grimmo

Top 12 2018: likes, not quites, and trends

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I’m on the wrong continent to attend shows in person so this review is based only on online viewing and listening. As such it focuses  more on the design “what” elements than the performance “how”.  I’ve been meaning to have a bash at for a few years and I finally found the time.  I hope this rambling collection of opinions makes an interesting read for some!

 

 

Crossmen

After the first few of minutes of this year’s Bones you could be forgiven for thinking it was a mix up in the running order and Regiment were on the field, and not just because of the classical slant to the source material. The visual look across the unis umbrellas and gold silks bring a lushness and strong presence to the field. It’s a quality opening to the show that goes right through to the end of the first number. There are some interesting effects at work in both the drill and music and the more traditional edge to the uniform aligns well to the theme. Throw in a some recognisable melodies and you could be forgiven for wondering how here are another eleven corps scoring higher than this?

Credit too to the soloist who manages to play while holding that umbrella. That multi-tasking would scare many a player asked to play with that exposure I’m sure!

I do find the show loses me a little once the figure-in-black enters proceedings doing their best Wicked Witch of the West impression. There’s some great music going on with the brass on side two and the featured character is a bit of a distraction swinging from the hourglass on side one. If there’s a story being told in the first half of the show I didn’t notice it, and for me the show doesn’t then benefit from the narrowing of focus towards the  hour-glass for the next part of the production.

It may sound a strange observation to make, but I kind of wish this show wasn’t performed by Crossmen. I enjoy X-men most in their groove years and while I get they can’t be that corps year in year out, I hope we aren’t entering a phase were corps increasingly have interchangeable identities, and you need to see the name on the scoreboard to tell who’s performing.

Good show  Crossmen. Lots to enjoy!

 

Phantom Regiment

In contrast to Crossmen, I’ve listened to Regiment a few times in the car and so far failed to convince myself that I would ever pick this show  out in a ‘blind taste test’.  When I think of PR at their best it conjures up adjectives such as powerful and majestic, and a church organ brass sound.  I wonder if over the past decade the Phantom style has been squeezed out by  the need to include so much technical proficiency and high tempo intricacy, along with the ongoing temptation for all corps to segment arrangements to allow the program to meet its competitive demand and variety obligations.

This year’s edition of Regiment has an urban hooded look to the costuming. The asymmetric monkey bars also contribute to an intriguing first impression. The red bass skins are striking too, though not replicated in the rest of the battery?

When the show starts up there’s a slow ethereal feel. Musically it feels a little folky and I find I’m struggling to connect the disparate pieces of the look and sound together to get a read on what this show is about.  Later in the production the familiar strains of Largo can be heard but it’s all slightly obtuse. It reminds me of hearing one of your favourite pop songs on the radio but it’s the chill-out or R&B remix, not the straight-ahead original that sold millions and makes you want to sing along!

By the end of the show I found I’d struggled to recount many major impact points, much effect value from the monkey bars,  and was confused by the decision to include the bright red tarp across the front side line. Its acts as a thick visual buffer to the audience, and the corps finally marching onto it as the conclusion has little in the way of pay-off.

I’m struggling to bring out many likes in this show but as I mentioned at the outset this is relatively uniformed  views about the what  and not the how….and from someone who’s probably already in the ‘dinosaur’ category!

In terms of future programming I wonder if PR could find a way to return to their trademark sound and visual style, and look to own their own trends rather than follow others. For them more than most it’s about picking the right music and giving it full opportunity to shine. A modern design challenge indeed…

An on-form Phantom bring something special to the top 12 and I hope they can rediscover their mojo soon.

 

Mandarins

First impressions? A large pie centre field, and a show that’s nailed on to be dark! Typically when I see capes I think about slow and cumbersome individual profiles, and Mandarin’s don’t escape this either, but the overall look is a strong one, and with some of the fiery silk choices and aesthetically pleasing visual design it reminds me of  A Defiant Heart at times.

I’m not familiar with Rite of Spring context, so perhaps my ignorance will shine though in this review. Mandarins have some neat effects visually, the book is well matched to their music though it does take an age to get going; two minutes in and the brass only have two power chords to their name!

