DCW On-Line: Columbia SC Review

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Crown keeps win streak alive at FirstBEAT

July 9, 2009 — Columbia, SC . . . Carolina Crown posted yet another victory at its first home show this year, sponsored in partnership with the Irmo High School Band, but the Holy Name Cadets are rapidly closing the gap, tonight coming within .35. Though still considered by some to be an early-season show, all of the corps in “FirstBEAT” amazed and engaged the audience throughout the evening with performances that looked more like late July. The run-up to championships should be nothing short of spectacular this year.

After being rained out halfway through the show last year, the event staff was understandably nervous about cloudy conditions and storm cells all around central South Carolina (there was street-flooding and multiple accidents just 90 miles to the north in Charlotte). However the clouds turned into an ally this year, keeping temperatures down and making for a comfortable day of rehearsal and an evening of very exciting drum corps.

The first corps up this evening was the All-Age Alliance from Atlanta, GA. This group was the 2005 DCA Class A champions and tonight showed they are serious and intense performers that will be highly competitive at DCA again this year. Their program is titled “Dynamo” and as the title might suggest, packs quite a punch. The design is well thought out in emphasizing moments of impact with volume and excitement through a powerful horn line and battery.

There is a moment when, after a short segment from mellophones and tenor drums, the mellos put their horns down, grab mallets and play tenors as well. This section is clearly still being developed, but again, the “impact” of the idea left its mark on the show. When the visual and musical ideas make equal impacts throughout, then this corps may very well wind up in the upper tier at DCA again this year.

Teal Sound was up next and is one of the first corps to push the boundaries of the new electronics frontier in its interpretation of modern music by the likes of Justin Timberlake, Coldplay and Christina Agulera. The program called “The Velvet Rope,” suggestive of the velvet rope lines one sees at a theater or concert, and uses a full rock band in the pit with two guitarists, a bass guitar, synthesizer and drum set player, in addition to the rest of the pit.

This has been a controversial approach as some did not expect the use of electronic instruments this year beyond synths and possibly electronic drum pads, but Teal Sound has decided to take its interpretation of the new rules to an extreme, which they said was checked with DCI and is indeed legal . . . sorry electronics-haters.

The program is overall very audience-friendly and they will no doubt win many fans through their unique approach. A long velvet rope latched to golden theater poles has been added toward the front of the field, which allows members “in” and “out” of the performance, sometimes to comic effect, including the use of a “bouncer.” At other times this prop seems to take a more serious turn toward thoughts of “inclusion and exclusion.”

Velvet shades of deep red, purple and lavender display an impressive use of color in silks, as well as guard and even pit uniforms, with the exception of the rock band clad in a typical rock ‘n roll black and grey.

The rock band is an interesting item of note and discussion here (and elsewhere among fans). It can be said that they rarely get in the way of the show, musically. Indeed, there are only a couple of very short moments when they play alone and they are mostly confined to small background moments for most of the show and a lot of head-bobbing. In other words, you never really forget you are watching a drum corps.

However it can also be said that the rock band was all some folks watched, just to see what they might do next, which potentially detracts from the rest of the corps. How Teal Sound works out this new issue in their program will be fascinating to watch over the rest of the season, but the corps is being respected for taking such a risk with this kind of experimentation. The audience gave a very favorable response to the corps this evening. They were lone corps in Open Class tonight.

The mood shifted dramatically after Teal Sound’s bright rock show with the entrance of the Crossmen. The corps’ look and sound is overtly dark this season with its “Forbidden” program. The uniform is virtually all black with the exception of some white accents on the shoulders and the cross over the heart, but the most noticeable dark addition (or perhaps one should say “return”) is the classic black cape. This item is not just there for nostalgic reasons, but is used to frequent visual effect in the show. Members frequently cover themselves and each other, as well as use it in all types of body movement.

Despite the dark look and sound, this show is accessible visually, with lots of fast and effective drill. Musically, there are plenty of moments of sheer impact and volume coming from all sections. Another eyebrow-raising electronic addition is being utilized in this corps as well with the addition of not one but three synthesizers in the pit. These synths add a variety of eerie, layered effects in the same vein as modern film soundtracks, but rarely “take over.”

Though the effects were more subtle in general, one fan questioned whether or not these performers were being challenged in the same way that the rest of the corps was, which brings up an excellent point. These synth-players were only synth players, as opposed to the rest of the pit who normally moves around as multi-instrumentalists. The synth parts were not what one could call musically challenging in the way that the rest of the corps is being challenged and the performers looked more dazed than intense. With a month to go, perhaps these roles will be developed further. No doubt the debate on this issue will as well.

