District 97 are a modern progressive rock band formed in 2006 by drummer Jonathan Schang, keyboard player Rob Clearfield, bassist Patrick Mulcahy, and guitarist Sam Krahn. Originally this Chicago based band played an instrumental style inspired by acts such as Liquid Tension Experiment or Planet X before they decided to change things up a bit and add a vocalist. In comes 2007 American Idol finalist Leslie Hunt to fill the vocal slot, guitarist Jim Tashjian replaced Krahn, as well as the addition of Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Katinka Kleijn, and the result is their debut album Hybrid Child on The Lasers Edge.
Honestly, it took me a few weeks and a bunch of listens for Hybrid Child to really sink in and start to uncover all its rewards. It's not an easy album to get an instant reaction from, so rather than fire off some immediate impressions I decided to give it plenty of time, and that was indeed the right way to go. You can hear how District 97 were an instrumental prog/metal outfit previously, as they obviously have the chops, and some of these songs sounds like they might have been written to include extended instrumental passages which have now been chopped down in favor of vocal section. Hunt's lovely vocals contain plenty of charm and whimsical playfullness on the fun opener "I Don't Want To Wait Another Day ", a tun that sort of reminded me of Finneus Gauge at first, until the dizzying cello from Kleijn took things in classic The Move or ELO directions. It proved to be a tune I just couldn't get out of my head for days on end. Pop meets prog meets metal on "I Can't Take You With Me", another track with an instantly memorable hook plus some crunchy power chords and kick ass Hammond from Clearfield. "The Man Who Knows Your Name" reminded me a bit of vintage Kansas, with cello replacing violin as one of the main ingredients, plus some intricate guitar and keyboard passages. Things quickly shift gears on the raging metal attack of "Termites", as Tashjian unleashes some punishing riffs and Schang flails on his kit while Hunt delivers her most aggressive vocal performance on the CD. Plenty of instrumental mania on this one towards the middle section, and the band even get in some 'mosh pit' friendly sections that will surprise some listeners with its intensity.
The 10 part, 25+ minute "Mindscan" suite takes up the entire second half of the CD, and it's quite adventurous and thought provoking. The band goes from atmospheric keyboard washes, calming cello passages, to breakneck metal, to soaring prog rock, to accessible vocal sections thoughout this extended multi-part epic, so there's something for everyone here. When they put it all together, the results are quite magical.
As good as Hybrid Child is, my guess is that this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as what we can expect from District 97. This band is very young, so dispite some killer chops that are on display here, it's frightening to think that they can only get better. Leslie Hunt has that 'American Idol' buzz, plus her voice is instantly accessible and charming, seemingly ready for the mainstream. Add in the wonderful cello, vintage 70's prog sounds, and a modern metal attitude, and you have a unique band that could very well be a quick breakout sensation.
1. I Don't Want To Wait Another Day (7:17)
2. I Can't Take You With Me (5:36)
3. The Man Who Knows Your Name (8:48)
4. Termites (5:53)
5. Mindscan I: Arrival (1:30)
6. Mindscan II: Entrance (3:07)
7. Mindscan III: Realization (2:45)
8. Mindscan IV: Welcome (2:47)
9. Mindscan V: Examination (2:53)
10. Mindscan VI: Hybrid Child (3:30)
11. Mindscan VII: Exploration (2:19)
12. Mindscan VIII: What Do They Want (2:42)
13. Mindscan IX: When I Awake (3:12)
14. Mindscan X: Returning Home (2:42)
Total time 55:01