The field is refreshing uncluttered. The centre stage doesn’t dominate the focus, and the black back panels do their job unobtrusively.

I quite like this show but at the same time there aren’t any significant moments that stay with me once the laptop is switched off. I think I’ll mainly remember the look and the pie from this edition of Mandarins.

This corps progress over recent years has been fantastic and its credit to their staff team for  crafting this vehicle to propel the corps up the rankings… and the performers for pulling it off.

 

Blue Knights

There’s an argument that BK have been the most avant garde drum corps over the past decade, and who’s shows are closet aligned to WGI.  I care for their music more some years more than others and to get the negatives out of the way I really struggle to connect with this year’s edition. Of course shows are way more engaging when seen live, but on video it’s a music book limited to neutral appreciation of the execution for me. I would think that with repeated viewings the music could be a grower, but I’m not reviewing this show from that vantage point.

What’s perhaps a little different to some corps is that a level of esotericism seem to now be an established part of the BK approach, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re quite happy being that card in the deck. 

Visually there’s some great stuff going on! The costuming is great! Both the purple and yellow both really pop from the field, it looks cool up close and even has room for some dots. The pyramids on the field are both simple and stylish and I like the way they catch the light across different faces, and support the yellow dominant colour pallet. It’s another standout use of colour to bring effect! The visual book is of a different ilk to most of the top 12, they paint some great pictures and utilise some long visual phrasing which isn’t so common these days (it was something I and others often enjoyed from SCV in the Pete Weber years).

BK lose me a little when the figure in black from Crossmen’s show turns up again and all the prisms fall over – DC trope in action! -  and for a few minutes in the middle the visual stardust dissipates a little. They do get back on track in the final production where the Sun god theme is brought through well. An Egyptian theme give some vivid iconography to work with!

 

You’ve got to be careful what you wish for sometimes, and Blue Knights have an identity that I wouldn’t want them to lose, but in keeping with a few of this year’s top twelve I’d really enjoy a few more melodically driven effect points to balance their undoubted qualities in subtlety and sophistication.

 

Blue Stars

I think it’s to the activities detriment that there’s not really been a comedy-player in the top 12 since VK hung up their high tops. It seems that Academy have an interest in the more light hearted approaches and certainly Blue Stars bring a lightness of touch to many of their shows and that’ss a pleasing contrast to many of their contemporaries.

I’d like to have been a fly on the wall in the design meeting where the oh-so-literal theme was pitched to support the music of the Carpenters. The utility belt costuming is certainly different, and the high vis gloves and shoes give great contrast. It’s a brave choice in current times given the well-established exposure challenges that contrasting footwear brings to foot phasing. I find I like this show best in the down moments where the well-known melodies come through. I found show does ebb away from its Carpenter theme towards genericism in the faster sections. Visually the book is a feast for those that like to kneel, swivel and spin, this corps doesn’t stop!

Given the first impressions of the workbenches and other wooden themed props on the field, by the show’s conclusion I was a little disappointed in how little carpentry theme effects they’d managed to bring into the show. I’d hoped for some ‘Stomp in the wood-shop’!  I think there is a compliment in there somewhere as Blue Stars have proven themselves to be a design team of great creativity we can set expectations high!

 

I hope Blue Stars continue to embrace their slightly offbeat approaches to programming!

 

Cadets

Looking at the influences of wider trends, I think they are possibly  more relevant to Cadets than any other corps. Mainly because in times-gone-by Cadets married the elements of tradition with innovation exceedingly well (as said Cesario on the 87 finals broadcast!)

From the 2000’s on Cavies changed the game visually, then Devs came along with new levels of integration and layering, Crown brass came to the fore, and Bluecoats found an edge with their electronics and props. Steadily over time different corps have pushed the activity forward in different ways, and this last decade I think Cadets then found that the qualities that served them so well for so long could no longer support shows that reach the very top. The advantages Cadets gained across a season through mid-season changes, extra running and gunning, and an edge in work ethic (that was the stuff of legend), are no longer there to be had? A show simply has to many component parts.

And then in trying to find new ways to innovate, some would argue they lost their way. Anyway…on to this year’s show.

