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District 97

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Honorary Collaborator / Band Submissions
3 stars DISTRICT 97 from Chicago are back with a new album in 2012 and present a crossover of styles on 'Trouble With Machines', featuring melodic rock, symphonic impressions, heavy prog and even metal sentiment. Remarkable of course is female singer Leslie Hunt - American Idol finalist in 2007 to my surprise - and outfitted with an expressive voice. She perfectly fits and varies a lot, inclusive of some uncommon distorted moments. They start off with Back And Forth and it's immediately clear that you'll get way more than straightforward rock music here. Several twists and turns are implemented.The composition shines due to complexity, bears a strong groove as well as metal riffing guitars. Definitely a fine entrance to the album.

The Actual Color is the next to convince me while following this tricky path basically. Both songs do need some attempts to capture the variety. The Perfect Young Man on the other hand seems to peer hard at the charts first. However this one needs more than 10 minutes to play in the end. So when John Wetton comes in with his guest vocals, now then at the latest the song mutates to a (mini) epic ... guitar and organ are duelling each other in between ... and my lines of worry disappeared, nice one! Like on the debut album 'Hybrid Child' they've put Chicago Symphony Orchestra member Katinka Kleijn in charge of opening for one song with her cello. The extended track The Thief offers multiple facets once again, just to remark a groovy instrumental part with quirky keyboard solo.

I fail to detect any trouble with machines, to make it clear. A fantastic female voice, fine melodies and complex arrangements complement each other, another album though where I needed some rounds to come in eventually. Rich Mouser, also working for Spock's Beard respectively Neal Morse, has lend a hand with the production, A recommendable effort, although not every song can thrill me actually ... and please pay attention ... the first 2,000 copies come with a bonus pro-shot live DVD filmed at the band's 2011 performance at the Rites Of Spring Festival in Gettysburg - 3.5 stars finally.

Report this review (#782326)
Posted Thursday, July 5, 2012 | Review Permalink
5 stars In the two years or so since District 97 first sprang upon the progressive rock scene, they've quickly (and rightfully) earned themselves a spot as one of the genre's bright new stars. A great debut album, some high-profile endorsements, crowd-winning festival performances, chart-topping fan support, coupled with tour dates opening for prog legends Kansas and Roine Stolt's Agents of Mercy, all confirm the great work this group of Chicago suburbanites are capable of, none of whom have broken their third decade on this big earth. Yet I'm also reminded that these "kids" are the same age as Yes when that band recorded such masterpieces as The Yes Album or Close to the Edge. So here we are again... Trouble With Machines is the second album from D97. Again recorded in Chicago with Chris Harden of I.V. Lab Studios, the album gains a mix from Rich Mouser, a veteran of Spock's Beard and Neil Morse's recordings, and mastering by Bob Katz. The group composition "Back and Forth" is the perfect lead-off track. Stewing in the band's live set for quite sometime, here it presents their refined signature: chunky and quick tempo-ed, with choruses traversing 9/8 and 5/4, the band's trademark rapid-fire staccato is prog and it's metal, but it's neither or both; effortlessly performed, it's a big sharp sonic kick in the face, and a more than worthy successor to their previous fan-favorite "Termites". "Open Your Eyes", written by lead singer Leslie Hunt (and appearing previously on her debut solo album) showcases the band's pop sensibilities. Yes, she was an Idol, and yes, she certainly could be again. Honed from a mold (somehow, miraculously) of an Anita O'Day or June Christy, her talent is indeed worthy of the big screen; sultry, effortless, urbane, and a perfect fit for the band, she's another pure talent on record, and if you've been lucky enough, on stage. "The Actual Color", featuring music from drummer and band leader Jonathan Schang and lyrics from Ms. Hunt, is another soon-to-be D97 classic, a masterful composition (dig that great F#11th opening the bridge) with that oh-so Yes-inspired finale. Where's the video for this? "The Perfect Young Man", based on the life of murderer H. H. Holmes, features John Wetton (U.K./Asia/King Crimson) on guest vocals. A fitting pairing, he's another of the genre's legends that has caught the D97 bug. It's musically accessible and interesting, straddling the pop arena in epic construct, yet without forgoing the progressive ? this is no small feat. Scratch a little deeper and you'll find not only another world-class composition from Schang, but a man that can more than write the words. Guitarist Jim Tashjian's "Who Cares?" is representative of the guitarist's writing (be sure to check out his Treehouse project), and a more than coherent and able rocker. "Read Your Mind" features a cameo from Katinka Kleijn, the cellist that graces their first album. It's another monster track, highlighting the extreme caliber of the band. Steeped in jazz composition, possessed with the ability to rock out, and actuated with technical prowess beyond a doubt, D97 tear through the track. "Sick" as they would say. Bassist Patrick Mulcahy's "The Thief" closes the album, the long track on a perfect 55 minute disc. With a nod (incredulously) to Cream's "White Room", the track's crisp guitar crunch, the bright attack of drums, all pinned and punctuated by a solid bass with Rob Clearfield's keyboards somewhere just under the guitar-hot mix, confirm that this isn't your father's progressive rock: it's something far more visceral and aggressive, something far more fresh and up-to-date. It's a testament to a group of young musicians - generations younger than their influences ? that have reinvented and reinvigorated prog rock into something exciting, perhaps even something poised for greatness. The album is a solid progression for the band, sealing the promise of their debut with a firm affirmation of their unique and electrifying element of style. Their stars are shining brightly, their markers all pointing forward - where will they take us next?
Report this review (#784630)
Posted Sunday, July 8, 2012 | Review Permalink
5 stars 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 Flamenco 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.

