2019 early impressions: likes, not quites, and trends

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When watching shows over the years, increasingly I'm reminded of the phrase 'the more things change the more they remain the same'. 
One aspect of DCI that is changing incrementally each year is the importance of the month of June!  Id say it's a safe bet that these kids have more capacity to perform and learn quicker than ever before, but these shows are of increasingly complexity, and getting drill, equipment, and music onto the field is far from the full story. Into the mix now, throw sophisticated sound and set design, layered choreography, and the detailed logistical considerations of each.
I'd guess that while it's still possible to make major revamps to a show during the season, it will become  an ever rarer thing - being more about those additions that were planned in during the winter, than reactive changes from adjudication. 
So with that in mind, here's another rambling collection of opinions, questions, and speculation around the packages and design and underlying trends. Hope it's interesting reading for some...
In a good way, I think SCV have been fairly predictble in the way the programming of this years show as a follow-on from last year's winner, using a finely balanced blend of retained and new ideas. Time and time again we've seen this two year cycle occur in various forms over the decades.
The costuming vibe is similar to last years stand-out, but the colour pallete has been adjusted. Last years cubes and cages are now clylindrically based towers and masts.
This years show, in contrast to many, strikes me as one that is still musically dominant. The sound is rich, dark and powerful, but with an evident arranging flair. Based on limited early viewings I don't yet hear a catchy musical motif, but it may come... or this show may not need it. Likewise for the the non-conformity theme from the pre-season show announcement... when they wow with such visceral effect we may not need to know what it's actually all meant to to represent?
I enjoy that the corps gets going into the show right from count one, and  the end of the opener with the ascending chords is probably the stand out moment for me so far, but the holst-esque 2nd piece is also shaping up nicely. 
I'm not yet seeing much of the longer-form set pieces that have been such a great feature of SCV shows over recent years, but these may come?
One reservation is that this years props don't seem to have the versatility, and so integration potential, of last years. Could this make a difference?
As things stand  right now I wonder if Vox Eversio could end being  to Babylon what Frameworks was to Four Corners, but Drum Corps is rarely that predictable. We shall see!
Estimated finishing position 1 - 2.
Blue Devils
It's well discussed that blue devils are a short odds bet in the year after they haven't one. I'm a variable BD fan, in that I tend to prefer the more musically accessible years, but I'm always a fan of the quality of their productions. Particular the sophistication of staging and visual integration.
With Ghostlight, I think they've given themselves a vehicle to pull in as much avant-garde and wgi-inspired effect to the max. Channeling shows like Through a Glass Darkly, and Cabaret Voltaire, this show may not leave you whistling in the aisle, but it will be right up there for finals week.
The backfiled props provide the platform for some cool early guard effects, and great use of contrasting colours in the prop itself,  but that's followed by a design bug  bear of mine - the over-used voice over section. Costume wise I'm not a fan of the messy silhouette that the capes give to the musicians but guess this may align to the shows mysterial theme.
The brass play a lot of challenging sections in the show. In conjunction to this it's been said many times before, by many different people that BD's performers often just sell their shows better at an individual level than the rest of the pack. As costume evolution and other trends increase the amount of individual characterisation from all corps,  I do wonder if this performance edge will always remain. One for someone who sees these corps in the flesh to comment on.
It's far from risky to predict that BD will develop a fantastic show this year, but so can a few others. Intriguing and exciting for all concerned no doubt!
Estimated finishing position 1 - 3.

With their Beatles inspired 1960's psychedelic theme, the Bluecoats are fishing rom a relatively well stocked and untouched pond. They have maintained a stylishly unique approach to their costuming again this year and the electric blue colour pallet looks striking on the field. They fill the field with a lot of props -  first thoughts are whether it's too much, but what they have out there they do use,  and the change from white to orange works well. 

I really like that with the musical book the corps have created some complex and demanding arranging from relative straightforward and melodic musical sources. This is a trend that I hope catches on. The corps appear strong across all departments this year, and the theme gives them tons of opportunity for evocative visual and music effects and motifs. 

If I have reservations then it's that I don't yet see any of the running drill effect moments that they've done so well in recent years, and for me, they need to balance the period vibe with enough genuine DC excitement. As such, the last couple of minutes of the show lack a bit of speed and momentum before the final coda as a pay off. In watching this I'm reminded of a Summer Of Love WGI show from 10 years or so back that was winner in terms of crowd appeal. I think this show has the potential to be another Coat's classic.