From the 1st beat of the show the costume choice for the main corps is striking. The front back split certainly provides contrast, but from the videos the back gives a bolder silhouette than the front which I’m not sure is the right way around? Front field, the horizontal strips give the appearance of the members being sketched onto the field, which is different if nothing else. With the costume possibilities of today, I’m interested to see where Cadets go next in terms of cool modern costuming that pays respect to West Point traditions. This year the balance has been tipped in that wearing shakos is now what seems different – though that’s not to say bad.

I don’t think the props that Cadets use add anything t what comes across as quite a minimalist show. They take the learnings on vocals from last year and utilise the small vocal ensemble really well to give an ethereal overtone in places.

Cadets play a lot and move a lot in this show – qualities that always floated my boat. But this year, they seem almost stylistically traditional compared to the corps around them.

Musically, it’s great to hear the Ballet Sacra on the field (just a shame that they stick that static long tone in there after the pit and singing interlude) but I feel desensitised to the notey music, continual counter motion and relatively limited ranges of colour and mood on display. Perhaps it’s one of those shows were you really need to be there.

For those that harken back for Cadets shows of old  perhaps this a great example that no matter how fast you play and march, in modern shows you need more…more of what for Cadets I’m not sure. In future, if there was a corps that could pull off an ‘unplugged’ sort of revival, it would be them.

 

Cavaliers

I will be upfront and say I’ve watched far less of Cavies this year than the rest of the top six. Bolero is such a strong musical motif and they use it to good effect in places. This show just doesn’t have enough melody around it for my tastes. There are moments in the intro and the closer where the music threatens to catch fire, but they’re cases of what might have been – this  show is so clearly visually led.

It’s another great drill book from Cavies this year -  they’ve been back on top of their game for a couple of seasons in that respect -  and coordination levels are really high with some cool audio visual effects and a geometric bias that is unmistakably Cavies. However, I’m not sold on the usage of the theme, or value of props and tarps as key design decisions. There are times where the visual transitions are enhanced by the thick red lines, but for me, there are just as many times where the effect of curvilinear drill is undermined. This is further compounded by the reveal of the wider brighter tarps, with a reveal that is surprisingly clunky. If there’s an overarching premise to the props on the field and how their used then it’s repeatedly passed me by, but I no longer ready any blurb or watch the promo reveals that corps put out to explain the theoretical underpinnings of their shows (if indeed they still do them!)

I will add that the Cavies costume gives them a great look this year, and I like that within about three measures of the slow piece you’d pick this out as Cavies show. 

I enjoy Cavies the most when they’re music books are at their most mainstream (95 and 04 as obvious examples). Not sure  if it’s a coincidence that they’re also single source? As times and trends change,  I look forward to when they next go back that way.

 

BAC

There was lots of online chatter in the winter months about what BAC would put on the field this year after last, and I think they’ve succeeded in putting out an all-round strong show with a few standout moments that will linger in the overall memories of the 2018 season.

I’m not sure that the SOS theme gives as much scope for musical effect as Wicked Games did the year before – but it gives plenty to the visual side and the guard make the most of this!

The ending effect with the corps disappearing beneath the silks into the sea is visually great  -  I’m curious to know if this was that was part of the original pitch, or one of those ideas that pops up once the season’s underway. ‘BAC was here’  underlines this moment fantastically, but I think that then leaves them with too much spelling-out for one show. With hindsight could they have found a better way to bookend the lost-to-found narrative?

As a fan I think there are small moments that can show the difference in programming at the very top levels. Take the 30 seconds or so after SOS for Boston. It’s percussion led with the corps dancing within a fairly static wedge. It’s an example where I think to rise, they’ll be looking at those sort of sections, and examining how they can be more leading edge in terms of style and content. Likewise there’s some sections of the brass playing runs, which they do really well, but from an effect point of view it’s something Crown have already made familiar to us (some of us fans are hard to please, eh?!)

The opening production up to the Conquest ‘morse’ is my favourite section. For me, Marimba Spiritual is a little long,  and they lose me a little in the next section before grabbing me again with Amazing Grace through to the end.

