District 97 - Hybrid Child

Year of Release: 2010
Label: The Laser's Edge
Catalog Number: LE1057
Format: CD
Total Time: 00:00:00

While I don't know if we can call the second decade of the 2000s the decade of the woman-fronted prog band -- as there has been such a thing for years -- it seems as if more of the new prog rock bands come to the fore of late have a woman singing lead vocals. Kingfisher Sky, The Reasoning, Touchstone, Strawberry Fields, just to name a few that come to mind*. Another is District 97, a new melodic prog rock band hailing from Chicago.

You've probably read the early press on this band, mentioning that vocalist Leslie Hunt was a finalist on American Idol and that their instrumental make up includes Katinka Kleijn, a cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But this is more than a duo, as the throbbing bass (Patrick Mulcahy), crashing drums (Jonathan Shang), tinkling and widdily keyboards (Rob Clearfield) and searing guitar (Jim Tashjian) attest. It's a band, and very good band at that.

Hunt has a clear voice, one that has instant appeal. It will sound weird to say, but it's a friendly voice, which makes the music inviting. Add to that the melodic backdrop that flows between gentle and, while not brutal, certainly aggressive - you don't want to be in the way when Katinka Kleijn gets going on the cello, as she attacks it on this first track with much gusto.

So, District 97 launch themselves with a solid debut release called Hybrid Child - it rocks, it caresses; it snarls, it talks sweetly; it's heavy, it's light; it's dark, it's bright. It's an energetic sound that jumps out with the very first track, the punchy, insistent "I Don't Wanna Wait Another Day." It's only here -- well, right at the beginning -- where the cello seems out of place; an element added on after the fact. Not entirely, because it's quite obvious that during the second solo it is answering the keyboards that are responding to the first solo and it seems more integrated. The third solo/bridge-lead-in, which comes at the 4-minute mark, works, and made me think of Kansas, even as this pastoral, mellow section of is vaguely Yes/Genesis-like; not exactly and it may just be me hearing it that way.

"I Don't Wanna..." and the track that follows, the beat-driven "I Can't Take You With Me" hew closer to a pop sound, the latter much more so - it's got a catchy chorus that'll have you singing along in no time. As it was written by Shang, it's not really surprising that drums/percussion form the backbone and driving force -- along with a throbbing bass. There is an intricate, classical inspired, but prog-rock toned keyboard solo that segues into warbly organ solo.

Where they first get their "prog on" is during the extended intro to the third track, "The Man Who Knows Your Name." A tour-de-force intro this is, forceful with bass, cello, drums/percussion taking the lead, in pairs and trios; although keyboards also make appearances). It's heavy without being metal; it's more a modified fusion. Actually, I guess without the inclusion of cello, which adds a guttural edge to the proceedings, it would be fusion. All of which flows seamlessly into an expansive, epic and lovely vocal section filled with airy keyboards, searing and soaring guitar, and eddying keyboards. Elements of, but not quite approaching, the marks of "neo-prog," and yet you'd be more inclined to think of The Flower Kings (if you were familiar enough to be inclined; cannot assume, and yet I do). Just as gracefully it exits back into the outro that restates the intro.

Aside from the epic "Mindscan" which spans the latter half of the CD, the darkest track here is the slashing, snarly and moody "Termites." Honestly, who would be happy about termites anyway? But uh, no, it's not about termites, it a metaphor, and, at least in my reading of the lyrics it's a metaphor wrapped in a metaphor, but each not without its own meaning - on the one hand, I'd say it's pro-vegan, but on the other, I see it more as anti-gluttony. And as you know, termites will just go and go as long as there's wood to eat... Here we do get a heaviness that approaches prog metal ferocity, only to be tempered by the cello. A reversal really from the tracks that precede it, as where in the others, the cello is the aggressor, here's the peacemaker (at least in its solo guise, in the mix it's very much a part of the "fight"). What else I like here -- and everywhere - is that Hunt sings with rhythm, the melody. So much prog metal, since I mention that genre, has the vocalist singing over the instrumentation, as if they're separate entities. I'm not saying District 97 are the only ones to do that, but just that they do, and I've noticed it and am moved to enter a general opinion.

