A few years ago, District 97 drew the attention of a lot of progressive rock aficionados, when their debut album Hybrid Child was released (2010, see review). Their melodic and accessible progressive rock style won the hearts of a lot of people. When the successor Trouble With Machines (2012, see review) arrived, their style had slightly shifted to a more powerful, experimental style, reminding of King Crimson at certain points, especially when it came to the instrumental parts. In Vaults, their 2015 album, emphasises the dimension of jazz and fusion of their sound, besides the increasing powerful guitar. The band's line-up has been stable since the previous record; Leslie Hunt on vocals, Jonathan Schang as drummer/percussionist, Patrick Mulcahy as their bass player and Jim Tashjian as guitar player. Keyboarder and guitarist Rob Clearwater closes the band's ranks.
In Vaults opens with the song Snow Country; smooth acoustic guitars only last a few seconds as the crunchy guitars take over, as a total contrast Leslie's light and smooth voice kicks in. Gently her voice gains power and the nice rough edge of her voice is shown. It's the combination of technical music, King Crimson and even Liquid Tension Experience style with the contrasting vocal lines that make this song so interesting. Towards the end the true power in Leslie's voice is shown, like the good old Anne Heart in her heaviest days. The following Death By A Thousand Cuts is my absolute favourite of the album; the technical melodies on guitars, bass and drums lead their own life and sometimes contrast with the vocals, other times just perfectly go hand in hand. The freak out guitar solo really nails it, to complete this highlight. Handlebars takes over; the metal influences of the previous two songs is replaced by easier progressive rock and even more: jazzy elements. During this song the instrumentalists play in favour of the vocals. Although there still is room for a few nice solo spots, keyboards and guitar, this song is absolutely focussed on the fine voice of Leslie. The Lottery has a similar style as the previous song, smooth, melodic and jazzy. More focussing on piano, but still enough space to enlighten some perfect solos. Back to progressive rock we go with All's Well That Ends Well, but the jazzy vocals are still in the lead. Especially in the first part of the composition. When the song continues, we get some nice powerful progressive parts and a sort of jam towards the end. The progressive rock has fully returned when you get to Takeover, fine guitar riffs lay down a nice bed for Leslie's vocal parts in a composition where music and vocals start coherent, but gently move apart and both instruments and vocals take their own, each very interesting path. On Paper gives you the impression to become a smooth easy song, when you listen to the first acoustic part, but when the electricity takes over we find a strong song, filled with fine riffs and super drumming. Leslie's contrasting vocal lines make this one a special song. What starts out as a ballad filled with emotional vocals and a smooth guitar part, turns out to become a real powerful monster, about halfway, the Learn From Danny keyboards take over to lay down a very cool solo. After this part the song works its way up to another freak out guitar part, amazing! The final composition of the album brings back the stringed instruments that featured on the band's debut album. Blinding Vision is a ten minute epical composition where the male vocals enhance Leslie's voice. Strong melodies work together with odd tempo parts and other King Crimson related elements, certainly a very strong song to finish the album with.
For me this album stands out as a progressive album, the musical growth since their debut is significant. I realize some of the die-hard old school progressive rock fans will not agree and state their first album as the absolute highlight, for me this In Vault album is the natural result of a band that has been searching for their own style and I think their search is not over yet and more new elements will find their way to another District 97 album. But for now, I am totally happy with this result.
****+ Pedro Bekkers (edited by Astrid de Ronde)
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