I’d guess Boston’s staff will be keen to progress  the corps up the rankings from here and it will be interesting to see how the go about trying to do that. The traditional top 6 each have stylistic elements both musically and visually that are recognisable as their own. Is it fair to say Boston still have to develop some of theirs? With fire, then water effects, perhaps the natural elements is now their thing?!   

 

Crown

This year‘s show is one where I wonder if some of the winter decisions might be questionable, but then they’ve done everything right since? You don’t get to fourth place with such strong shows beneath you without having some great components in the show. First and foremost though, for me, the Beast theme doesn’t align to the sounds I’m hearing from the corps in the parts I see as the strongest of the show. In the start (searing brass statement!), sonorous slow piece and kite-silks driven ending (where Crown brass are at their regal best) the beast theme seems to be left behind. Likewise the see-saw prop ticks the box of being a little different to props that have gone before, but I’m not convinced the pay-off is there to  justifies it being a static beast picture for most of the show.

Early season, someone made a point on these pages that there was too much texture on the field and I’d agree. “Textures” might even has made for a more fitting, if esoteric, theme! Visually Crown march and move as well as always. What’s interesting to me is that I don’t think you’d necessarily pick this out as Sacktig designed drill. There’s a cool move where the brass are in curvilinear lines radiating out from the percussion and the lines invert as they move across the field. You might spot an earlier incarnation of this in Cadet’s Farandole from 2001. That aside I think their visual book is quite indistinct this year, albeit top-end indistinct!

I’m a big fan of Crown and hope they climb to the summit of the mountain again, but I haven’t quite enjoyed them these last couple of years quite as much as I did in the first half of the decade.

 

Bluecoats

I really enjoy the sense of old-skool  that Coats musical selections bring to the field combines with their ultra-modern arranging and programming. The costuming is a standout from the pack, particularly that it’s a uniform costume from the high cam but more varied at field level, and I hope they continue to innovate in this respect.  The colour pallet is great again this year and I like the props, with one caveat that I’ll mention later.

I really like Coats approach to drill. There are sections in the show where they are really motoring but it’s never drill for drill’s sake. The end of the (2nd?) movement  with the diverging and converging block is fantastic. I’m reminded of Blast in the way they move and the style of composition – I think it’s the same designer?

The show uses a lot of pre-record to set the scene and transition between movement and they do this fantastically well in the main. However, I think there’s something all corps need to be wary of that when using pre-recorded and the corps are adding lots of visual layering, in that you can get some sense of loss of depth when the corps then starts to only play and march. This is more of an issue further down the ranks but I did find myself wondering about this briefly when watching Coats.  It perhaps splitting hairs though, as in the main, the way the singing blends with the  soloists and into the main ensemble comes across really well on the videos and when listening in the car. In fact, in contrast to some of the other shows,  the middle two numbers are my favourite musically. Quite possible tight integration with the singing back and forth.

I read somewhere that Coats’  Bird and Bela piece has some slightly simpler phrasing than BD did in 91?  My ears don’t distinguish that – it works on its only merits overall, but I did find it a little jarring this this is the 1st number after setting such a specific laid back mood initially. The Home closer continues the recent trend of fun upbeat closers. If anything I’d have liked a bit more of it as I’m not sure there’s enough dynamism in the final minute or so of the show. The park and play ending has tinge of over-familiarity from what’s gone before, and I’m not sure the hornline being positioned all over the big chair gives enough of a visual momentum to closing things out in barnstorming fashion. Still it’s a small not-quite in a show full of likes.

Percussion aside, I wonder if the difference between first and third is rooted in how much value was extracted from those huge chairs compared to their peers (and their props). It will be interesting to see where Bluecoats go next.  They have a style and sense of entertainment that’s a little different to everyone else…. I hope they continue to nurture that niche that for the foreseeable future! 

 

Blue Devils

‘No significant weaknesses’ is  often said about Blue Devils shows in their title winning years  and while that’s maybe not the case this year, there are many cool things to like about this show. After some scene-setting pre-record (first time I heard it I thought ‘ya filthy animal!’ anyone else?),  I enjoy the way they get going musically and visually right off the bat.  It makes a pleasant change from the trend for quiet-and-freeform intro’s that’s perhaps too common now?

