DISTRICT 97 – Trouble With Machines

Laser’s Edge

This album shouldn’t work. In the blue corner we have a bunch of post-prog instrumental experimenters from Chicago. In the red corner is an American Idol Top 10 Female Finalist with a slightly nasal twang. However, the resulting collision is much less car crash than multi-dimensional mash up. From the apparent wreckage climbs a genuinely innovative and compelling collection of post-prog songs.

In Leslie Hunt, of American Idol fame, District 97 have a front-woman who provides a melodic counterpoint to the complexity of the music. There’s a maturity here. With their second album, the band are beginning to sound comfortable in their fusion skin.

The highlight is ‘The Perfect Young Man’, a ten minute workout that admirably demonstrates their burgeoning confidence. It alloys a sweet vocal texture and a driving rhythm (courtesy of Asia/King Crimson’s John Wetton on the bass) with enough musical exploration to demand the services of a top spec Tom Tom. The Hammond organ front and centre is a joy. Lyrics too show plenty of ambition: here we are retold the Jekyll and Hyde-tinged story of America’s first mass murderer, Chicago resident HH Holmes.

‘Open Your Eyes’ has a strong vocal hook and clean flowing melodies with a wandering minstrel guitar break presaging a decent lick by its electric cousin. ‘Read Your Mind’ has a cello cameo that works perfectly. ‘The Actual Colors’ neatly showcases District 97’s crossover appeal. Everything is here. Hints of jazz, a splash of funk, a groove of honky-tonk piano that Jools Holland wouldn’t cock a snook at. Sweeps of keyboard that would inevitably put one in mind of, well, Yes. (I suppose the reference had to come at some stage…)

The band may not be quite the finished article just yet. Parts of ‘The Thief‘ are hard work to listen to where Leslie’s vocal phrasing grates a touch. The staccato opener, ‘Back and Forth’ is disjointed and inaccessible, harking back to their experimental days. Drummer and band leader, Jonathan Schang, keys-man Rob Clearfield and bassist Patrick Mulcahy are the original trio from those days. Jim Tashjian joined on guitar after the release of 2006’s Hybrid Child. If his impact on cuts like ‘Who Cares’ is anything to go by, the band are firmly on the right track. Here’s hoping the sat nav does its job.


Dave Atkinson

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