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District 97 - In Vaults CD (album) cover


District 97


Crossover Prog

3.60 | 60 ratings

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Special Collaborator
Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
4 stars American female fronted hard prog band District 97 are now three albums into their career, and the band seem more inspired and completely devoted to the progressive rock cause than ever on their third album, 2015's `In Vaults'. Like on their previous releases, the band offer a mix of gutsy and heavy tunes that work in plenty of fragmented little twists, all driven by little Leslie Hunt's big massive powerhouse voice. A mix of hard-rock, tough near-ballads and lengthier prog-rock workouts, the band are just as likely to drop into jazzy diversions, or some out and out proggy keyboard wig-outs, but always the tune remains the priority, and `In Vaults' keeps the band truly progressing, honing their skills and challenging themselves nicely.

As usual for their albums, repeat listens is an absolute must. On the first couple of spins, the album, like their previous ones, sounds like a bit of a mess of styles and ideas, and it's either a little too straightforward or darting off in too many directions! But repeated plays show the different styles and tunes flowing well together, where the transitions between passages are expertly delivered with cleverness and subtlety. Despite always remaining melodic, there's nothing on this album that is overtly aimed at commercial radio station play (even when, if the current musical climate were different, it would probably be a great idea for the band to deliver many pieces with that audience in mind), and considering Hunt's background (the fact she was an ex-finalist on an early season of `American Idol' is still hugely fascinating for us prog-snobs!), it's really admirable that she has stuck with and remains firmly committed to this proggy/hard rock band, surely the more satisfying direction for her! Another plus are the intelligent and unobvious lyrics written by all the members, challenging and interesting without ever becoming completely self-indulgent or difficult.

First track `Snow Country' grinds back and forth between Opeth-like acoustic guitar laments and harder distorted mud-thick electric riffing, and a versatile vocal from Leslie moves from angelic reflection to unhinged danger! The mix of electric piano amongst the heavy guitars that will also pop up constantly throughout the disc even reminds of French band Nemo, and the piece pulls together into a catchy chorus here and there too. The brilliantly titled `Death by a Thousand Cuts' bristles with snarling danger, full of wild drum fills, Hammond organ blasts, mangled soloing guitar noise and relentless purring bass that strive for a Dream Theater-like technical workout! The next two pieces slow things down and step aside from the heaviness, and `Handlebars' floats with a classy and brilliantly controlled vocal from Leslie, with smooth multi-tracked harmonies and backing voices from the group, plus there's a cool bubbling Hammond organ solo in the middle. `A Lottery' is one of the most mature tracks from the group yet, slow-burn electric guitar simmers, cascading electric piano tiptoes and even loopy Moog spins.

`All's Well That Ends Well' broods with power, and moments of wistful piano and a dreamy vocal lurch to life with King Crimson/`Red'-era skittering drumming, programmed electronic trickles and heroic Moog and Hammond fanfares. Sweaty groover `Takeover' smoulders with a spunky vocal and dirty bluesy guitars, and while `On Paper' holds male/female vocal country rock/bluesy verses, it leads to a ballsy chorus, a thrashing heavy run in the middle and even a stream-of-consciousness Gentle GIant-flavoured quirky break for good measure! The album then concludes on the two longest and most adventurous pieces, first up `Learn From Danny' mixes heavy grunting guitars, mysterious piano, slinking jazz sophistication with a victorious guitar finale, and the I.Q-like Moog and synth runs and Neo-Prog flavours are a welcome surprise that the band pull off beautifully. Stringed instruments weave through the eleven and a half minute closer `Blinding Vision', a melancholic epic of theatrical drama and powerful build. Male/female vocals in perfect unison, doomed piano, plodding drums and despondent guitars raise the tension, and careful cymbal crashes and electric piano ambience calls to mind early King Crimson moments. This overpowering, sombre finale is a very sobering way to close the disc, but is a brave and defiant choice by the band.

With this album now done and dusted, 2016 is going to be an interesting time for the group. Keyboard player Robert Clearfield and bassist Patrick Mulcahy have since departed, but their replacements are already locked in place, so hopefully there's plenty of life and inspiration left in the group to come. But for now, this serves as a nice wrap-up of the current version, and considering it was realised by the crowd-funding efforts of their loyal fanbase, District 97 delivered the very best of their abilities on this superb work. `In Vaults' is a confident and exciting musical statement of intent from a talented young group more devoted than ever before to proper progressive rock, and is their most diverse, mature and strongest collection to date.

Four stars - and bonus points for beautiful Leslie looking the spitting-image of 60's Grace Slick in the CD booklet!

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |


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