Originally written for

Report this review (#802844)
Posted Friday, August 10, 2012 | Review Permalink
4 stars This is the 2nd album by the young US outfit, featuring as lead vocalist the beautiful Leslie Hunt. After a stunning debut album, they're back with a second opus presenting quite a few changes; the cello is nearly gone (only appearing on one track), the metal edge gains a stronger presence, resulting maybe in a slightly squarer drumming; it seems the complexity of the tunes is a bit faded, giving place to a more calculated balance between complexity and accessibility; but don't worry, they're not (yet) selling out and there are plenty of gorgeous melodies with acrobatical interval springs, bewitched synth solos, burning guitars and many rhythmic twists; finally, legendary singer John Wetton is appearing on one track with great lyrics, in duo with Leslie. The first 2000 copies will include a free full-length bonus DVD, District 97-Live at Rites of Spring. Don't wait too long!
Report this review (#803754)
Posted Monday, August 13, 2012 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars On the first couple of listens, District 97's second album `Trouble With Machines' sounds like a total mess of musical ideas! Schizophrenic vocal melodies that go in all directions and a blur of hard riffs and pounding drumwork. A few spins will reveal it's a very inventive and complex mix of high quality progressive rock, metal, hard/heavy rock, with accessible and commercial pop elements also. Here's a band that could easily tap into a younger (and potentially female) demographic while still offering endless musical virtuosity for more established and older progressive rock fans.

Lead singer and focal point of the band, singer Leslie Hunt is one tough chick! She has a very strong, forceful and original voice and sets her apart from the numerous other more faceless female-fronted prog bands around today, and she shows a level of power and control that is such an asset to the band. On the first few listens, her vocal melodies seem far too twisty and complicated, up and down all the time, changing direction every few seconds. They often come across like they are overthought, the band not realizing that usually `less is more'. However eventually they start to get into a real flow with the music and she shows a lot of variety and real character.

The appropriately titled `Back and Forth' is probably not the best track to start the album off with, a bit of a mess of Jim Tashjian's pummeling guitar riffs, punishing drums and very busy over-the-top vocal melodies. Although the track itself goes in a number of different directions, the plodding guitar riffs seem to dominate the piece and take away the attention from the more interesting musical elements. It takes a few listens to notice the flow and groove of the track, so it's more interesting on repeated tries. Probably the least interesting track on the album, but don't be put off by it! I do think it has very good lyrics if you take the time to read them in the CD booklet, too.