Boston’s show, “The Core of Temptation,” almost begs for comparison this season with the Crossmen. Both are dark, fatalistic shows on romance, but BAC has a very different approach that emphasizes the intensity of romance and feminine sexuality. Right from the entrance onto the field where the corps is preceded by a single female guard member doing a seductive dance of temptation to the audience, the mood and concept is apparent and effective. Once the corps is in position, the pit sets the mood with a thick quasi-Middle Eastern feel of hand percussion, wind chimes and subtle electronic effects, but that is where the subtlety ends.

Boston’s show is as in-your-face as the memorable 2000 “Red” production, if not more. The music is loud and heavy, but energetic, with excerpts of “Bacchanale” spread throughout. The horn and drum lines are very aggressive in presentation, gettingthe audience on its feet more than once tonight.

The second production features a big red apple, again tempting the audience in a classic theme. It is at first a part of a seductive dance where the “temptress” even takes a bite out of it (again, thanks to the newly-added electronic samples), then becomes a game “hot potato” when it is tossed to different guard members employing frenzied dances with the apple.

The closer features a new digital flag of huge tempting female eyes that seem to be looking right at you. The visual and musical presentations in this show were quite stunning, with a few ensemble issues to address in the coming weeks. It will be interesting to see where this show lands once all the corps are folded together for the first time in San Antonio. It is worth noting that Boston was third in Music and GE, but were 0.6 behind in Visual, which will make for some very tough competition between these units further down the road.

Blue Stars, La Crosse, WI
Photo by Harry Heidelmark
Courtesy of Drum Corps World

After intermission, the Blue Stars, armed with a lot of tables and sewing machines, took the field. However, do not be fooled by the amount of props their 2009 production of “The Factory” entails. This corps plays and marches extremely well and were not about to let the Crusaders have sole ownership of “impact” tonight. While the show is largely a nostalgic production based on the World War II period and the roles that women in particular played, the music is bright and dynamic, with a robust horn line.

There are some imaginative moments such as the electronic sample of the actual radio announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, leading into a portrayal of that moment in history. It is presented very emotionally while part of the horn line marches around the tables playing a solemn hymn and the rest of the horn line and battery represent in the opposite side of the field the actual bombing in a chaotic, intense and angular fashion.

The Blue Stars’ guard effectively communicates this ongoing story from its emotional and historical roots. They utilize lots of color in the silks, effective weapon usage and several uniform changes from a semi-neutral maroon to start with, to uniforms of all branches of the military, 1940s-style dresses and patriotic themes.

The most anticipated contest of the evening began next when the Holy Name Cadets took the field looking to continue to close the gap with Crown. What may be the most dangerous aspect of HNC this year is that they are performing like they are hungry. Much has been made of Crown’s show this season and some even started to write The Cadets off again this year, but this show takes no prisoners.

It has now gained some amazing clarity and plenty of classic aspects, which basically means “fast” everything, but features more than a few subtleties of new ideas as well. The show begins with the guard split and opposing one another with poles of neon green and neon orange prism tape that catch the eye several times as the opener quickly unfolds. The classic drill velocity is more than simply present this year, it is the visual feast we are used to seeing from this corps at its best (don’t blink or you will miss the hidden reverse Z-pull near the end of the opener).

The electronic use is understated but effective. “Cool” is the most noticeable section that uses both synthesizer samples of lines from the film and some very adept piano-playing during one feature section worthy of drum corps challenges. The horns and percussion are typically Cadet-inventive, yet controlled in sound and performance. While some criticized the 1994 return to “West Side Story” as lacking the same velocity and creative intensity of the original 1984 version, this show captures the energy of a live Broadway performance and will undoubtedly be in the hunt all year.

Finally, the hometown corps and the talk of DCI took the field to large applause. The varying shades of green from the plumes, to various parts of guard uniforms, silks and even the “grass” on the actual uniform create a very unique look (is it my imagination or is the grass on the uniform actually growing?), which oddly enough pulls in even the actual field that is seemingly a part of the color palette of this show.

Right from the start, it is obvious that this horn line is even a big step up from last year’s monster, with a very consistent, full sound throughout. Not to be outdone, theirs percussion has also upped their game to prove the worthiness of the top of the activity this year. The highly-effective build in “Promise of Living” that dissolves the seemingly climactic company front into a dark storm is very effective and keeps the listener wanting more until the return at the very end to finish what they started.

The horn and drum lines are incorporating frequent body movement that enhances the total visual package greatly. What has made this show such a standout this year is the equal impact of the total visual and music portions of this production. Numerous musical moments allow every section to shine and contribute, but so does the plethora of visual moments in drill, body movement and guard work.

What so many will remember about this show for a long time to come is how fully developed of a total package it already is . . . and there is still a month to go. Crown is forcing everybody’s game up a notch, which makes for better drum corps all the way around.

You may discuss this review on the DCP Forums. We’d love to hear your feedback.

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Posted by on Monday, July 27th, 2009. Filed under DCW On-Line.