Last year I thought BD had best colour design in the bag. Some of their rivals have stepped up in this respect this year, but they still own their look. An oft-heard criticism of BD over the years not enough marching demand, but the counter to that for me has always been that they’re the best in terms of  design integration coupled with the aesthetic sophistication of transitions. They still are at the top of the tree in this respect but they do move a lot in this show, and the performance demand on the members can, but perhaps shouldn’t, be underestimated.

The Harlem Nocturne section has some really neat coordination going on. There’s  a contrast of styles leading into the company front and the well-known melody…but is it over too soon? All season I’ve been hoping they would extend the melody  into a second phrase (ala 87),  but alas it’s not to be. Too much effect to cram in and too little time, to repeat a melodic phrase!

The slow interlude with the French horn duet also sets a compelling mood within the theme. I’m not sure the up-tempo sections of this show as memorable as the down – or contain the same standout features as some years past, but everything is performed at Devils’ impeccable levels.

Natural Women is a couple of minutes of great melody and great selling. It works because it works on the most fundamental of drum corps levels. A small caveat is that the prop/story narrative doesn’t move on during this time, but many of us will take primal drum corps entertainment and forget the rest when delivered like this!

What’s interesting is that musically this show doesn’t really follow a recognisable drum corps template. It’s  a collection of  snapshots -  you could probably shuffle the sequence of pieces around in the winter and still end up with as effective a music show as this one … I can’t quite decide whether this is a good thing?

Now, if there’s ever a weakness in BD shows for me it’s their closing chapters. Musically I sometimes don’t get the goose-bumps in the finale from them that I look for and this year that’s the case. Though often BD have already sealed the deal by that point!

The key design choice seem to have been the narrative being propelled through the gradual reproduction of the Dreams and Nighthawks painting and I can’t work out just how much of a story they’re trying to tell along the way.  The delayed resolution technique is  well used in tv and cinema  – for example it reminds me of the Breaking Bad season 2 intro’s with the objects floating in the swimming pool. In this show it means a lot of static prop movement logistics to get there. Do BD get the payoff they hoped for? I suppose it depends on how you choose to measure it… and how high you set the benchmark.

 

 

SCV

Back in the mid-noughties if you’d daydreamed about fusing Cavies and Regiment into a mid-west super corps (and add in some futuristic stardust) then you might have imagined this year’s SCV. Many have mentioned that this show is right on the zeitgeist and I’d agree. Part of it is the costuming, which is perhaps the coolest of this year’s collection. While the move away from uniforms opens up possibilities to designers there’s still a benefit to achieving certain qualities in the look. You could perform Sound of Music and dress everyone as the Von Trapp family… while that would be thematically authentic it might not contribute to having the x-factor!

One of the SCV backstage videos mentions how they chose the music first, had the idea of the cages to give  flexible options into the vertical plane, and then arrived at the theme to bind it all together. It’s not always the case, but I think that sequence of events shines through here as a benefit to this show’s development. Lots of effect with minimal thematic constraints.

In recent years the best usage of props has been where they are at their most versatile and/or dynamic – think Downside Up and Metamorph – allowing the corps move up, down, in and out in many different ways. How you get on and off the props is now as important as what you do when on them! In time to come this show may well be remembered as the one that fully integrated performing and staging across three dimensions. It does leave you wondering where corps can take it from here in future seasons?

A  feature of this show is there are multiple things going on in every transition, and there’s  always a balance between moments of dense layering and clarity. The cream uni’s help with the clarity aspect but there’s always a great usage of space.  From the high cams its apparent the corps aren’t moving at breakneck speed as often as some others, and they don’t cover as much of the field, but these are observations rather than criticisms,  such is the quality of the programming.

As many agree,  the  horn snap in the ballad is a standout moment – it’s all the sequential activity in the lead-up that makes it. The epitome of simple but effective! Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to this section of the show  is that it reminds me of Madison 88 with the Malaguena mello soloist and 360 spins into the closing push.