`Open Your Eyes' would make an ideal radio-single for the band - put a good promo video together, guys and gal! It's heavy but accessible hard-rock/pop married to a catchy melody and a deal-sealing chorus. I think a track like this could bring in lots of female fans to the band, with Leslie's powerful voice, not to mention her `strong independent female/take no crap' lyrics would appeal to younger fans of tough female pop singers like Pink. At least it would be a welcome remedy from the `dear diary, princess-music fantasy' rubbish of Taylor Swift. Girls, there are alternatives!

Dancing riffs and drums, strange electronics and groovy bass highlight the start of the mysterious `The Actual Colour'. The main vocal melody is a little plodding, but it has an energetic instrumental middle section, with a lovely brief piano interlude. Probably not the best track on the album, but full of nice little touches. It's great on the live DVD thatr comes with the album!

Despite a seemingly schmaltzy lyric (at first), the darkly troubling ten minute `The Perfect Young Man' is a scathing and worrying semi-epic filled with contrasting styles and emotions. Featuring guest vocals in the second half from UK/Asia main-man John Wetton, the track is filled with 70's Genesis like organ, and even that same galloping rhythm they so frequently used. Reflective but dark ballad moments, lovely melodic guitar solos, neo-prog keyboard snaps, with an angry and grand finale. The track has very clever but unpleasant lyrics filled with predatory and innocent insecurity and spitefulness. This bleak track is a total knockout.

`Who Cares?' has a bouncy bass/heavy drum combination, warm Hammond organs and a sprightly and playful middle section with clever vocal scatting from Hunt and cool electric piano. Not the best vocal melody of the album, but the interesting musical arrangement always keeps it interesting.

There's gorgeous weeping cello from Katinka Kleijn throughout `Read Your Mind' (the only track she appears on for this album), with strangely middle-eastern sounding guitar riffs, clever vocal phrasings, atmospheric electric piano and epic Dream Theater-like synth solos. The finale has some messy and interesting instrumental moments around the vocals, pity they weren't a bit longer. It's still a very complex and busy piece for a fairly short running time.

13 minute finale `The Thief' is an urgent Haken-like rocker than slows up and speeds down throughout, with longer instrumental stretches highlighted by low-key hard riffs behind a number of different keyboard solos and sounds. Patrick Mulcahy's bass playing is all over this one, grumbling away in the background, it's not surprising as he wrote the piece. Terrific varied and forceful drum- work ensures Jonathan Schang gets a real workout too. There's crazy and noisy keyboard solos throughout the whole track that really go off! Leslie gets a lot of interesting vocal moments on this one, plenty of commanding and alternatively restrained spots for her. Lots going on in this dramatic track, and it finishes the album off in a typically proggy and epic manner.

Sadly I have to point out that it's a real shame that the endless heavier guitar riffs constantly drown out Patrick Mulachy's bass playing totally. It seems to be frequently mixed far too low throughout most of the album. Having seen the live DVD that comes with the album, you see just what a great player he is, so it's disappointing he's not mixed up a lot louder and more prominent. The loss of cello player Katinka Kleijn from the first album is a shame too, as she gave the debut a very distinct sound.

Special mention must be made to the high quality of the lyrics. Strong and defiant, frequently bitter and sarcastic, spiteful and bating. Lots of depth and interesting observations in them.

Although the album is full of variety and originality, I think the band would work even better were they to tone down the constant hard riffs. Tracks like `Perfect Young Man' and `Read Your Mind' are more interesting for allowing all the players to be heard better without as many riffs drowning them out. However, District 97 understands what it takes to make a modern prog album that will appeal to a younger crowd, while being intelligent and interesting to established prog oldies - exactly what we need to keep this genre fresh and interesting. It could even encourage young fans to look further into the band's influences, to discover a musical world of endless varied and exciting progressive artists, which can only be a good thing. For now, though, `Trouble With Machines' is an excellent modern progressive album that will surely win them even more fans, and only bigger and better things await the band.

