Such was the foggy chill hanging in the air over Blackpool on Sunday that it was hard to identify the outline of the town's most famous sentinel landmark almost until the moment you walked into the entrance hall of the Winter Gardens.
No such problems with the musical vision of Championship Section adjudicators Alan Morrison and Ian Brownbill once inside though, as they confirmed that Philip Sparke's demanding 'A Tale As Yet Untold' set-work, "did its job well" in giving them "a very clear table of winners".
And whilst Foden's admitted that they were not at their very best in claiming the title for a fifth consecutive year from rivals Fairey with Rainford in third, there was little doubt in the minds of the judges that their victory had been anything other than very obviously defined.
"There was a clear first, clear second and clear third," Alan said before the announcement of the result that gave the Sandbach band their 23rd North West success and Russell Gray his fifth.
He also spoke of 'A Tale As Yet Untold' in indisputable contesting terms: "It's a fabulous piece and fabulous music. Good to play, good to listen to and good for the judges. It separates bands out completely."
His analysis of the three movements — from the need to display rhythmic cohesion in the first, organisation and expression, contrast, blend and balance (and a wow factor) in the second and seamless togetherness in the finale, was also crystal clear.
If anyone doubted what they were looking for then he added that they should refer themselves to the Performance Assessment Criteria (PAC) published on the Association of Brass Band Adjudicators website, where the fundamental as well as aspirational requirements to be adhered to were there in black and white.
Their remarks backed their written opinions.
"This was just a memorable performance from start to finish that oozed class and authority from MD, soloists and band,"Alan wrote. Ian's summing up said that Foden's had given, "a performance with so much musicality and technical assurance."
Those who heard all twelve renditions would have been hard pressed to disagree. Despite not being at their very best, Foden's were still a step ahead of their rivals; the balance and texture of the ensemble (aided by their prize-winning percussion section) backed by the artistry of the solo lines (especially Gary Curtin on euphonium in the middle movement) and assured control in the finale.
"We're very happy with the result,"Mark Wilkinson admitted as he also became the first winner of the Arthur Makin Trophy as 'Best Principal Cornet'.
"We knew it's such a difficult piece. It's been a busy month or so for the band and now we have the European Championships to work towards. Qualifying for the National Finals is always a key ambition for the year. Now we've done that we can concentrate on that next challenge."
Fairey sheen and Rainford delight
Although disappointed not to have regained the title for the first time since 2015, Fairey will be pleased to have booked their Albert Hall return after missing out last year with a performance that although pockmarked with some unforced errors had a classy musical sheen under Garry Cutt's baton.
Delight though for Rainford as they posted their best ever Area finish with a considered, confident rendition under Sarah Groarke-Booth that caught the judge's ears in the box. They continue to make the type of incremental top flight progress that is based on solid musical attributes.
Behind them a youthful Wingates impressed with their lyrical interpretation under Paul Andrews to end fourth, whilst both Milnrow and Leyland were left to ponder what might have been after their coherent, if occasionally uneven accounts saw them complete the top-six.
Elsewhere there were hard working efforts from the remaining contenders, although Philip Sparke's test piece rather starkly showed the clearly defined margins in the competitive standard of top section contesting in the North West.
That was further emphasised in the disappointing overall quality of the First Section, in a contest won by a musically engaging, if somewhat uneven account from Roberts Bakery Band.
They will be joined in Cheltenham by Blackburn & Darwen as Tom Davoren's 'Legacy' proved an elusive, troubling test for the 16 contenders — its subtly calibrated balances, textures and warm tonality far too often replaced with playing of blunt, uninspiring dullness.
Before the contest there had been considerable debate to whether the work would prove to be an adequate test — many believing that it was not technically hard enough.
Those views would hold little credence now, as despite the best efforts, the overall standard was much closer to a true Second Section than any notional step away from Championship level.
How so many bands could not start or finish phrases together, control internal balances, blend textures or maintain accurate intonation was at times baffling. Why so many soprano players opted for banzai mode given a top C or two bordered on the brainless.