Estimated finishing position 1 - 3.

Crown are using light coloured costume palette across the corps and guard, and are one of the few retaining head gear. I think the  headgear compliments their current visual style which has plenty of marching that the taller silhouette then enhances. In terms of field layout, moving props are evident but less crucial to this production than for many others.  If there’s significance and effect to be had linked to the Beneath The Surface theme, then I’m not yet reading it yet. There’s a stage running behind the pit which is well used, but this positioning wipes out a fair chunk of the field, and reaches inwards beyond the 45 on side 1. I watch and wonder whether the visual show would be better balanced with everything shifted left by 5 yards. If only it were that simple!. The production gets off to a strong start with a catchy musical motif and then into a show that is quite light and playful in tone without every being simple. After listening to this show a couple of times by two-thirds the vibe I'm getting takes me back to Cadets We Are the Future show from 2000 (an all time great, imo).

Gabriel's Oboe is a highly recognisable melody with a haunting feel, which they play really well, but at this point in time I find it’s a bit too static visually, something I can't find the right description for,  in terms of build to the musical highlight,  so it's not quite hitting the goosebumps zone when it gets there. Maybe this is what pre-conceptions and personal bias can do for you!

When the latin feel closer kicks in the show takes a turn of direction. The closer in itself looks set to be a great production with some intense but melodic music coupled to lots going on in the drill, but I'm not sold (yet!) that this combination will lead to a completely cohesive package. Regardless, Crown have a fun and entertaining show that has the horsepower to score really well, and an accessibility that many will love.


 Estimated finishing position 2 - 6

When the Wrong Side of the Tracks was announced I was initially confused by the costuming, and what angle the show would be going for. On viewing I was quickly getting a West Side Story vibe from the music and the set up of the on-field props aligned to the stated 19th Century setting. And the costuming does give the corps a strong individual profile coupled to an effective rustic set of colours.  After 5-6 minutes of this show I feel that Cavies are on a real up-swing this year. They sound solid, and the visual book has a strong sense of Cavies style at their best, with fast intricate transitions and lots of cool sequential moves. 
Two challenges at this point are that I'm not sure what if anything the corps are trying to tell me. Is it just a glimpse at a period of time in a certain setting or something more narratively led? There's a triumphal feel to the closing act that seems to arrive to soon, leaving a slightly underwhelming ending from an engagement perspective.
Estimated finishing position 3 - 6

I think it's an indicator of boston's confidence that they've chosen to go with this production this year – as for fans over a certain age  there is Phantom’s Spartacus still lingering in the memory as a rather prominent benchmark for comparison. 

Theme aside, Boston  have also programmed a show that aims to showcase their progress across all three performance sections, and this is already apparent early in the season. It’s a show with a narrative and a strong sense of time and place, and they've gone for it 'whole-hog' with the period costuming. Curiously, the stockings create an oddly old-skool drum corps look reminiscant of spats!

Musically this show has some strong moments, with the percussion having a generous share of ‘stage time’. The Rule the World melody is evocative and could be one of this season's strongest musical motifs. Also, the Rocky section with the fanfare trumpets and trombones stage front is a stand out moment and one I think they can( and will!) build on as the season progresses. The props give the corps the opportunity to present some interestingly posed featues, but I don't find the overall visual program quite as enjoyable yet, as the past couple of years.

Programmatically, the key weakness for me right now is the realisation of Goliath, and both the lack of (theatrical) jeopardy when he appears, or sufficient pay off when he’s slain. Fans of GoT may find some similiraties in how long it took for Winter to arrive and how quickly it then went! That said, finding fresh ways of generating effect from killing could now be one of the toughest design challenges in drum corps!  Clearly, it would be unreasonable to expect there to be a 9-foot, 250lbs 21 year old  on the field, but I’m not sure the current approach is hitting the right level for a corps with aspirations to climb to the top echelon. That said, Boston have proven adept over the last couple of years at introducing some stand-out big-effect ideas. I look forward to seeing what they bring this season.

If this show does truly catch fire, watch out whoever's in the top three!