Four stars!

Please note - The first run of this CD comes with an excellent 90 minute live DVD of the band's performance at the 2011 Rites Of Spring festival. With a good mix of tracks from both of their albums, keyboard player Rob Clearfield dominates the entire show, his effortless playing is amazing to watch. The guitar/bass combo of Jim and Patrick is first-rate, and drummer Jonathon Schang is like a robot - totally focused, mechanical and powerful! But the show belongs to Leslie Hunt. She shows a real joy with her terrific varied singing, and a cheeky sense of humour! I probably should add an extra star for her outstanding wonky dancing that has to be seen to be believed!

Report this review (#823511)
Posted Tuesday, September 18, 2012 | Review Permalink
5 stars Last week I visited my favourite cd-shop to upgrade my collection and one of the albums I bought was "Trouble With Machines" by District 97, a real fantastic band from Chicago. I played it over and over again and at every new listening I grew more convinced of the qualities of this album. I think that it will become my 2012 favourite album.

I was deeply impressed by the great ease with which ail musicians played the seven songs on this album. Led by an unchained Jonathan Schang on drums (an unbelievable talented drummer) the band move through all sorts of complex riffs and often jazz based chord progressions. The bass playing by Patrick Mulcahy is as solid as a rock and his performing of an infinite number of marvellous riffs, cleverly doubled by guitarist Jim Tashjian is a true lust for the ear.

Jim Tashjian shifts seamless from complex riffs in strange times and rhythms to beautiful melodic solo's and complex two hand tapping virtuosities, a fantastic guitar player!

Keyboard player Rob Clearfield delivers with his well-chosen keyboard sounds the perfect finishing touch to this great band sound. His playing reminds me of course a lot of Eddie Jobson in his UK days, but also of Morgan Fisher on his brilliant Brown Out album, the same weird and aggressive, but at the same time beautiful solo's and perfect mastering of the instrument.

Then we have the next trump chard up the sleeve of D 97, singer Leslie Hunt, who moves her voice in an extremely agile way through the most complex jazz based vocal lines. Her voice still has to mature a bit to keep the warmth in all registers, but I was deeply impressed by her vocal qualities. "Open Your Eyes" (where did I hear that title before?) is an instant smash hit, that keeps haunting your mind. Leslie is probably one of the best singers in the progressive scene of this moment.

District 97 have developed a true own sound, but of course there are some bands you could refer to, in order to give an idea of what you may expect. The vocal lines seem to be inspired by the more avant garde and progressive Duke Ellington vocal compositions, but put in a completely different musical landscape. The same was done by Tim Staffel on the already mentioned Morgan album Brown Out of the seventies, one of my all time favourites. On this album you can also enjoy sudden outbursts of baroque music like in "Open Your Eyes". Lovers of the first UK album or the music of Gentle Giant will also be very pleased with District 97.

The enthusiasm with which the band approach and perform their music is incredible and contagious. Most of the music is filled to the brim with aggression, caused by that tad bit of nu- metal influence in the riffs and some of the vocal parts, that's just right to spice up the sound. But don't think there is no time for more introverted moments. Just listen to the perfectly executed cello part played by guest Katinka Kleijn in "Read Your Mind" or the beautiful piano introduction to ''The Thief' , the longest and most elaborate composition (13:43) on the album.

Another bonus on the album is a vocal contribution by John Wetton (!) in ''The Perfect Young Man". This album is just great, every composition is an explosion of virtuosity and an outburst of musical inspiration and I think that every true proglover should have at least one District 97 album in his collection and "Trouble With Machines" would be a very wise choice.

Erik de Beer

Report this review (#874453)
Posted Monday, December 10, 2012 | Review Permalink
5 stars Aggressive and super dynamic are words that could well describe this brilliant album by the American District 97. Dissonant and virtuoso vocal parts by super talented singer leslie Hunt over very complex structured songs perfectly executed by a band of freaks who all are absolute masters on their instruments.