Adjudicator Andrew Warriner (joined by Andrea Price) gave a generously framed, but telling pre-result analysis; calling 'Legacy' "a fantastic piece", where the composer "knows exactly what he wants". "The basics were all there" he added, "but the writing was so descriptive".
The top five or six were placed "down to their storytelling" in bringing a sense of nervous anxiety, warm passion and bubbling progress from the triptych score. They were able to knit the music together "with pulse and accomplishment" with "some really good playing and some really great soloists" on show. In reality it was diplomatic faint praise.
The best for them came from the penultimate band, as Paul Lovatt-Cooper's descriptive interpretation with Roberts Bakery made the most of the dynamic contrasts and defined changes of pace to stand out. It gave them their first Area success since 2015 and secured promotion to the top flight in 2021.
Just behind came Blackburn & Darwen's considered, detailed approach under Daniel Thomas, as they returned to the National Finals for the first time since 2009. Both bands were good value for their qualification — but both will know they will have to play better if they are to make a mark in Cheltenham.
Aston under Lyne took the final podium spot with a confident early marker that very nearly held on to secure qualification, whilst Eccles Borough, Flixton and Manx Concert Brass filled the remaining top-six places with accounts that were too often over-wrought.
Others may have left Blackpool disappointed (Longridge certainly caught the ear off the number 1 draw) whilst the rest will have to consider a 'Legacy' prescription that needs to be taken in large doses to rid them of ingrained ailments of tonal harshness, balance and a lack of ensemble cohesion.
Kit Turnbull's colourful portrait of the swashbuckling Russian bon-viveur and poet Denis Davydov made for an entertaining contest in the Pavilion Theatre.
Howard Evans and Anne Crookston certainly considered their opinions in picking Uppermill as the winner, after Dean Redfearn led an impressive, confident sounding band to their first Area title since 2008. On this form they will return to Cheltenham as one of the shorter priced favourites to add to the Third Section National title they won last year.
Joining them will be two other well led outfits in Valley Brass (Haydock) (who also qualified for a second successive year) and Eagley, whose battle hardened MDs used experience and contesting nous to develop their series of narrative storylines with cohesion and relevance — from the opening dawn light bugle calls to the triumphant swagger of the 'Trionfale' Borodino finale.
The early contest marker had been set by Delph off the number 1 draw to eventually finish fourth, with the judges having plenty to ponder before the mid-contest break with six of the first seven bands eventually coming in the top eight — led by Valley Brass (Haydock)'s purposeful account.
There were also performances of note for the judges from the other top-six finishers of Old Hall Brass and Allerton Brass.
After the break there appeared to be a bit of a lull in proceedings, before Chris Wormald's engaging interpretation with Eagley saw them eventually end third and claim their first National Final appearance since 2008.
Uppermill quickly upped the qualification ante with a rendition that captured both the precise intentions as well as the flamboyant characteristics of the poetic tale of daring-do to a tee — led by the excellent 'Best Soprano' contribution of Mark Wears, the solid foundation work of the 'Best Basses' and tactful colouring of their 'Best Percussion'.
And with Dean Redfearn presented with the Chris Giblin Memorial Trophy as the winning conductor and the band secretary picking up a trophy too, they headed home laden with more battle honours than Denis Davydov won in all his Napoleonic campaigns.
Andrew Baker's evocative 'Endurance' certainly lived up to its name, as one of the sternest tests at this level for many a year saw all 17 bands tackle the musical elements in the bravest of fashions to try and secure their place at Cheltenham.
Much like Ernest Shackleton over a hundred years ago, they were tested to the limit, with adjudicators Nicholas Garman and later, Mike Kilroy, full of well-deserved praise for their efforts. The composer who was present was also impressed by what he heard.
The eventual winner was Hazel Grove conducted by Nigel Beasley, who used his years of top flight experience to produce a technically and musically balanced account off the early number 2 draw to claim a first North West title and National Finals appearance since 2010.
