Released By: Laser’s Edge
Release Date: Out Now!!
Genre: Progressive Rock/Metal
Leslie Hunt – Vocals
Rob Clearfield – Guitars, Keyboards
Jim Tashjian – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Patrick Mulcahy – Bass
Jonathan Schang – Drums, Percussion
1. Snow Country
2. Death By A Thousand Cuts
4. A Lottery
5. All’s Well That Ends Well
7. On Paper
8. Learn From Danny
9. Blinding Vision
Around two and a half years ago I discovered American prog band District 97, and was immediately impressed by their overall sound and their ability to mix very complex music with accessible, at times pop-ish sounding vocal melodies. All in all, their 2012 sophomore release Trouble With Machines was one of my favorite albums from that year, so I had high expectations for the band going forward. Now in 2015, they have just recently released their latest album, In Vaults, for which they received financial support from their fans through Kickstarter,. My initial thoughts on the album weren’t favorable in the least. In fact, I was very underwhelmed by the songwriting on first listen, and was afraid the band has taken a big step backward. Luckily, the album got better over time, but I have to say, I can’t recommend it as wholeheartedly as I could their previous one, and I’ll explain why below.
Stylistically, not much has changed: This is very much still a balanced mix between classic prog rock and metal, though the metal elements do tend to come in much quicker bursts this time around, and it still shifts between extended complex instrumental sections and more melodic, vocal driven sections. It must be said, before anything else, the band is extremely talented in all areas. Instrumentally there is some extremely technically impressive work done by all musicians, and everything sounds very tight and well executed. My biggest problem this time around is that the songwriting is definitely more limited and more predictable, lacking the big surprises Troubles in Machine had, with nothing nearly as impressive as the two massive tracks “The Perfect Young Man” and “The Thief”, nor anything as fun and catchy as “Open Your Eyes”. Instead, most tracks are very slow, mellow and often laid back for the most part, save for those long instrumental sections and some occasional heavy bursts, which I also find to be less impressive than before. With that being said, dedicated prog fans like myself are likely to enjoy this album a lot, but I find it to be much more challenging compared to its predecessor, and definitely not as inviting to newcomers.
As with the musicians, vocalist Leslie Hunt is extremely talented, and she’s given a ton of room to work with. I find her vocal melodies often aren’t as inventive as they were on Trouble with Machines, but she’s definitely given opportunities to show off both her wonderful tone and her ability to sing with a bit more aggression. In fact, on the first two tracks she sounds much more intense than usual, though for the most part her vocal are still very smooth and help make at least parts of the music a bit more accessible.
Another flaw of the album is that it has a bit of a shaky start. Opening track “Snow Country” has a solid build up, and Leslie’s rougher vocal during the verses mix in well with the very distorted guitar sound, and then the song picks up during the chorus and the instrumental sections in the second half. That track is great, and the rougher guitar riffs at the end help to transition nicely into the next track, “Death by a Thousand Cuts”. Unfortunately, this is easily my least favorite song by District 97, and the reason why is because while the verses and choruses are nice enough, there are far too many heavier sections where it feels like they’re simply showing off how technically proficient they can be, which comes at the cost of good songwriting, as the track stalls several times due to overlong instrumental sections that don’t do anything except bore the listener. I usually enjoy their instrumental sections a lot, as they tend to mix technique and melody very well, but on this one track I find they have way too much of the former, and not enough of the latter, so it quickly gets boring.
After that one weak track, the album picks up and never hits any other bumps along the way. Tracks like “Handlebars”, “All’s Well That Ends Well”, “On Paper” and “Learn From Danny” show the more melodic side of the band, while also sounding much darker and more mellow compared to their previous album, while “Takeover” is a bit heavier but is also the the catchiest and probably the most accessible song on the album. It’s also the track that stands out the most in the second half, as everything else tends to blend together a bit.. My favorite on the album is “A Lottery”, a more keyboard driven track which showcases Leslie’s vocals very nicely, and has a very nice chorus. My only slight disappointment in the second half of the album is the closing track “Blinding Vision”. It’s a nice track, with an especially dark tone even compared to the rest of the album, and the accompanying male vocals in the middle are very nice, but I find it to be surprisingly straight-forward and lacking those big moments compared to the previously mentioned epic length tracks from Trouble With Machines.
And really, I think that’s what it comes down to, for me: If I hadn’t heard Trouble With Machines, I likely would have been blown away by the expert level musicianship and vocals, as well as the flawless production, and I wouldn’t have been as harsh on the songwriting. As is, I think In Vaults is a great prog album, sure to please fans of the genre, as well as existing fans of District 97, but as a reviewer I feel the need to compare one album against another, and in this case I find this one to be not quite up to par with its predecessor, at least in the songwriting department.
Written by: Travis Green