Ah 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.
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.