And then there's "Mindscan," there's so much going on in this suite of tracks... the first three parts are instrumental... the first part "Arrival," is moody space rock, complete with bubbly effects, starlight effects - all that are hallmarks of putting us, the listener, among the stars. This melds into a gentle and warm electric piano and atmospheric percussion (shimmering cymbals) piece ("Entrance")- quite lovely. An interesting guitar/keyboard (or dual keys, not sure) duet bridges into "Realization" - and at first restatement of the space of rock of "Arrival" before ... Oh, how to describe? It's a cool effect --a drama-filled rising/drawing back before chaos ensues in grungy, gut-level space-fusion (ultra-parpy keys, crashing drums, grinding bass/cello) ... depositing us into what can only be described as cheerfully bouncing keys and bass with Hunt's buoyant vocals riding atop ("Welcome") - what is that sweetness hiding? Well, "Examination" skitters, twitters, chittering, whispers, buzzes... a plethora of sound effects that will creep you out... not the least of which is the forest of voices speaking, the chaos of reading several minds tapped into at once. Piano and vocal return for "Hybrid Child," a sweet sounding piece (although lyrically there's still something sinister about it all), with tasty Hammond organ thrown in at the piece's apex. It's a beautifully soaring piece. "Exploration" is a throbbing bass, cell and drums piece that leads into "Want To They Want" which adds vocals to this pounding and pummeling rhythm. "When I Awake" shifts things down to mid-tempo for a short time, eases us with a languid bridge, sparse with bass and light percussion, and then explodes into a mean and snarly guitar solo. The suite ends on a harsh and fiery note (restating "Exploration"). Well, in fact, it ends with a return to the spacey atmospheres on which it began. Yeh, for a couple of seconds I thought of the outro to Gary Wright's "Dreamweaver" although only in the use of twinkling sound effects.

This youthful sextet is exuberant, but the music is mature. Sure, they sound like they're having fun, even during the "message song" of "Termites," but are paying serious attention to their craft. While in a very general sense, they aren't doing anything we haven't heard before, there is also something fresh and thrilling about the music they do make, and aside from a few moments here and there, I rarely thought "oh, that sounds like"... The prog realm needs fresh blood, and fresh angles, to keep the genre alive - help it progress. Which leads me to believe District 97 are on the right track.

*of course, The Reasoning shouldn't count, per se, as vocalist Rachel Jones was first with Karnataka, and so predates the timeframe of my premise.

I Don't Want To Wait Another Day (7:18) / I Can't Take You With Me (5:37) / The Man Who Knows Your Name (8:49) / Termites (5:54) / Mindscan I: Arrival (1:31) / Mindscan II: Entrance (3:07) / Mindscan III: Realization (2:46) / Mindscan IV: Welcome (2:48) / Mindscan V: Examination (2:54) / Mindscan VI: Hybrid Child (3:31) / Mindscan VII: Exploration (2:20) / Mindscan VIII: What Do They Want (2:42) / Mindscan IX: When I Awake (3:12) / Mindscan X: Returning Home (2:45)

Rob Clearfield - keyboards; baritone guitar (4)
Leslie Hunt - vocals
Katinka Kleijn - cello
Patrick Mulcahy - bass
Jonathan Schang - drums, percussion
Jim Tashjian - guitars

Hybrid Child (2010)
Live At CalProg (CDR) (2010)
Trouble With Machines (2012)
Live At Rites Of Spring (dl/CDR) (2012)
Live At WFPK FM (CDR/DVDR) (2012) One More Red Night - Live In Chicago (w/John Wetton) (2013)
In Vaults (2015)

Live At De Boerderij (DVD) (2017)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin US

Added: April 16th 2011
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website: www.district97.net
Hits: 1550
Language: english


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