ballads, hip-hop — even a cover of Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road Jack” (a song first recorded in 1960 as an a cappella demo).
The aural experience of seeing Pentatonix live is exhilarating. The crowd is surprisingly mixed: anyone who thinks the group’s fans would be all teenagers is in for a huge surprise. People of all ages are obviously enthralled by the group’s vocal calisthenics. Singing never had it so good.
Indeed, the heart of Pentatonix is the tight harmony and syncopation among its five members: Mitch Grassi, Kirstie Maldonado, Scott Hoying, Avi Kaplan, and Kevin Olusola. Hoying adds an angular sound, especially when singing leads, while Grassi’s soaring tenor and Maldonado’s warm alto easily shift positions.
“Kirstie and I have similar ranges and our timbre is also very similar,” explains Grassi. “We can weave in and out of harmonies.”
Kaplan, the bass and a crowd favorite, adds a deep, rich, almost synthetic sounding bottom. The secret weapon in all these polyphonics is beatboxing Kevin Olusola, who will make you forget there are no instruments present.
PentatonixAnd then there is the sheer musicianship. Grassi, Hoying, and Maldonado were choir nerds who met in high school in Arlington, Texas.
“A lot of us are trained,” notes Grassi. “We all did choir. Scott’s trained in pop music, and Kirstie and I did a lot of musical theater. Avi was classically trained in opera.”
Olusola is also trained in cello, which he brings out and plays at one point while simultaneously beatboxing — or “celloboxing” as it has been dubbed — and it brings down the house.
The full band formed when Hoying met Kaplan and discovered the depth of his range. The original trio then also found Olusola, a Yale grad, on YouTube — a prescient move, as YouTube would become pivotal to the group’s eventual success. Today, their own YouTube channel boasts more than five million subscribers.
First, the band established itself in 2011 by winning The Sing-Off, a television competition for a cappella groups. With only five members, the band seemed like a long shot against the multi-member college groups at the season’s start. Yet, their infectious sound, vibrant personalities, and inventive arrangements quickly won over both the judges and the audience. By mid-season, their win seemed inevitable.
Grassi observes some changes in their sound since then. “I remember our arrangements on The Sing-Off being a little more screamy and high,” he recalls. “We’ve kind of reined it in a bit. It wears on our voices, and we don’t want to be just a group that can only belt their faces off.”
PentatonixFrom The Sing-Off, the band turned to social media. YouTube videos — like their stunning cover of Gotye’s “Somebody that I Used to Know” — quickly garnered millions of hits (almost 25 million to date for the Gotye cover alone).
Their range and vocal dexterity became undeniable, as video after video scored big with their ever-swelling legion of fans: from “The Evolution of Beyoncé” (a medley of their idol’s insistent hits) to moving covers of A Great Big World’s “Say Something” and Lorde’s “Royals.”
An improbable mash-up of Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me” and Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” finds Hoying and Maldonado sharing leads, Olusola rapping in the breakdown, and Kaplan bringing it all home with a quiet hymn-like resolution.
“We have to rework these covers,” observes Grassi, “and not just do carbon copies of a song.”
Their more rhythmic efforts — like a highly techno medley of Daft Punk songs, with more than 54 million hits on YouTube — reflect the freshness of their approach.
“We all love dance music,” admits Grassi, “me especially. And I’ve always loved electronic music.”
The covers are offset by some crowd-pleasing originals written by the band, especially the stomping “Natural Disaster” and a shimmering ballad, “Run to You,” featuring close, anthemic harmonies.
In the latter the band simply stands there and the effect is magical. “We love movement and choreography for the sole purpose of accentuating our live performance,” says Grassi, “but honestly, we aren't dancers. We're singers! We always make sure the focus is on the vocals and that we sound good.”
PentatonixStripped to the bone and then reinvented with Olusola’s mind-boggling rhythms and Kaplan’s sonorous bass lines, each song morphs into a vocal showcase.
“What’s great about us is that we aren’t hiding behind loads of production or a big wall of sound,” says Grassi. “It’s just our voices — basically, we have to carry ourselves. I think that people really respect that.”
In this sense, Pentatonix — their name taken from the five-note pentatonic scale — seems to come out of the tradition of pop’s powerhouse vocal acts: the early doo-wop groups, the Temptations, the 5th Dimension, Take Six, the Manhattan Transfer. Yet, the quintet is its own instruments and production.
Grassi views their uncanny success in terms beyond their vocal origins. “We really pride ourselves in striving to be a band,” he insists, “instead of just a novelty a cappella group.”
PTX — as their fans know them — has released three albums on Madison Gate Records, a subsidiary of Sony. PTX Volume 1, released in 2012, charted at #14 on the Billboard 200 and at #4 on the digital chart. A Christmas collection — PTXmas — was released that same year. In 2013, the band released PTX Volume 2, debuting at #10 on the Billboard chart and hitting #1 on the Top Independent US album chart.
“We’ve carved out our own little niche in the music industry,” comments Grassi. “There’s nothing similar to us right now.”