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District 97: Trouble With Machines

One of the more surprising albums of 2010, the District 97 debut effort Hybrid Child received more clamour for the fact that the band's singer Leslie Hunt had competed as a finalist in 2007's American Idol, than the excellent music it contained (although with Man On Fire singer Elise Testone reversing the journey for this year's TV talent contest, maybe it isn't as shocking as was first thought...). However in the cold light of day it wasn't merely Hunt's voice, or the prog-idol crossover shock that made the album stand out, the clash of traditional prog and a modern approach ensured that the music itself made Hybrid Child a worthy contender for time on any prog-lovers playlist.

So two years later and District 97 are back with their second album and while not much has changed, neither has much stood still, with Hunt still leading much of Trouble With Machines from the front, but only because what she is backed by is pretty damn impressive in the first place. As many prog albums do TWM splits into two types of songs. The long, meandering, jarring mini-epics and the shorter blasts of melody that offer light relief for those fatigued by off-kilter time signatures, vocal melodies that intentionally work against the keyboards/guitar lines and long drawn out arrangements. The effect is one where the album feels challenging and technical, while simultaneously being quite immediate and memorable, catchy even. Although when you revisit it, somehow the commercial sheen you imagined remembering isn't quite there, with more of the bristling riffs, keen piano forays and pounding drum adventures revealing themselves to be not as simple and straight forward as first thought. Every spin reveals more, with "The Perfect Young Man" howling through a guitar and Hammond battle that results in a bloodied tie, before the dancing hi-hat patterns and vocal harmonies between Hunt and guitarist Jim Tashjian come along to trounce all that have come before them. Talking of Tashjian, he really is a mighty talent, but then so is Rob Clearfield, who provides keyboards as well as the odd touch of six string magic.

From the shorter tracks, "Open Your Eyes" lets the vocals really stretch out in a more accessible way, but the ever on the move percussion from Jonathan Schang stops the bouncy riff from becoming just too straight ahead. Although stinging burst of harmony guitar, which are almost laughingly bright and jolly also knocks you out of any comfort zone you'd attempted to settle in. Then bassist Patrick Mulcahy brings the bottom end rumble to the District, with his forceful attack on the funky, almost jazzy romp of "Who Cares?" illustrating his importance to the band to the full.

Much though these shorter blasts are convincingly good fun, it really is where things become more extrovertly introverted that District 97 really make their mark, with the unsettling vocals of "Read Your Mind" leading you into a dreamy, yet threatening setting, before the ever evolving and often spacey "The Thief" brings a subtlety to Trouble With Machines that is only really hinted at elsewhere.

Far from being a flash in the pan prog band with an interesting back story, Trouble With Machines proves that District 97 are in it for the long haul. On the evidence of this album, they'll have a lot of people interested in their journey.


Track Listing
1. Back And Forth
2. Open Your Eyes
3. The Actual Color
4. The Perfect Young Man
5. Who Cares?
6. Read Your Mind
7. The Thief

Added: August 10th 2012
Reviewer: Steven Reid
Score:
Related Link: District 97 Online
Hits: 1989
Language: english

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» SoT Staff Roundtable Reviews:

District 97: Trouble With Machines
Posted by Geoff Glenister, SoT Staff Writer on 2012-08-10 12:28:49
My Score:

District 97, from Chicago, was formed in the fall of 2006 by drummer Jonathan Schang, keyboardist Rob Clearfield, bassist Patrick Mulcahy, and guitarist Sam Krahn (who was eventually replaced by the current guitarist Jim Tashijian). This foursome started out playing instrumental rock, which was heavily inspired by Liquid Tension Experiment. Eventually, the band decided they needed a vocalist who would complement their style and sound, and 2007 American Idol finalist Leslie Hunt was chosen. Yes I said American Idol. I bet you never thought you'd read about an American Idol in a Progressive Rock band, did you?

In any case, Trouble With Machines is District 97's sophomore release, and I feel that - while their debut, "Hybrid Child", was a wonderful and unique album - this album shows maturity and development in style and sound from the previous release. And it is no surprise that the band has earned praise from some big names in the Prog world such as Bill Bruford, John Wetton, and Carl Palmer, as well as chart topping fan support. It is actually quite difficult, in my mind, to place this band into any particular sub-genre, as it presents a unique blending of styles with some Neo Prog, melodic rock, symphonic impressions, hard rock, and even some Progressive Metal style guitar riffs. One of the songs, Perfect Young Man, even feels to my ears sort of like a Prog Rock infused version of a Broadway show tune, especially with the story telling aspect of this song. This melding of styles is complimented extremely well by Leslie Hunt's heavily Jazz-influenced style of singing. Some words and phrases I would use to describe the music of this particular album would be: eclectic, enigmatic, difficult to categorize, playful, clever, exploratory, sassy, and a whole lot of fun. The compositions are wonderfully well thought out, and present many twists and turns, good grooves, complex and playful rhythms, and some excellent musicianship. They even throw some twists at the listener with the choice of instruments, as they feature cello playing (which at one point strangely enough seemed to be played in a similar style to Flemenco guitar playing) and even a short Banjo section. This is truly an inspired piece of work, and an enjoyable and unique release and I highly recommend keeping an eye on this band, as I will be doing.

District 97: Trouble With Machines
Posted by Pete Pardo, SoT Staff Writer on 2012-08-04 06:56:57
My Score:

2010's Hybrid Child, the debut from District 97, impressed the hell out of a lot of people, myself included, with their ability to mix stunning prog rock with pop, classical, and heavy metal. Lead vocalist Leslie Hunt draws a lot of the attention, not only because she appeared on American Idol, but to put it mildly she has a great voice. Here we are two years later and the band is back with Trouble With Machines, another fine platter of progressive rock music that sees the classical part taking a back seat this time (cellist Katinka Kleijn only appears on one track), but the band makes sure they do not lose a step one bit.

There are epic prog statements as well as wonderful pop ditties; for the latter, take a listen to the catchy "Open Your Eyes", and for the former, how about the adventurous "The Actual Color" or the red hot opener "Back and Forth". On the symphonic "The Perfect Young Man", both the prog and the pop elements come out, featuring some great keyboard textures from Rob Clearfield and Jim Tashjian's crisp guitar work. "Who Cares" is more of a rootsy, acoustic pop piece with some catchy hooks, while "Read Your Mind" has some jazz flavors to go along with the pop, prog, and rock foundation. Hunt absolutely soars on the lengthy closer "The Thief", a 13-minute epic that features some muscular guitar work and tasty keyboards courtesy of Clearfield. The rhythm team of Patrick Mulcahy & Jonathan Schang are really locked in throughout, especially on this complex and quite engaging closing number.

Good stuff all around here on Trouble With Machines, proving that there won't be any sophomore slump for District 97. Check it out!



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