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District 97 - Trouble With Machines CD (album) cover


District 97


Crossover Prog

3.92 | 167 ratings

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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!

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |


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