How serious can we take a progressive rock band that features an American Idol-finalist and a cello player from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? Well, I guess very serious because it certainly worked very well on Hybrid Child, the debut album of District 97. The album shows in many ways that a classically trained musician, a radio-friendly sounding female singer and a rock band can achieve beautiful things together. You can describe the result of this combination as a marriage between bands as Dream Theater, Heart, Kansas, UK and The Electric Light Orchestra.
District 97 was formed in 2006 by drummer Jonathan Schang, keyboardist Rob Clearfield, bassist Patrick Mulcahy and guitarist Sam Krahn. Their musical style was very close to that of Liquid Tension Experiment before they got a singer in the band. This kind of instrumental rock had also certain links with the music performed by Dream Theater.
The connection with Heart is easy to explain, because Leslie Hunt, the finalist of the 2007 American Idol final, can be compared to female singer Ann Wilson. Both Leslieís voice and her appearance are quite similar to Annís during the time Heart had great hit singles with Magic Man (1976), Crazy On You and Barracuda (both 1977). When she heard the band playing she wanted to get involved and finally she joined.
The connection with the other bands I mentioned is mainly caused by the contribution of the cello. This instrument isnít often used in rock music, but in progressive rock itís rather common and often predominant, just as the violin. This is also the case with District 97. Dutch musician Katinka Kleijn impressed me with the way she plays the cello on Hybrid Child. She was impressed when she saw the band perform and she also wanted to join the band in order to give the music a more orchestral sound. Being a cellist from the world-famous Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she wanted not only to perform classical music, but also more rock-oriented material. Her fine playing on Hybrid Child made me think of bands like Kansas and ELO from time to time, but also the rather new Dutch band Kingfisher Sky Ė that also have a female singer and a cello player Ė popped up several times.
Hybrid Child has been divided into two separate parts. First, you can hear the more catchy songs showing that the band consists of merely well-trained professional musicians. The catchy songs donít suppose that theyíre playing easy tunes that aim for more radio airplay. No way! The difficult cello parts performed by Katinka Kleijn and Rob Clearfieldís fine synth solos tell us that they take their listeners seriously. That also applies for the tasteful guitar parts done by the new guitarist, Jim Tashjian. On the second part of the album the band lift their music to an even higher level. The 27-minute epic piece Mindscan is divided into ten pieces in which the music undergoes several different moods. Sometimes you hear mellow piano parts; then heavy guitar riffs. The gentle parts are sometimes related to Yes, whereas the rough metal parts seemed to be taken from a band as Meshuggah. Anyway, District 97 can play it all.
Drummer Jonathan Schang can be regarded as the man whoís responsible for this fantastic release. Besides writing most of the songs, he did a great job in producing this album. Together with engineers Manny Sanchez and Chris Harden they recorded a well-balanced and transparent album. Itís easy to hear the details of all instruments separately and Leslie Hunt sounds like a real rock singer. Iím sure we will hear more from District 97 in the near future. Hybrid Child proves that theyíre able to write even better music than they already did on their debut! People who love the music of the bands mentioned in this review must certainly listen to the music samples on their websites. Maybe youíll get as excited as I was when I heard Hybrid Child for the first time!
**** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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