That it repelled a number of hard working accounts from rivals said a great deal about the way in which the performance was constructed and delivered (aided by their 'Best Percussion' team), bringing to life the descriptive writing with blended sounds and dynamic control (a must in the boomy acoustic of the Empress Ballroom).
There was also much for the judges to admire with runner-up, Lostock Hall Memorial (returning to Cheltenham for the second time in three years) as well as fellow qualifiers Pilling Jubilee Silver, who maintained their excellent run of form to end third. Both Ryan Broad and Steve Hartley also brought out the character of the writing without recourse to over excitement and harsh tonality.
Just behind in an engaging battle of contesting fortitude came Darwen Brass, City of Chester and Hoover Bolton, whilst each of the 17 contenders from the Antarctic battle in credit.
As Mike Kilroy later stated on his Facebook page; "It was such a joy to hear bands making music rather than being forced to blast and rummage their way through endless technical passages. The best combinations of musical MD's and bands that reflected their musical intent won the day.
However there were many moments when bands were able to shine, and so many did at different times during the piece.
The stand out thing for me was the quality of the soloists. Every one of them can stand proud today that they did a great job for their band. There was not one during the whole day that did not deliver to the best of their ability, very impressive indeed."
Few would disagree.
Few, if any, would have had any disagreements about the challenges posed by Christopher Bond's wonderfully characterised test-piece in the Fourth Section — especially the newly crowned 2020 champion BMP Europe Ltd Goodshaw.
Led by a Peter Pan who never seems to grow old in terms of competitive spirit in David W Ashworth, they claimed the title with a wonderfully developed performance of 'Neverland' — one hallmarked by the conductor's renowned appreciation of banding basics.
As he later told 4BR, he had just eight rehearsals to get things right, and was delighted with the approach and commitment of the players to what he wanted bring out of the descriptive score.
Few at this level do it better as he led them to their first Area title and National Final appearance since 1995.
BMP were certainly pushed all the way by fellow qualifiers Skelmersdale Prize, as they sneaked in ahead of the impressive early markers provided by Littleborough (winning the award for 'Best Trombones') and Brindle ('Best Percussion'), whilst the remaining top-six places went to well directed renditions from the returning Morecambe and Golborne.
Adjudicator David Roberts (joined by John Doyle) was full of praise for all the bands, with both men complimenting the high standard of playing, the appreciation of the hall's lively acoustic by the best and the need to keep an eye on intonation issues which cost others more dearly.
With the composer also enjoying every performance (evident in his tweets) and with the contest seeing the return of bands such as St John's (Mossley) and Morecambe, as well as the brilliant youngsters of Dobcross Youth and Red Admiral Brass on show, it was a thoroughly enjoyable start to the contest weekend.
It was also one run with excellent efficiency, generous spirit (there were a series of well deserved presentations) and a warm welcome by the regional committee led by secretary, Richard Milton.
