It’s a steep road up to the stadium but it’s the thudding sound echoing off the neighbouring buildings that causes your heart to beat faster – you know it can only be the sound of a drumline warming up.
As the gates of the stadium come into view the sound of a brassline playing scales drifts through the warm close air and your walking pace has nearly doubled. And then as you enter the car park you can finally breathe it all in – the trucks unloading orchestral percussion equipment, a large group in matching tour t-shirts having a last minute run-through of a drill movement, a corps lining up in uniform ready to enter the stadium. It’s the first show of the marching band and drum corps season. And if you have the bug, it’s hugely exciting.
This competition is a joint British Youth Band Association (BYBA) and Drum Corps United Kingdom (DCUK) show hosted by Revolution Show Corps, this year taking place in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. Having two competitions on the same day with many of the same units competing in both gives you a chance to see the competitive season in microcosm as corps attempt to redress the placings from a few hours previous. This year’s competition was particularly exciting in that respect.
First on the field in the mornings BYBA competition are Halifax Boys & Girls Brigade. A band with a long history in competing, this year their show of contemporary popular music titled ‘Cheesy Pop’ is aimed squarely at entertaining the crowd. The opening ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry is a strong beginning from a small but well-balanced brass line. The deceptively tricky Pharrell Williams hit, ‘Happy’, follows and the Marimba is well used to carry the melody across. The show has a lot of movement and there’s no denying the band work hard.
The Phantom of the Opera guides Comets Performance Ensemble through their 2016 production. There are some nice transitions between the tunes, particularly from ‘Masquerade’ into ‘Music of the Night’ and some effective flag work from ‘the Phantom’. A confident trumpet duet also shines in this well thought-out show which just lacks some bass – nothing that can’t be sorted with more confident use of the front line and marching percussion.
The beauty of BYBA is that bands of all styles can enter and be judged on their own merits, plus it’s comparatively equal due to age restrictions. 10th South Shields Boys Brigade & Girls Organisation perform in a ‘traditional’ marching show band style that predates the arrival of US style drum corps in the UK. A solo Spanish bull fighting trumpet call begins the show which features geometric drill patterns and some crisp snare drum work. A sea-themed section is particularly effective with a bell lyre feature of ‘Anchors Away’ running straight into the Boys Brigade hymn, ‘Will Your Anchor Hold?’ complete with anchor-shaped formation. A rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ with the ending played on solo trumpet was a very nice moment introducing a different dynamic into the performance.
Stafford Brigades took us on a tour of the musicals with some effective brass writing, confident playing and good movement on the field. The opener “Look Down’ from Les Miserables and ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked showed all this in action. A highlight was the pause before the chorus of ‘Food Glorious Food’ when what must have been the youngest corps member held up a bowl ahead of the company front and loudly asked “Please Sir, Can I have some more?” – an example of the dynamics and showmanship that was rewarded with the Best Musical Effect and Musical Analysis awards in the Championship Class.
Next to take the field were Nexus Drum & Bugle Corps who began with a series of solos building to a bright brass sound that belied the size of the corps. Exploring the theme of time, their show ‘Carpe Diem’ really worked as a cohesive concept grabbing your attention and not letting go. The front line were particularly effective with interludes tying the musical pieces together and a strong colour guard winning the highest score in that category. The dance work in the ballad really helped the mood of the piece, a real example of movement and music working together. High field scores throughout earned them a worthy first place in the Championship Class today.
Absent from BYBA competition for a number of years but mainstays of DCUK cadet class, Concord All Stars bring the first half of the morning to an entertaining end with their ‘Viva Las Vegas!’ show. The famous 70’s Elvis riff kicks off the performance and along the way we get a full Vegas show complete with a magician performing a giant card trick and some classy guard work in ‘Luck Be A Lady Tonight’. This year’s show is a huge leap forward for this young corps who are all aged 9-16 with all sections really showing the fruits of some hard work and a ‘can do’ attitude.
The Premier class was comprised of four drum corps who also competed in the afternoon’s DCUK competition. A wait for results built anticipation that the scoring was particularly tight and promise of more keen competition to come later in the day.
Beeches Performance Ensemble performed in a striking all-white uniform with aqua details created specially for this water-themed show. A slow atmospheric build with the brass initially dancing across the field then picking up their instruments to build a crescendo of music and visuals set the tone for a performance where both elements have clearly been developed together. Details such as the corps rocking backwards and forwards like cascading waves add to the effect. They were rewarded with good visual scores in both competitions. A rich brass sound is to the fore on a wonderful ‘Swan Lake’ section and they sold this particularly well in the afternoon. Teamed with forceful but controlled marching percussion and a competent front line, this show was absorbing throughout, not least the delightful end push and subsequent ebbing away of music and movement. They placed second in the morning but overtook their victors in the afternoon to take a creditable third place in more populated competition.
