District97_In VaultsAh yes, progressive metal/rock, the genre with one of the worst palatable-to-garbage ratios and a catalyst that often makes gifted musicians churn out forgettable pieces of music that serve no purpose other than to act as vessels of said instrumental talents. Yes, that is a platitude that everyone’s aware of at this point, but it also rings true very often. Then again, when prog’s done well, it can be really good (see Haken for an example). Taking my adventurous nature into account and knowing that District 97’s first two albums were generally solid, I spared not an instant deliberating whether to review their third outing In Vaults.

And so I jumped into an abyss of uncertainty and fell straight into a nice, warm jacuzzi. In Vaults is indeed one of those records that atones for countless other rubbish prog releases. Admittedly, it’s not as marvelous as the first few listens led me to believe, but it holds its own quite well nonetheless. There’s an instant catchiness and flow in District 97’s music, especially prominent on the first few, meatier tracks, that takes control of your mind and plants the seeds of an unshakable earworm. District 97 have hooks, melody, rhythm, strong song-oriented material, and sensuous vocal lines that reign ethereal over the music, and they don’t shy away complex structures and demanding songwriting.

But as the first impact and enamorment wear off, you begin to realize that all of these elements tend to sound just a bit too pleasing, a bit cheap, mainstream and pop-oriented. This becomes all the more conspicuous during the second part of the record which, when you remove some of the heavier riffs and psyched-out prog-jazzy breaks, reads almost like a pop piece centered around Leslie Hunt’s singing. Now, if you’ve never heard of the band and yet that name still sounds familiar, it’s because she was one of the contestants in the 2007 edition of American Idol [And…I’m out!Steel Druhm]. I bring up this point begrudgingly because the music Hunt’s making now has almost nothing to do with the stuff presented on the show, but there is an undeniable feeling that the popishness and the leanings toward alt. rock on In Vault’s second part are caused by the band crafting its sound around Hunt’s voice. It’s a voice with an almost too clean and polished timbre and a tone that at times lacks true grit, inducing a disconnect between the vocals and the rest of the instruments – an issue that’s made worse with the vocals being prominent in the mix and thus eclipsing the warm, mostly pleasant tint of the guitars, bass, and drums.

DISTRICT 97_2015

On the other hand, there are some great moments during which Hunt’s delivery takes on a bit of roughness and reminds me of some other notable prog rock singers such as, dare I say it, James LaBrie, or when her inflections evoke Flora Purim’s performance on the jazz fusion album Light as a Feather by Return to Forever. These moments coincide with the band geling the best as a whole and in turn creating interesting, involved music. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that the heavier, proggier songs like the rhythmically complex  “Snow Country,” the twitchy “Death by a Thousand Cuts” with its twisted riffs, or the groovy “Takeover” tend to function better than ballads and alt. rock hymns such as “On Paper,” “Learn from Danny,” and “Blinding Vision.” Disregarding these niggles, everything else is par for the course in terms of well-made prog rock. From the musicianship that is, as expected, altogether swell, over the solid production and mastering, right down to the one hour of duration and the mysterious, eerie cover (reminiscent of Bioshock’s art style and themes).

In the end, even if my initial enthusiasm subsided, I still find In Vaults a rewarding listen. District 97 may not be on the level of Haken or Arcane, but I have no doubt that their special, pop-meets-heavy-prog aesthetic will be alluring to many a prog rock fan.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: The Laser’s Edge
Websites: District97Official | Facebook.com/District97
Release Dates: Out Worldwide 06.23.2015

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  • Martin Knap

    I, for one, am a big fan of progressive metal if it’s done well. Just a quick question: which American progressive bands are good (I mean more of the sort like this band o Haken, not Symphony X)? I can only think about Native Construct, which debuted recently, but I’m not convinced by that…

    • Kalsten

      You don’t like Symphony X??

      • Martin Knap

        Yes, I do, I just meant bands besides Symphony X and Dream Theatre; and I guess more modern sounding, or more on the pop side than on the heavy metal side.

    • brutal_sushi

      Allen-Lande, Animals as Leaders, Arch/Matheos, Between the Buried and Me, Cormorant, Cynic, Fates Warning, The Human Abstract, Intronaut, Isis, Jon Oliva’s Pain, Liquid Tension Experiment, OSI, Queensrÿche, Shadow Gallery, Soen, Spock’s Beard, Suspyre, Theocracy, While Heaven Wept, 7 Horns 7 Eyes… This is just going through my iTunes and represents the broad spectrum of Progressive Rock/Metal

      • Celaeno

        While Heaven Wept is one of my favorites for sure

    • The Lascivious Snape

      Native Construct is very promising, though I find Quiet World uneven, and I believe their follow up is when they’ll really deliver something special.