Qualifying for the National Finals is always a key ambition for the year. Now we've done that we can concentrate on that next challengeMark Wilkinson, Foden's Band
Test Piece: A Tale as Yet Untold (Philip Sparke)
Adjudicators: Ian Brownbill and Alan Morrison
1. Foden's (Russell Gray)*
2. Fairey (Garry Cutt)*
3. Rainford (Sarah Groarke-Booth)
4. Wingates (Paul Andrews)
5. Milnrow (Chris Binns)
6. Leyland (Thomas Wyss)
7. Pemberton Old Wigan DW (Ben Dixon)
8. Oldham (Lees) (John Collins)
9. Wardle Anderson Brass (Sean Conway)
10. TCTC Group (Jef Sparkes)
11. Boarshurst Silver (James Garlick)
12. VBS Poynton (Ryan Watkins)
*Qualify for National Final
Best Principal Cornet: Mark Wilkinson (Foden's)
Best Percussion: Foden's
Test Piece: Legacy (Tom Davoren)
Adjudicators: Andrea Price and Andrew Warriner
1. Roberts Bakery (Paul Lovatt-Cooper)*
2. Blackburn & Darwen (Daniel Thomas)*
3. Ashton-Under-Lyne (Jamie Prophet)
4. Eccles Borough (Mareika Gray)
5. Flixton (Matthew Ryan)
6. Manx Concert Brass (Ian Clague MBE)
7. Freckleton (Matt Shaw)
8. Longridge (Mark Peacock)
9. Mossley (Duncan Byers)
10. Middleton (Kevin Gibbs)
11. Bollington Brass (Peter Christian)
12. Haydock (Mark Quinn)
13. Silk Brass (Tony Wyatt)
14. Marple (Stephen Curtis)
15. Diggle (Alan Widdop)
16. Haslingden & Helmshore (John Binns)
*Qualify for National Final
Best Percussion: Freckleton
Test Piece: The Golden Sabre — Tales of the Hussar-Poet, Denis Davydov (Kit Turnbull)
Adjudicators: Annie Crookston and Howard J Evans
1. Uppermill (Dean Redfern)*
2. Valley Brass (Haydock) (David Chadwick)*
3. Eagley (Chris Wormald)*
4. Delph (Jonathan Davies)
5. Old Hall Brass (John North)
6. Allerton Brass (Adam Taylor)
7. Tyldesley (Robert Taylor)
8. Besses o' th' Barn (Trevor Halliwell)
9. Pemberton Old Wigan DW 'B' (Gareth Brindle)
10. Blackpool Brass (Max Stannard)
11. Greenfield (Phil Goodwin)
12. Cheshire Constabulary (David Woolam)
13. Poulton-Le-Fylde (A. Webb)
14. Eccleston Brass (John Wood)
15. Crewe Brass (Matt Pithers)
16. Besses Boys (James Holt)
*Qualify for National Final
Best Soprano: Mark Wears (Uppermill)
Best Basses: Uppermill
Best Percussion: Uppermill
Withdrawn: Farnworth & Walkden (Dan Price)
Test Piece: Endurance (Andrew Baker)
Adjudicators: Nicholas Garman and Mike Kilroy
1. Hazel Grove (Nigel Beasley)*
2. Lostock Hall Memorial (Ryan Broad)*
3. Pilling Jubilee Silver (Steve Hartley)*
4. Darwen Brass (Len Charnock)
5. City of Chester (Ewan Easton)
6. Hoover Bolton (Craig Mann)
7. Rode Hall Silver (Nigel Butler)
8. Formby (Louise Hough MBE)
9. Whitworth Vale & Healey (John Binns)
10. Greenhall's (J. Hall)
11. Trinity Girls (Richard Evans)
12. Rivington & Adlington (Malcolm Wilson)
13. Parr St. Helens (John Ludden)
14. Sale Brass (Matthew Hindle)
15. Hawk Green (Neil Hewson)
16. Douglas Town (Ken Mitchell)
17. Thornton Cleveleys (Dave Houghton)
*Qualify for National Final
Best Percussion: Hazel Grove
Test Piece: Neverland (Christopher Bond)
Adjudicators: John Doyle and David Roberts
1. BMP Europe Ltd. Goodshaw (David W. Ashworth)*
2. Skelmersdale Prize (Ben Coulson)*
3. Littleborough (Sam Fisher)
4. Brindle (Matthew Balson)
5. Morecambe (Andrew Porter)
6. Golborne Brass (Joshua Hughes)
7. Dobcross Silver (Jason M. Smith)
8. Stalybridge Old (James Atkins)
9. St. John's (Mossley) (Paul Towle)
10. Stacksteads (Fred Bowker)
11. Ramsey Town (Robert Quane)
12. Cadishead Public (David Holland)
13. Red Admiral Brass (Stuart Barton)
14. Blackley (Adrian Smith)
15. Dobcross Youth (Seth Livingstone)
16. Denton Brass (Robert Yates)
*Qualify for National Final
Best Trombones: Littleborough
Best Percussion: Brindle