The evolution of host corps Revolution has been evident on the field over the past few years with a move towards a more aggressive sound and faster moving show. They state their intention before the judging even begins with a warm-up on field and facing the stand – the only outfit to do this today. They’ve developed a pushy sharp brass sound and there was little delay in putting it into action in the opener, ‘Earth Song’, the first of 4 tunes weaved into a rainforest-theme production. With an aggressive drumline and the field cut down to half size with colourful painted screens, this makes for an ‘in-yer-face’ show – an approach that strikes me as a very British take on drum corps. Visually and musically the heat is kept on full for most of the show, perhaps a conscious design decision to suggest the breathless humidity of life ‘Under The Canopy’. It’s possibly a stylistic gamble but it pays off handsomely this morning as their gutsy performance takes the top spot and the visual and musical effect captions.
There’s celebration in the air for East Coast Elite, and not just because they were crowned BYBA Champions last season, but also due to their 2016 production including a christening and a wedding. They bring the traditional English church setting and music onto the field with movable wooden church pews, graveyard crosses and a selection of music associated with a Christian act of worship. There’s some demanding brass writing from the off with Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D’ and Bach’s ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’ amongst the ecclesiastical tunes. It’s a much faster moving show than the list of music would suggest and field percussion and brass caption awards along with a close-run third place are their reward today. If there’s one problem it might be that the show design doesn’t often have the brass best placed to get maximum impact from the crescendos which is a shame as this can be a very capable hornline with a good command of dynamics. The colour guard also take their caption and one of the visual highlights of the show is their dancing with giant wedding wings and a wedding ceremony complete with bride, groom and the throwing of the bouquet.
Last in the BYBA competition is Phantom Knights with the somewhat unnerving theme of ‘Phobias’. One of the on-field judges later confesses to me that they were very lucky there weren’t clowns in the show or she’d
have been straight out of the stadium. There are no clowns but masks and spiders do feature and an eerie tone is maintained throughout, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ sounding particularly menacing. There’s some interesting visual play as the drumline down instruments and emerge from behind screens with large flags and then dance with the colourguard. For me though the best bit of staging is the ending where most of the corps turn and march off the field but the frontline continue to play a repetitive musical cadence – it’s genuinely haunting.
The battle for the top spot in DCUK over the last few years has been the story of two corps: The Company and Kidsgrove Scouts. It is the former who take the field mid-competition this afternoon. If last year’s French travelling circus show was about starting with nothing and building to a finale, this year’s has the whole package ready assembled from the start – but in monochrome. With the theme ‘Inspire Me’ and the visual metaphor of a blank canvas and paint, the show starts with the corps dressed in shades of cream and white plus white flags, sabres and rifles. As narration introduces the theme, the always superb frontline start to paint a musical picture along with an echo-drenched trumpet solo, the brass and marching percussion joining to create a rich sound building quickly to a big impact opening statement. The music includes excerpts from Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, itself inspired by a painting by pointillist artist Georges Seurat. Seurat worked to a theory that elements in a painting could create harmony just as musical notes do. It’s a harmonious drum corps performance with more attention to how the guard and music members move in harmony around the field than in some of their previous shows. The guard gradually introduce simple coloured flags to stunning visual effect throughout the show – they score highly with the judges today. You might even say it’s quite a traditional show from the corps with a reputation for innovation. It is however delivered with great panache, and with high scores in effect, music and visual captions they take first place today.
Reigning European Drum Corps Champions Kidsgrove Scouts have a horn line that can melt steel at 100 yards. Their rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No.5 in C Minor’ is a pretty faithful rendition with plenty of power and sounding very sharp for so early in the season. We’re wondering if this corps with a penchant for adding jazz to most everything are actually playing it all straight this year when their irresistibly funky drumline hit a riff and somehow the whole thing becomes a Cuban big band arrangement complete with stratospheric trumpet solo. It sounds nuts on paper, it sounds fantastic from the stand. The large colour guard are strikingly effective this year adding real colour and dazzle, particularly so at the end of the percussion feature where some great flag work is timed perfectly with the music – it’s textbook drum corps spectacle. The theme ‘Symmetricity’ is mostly evident in 16 huge mirrors that are moved constantly around the corps. It’s surprisingly effective and as they reflect the guards flags or as parts of the corps weave in and out it genuinely confuses the eye. It’s an entertaining high velocity show and they’re only narrowly beaten to second place this afternoon.
Sadly rain prevents a repeat winners performance but no-one’s complaining after a day showcasing some very nicely put together shows and some great performances. With the very tight battles for top spots thrown in as well it looks like it’s going to be an exciting season for many reasons.