In 2010 the Chicago based band District 97 impressed me with their debut Hybrid Child (see review). At the time I wrote that the gentle parts in their music have some similarities with Yes, whereas the rough metal parts seem to be taken from a band as Meshuggah. Well, District 97 can play it all as I discovered. I ended my review by stating that I was sure that we would hear more of this band in the near future. Hybrid Child proved that they're able to write even better music than they already did on this debut. Now two years later the time is right to see if they really made a step forward with the successor Trouble With Machines.
As time passes by, it's most likely that some things happened between the first and the second release. That certainly was the case as their Dutch cellist Katinka Kleijn quit the band. It seemed that she could no longer combine her daily job with the world-famous Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the band's performances. The musicians responsible for the recordings of the new album are Leslie Hunt (lead and backing vocals), Rob Clearfield (keyboards, guitar), Jim Tashjian (guitar, backing vocals), Patrick Mulcahy (bass) and Jonathan Schang (drums, percussion). Also music wise some changes took place. After listening to the album I noticed that the metal influences are more present resulting in slightly more straightforward drumming. The complexity of the tunes is a bit repressed giving room to a more calculated balance between complexity and accessibility. Especially the first three tracks got this problem, something I didn't expect after hearing the first notes of the opening tune Back And Forth. This piece starts as a Rush tune from the good old days, but later on it changes into a more metal-orientated song.
With the third track The Actual Color it's just the other way round. Here the real progressive tunes show up at the end of the track. The first highlight is The Perfect Young Man, one of the two tracks with epic proportions because of its length. This ten-minute piece also features John Wetton as a special guest singer. Whether he was also responsible for the UK and King Crimson influences on this piece or not is hard to say, but it certainly helped to call it a true progressive rock song with wonderful organ and piano playing. The climax of this song, holding an excellent guitar solo, is also worthwhile mentioning. The second highlight is Read Your Mind featuring Katinka Kleijn on cello once more. The cello provides the song with a real classical feel especially in combination with the fine playing on the piano. As the song develops it evokes more traces of the first album than the other tracks on Trouble With Machines. However, that's not strange since Katinka Kleijn was an important factor on the band's debut.
The album ends with The Thief, the third highlight and another epic piece that lasts almost fourteen minutes. Again the band shows to be able to play true progressive rock songs. Included are several fine solo parts performed on synthesizers, electric and acoustic guitars. Unfortunately this doesn't apply to all compositions, but I guess that's a choice the band made: recording an album having a mixture of metal and prog, complex music and rather simple sounding songs. I'm certainly not saying they're selling off; that's not the case at all. Therefore the songs are too good with occasional gorgeous melodies that keep you mostly focused. Trouble With Machines is undoubtedly a good follow-up to Hybrid Child, but I think that the new album will appeal more to metal fans than to prog heads.
The first two-thousand copies include a free full length bonus-DVD containing an 85-minute live registration of District 97 at the Rites of Spring Festival in 2011. Fortunately my promo copy has this additional DVD, so I could enjoy a large part of their debut album with fine versions of songs as I Don't Want To Wait Another Day, I Can't Take You With Me, The Man Who Knows Your Name and Termites, but also tracks from their second album are played like great versions of The Actual Color, The Thief and The Perfect Young Man, just to name a few. However, the two covers are the most surprising pieces of this performance. I guess they played Presto Vivace (UK) and Back In NYC ( Genesis) for those who weren't familiar with the band's music. It sounds a bit strange to hear a female singer perform the parts of Peter Gabriel, but Leslie Hunt succeeded in bringing this song to a good end. Maybe it helped that she was dressed like an Egyptian princess; besides she sounded and resembled Ann Wilson (Heart) in her younger days. The footage makes also clear that the audience loved the performance of District 97.
***+ Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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