Estimated finishing position 3 - 6
Blue Stars
I havent seen too much as yet, but early thoughts are that they are continuing their recent tradition of producing shows that little bit different to everyone else. I really like their approach to drill which gives some very eye-pleasing design work aligned to their unique approach to costuming. It may be clever use of materials but I'm not sure I'd want to be performing in Texas in those furry boots! One takeaway is that the Into The Wild theme will need some work to convey, as wild is an inherently difficult concept to convey aligned to 'clean'.  Likewise, the props as currently realised are functional rather than emotive. It will be interesting to see how the story of ascending to the top of the mountain is leveraged into emotional appeal in the show, but regardless, I think this shows has the potential to be another strong year for the Blue Starts.

Estimated finishing position 6 - 8
Blue Knights

The first 2 minutes of this show are  some of favourite on the field so far this year as they use full corps music and drill to generate the tension into the opening hit. The battery 360 floating turns are a great example of 'simple but effective', and take me back a little to SCV’s Miss Saigon helipcopter percussion from 91. Bucking the prop race this year, BK have only simple static background props, and for it makes a refreshing change. This years show is a bit of an ‘unplugged’ moment in that respect compared to the pack. There’s no story telling and the show-blurb is so esoteric you don't need it. Instead this show is one just to enjoy for what you are seeing and hearing, not what you think you are meant to be seeing and hearing. With the prop staging as it is, field feels wide open, and the corps – with the guard in a complimentary colour palette to the musicians – seems all the bigger  They also seem to march more than most with some great eye-pleasing visual design on display as well as some well-coordinated mass-movement. The musical book appears challenging and has some nice moments in a book that seems to have been arranged with a lighter more ethereal touch than many this year. One question mark is whether that are enough exciting high points and how to close out the final act. But overall,  I think BK have got a great vehicle and I look forward to seeing how well they drive it by seasons end!

Estimated finishing position 6 - 9
I've not seen much of these guys but early impressions are that they are taking another step forward this year, and continuing to plough quite a dark approach to programming in both look and feel. They even make use of the classic drum corps trope of 'evil dude cloaked in black', though to be fair, he's used in an interesting way that deviates from the expected. Like the corps above them, Mandarins are bringing a style of their own to the table, and this for me is a clear indication that they are moving towards being a top 6 contender. Maybe not quite this year but they won't be far off!
Estimated finishing position 6 - 9
I  haven't had much opportunity to watch beyond these and/or some corps are clearly in rebuilding year. I guess we should all try and remember that for one corps to climb a place another has to fall, and in terms of drum corps talent its a zero sum game.
General thoughts
  • So far ths year, I've not spotted much in the way of new ideas within drill design and I struggle to recall last year too. Can we now safely say the age of 'peak drill' is well behind us? (peaking omewhere around the turn of the last decade in hindsight?) While the product has to continue to evolve, I do hope corps find new ways to innovate in terms of drill, and full ensemble effect moments.
  • While we may be past peak-drill, we're probably  still on the way towards peak prop. Increasingly, the 'high-prop' award will be based on versality, movability, and how fast can performers get on and off (or in and out), rather than what the prop looks like at any given moment?
  • Drum corps endings – are they suffering from the evolution of he prop? Not all corps have space on the field for company fronts and full corps signature moves but in the spirit of the peak-end rule for the audience as returning punters, I hope corps really hone their endings this year even if with build-up evaluation as it is today, they don’t necessarily need great endings.
  • A few times I notice corps build up tension nicely then lose it through dropping horns and going into more freeform movement ready for the next musical phase. I get it has it’s place, particularly when  high velocity, but think it can be a missed opportunity to keep the view locked in.
  • When you watch several shows back to back the opening hit into extended drum break pattern is nearly ubiquitous. 
  • The 2nd movements of shows tend to carry a lot of the tempo and demand. This doesn't necessarily lend itself to story telling at a point in the show where is needs to propel the narrative. A challenge for several corps as the season progresses.
  • I hesitate to mention this one, for fear of harking back to the perennial applause-ometer discussions from years gone by, but I think the hardest design challenge in drum corps is to generate a mid-show standing O. As shows evolve year on year, so does audience taste, and while appreciation might fuel people onto their feet at the end, to get the  audience properly stirred mid-show really takes some work. Who will do this best come August? This is the most difficult of predictions right now!
Thanks for reading!
Edited by grimmo
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Excellent!!  Thank you for taking so much time to provide your comments; they were thoughtful and informative!

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