Being a guitar player myself, I first focused on guitarist Jim Tashjian, who has a fabulous technique and a great inventiveness in his soloing that amazed me and even made me a bit jealous. He really moves to the edge! Throughout the seven songs recorded on this album I remained sitting clued to my chair and being stunned by so much talent. This must be one of the top albums of this year.

The album will probably not be everyone's cup of tea right away, because of the many dissonants and the strangeness of lots of the vocal lines, but those who are already familiar with the oddities by bands like Gentle Giant, King Crimson and of course early U.K. will find no trouble in appreciating this album. The drumming of band master mind Jonathan Schang evokes the best Bruford and Peart, his way of moving through all sorts of rhythmic complexities is just stunning.

It is difficult to describe an album like "Trouble With Machines", so many things happening in so little time. The best way to describe this album is to call it an explosion of talent. I can only advise everyone to check out this band, you won't get disappointed !I!

Theo Schop

Report this review (#874765)
Posted Tuesday, December 11, 2012 | Review Permalink
4 stars District 97 is one of the most intresting and original bands I've ever come across, really. Born in 2006 in USA, around the excellent drumer Jonathan Schang (who was aplused big time by the famous Bill Bruford declared officialy a fan of his drum playing). The band released so far two albums one in 2010 and second in 2012 named Trouble with machines. Well, I might say this album really kick ass from start to finish. Unusual type of prog rock/metal with slighty a jazz feel, specially in vocal department. This is very demanding music, many changes in tempo, very solid musicianship, lenghty pieces with very nice instrumental sections. On top of this spectacular instrumental parts , where each musician shines is the voice of Leslie Hunt who really breaking many grounds and her prestation here is jaw dropping. Her style is very much into jazz realm but adding a very powerful range and in combination with prog metal/rock instrumetal parts, the result is quite awesome for sure. Very elastic voice has this girl, managing to create some really not of this earth passages, she goes very easy from calmer moments to more dynamic one is only few seconds, fantastic voice. Now, the highlights for me are the opening Back and forth, The Perfect Young Man hre featuring as guest the legend John Wetton on duet with Leslie, very nice tune and the ending top notch The thief. All in all, this band is extremely well crafted musicaly speaking with an spectacular voice on top, this second offer Trouble with machines is something worth to be investigated. Easy 4 stars and recommended.
Report this review (#1131498)
Posted Friday, February 14, 2014 | Review Permalink
5 stars When I entered the page of one of my top one favourite bands, District 97, I noticed immediately the sad trail of two star ratings, all given shortly one after another by a number of silly persons with strange names (probably one and the same person), like daemacho, purplefloydfish, marfish, waeguk, or whatever. If you don't like progressive rock, find yourself a nice country or hip hop music page and don't bother progressive rock lovers with your [&*!#]!

Anyway, I think The Trouble With Machines is a masterpiece of progressive rock. Here we have five incredible talented musicians, who are prepared to give everything they got and who have delivered some huge music. Yes, it is obvious, that they must admire a lot albums by U.K. and GENTLE GIANT. What is wrong with that? Every progrock musician should be aware of the music of these true gigantic bands.

District 97 have succeeded in blending these influences into a true powerful sound of their own. A song like "Open Your Eyes" is as strong as hell and has even hit potential. Female lead vocalist Leslie Hunt doesn't hesitate to enter well-chosen aggressive dissonants in her vocal parts, supported by fast changing tempo and time changes. She really is my kind of singer ! Throughout the album the music maintains its force and surprises you with new great themes or aggressive interventions by the rhythm section. Check out a track like "The Thief". Drummer Jonathan Schang, who is responsible for most of the compositions on the album is a true mastermind and a wizard on his instrument.

The Trouble With Machines is a fantastic album, and should I have any doubt between a four and a five star rating, the silly sad proggophobic two star tail has decided me definitely to five stars !!!


Report this review (#1253696)
Posted Tuesday, August 19, 2014 | Review Permalink

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