Musically, it’s both diverse and well blended - a leading edge modern drum corps show. SCV, to my ears, sound like a classically biased hornline that also nails some Madison-esque influences in often intense but engaging book. When it’s technical  it always feels authentic rather than derivative or forced.

It’s also a positive that the virtuosic playing is not so obviously focused on a prop-moving small ensemble this year. If there is still clever selection of who plays and when, I can’t pick it out. And the talented soloists are another reminder of scenarios where amplification really does add something. Could they play that stuff that way if they had to project to the stand un-aided?

This is one of those shows were you might come away humming one of the prominent phrases without necessarily remembering the fully melody lines. They even manage to sell a hip-hop section that could be incongruous in lesser hands –  perhaps they’ve learnt from BD’s recent approach of incorporating ‘urban’ segments into some of their recent productions for added eclectism.

Finally the cool Metropolis closer where the whiplash brass parts are some that I think even ardent Crown brass fans would tip their hats too. When the music hits the final push as the platforms come together it evokes Scheherazade, and from what I’ve seen the crowds were on their feet well before the final notes.

 

All in all a really strong show with no significant weaknesses. One of those that’s become more than the sum of its parts.

 

 

A few random thoughts on overall trends…

  • Firstly, the achievement of the members these days is amazing. I’m interested to see the contents of a modern dot book just to see how all that simultaneous demand is written down! Percussion and guard sections are so skilled, as a layman it’s increasingly difficult to spot differences in proficiency, certainly without seeing them live.
  • Speaking of which, what do you have to do these days to make a battery feature memorable to non-drummers - they can all now play fast and high while stood on one leg!
  • There is still work to do for many corps to better balance the competitive need for layering, juxtaposition and variety with the popcorn values of melody and musically driven goose-bump moments.
  • Consequently there’s still too much use of long tones, chord progressions separated by short drum interludes.
  • The increasing usage of props is indicative of corps have reached  the physical limits of what performers can achieve in terms of drill tempo and complexity (a few years back now) and dance and play (more recently). Adding in the vertical plane is simply a way of extending the staging boundaries a little further. Is it now a de-facto requirement that will grow in size and complexity over the next few years? 
  • If I were watching live I’m sure the production capabilities of blending in pre-recorded material, and the electronics underpinning general playing generally, would be giving me concerns about how to preserve the value of acoustic authenticity in the activity. But that’s another discussion for people who are better informed and actually witness these shows live.
  • Despite the ever-increasing technical sophistication of shows we’re still reminded that when it comes to communication and effect the techniques available remain quite fundamental. With such a large stage and relatively remote audiences, stories have to be well signposted and significant events need to pop out. It’s probably why meeting/separation, running away/chasing, love, loss, and of course killing, remain the go-to choices, plus those figures-in-black!
  • Perhaps the biggest miss currently is that corps aren’t able to use music from the most popular sources. I continue to hope for a breakthrough in licensing that allows box-office soundtracks, Broadway musicals and current pop be put on the field once again…supplementing rather than replacing the range of source music we have today.
  • In terms of overall enjoyment factor of top 12 shows I’d say 2018 was a middling year.

 

Finally, finding ways to make the audience shiver, gasp, cheer and even laugh, while maintaining competitive placement should continue to be the challenge that keeps designers awake long into the night.

 

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

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Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful review!  I agree with the vast majority of what you said, especially regarding Regiment and Blue Knights.  I disagree on Cavaliers - I think in broad strokes the theme was pretty straightforward, and I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis of what Blue Devils are trying to do out there... I'm just not a fan of it.

Regarding making percussion memorable to non drummers, to me (a drummer for 30 years, but did not go to Juliard) the issue is that features are incredibly technically demanding now, but in ways not obvious to a casual observer.  Alternate stickings, 5, 7 and 9-lets, triplet patterns starting on back beats, up beats and everything in between are ideas that only mad scientists cold have imagined back in the day, but honestly, the audience has *no* idea what they're doing. 

My advice, if you're going for the "singing it on the way out" crowd - keep the big beats simple.  There's a reason everyone can still sing Cavaliers' Fight Club break from '02.  There's also a reason nobody can sing the triplet/fivelet backsticking and drum-to-drum feature that happened literally right before it.

Mike

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