      I’ll recommend some American progressive bands I like, but full disclosure: I despise both Dream Theater and Symphony X (or really anything with even a smidge of “power metal” in its sound) so we might not be on the same page in overall taste. I like Haken, but even they can be too cheesy for me.

      I would consider these more modern sounding and also less “metal” since that’s what you suggested you wanted when responding to Kalsten.

      (Wow, this has been tough sticking to USA only)

      Eidola; very poppy
      White Arms of Athena; check their proggier self-titled
      Between the Buried and Me; their new one is less metal than prior releases and much spacier and poppier. It’s also completely great.
      The Mars Volta; defunct
      Coheed and Cambria; increasingly poppy, too
      Soen; an AMG album of the month winner
      Fair to Midland; defunct

      On the heavier side:
      The Odious
      Lizard Professor
      Black Crown Initiate
      Of Modern Architecture

      I feel like I know a bunch more. I’ll have to check my iTunes when I have a chance and maybe I’ll come back and edit this. Then again, I could be way off the mark of the kind of band you’re looking for. Like Haken, but not like Dream Theater, is a small target.

      • brutal_sushi

        Black Crown for sure!!!

        • Martin Knap

          thx, I’ll go through that list, I didn’t know Soen was in part a US band.

    • BaboonKing

      Some recommendations that come to mind: Fates Warning, Psychotic Waltz, Redemption, Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic and Hammers of Misfortune.

      But why limit yourself to American bands? I think Pain of Salvation, Leprous, Ark, Distorted Harmony, Kingcrow, Sieges Even, Beyond the Bridge or Subsignal may fit the bill.

      • brutal_sushi

        Just re-listened to The Old Man and The Spirit yesterday. Album is cover to cover fantastic. Very sad about their guitarist, because I would love a new album from them.

        • Celaeno

          That album is probably my favorite. Brought me to tears.

      • FutureBeyondSatan

        The new Kingcrow is out! AOTY!

        • BaboonKing

          I have only listened to it once so far, but it sounded pretty good! Lets hope for an Angry Metal Review.

          • I got Kingcrow from your recommendation (your list is great, btw.)

            I’m REALLY impressed with Kingcrow. Thanks for the recommendation! (I love AMG’s site for the discussions…)

          • BaboonKing

            Glad you liked it! Agreed 100%, the comments here are awesome, and a huge part of what makes this blog such a treat.

          • FutureBeyondSatan

            Have you listened to IO Earth’s New World?

          • BaboonKing

            Hadn’t heard of them, no. Liking what I’m hearing, thanks a lot. Since I owe you one now ;)… let me recommend Distorted Harmony’s Chain Reaction (check out “Every Time She Smiles”) and Kristoffer Gildenlöw’s Rust (try “Living Soil”).

          • FutureBeyondSatan

            I have Distorted Harmony’s releases. Great stuff!

            Somehow I missed Kristoffer Gildenlöw’s Rust. Thanx!
            My turn. Bumblefoot’s Little Brother is Watching…

          • BaboonKing

            Nice! This is a gold mine. Hmm… lets see… how about The Voyage of Jonas, by Heart of Cygnus.

          • FutureBeyondSatan

            Not exactly proggy, but, Layment -Of Gods and Goats (warning-may cause obsession).
            Not exactly proggy, but, Layment -Of Gods and Goats (warning-may cause obsession).

          • BaboonKing

            Haha, the video for Another Road is awesome. I’ll be sure to check out the rest of the album, thanks!

            Anyway, I should really stop, as I already will need ages to digest all of this, and we are hijacking this review’s comment thread. So as a parting gift: MindMaze, “Onward (Destiny Calls 2)”.

    • FutureBeyondSatan

      Check out Vangough, Mindwarp Chamber, Darkology, & Dominici.

  • michael rodrigues

    im really impressed by this

  • Doomdeathrosh

    I, for one, am not disappointed by Leslie Hunt’s vocals. Sure, they are quite prominent and steal the limelight from the instruments. But you have to agree the vocals and the music are a good match,

    • Roquentin

      She has a great voice and good control, but I do miss a bit of an edge to the delivery. It comes down to taste, I guess. Still liking the record, BTW.

  • Celaeno

    All I can think of with that cover is bioshock… I’m excited to give it a listen though. Great review.

  • Roquentin

    While I was away: great discussion and many excellent recommendations (some of which passed under my radar).